This talk had a circuitous route. It is an introduction and is by no means an exhaustive treatment.
Several months ago, I was feeling stale in my practice and thought I needed a good ol’ charnel ground meditation and was going to ask Ginger or Travis to do one. I thought maybe that is too intense. So, I left the idea alone. Then with my coffee, in my morning YouTube roulette an Amerasian monk encouraged a daily death practice before getting out of bed. I thought ok, I can do that. Well, that lasted about ten days.
A few weeks later an old friend, dharma buddy, and writer for the Huffington post was diagnosed with a form of lung cancer that non-smokers get. I had accompanied a friend a decade earlier with the same disease until his death. So, I kind of knew what was coming.
Well my writer friend Steve was communicating through Caring Bridges and in one of his notes he introduced the term samvega. I had never heard it before. Not in articles, books, dharma talks, or retreats. Thannissaro Bikkhu himself said it is a term not often written about or taught. One author even said he could not find the term in several Buddhist dictionaries. However, this quick introduction to the term rang true for me. I was hooked.
Then I asked Ginger if I could do a talk on it. A little external pressure works for me. Now we can get into it. Samvega is a sense of distress and disillusionment about like as it is usually lived, a sense of our own complicity and complacency and hopefully leading to a determination to find a more meaningful way of being in the world. This is understood to be what Siddhartha experienced when he left the gilded cage of the palace and encountered illness, old age, and death.
Samvega can occur as a result of a challenging medical diagnosis, the death of a beloved, the ending of relationships, or career. Anything that upsets our expected sense of normalcy. Some might say this is the same thing as Dukka. It is not. Dukka is what is and samvega is how we feel about it.
So, now I had a word for these feelings I have experienced throughout my life. My family’s break up, the discrimination, hatred, damnation and physical attacks when I came out as a gay teenager. When I was diagnosed with HIV in 1987 and then with liver disease caused by HIV meds earlier this decade. I felt this when my mother died, and then my best friend. More recently I felt it on January sixth. These were intense feelings and Buddha wanted me to embrace them and meditate on them. WTF?!!!!
It sounded overwhelming at worst and at least an impediment to joy and happiness. As I began researching Samvega I came across the term Pasada. It is the balance, the counterpoint to Samvega. It is like adding a bit of sugar to a tomato sauce that is a bit too acidic. Pasada is defined as a calm abiding in this path of Mindfulness that keeps Samvega from burning down the house. It keeps us from despair and the slough of despond. It can support us in reordering our lives and enter into a deeper vision of the practice and life we want to create for ourselves.
Now this life of recollection/ mindfulness is a challenge. We, as humans, are prone to forget. It is easy to fall into what my friend Steve called “the mush of ordinary life”. That is when Samvega surprises us- once again. We canbecome more resilient by actively engaging these concepts. Meditate on death, as the monk directed me, or if you are feeling really brave do a charnel ground meditation. Ginger reminded me that Buddha directed his monks to meditate in a graveyard. Then invite Pasada in. Rest in faith and serenity that this path is a source of strength and growth. As Metta practice can leads to more compassion; these practices of samvega and pasada can lead to more equanimity.
Finally, as I was doing my research Mary Oliver in her guise of dharma teacher haunted me. Not sure how these words fit in, but I’ll go with my gut.
From The Summer Day-
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
From When Death Comes-
When it is over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement,
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.