Ghosts and Imagination

-a dispatch from the grief process

It was M’s birthday on May 5. I was supposed to be there for it. I started writing this on May 14.

Four months since M. passed
Also on the night of the full moon
I too am only a ghost.

I want to write about grief and suicide. One of the things most grief counselors and books don’t tell you, nor is it listed in the various stages of grief or in much popular literature (it’s in the academic literature tho) is that thinking about suicide is a common grief symptom. Naturally when we’re faced with the mortality of a loved one we are also faced with the fact of our own eventual demise. Sometimes we may wish to some degree that either it had been us instead of them, or that we had died with them.

Just because someone is thinking about their own death, and because they are apparently healthy, the means to that death would probably be suicide at that point in time. This doesn’t mean they are suicidal or that they are even depressed. As soon as someone even says the word suicide people get all panicky and want to stage interventions and dope people up and so forth. Maybe we should stand down from that state of alarm and get a grip.

I was reading about the suicide of philosopher Walter Benjamin in a review essay in the LA Review of Books of a new critical biography on Benjamin that is out. The article, Colin Dickey on Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life:Shoring Against the Ruins. Benjamin was trying to escape the overtaking of Europe by the fascists and just when he was about to cross the border into Spain and be able to make his escape the border happened to be closed.

So as he was faced with that closed border and the encroaching fascists he decided to take his own life. He did so with morphine. He appeared to be out of other options. One can empathize with his predicament.

There’s more to the event though. His life had been fairly disarrayed. Lots of disappointments and failed ambitions, yet stuff he wrote was exceptional (I’m delving into Arcades right now).  Benjamin had also written and discussed suicide numerous times in his personal history without attempting it. If you read much of his writing it’s readily apparent he thought about everything, not always in a philosophical or sociological or literary way, though much of it was that way. He was something of a morose person from the accounts of those who knew him and didn’t cultivate a lot of close relationships. He comes across from those accounts as a bit of a high maintenance guy, but those tellers of his personal history may have had their own agendas as well. He was on the outs with his wife because he had affairs. He was on the outs with a lot of other scholars because some of them were duplicitous, some were perhaps jealous, some perhaps didn’t understand his point and it doesn’t seem he made any of that easy for them to do sometimes. So there were quite a few factors that went into his decision to suicide. A closed border with murderous fascists looming may have been the last straw. The next day though the border opened. It had only been a temporary closure. That’s so sad it’s not even ironic.

Anyways to think about a thing doesn’t mean one has an intention to act upon it. We think and imagine things all the time. Sometimes some of us imagine ourselves as rock stars or some kind of celebrities, we imagine ourselves having different jobs, we imagine punching our boss in the nose, we imagine ourselves having wild sexual encounters we’d never have in real life, we imagine what our lives would be like if we won a lottery, we imagine living in a utopia, we imagine sailing around the world, we imagine what it would be like to go into space, we imagine being on a winning sports team, we imagine winning an Oscar, we imagine living in a remote cabin in the woods, we imagine painting a masterpiece, we imagine our children’s futures, we imagine our countries getting better or worse after the next election, we imagine that we had won that particular argument that still plagues us to this day, we imagine having a particular kind of life with a particular partner, we imagine ourselves with a different hairstyle, we imagine ourselves with different physical features, we imagine ourselves not being lonely, we imagine ourselves being alone when we feel too crowded, we imagine what it’s like to be a certain celebrity, or historical person or fictional being, we imagine ourselves skydiving, we imagine ourselves swimming in the ocean. Sure there are other elements like hope, fear, longing, ambition, desire, and others mixed in there but the place they all play out together is in the imagination. That’s part of the purpose of imagination, to explore, to examine alternatives, to discover new perspectives, to connect with and understand other people, to assimilate our experiences, to manage our fears in a safe and fictional way, to create a basis for planning new experiences, and many other things. The purposes of imagination are myriad.

Imagination is very closely tied to empathy. Since we can’t know with absolute certainty what another human being is experiencing we have to come up with some kind of facsimile in order to empathize with them. We might think “If I was in that situation I imagine I’d feel X.” Then we test that hypothesis when we encounter that person and adjust our picture based on the feedback we get.

[As a bit of an aside, one of the dangers of this is that we can substitute our own mental model for the person’s actual experience and act from that, in which case we are involved only with our own mind and not what’s really happening. That’s an element of what Chogyam Trungpa called “Idiot Compassion” which I wrote about at length numerous times before. The main piece on that is here]

We use imagination to engender empathy. We have to do this with equanimity. If we decide we only want to have empathy for certain beings or situations, particularly those we are familiar with and block out others that’s not really employing equanimity.

Likewise when we imagine stuff we can choose to restrict it to certain comfortable and self-soothing things and try to block out anything else. This also isn’t employing equanimity.

It’s hard to imagine stuff that hurts. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for someone we loved to die. It’s hard to imagine our own deaths. If the imagining of the latter comes in the form of thoughts about suicide, which are different than thoughts that have suicidal intention behind them, then it can be somewhat distressing for some people. It can especially be distressing for those who hear about it. That’s the reason I didn’t write about it until now. I’ve been examining all that rather closely.

Thoughts like “I wish I was dead too”, “I feel like I died too” happened over the past 4 months. I looked at those thoughts and said to myself, “What should I do with that?” There was no impulse to act on it, only the occasional wish not to wake up again. The thing is that’s what happened to Manoj. He went to sleep, had a heart attack in his sleep and didn’t wake up. In my imagination I was trying to feel what he felt, trying to empathize with that situation.

I wanted to know what he felt. He’s not here to tell me. I wanted to know if it was painful and how long it took and if he was conscious of the process and if he was afraid.

These are common questions people have when a loved one dies. We all have ways to try to address them. One of those ways is to try to face our own death in some way to attempt to get an inkling of what the feeling might be. This is a really deep form of empathy. It’s pretty overwhelming. That’s why equanimity is important. We can try to push these questions away but they will persist. We will be left with feelings of unfinished business until they receive some attention.

It’s not something to panic about. If somebody talks about the way they’re dealing with these questions it’s not necessary to start panicking and shipping them off to a psychiatrist or retreat or doctor for a prescription or whatever.

You can think about something like death and suicide. It is permitted. Who’s going to stop you? It needs to be framed well though. One has to ask “Why am I thinking about this?”

I mentioned depression at the beginning of this post. That’s important. If the answer to the question of “Why am I thinking about death and suicide?” is “I want to understand what they went through.” or “I’m thinking about my own end.” or something of that nature then it can be worked through with equanimity and some sense can be made of it. If the answer is “To seek a release from my immediate pain and discomfort of grief.” then one may be moving into the feedback loop of depression (which in my view is a sort of emotional self-cannibalization—though there’s more to it than that which maybe I’ll write about some time) and that merits some attention maybe by a grief counselor or somebody like that. A thing I also think about suicide is…death is patient, it can wait for me.

So, no need to panic.

Cubist Emotions

-a dispatch from the grief process

I wrote in the last post

seems grief gets worse before it starts to get better…

like a slow motion fracture across the emotional landscape

it’s like these internal earthquakes happen with a memory or thought…

not predictable…

my hands start to shake

I call this feeling Cubist emotions.

The Сity - Fernand Leger

Fernand Leger “The City” (1919)


Things at angles

and broken

sliding apart

damaging frictions



Writing desk - Olga Rozanova

Olga Rozanova “Writing Desk” (1914)


the measure of the words

does not equal their weight

in spilled ink










Umberto Boccioni “Nocturne” ( 1911 )


The night leans over

renders everything lopsided

view of myself as alien in an alien landscape

I hear the neighbors on the balcony

words in no known language

where is this?

Thankas in Proportion

-a dispatch from the grief process

[edit:I’ve added a few lines about the TCHRD organization]

The Public Domain Review has an interesting piece on an old book about Tibetan art. They write:

An eighteenth-century pattern book consisting of 36 ink drawings depicting precise iconometric guidelines for depiction of the Buddha and Bodhisattva figures. Written in Newari script with Tibetan numerals, the book was apparently produced in Nepal for use in Tibet. The concept of the ‘ideal image’ of the Buddha emerged during the Golden Age of Sanskrit rule, from the 4th to 6th century. As well as the proportions, other aspects of the depiction – such as number of teeth, colour of eyes, direction of hairs – became very important.

You can see it all here The Tibetan Book of Proportions

When you watch Tibetan students in class learning to make thankas, this is what they learn. It’s complicated and mathematical, not freeform drawing. Also every element that goes into one has a reason for being there and a deep symbolic significance. You can’t learn it in a month of evening courses.

I wrote on Facebook a while back about Tibetan musical scores like these.

Embedded image permalink

In some thankas, like in some temple decoration, mantras and instructions for their chanting (like the notation above) are included. This makes it not only iconographic but gives it the status of a yantra, which is a multi-dimensional and multi-sense encompassing spiritual device or machine to assist in changing consciousness. It takes a lot of knowledge of multiple disciplines to be able to create a good thanka. It takes some research and study to be able to decode the depth of what you are looking at. They are not “just” religious iconography but whole windows into the Tibetan belief system. They are not just “cultural products” for tourists but are integral to the cohesion of communities.

Here’s what I mean by that.

Manoj & I used to live across from both the Tibetan Homes School (run by a charitable organization SOS Children’s Homes ) and the CST (Central School for Tibetans run by the Tibetan Gov. in Exile ) and they teach this art to some of the older students. The children in the SOS Home are orphaned children of refugees. Manoj was very close to people in the Tibetan community after he lost his parents [his mother when he was 6 and his father when he was 13]. His relatives did all they could but they didn’t live in Mussoorie so many Tibetan people helped support him in a lot of ways. His father also had had a lot of friends in the Tibetan community and worked with them sometimes. In communities that are somewhat off the beaten track and where ways of life are communal, people help each other out and hold each other up when their social structure collapses. That is one of the principle purposes of community. People are integrated on all sorts of levels. This is very different from a capitalist based network society. [I’ll have more to say on that in the future]

Once in a while if I was walking by and class was in session I’d go in and sit on the bench in the back & watch the young artists for a while. There is a Buddhist temple, the oldest Tibetan Buddhist temple in India, on the grounds just outside of both of these schools. There are monasteries and institutes of higher learning, like the Sakya Center, and the big Mindrolling Monastery complex about 30 kilometers away in Dehra Dun. All of these things are connected and support the Tibetan refugee community.

Over the years I bought a few of the thankas from these students [from the schools actually as the students don’t sell them individually] as the proceeds help support the schools and got them “framed” at Mindrolling for which one gives a donation. This is all a cooperative effort, as are many things in the Tibetan [and in much of the Indian] community that I am aware of in Mussoorie. [I’m not going to generalize or try to “speak for” the community there. This is only my observation and experience.]The students are not just taught the techniques to make pretty and “exotic” pictures. They have a far larger social context.

As an aside..if you want to give money to a Tibetan cause or any cause that’s doing actual work on the ground the SOS Homes are really working hard with that money. I’ve seen it in person. I’ve met the kids in these schools. So many of these western “consciousness raising” organizations like UNFFT (run by some countess who dabbles in all kinds of charities when she’s not attending galas or yachting) and Free Tibet are bullshit organizations run by white people (check their boards and executive) for other white people to make themselves think they’re actually doing something and also to bring in substantial salaries and/or attention mainly to themselves. They are parasitic organizations that boost their own profiles by exploiting the tragedy in Tibet and Tibetan people’s work in my opinion. These kinds of organizations tag along at marches and demonstrations organized by Students for a Free Tibet (another hard working worthy group run by and for Tibetan people) for example, contribute nothing to organizing or support and congratulate themselves heartily for whatever they think they’re doing. It’s lifestyle activism at it’s worst. [I have so much to say about these things but I’ll save it for another post] They want to work for Tibetan people without actually working FOR or WITH Tibetans in many cases. If you want to join or support an organization to help Tibetan people find one that’s run by Tibetans for Tibetans or at least has a lot of Tibetan people actually working at it and in executive roles, not just as figurehead “advisors” or as in some cases all white people.

In terms of consciousness raising, here’s the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy 2013 Annual Report and Special Report on Re-education Through Labor. TCHRD is on the front lines of monitoring the situation in Tibet. Many of their publications are available in English and Tibetan. They (along with some other organizations) do the on the ground work and compile many reports and get the news and photos that a lot of the Western “consciousness raising” organizations often republish without credit, or compensation.

On the economics side, there are plenty of thanka knockoffs in the marketplaces of the world. People buy them as tourist souvenirs and they are produced in “thanka factories” (often in Nepal) where artists (not all of whom are Tibetan or Buddhist) are trained to produce them as consumer goods for low wages. The colors tend to be garish and the images cliché. Some of this is due to many Tibetan people’s feelings that the selling of religious artifacts for profit is wrong, so others have stepped in to make it a business. When they are sold in monasteries, or when you get the framing done at a monastery for example, their purpose is religious and communal not merely decorative or for the tourist trade.

Those are some of the many reasons I dislike the “knock offs” and those comic book kind of drawings “inspired by” Tibetan people’s art.

One of the reasons I’m thinking about this recently is that I’m involved in a photo swap with some of Manoj’s friends and family. I’m sorting and sending photos to them and they are doing likewise for me. It’s like trying to weave over the emptiness with memories.

but still it’s like this

seems grief gets worse before it starts to get better…

like a slow motion fracture across the emotional landscape

it’s like these internal earthquakes happen with a memory or thought…

not predictable…

my hands start to shake

Here is Buddha statue at Mindrolling Monastery, Clement Town, Dehra Dun, taken from the upper level of the temple.


Here is one of the signs within the monastery complex.


Emotions Like Ghosts

-a dispatch from the grief process


Emotions move through like ghosts

Neither resistance nor surrender

Whatever you resist will persist

Whatever you surrender to will stagnate

One has to learn transparency

Becoming like a ghost

To meet these ghosts

Assimilation and dispersion