Stephen T. Butterfield is a poet and English teacher. His memoir about the late Tibetan meditation master, Chögyam Trungpa, appeared in Issue 142 of The Sun.

Butterfield uses the lower-case “b” in “buddhist” because his teacher, Trungpa, “insisted on the small “b” in his usage, to distinguish his lineage, which is committed to meditation practice, from Buddhism as a philosophical scheme or system of religious rites and observances.”

— Ed.


Something was drastically wrong with my lungs: every night, they made sounds like a basketful of squealing kittens. I was always coughing, had pains under the sternum, and could not push a car or even run up a flight of stairs without gasping like an old melodeon full of holes. This condition came on slowly; no single daily or weekly change was ever big enough to scare me out of my habits. For three years after noticing these symptoms, I continued smoking pot.

It requires effort and a certain amount of ingenuity to practice ignorance and denial. The symptoms register clearly enough; we are not that stupid. But they are explained away, or the attention distracted from them. It must be a chest cold. One more joint won’t hurt. When I stop smoking the cough will disappear. I can stop any time. Tomorrow.

The actual presence of a chronic, disabling, possibly life-threatening disease is a relentless and vivid reminder of death. It wonderfully accelerates your spiritual journey.

I decided to look into the problem after a long period of meditation practice, at a time when I was looking into my whole life: marriage, livelihood, everything. I gazed at the chest X-ray as though it belonged to someone else: thick white clouds in the center, where I felt the pain, and swirls, like mares’ tails, reaching deep down into the bottom lobes. Air capacity for a man my age and size should be 5.5 liters; I had 2.8. The next step would be a biopsy. Meanwhile I read up on the possibilities, ruling out the ones that killed you in less than four years; I had already survived those.

According to the medical profession, the cause of sarcoidosis is unknown; my doctor is not convinced that it is a direct result of inhaling smoke. He thinks it is hereditary, actualized by environmental insult of some kind. The word “karma” is not part of his vocabulary. I find it a particularly evocative word, a doorway into an increasingly subtle understanding of how the process-patterns that we call “reality” fit together.

Lung disease runs in my family: asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis are common ailments. When I was a baby, I almost died of pneumonia, complicated by spinal meningitis; it was 1942 and the doctors said they had a new untested drug they would like to try as a last resort — they called it penicillin. My grandparents prayed for me round the clock. At least one of those methods must have worked. Pneumonia came back twice in my twenties. Of course I should not have smoked anything, but I did. Karma is the influence of a fact that cannot be abolished, no matter how intense the regret.

Sarcoidosis is a progressive inflammatory swelling of the alveolar membranes, gradually scarring the tissue so that it no longer exchanges gas. Oxygen will not pass into the body through a scar. The only method of treatment known to Western science is prednisone, a cortico-steroid drug which suppresses the inflammation; the drug does nothing, however, about the cause, which is still not understood. The side effects of prednisone are, alas, unpleasant: leg pains, weight gain, craving for sugar, dizziness, cataracts, liver spots, adrenal imbalances, possible weakening of the immune system, and worse, depending upon the dose. But if it is a question of being able to breathe, you take the medicine. It buys time.

How much time? More than if you had cancer, typically. I could wheeze out a sigh of partial relief and say, “I’m glad it’s not lung cancer.” Approximately one third of the cases get better, one third stay the same, and one third get worse. Even with treatment, it can get worse. I have lived with it for about seven years. Right now it is in remission. Maybe I will have a “normal” lifespan, whatever that is. When I watch my father stack and restack old newspapers for hours, put cat food into a dish, then forget he is feeding the cat and sit down at the table with the dish in front of him, a “normal” lifespan does not seem so desirable a goal.

Being a buddhist, I accept that nothing lasts, and that impermanence, suffering, and absence of solid reality are the three marks of existence. Saying this is one thing; living it is another. The actual presence of a chronic, disabling, possibly life-threatening disease is a relentless and vivid reminder of death. It wonderfully accelerates your spiritual journey.

We would like to avoid that kind of acceleration. Armies of joggers and physical fitness buffs are out there right now, trying to strengthen their cardiovascular systems and increase their lung capacities to ward off the message delivered by the Buddha that day in the Deer Park of Benares 2,500 years ago. Plenty of my readers could probably give me good advice on the diet and wholistic treatments I should try in order to cure myself and prolong my life. I would listen to this kind of advice, but what interests me the most is whether I can make use of the disease. Magazines are full of articles about this or that public figure who carried on a “battle for life” against cancer, AIDS, emphysema, kidney failure, or some other agent of transformation. The articles usually imply that these people are heart-rending models of quiet heroism in the never-ending struggle not to go gentle into that good night. Illness and death are assumed to be very bad news, perhaps a punishment of some kind, bogeymen in the dark closet of deep, dark fears.

I would rather not make a knee-jerk reflex toward “battle.” There is a message in my body; do I have to go to war about it? Paraphrasing the words of Dylan Thomas, do I have to burn and rave and rage? Can I make another kind of response? What is this message all about, where does it come from, what does it say? I don’t mean purely in a medical or scientific sense, although medicine and science are not to be lightly disregarded. Disease is experienced, and perhaps originates, primarily in the mind. What is it doing there?

Let us begin by examining the effects, without pity or hope. Being unable to breathe introduces challenging modifications to your daily schedule.

In one of their movies, Sally Field wraps her arms around Burt Reynolds’s neck, and her legs around his hips; he carries her that way into the bedroom. It is a sweet and tender scene. To be able to walk around screwing your lover against walls and doors, or to bounce her on the bed while imagining that you are very powerful, taking charge — to play that scene requires air. Oxygen must be taken in through the alveoli and pumped to the muscles. Otherwise Burt and Sally (especially Burt, since he is doing most of the work) would gradually deflate, crumple, and fold up on the floor, and their faces might as well be painted on the surfaces of withering balloons.

In terms of life passages, I am entering the withered balloon stage. Cortico-steroids and sarcoidosis are not all that bad, even though they tend to make sex less interesting than seaweed. Now, if I am to imagine myself as powerful and taking charge, the power must come from somewhere other than physical strength.

Singing is punctuated with interesting silences at times, depending on the duration of the line to be sung. If the line is much over ten syllables, my voice simply disappears. “Whoops,” the lungs wheeze. “Sorry, we are having technical difficulties.” Then I might like to go cross-country skiing with my singing friends, but I don’t; for them, it would be like having to take a giant snail out for a walk.

Household projects are scaled down drastically. I would like to dig flowerbeds and build an addition onto the living room. “Too bad,” says the body. “Be grateful you can still walk across the yard.” Ten years ago I swore that I would never own a rider lawnmower. Now I bless the person who invented it. If I had to make my living as a construction worker, I would be finished. I am in the same health class as victims of black lung.

When somebody’s car gets stuck in the snow, there is not much I can do. Pushing or shoveling are out of the question. I become sharply mindful during bad weather, driving fully present, right on the dot all the time. I like that; going over the mountain to the store in January is almost an adventure.

But not being able to climb the mountain — ah, that really hurts. Years ago I could, and did, hike up almost all the peaks in New Hampshire and Vermont. I loved mountain air. I loved swishing through leaves, coming around a bend in the trail and catching sight of a distant peak — the lines and folds, the twist of the path winding up the ridge, the wooded plateaus and cliffs. It all looks like a model of a mountain on a big topographical relief map. Then, as you get close to the slopes, the features become huge, the folds turn into steep ravines full of complex detail, the nubs enlarge into crags high overhead, partially screened by foliage, waiting to be discovered, at which time they will dissolve again into gestalts of moss, bushes, talus, fissure, and ledge. The mountain always eludes comprehension; it is pure magic. From the peak, in the evening, the whole valley sings and shimmers with the receding calls of birds, which keep winking on and off over the forest like thousands of bubbles manifested as sound. The greater the distance, the fainter the sound, and the vaster the space it fills.

We think of disease as infirmity, disability, and tragedy, or reify it as “enemy” and project our aggression onto it, as though flesh could ever be preserved from decay.

In my twenties I dreamed of climbing someday in the Himalayas; I collected pictures of mountains and read about the great expeditions to the sky. But now, even as low as Katmandu, I would need an oxygen tank. In the Alps, taking the cog railway from Grindelwald to Jungfrau, I had to get off at 9,000 feet to keep from passing out.

Walking anywhere with friends, especially uphill, is an occasion for silence; I cannot walk, talk, and breathe at the same time. Every gram of oxygen must be used for locomotion; there is nothing left over. Superfluity must go. This becomes an amazing metaphor: in my life, in my mind, what is superfluous? Anger that freezes into resentment; jealousy; greed; gossip; ego-clinging; pretense; embarrassment; any form of fixation; running after pleasure; the discursive thought that maintains the story-line of me. These things are very costly, in terms of the life-energy that it takes to keep them going. They are what conversation is mostly about. I cannot take in enough oxygen to support them anymore, except by holding completely still, and doing nothing else. When the oxygen is diminished below a certain point, you must choose, absolutely, between feeding all your mental bloodsuckers and taking care of your true business. You cannot afford to keep them around as pets. What an opening, what discovery, follows from that simple realization: could I ever afford it? Can anyone? What made me think that I could not let go of this expensive baggage before now?

It is more difficult to be speedy, about anything, when your supply of oxygen is exhausted simply by making a bed. When I had the energy for speed, I wasn’t mindful of time. If I was late for an appointment, I might dash out the door, spin the wheels, and get stuck in the driveway. Then I had to dash in for a shovel and a bag of sand. If I left the book I needed upstairs, I would have to make an extra trip for it. After a whole day of this kind of waste, no wonder we feel drained, and just want to lie down and complain about our bad day.

Now imagine that you are unable to dash. One trip up the stairs and you have to sit for a few minutes to pay the oxygen debt. Rushing anywhere, for any reason, leaves you gasping like a fish on a dock. You have to give yourself space and time to recover from the most trivial wasted effort. To get angry about having to move so slow just cranks up more waste. What are you going to do with the anger — throw something? That will make you gasp and pant all the more.

But giving yourself space and time is also giving yourself kindness; no pressure, no speed. Do I really need that trip up the stairs? When I am there, what am I forgetting, what can I take down with me so that I won’t have to come back in two minutes? If my car is stuck on the ice, how can I handle it to avoid physical expenditure? Take it easy. Look around.

Sitting calmly and looking around, I notice the lavender ripples of light on the snow in a field, and the stubble of dead weeds coming up through the crust. The snow makes a separate system of rings around each stalk; no two systems are alike, but they all show the direction and patterns of the wind. How important is it that I go anywhere? The light on a group of stones — that is a masterpiece of art, made in the roadside ditch by nobody at all.

Once, when I was stuck in a snowbank, the rear wheels buried up to the bumper, I had to measure each and every shovelful of snow, like an ant moving a mountain, one grain at a time. It was a pleasant surprise to find that, in such a situation, even with a serious lung disease, I was not entirely helpless. There was plenty of time to see the tracks of the car, how they slid into the brook, how I had turned the wheel trying to bounce out of the rut and did not quite have the forward momentum to regain the road. What a precise reflection of my state of mind.

I walked slowly to a house. There was a bag of salt on the porch and a four-wheel-drive truck in the yard. The owner of the truck was doing carpentry upstairs. We talked about carpentry. He was glad to be of service and pulled out my car with a tow chain. The world is full of generosity. By having to ask for help, I tune into that inexhaustible bank of kindness that is all-pervasive and unconditional, and feels so good when it comes through us to someone else. Because of my need, his routine changed; maybe he took another step on the path.

We have little choice about anything, moving around as we do in a sleepy, anxious cloud of habit and conditioned response. When we slow down, that cloud settles, finally, and the details hidden within it begin to emerge with startling precision. I hold the kettle to the faucet; hear the water swirl in the bottom; place it on the stove, the little drops sizzling away from the hot grill; stare out the window at the vortex of snow down in the valley, swirling over the trees. Finally, the steam whistles through the spout and I pour a cup of tea. My thoughts flutter and swirl like water, like the snow. Having to slow down begins to seem less like a disability and more and more like a precious gift.

But I cannot delude myself that this is some kind of accomplishment, for I would dearly love to leap, like my cat, from the stairs to the floor; I would love to dance, run like a horse across the yard, play football, go out for a pass. The fact that slowing down is choiceless becomes part of the gift: taking credit for things just keeps stirring up that cloud. Since I cannot take credit, what really matters is the scent of the tea. The only choice we have anyway is to wake up.

A year before my mother died, she asked me what was wrong with my chest. She was the one person in the world who would want to hear whatever I had to say about it. As I narrated the details, she passed her hand over her face and named an old friend of hers who had died of my ailment. “I hope you don’t croak before I do,” she said. “It wouldn’t be right.”

I felt as though at long last I had graduated to her level. The generation gap vanished; I had finally grown up. I had something more serious to reveal to her than mumps and divorce. It was as though I now possessed an admission ticket to some kind of secret society — the society of those who have made friends with Yama, the Lord of Death. We could call this the Order of the Black Monk. The requirement for admission would be terminal or disabling sickness, battle experience, prolonged imprisonment and torture, waiting for execution, or working with the dead and dying on a regular basis. Attempted suicide would not qualify, since this act implies continued attachment to the illusion that you can escape.

While I had health, youth, food, friends, and comforts, I would hear about disasters and think, “I’m glad that did not happen to me.” Then I would play the “what-if” game: what if I were trapped in the plane going down; what would I do if I had six months to live; what if I had six minutes? . . . But during this game there was always the separation between me and those who were “less fortunate”; I think that the purpose of the game was to maintain that separation. The initiation rite into the Order of the Black Monk is realizing that you are it; there is no separation anymore; you have been tagged.

In such an order, I am still a mere novice, for my mind remains cluttered with the detritus of hope and fear. But some kind of flip has taken place: from the viewpoint of the Order, hope is irrelevant; fear is fulfilled and consequently dissolved. There is no need to maintain any kind of class system between less and more fortunate, happy and miserable; each experience has its own texture, and absolutely everything is path. If a disease brings this kind of realization, then in what sense does it continue to be “disease”?

We think of disease as infirmity, disability, and tragedy, or reify it as “enemy” and project our aggression onto it, as though flesh could ever be preserved from decay. In looking at how great spiritual masters handle disease, other possibilities begin to appear. His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa, Tibetan buddhist of the Kagyu lineage who visited America twice in recent years, died of cancer in 1981. Right up to the final moments, he never uttered a word of complaint and was totally concerned for the welfare of those who waited on him. In a real sense, the cancer was not “his” cancer, any more than life itself was “his” life; because he was on this planet for us, whatever he suffered was part of that gift.

The late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, my root guru and student of the Karmapa, was paralyzed on one side of his body throughout most of his teaching career in America. He limped, wore a special elevated shoe, spoke (and sang, comically) with one vocal cord, used a wheelchair, and endured intense pain without pity, hope, apology, or false heroics of any kind. His response to anyone in pain was not “quit your whining and be like me,” but limitless compassion and sense of humor. Affliction was his principal teaching tool. He transformed it into dignity and presence simply by the way he took his seat on the vajra throne. The concept of “disability” melts before such an example like a shadow in the sun.

The ignorance which results in karma is a kind of localized or attenuated intelligence, falling away from the luminous emptiness which is the ground of our being, into identification with structures of this and that. The unconscious components of personality are formed out of whatever we ignore. Having invented ourselves, for example, we forget that we have done that, and then we generate a story-line to maintain our invention: other people become characters in our own melodrama; we define them as “good guys” or “bad guys” according to how they fit the labels and preconceptions of the story, and project mental systems of aggression or seduction onto them, which might be interpreted as “relationships.” Then we forget that we have a story-line, or a labeling system that keeps it going. The projections appear to us as an external “reality.” Our emotional responses are shaped in terms of these ignored and forgotten systems; eventually our illnesses begin to be shaped by them as well. In this way, our physical and mental functioning becomes determined by skeins of psychic energy that we have frozen, from the very beginning, by diminishing luminous-emptiness-without-boundary into ego-form.

Perhaps this description can be understood more clearly by the image of looking at a light source, like a bulb on a Christmas tree, through half-closed eyes. The light is all over the place: it takes the shape of your lashes, and spreads out to fit the contours of the lachrymal fluid; some photons bounce and smear off the icy window and head for the stars at 186,000 miles per second. Others might be glimmering on the snow across the street, or entertaining an amateur physicist next door by making an Airy pattern on her wall. (Airy patterns are shapes of concentric light and dark areas made by waves; in quantum physics they describe probabilities of finding particles, such as photons and electrons, at a particular place and time.) There is no way to separate the light from the electricity, the eyes, the snow, the total environment. Likewise, there is no way to find the essential reality of the situation, the ultimate source, where the photons begin or end. This is luminous-emptiness-without-boundary.

Negativity is real; it does not fade away because I listen to ocean waves and tell myself jokes.

When the eyes open, the streaks disappear, the fovea pins down the bulb, and the brain perceives it as a bulb on a Christmas tree. The localization of the light is an equally valid experience, if we know what we are doing; but typically that awareness is lost. We are heavily invested in losing it: a local reality solidifies the self and gives it something to relate with; a reality with no reference point turns the self into an Airy pattern on a wall that isn’t there.

With loss of awareness, the total environment is taken for granted, and forgotten; the mind wanders away into discursive thought. This is the ignorance, the attenuation of intelligence into structures of form. This creates the setting for the karma of disease.

The first stage in our habitual response to disease is to crank up more ignorance — that is, to deny anything is wrong. Denial is ignorance at a hysterical pitch; by the time you reach the point of denial, you know that there is something to deny, that the ignoring process is falling apart, and you are beginning to panic. You say, “No, it isn’t true,” but you have a pretty good idea that it is.

When the ignoring process falls apart, there is a possibility for luminous emptiness to re-emerge. Disease always brings a friend: unconditional intelligence and compassion. It is like a door, through which the friend may walk. Because you have this door, she can return. Chronic disease is like an unwanted baby you could grow to love, because it brings something out in you that you may not otherwise have felt.

According to buddhist teaching, from ignorance we create neurotic tendencies in our stream of being that will ripen at some future date into painful results. The ripening process is karma. A painful result always removes the particular cause of the karma, although we can renew the cause by our failure to understand it.

My case is a clear demonstration of this process. Begin with a weakness in the lungs, which itself is a karmic result of some kind, carried in the chromosomes perhaps, or in what biologist Rupert Sheldrake would call the morphogenetic field — a good Western synonym for the buddhist concept of a being-stream. Add now the attenuation of intelligence, which creates the belief in me and that, which is the beginning of the neurosis characterized by grasping pleasure and avoiding pain. Viewing the source of pleasure as outside of myself, but somehow necessary for the well-being of me, I begin to smoke. By smoking I induce euphoria and dispel boredom and fear. At this stage a full-blown conditioning process is under way: behavior, reinforcement, strengthened behavior. It is part of an addiction to pleasure. Additional psychic factors might be a general holding back, holding in, a tendency toward intellectual fixation and brutal self-criticism which is let go only by more smoking, and which slowly begins to manifest as a swelling of lung tissue leading toward complete suffocation.

The ultimate purpose of it all is to maintain ignorance — that is, to confirm ego. How does this happen? Boredom, loneliness, and fear unconfirm the notion of self: they are the first re-assertion of luminous emptiness manifesting as a gap, a space with nothing to do, nowhere to stand, nothing to hope for. That experience brings on fundamental uncertainty; from ego’s point of view, it is a living death. You could go mad in such a space; you could shuffle from room to room haunted by guilt and failure. We call it “the pits,” “the black hole,” showing by our choice of terms that we know perfectly well it is a gap; it is open space, no boundaries, no definitions, no beliefs. Trying to avoid the gap, I set into motion the chain of causes leading to physical infirmity. I do it to myself as an individual; we do it collectively to each other as a social system.

My first step toward self-healing may seem almost masochistic to a non-buddhist, but it makes good sense and has very far-reaching effects: I allow the disease to be there and make friends with it.

Tai Situ Rinpoche, in Way to Go, writes that we can be grateful for affliction, once we have understood that it is the ripening of karma and that its appearance removes the cause. This traditional buddhist doctrine resembles the view that fever is the body’s healthy response to the intrusion of harmful microbes; by means of the fever, the microbes are processed out. The buddhist approach is not merely physical, but comprehends our totality over unlimited vistas of time. Affliction inspires wakefulness, which in turn removes ignorance, which is the ultimate cause of suffering.

It is important to distinguish between this approach and “positive thought.” Both agree that illness is strongly connected with mind.

The notion that illness begins in the mind has gained widespread credence in our culture, but what that means is still not properly understood. “Positive thinkers” generally perceive that sickness originates in, or is in some way supported by, negative mental attitudes — such as the desire to be punished or taken care of in a dependent role — and the suggested treatment might include looking in the mirror and telling yourself how wonderful you are, pacifying your anxiety with soothing cassette tapes, lying in a circle with a support group for mutual strokes, or forcing yourself to continue performing difficult physical tasks of self-help even while your strength is ebbing away.

But something is lacking in this kind of technique. There is still an underlying assumption that death is terrible and that we can talk ourselves out of it. What shall we do with patients who refuse to be “positive” — lecture them on their inadequacy? Or do we simply write them off, saying they cannot — will not — be helped? Negativity is real; it does not fade away because I listen to ocean waves and tell myself jokes.

For the most part, we want to understand disease only in order to get rid of it as quickly as possible, just like we want to get rid of the inconvenient tasks of caring for the old and the homeless, and disposing of the dead; as though we could thereby reach some dreamland of health and happiness, where people never get sick and die. Hearing that disease is caused by improper diet or unhealthy attitude, we might become health-food fanatics and search aggressively for the mental hang-ups that make us fat or cause our skin to break out in a rash. But our desire to reject negativity and cling to pleasure has been the problem from the very beginning.

As long as our goal is to hang on to something, or get rid of our own mortality, then we are still only suppressing symptoms. “Healing” could become one more ambitious project by which we try to ignore the message of luminous emptiness: that there is no place to stand in the endless cascade. We thought that we had a cozy little observation balcony, but it is all Niagara Falls no matter where we turn. Even the parking lot is being swept away. On the other hand it might be fire, too; we are on fire every moment, dying and being born all the time, spreading out everywhere. The work of ego is a mode of experiencing the heat and the color; within that mode, enlightenment is the ash.

Making friends with the disease leads to discoveries of the sort that I have described earlier: slowing down, shedding excess baggage, observing without struggle, deepening mindfulness, letting go of attachment to pleasure, feeling the texture of discomfort and pain, finding the roots of fear. Slowly the ground of ignorance is dispelled, like beginning to recognize a landscape in the very early dawn.

Ignorance is the environment of the whole karmic chain. If there is no ignorance, then the concept of “disease” becomes superfluous, as do the other “dis-” categories: discomfort, discontinuity, disillusion, disability, dissonance, disappointment, disbelief. Some buddhist masters wake themselves up further with a practice in which they invite all the demons of chaos and disaster to visit them. My little self says, “I am not at that point,” but a braver, more expansive self answers, “Maybe that is what I have already done.”

But whether I am brave or not, the “dis-ease” is here, however it is defined. By using it as path, and as a means to inspire someone else, I am hanging out with the masters. That is not such a bad result. If it means that I can hang out with the likes of Trungpa Rinpoche and His Holiness the Karmapa, then bring on the demons; they can sit on my shoulders while I type. (The mouse, getting drunk, bangs his tankard on the bar and declaims, “Bring on the cat!”)

Another method to reject luminous emptiness and cling to the ground of ignorance is to make affliction mean something: to say, for example, that it ennobles the human spirit, toughens our courage to endure, takes away our sins — or even that we are being punished for our sins.

The second of the four stages of dying outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her classic study of the death process, is bargaining — the attempt to hang on to some kind of ground by giving up something else: “I will give all my money to the church if only I can get well.” (The four stages are denial, bargaining, anger, and acceptance. These stages are all from ego’s point of view, and they are encountered also in meditation practice as we slowly give in to the experience of egolessness.)

Interpreting pain and loss as meaningful in a philosophical or religious context is another form of bargaining, a consolation prize: “My legs are gone, I have been tortured, my children went to a concentration camp, my tumor is inoperable, but there is a reason for everything: it is to test my faith; it is all for the greater glory of God or the Party; it brings humankind to a realization of existential despair; even from the jaws of defeat we can salvage a mustard seed of victory, we shall rise from the ashes, we shall be changed.” Explanation is still the game of hope and fear: “If I submit to suffering, then maybe I will gain a higher truth.”

The pressure of affliction tends to blow these answers away like chaff. A political prisoner being drowned in a bucket of floating sewage is interested in only one thing: the next breath. Sarcoidosis is not quite as severe, but the concern is the same. Beyond that, I want to open completely, without disguises, consolations, or illusions of any kind. By refusing to assign meaning to it, we stay with the emptiness of suffering, and thus begin to live in a reality that is luminous, limitless, unconditional, and immediate.

The cheerfulness that results from this renunciation of meaning cannot be destroyed, because it does not deny anything, and it does not have to be maintained. Misery and death are included, and allowed. It is not “my” cheerfulness; it does not come from anywhere. You can let go of it and laugh. You could drink from skull cups and make trumpets from human bones.

Remaining with emptiness is also a gift of compassion — to myself, and perhaps, to others; instead of giving the arrogance of Job’s comfort, we can offer the witness of silence, and the example of path. It may be a more generous and intimate experience, for both parties, to wait on someone who is disabled than to preach a sermon on self-reliance. Where action is called for, it comes best from an empty mind.

The basic terror of nihilistic despair seems to arise from sensing the truth of emptiness, and yet not living it. Can we open that final closet door? With the best intentions, our comforters say, “No — keep it closed.”

Even if all the pain in the world means absolutely nothing, can we admit that and live? Can we still wake up? The answer is yes — with a smile. But not until we give in to that “nothing,” and know it in our bones.