Ceremony for Dying: The Altar
Using altars to focus intention and connection in a space.
Alan Watts, one of the first to explain Buddhist aesthetics to Western audiences, admired the Zen concept of yūgen, often translated into English as a feeling of mysterious profundity. But as Watts explains in his lecture “The Way of Tea,” this definition misses the subtlety of the sensation, best rendered through images. You experience yūgen watching the sun sink beyond a hill covered in poppies, or witnessing wild geese disappear into a bank of clouds, or walking on a strange path—an old mining road, an abandoned railroad track, a shaded walkway in a city park—with no thought of returning.
These encounters, evocative blends of alertness and longing, are rare, Watts believes, because our perception is usually controlled by two drives: to survive and to understand. In survival mode, we see only what meets our most basic needs; in pursuit of comprehension, we notice only what fits our mental grids.
But then, sudden as weather: those moments—inscrutable but exhilarating—that silence our practical concerns and call us to unexplored regions over the knoll, behind the wall, on the other side of that door.
This is the essence of yūgen: there is always a beyond, and beyond that, another beyond, and beyond that, another, and so on, forever. Doors open to doors, deeps to deeps. “Enough” is illusion; “more,” only, is real.
Set aside an hour at dawn or twilight.
Take a solitary walk. As you move, recall the thrilling anticipations of your childhood. Anything could happen!
Now pay attention to thresholds along your way: doors, gates, fences, windows, manholes, tree hollows, hills, clouds, puddles, fountains.
What’s on the other side? Let your mind play among possibilities, the stranger the better.
When you get home, on a single sheet of paper, write one sentence or draw a small image that represents this walk. Store the page in a drawer or under your mattress or in the pages of a book or in a jewelry box.
If you feel frayed and tired, take out the page and remember, there is something else.
In the Enuma Elish, an ancient Babylonian creation myth, all life springs from Tiamat, the mighty ocean. Drawing from this tale, the authors of Genesis imagined the primal chaos as liquid; God formed this turbulence into the universe.
If the sea symbolizes origin, the lake represents harmony. In Arthurian legend, the Lady of the Lake’s Excalibur heals a war-torn land. The West Lake in Chinese myth is a jade ball from heaven; wherever it shines, earth grows flowers.
Unlike lakes, rivers flow; they are time’s growth and decay. The Ganges accepts the dead and purifies the living. The River Styx connects the breathing world with the realm of shades.
Water has figured prominently in major literary works, spanning from Homer’s Odyssey to Derek Walcott’s Omeros. American literature alone is imminently liquid. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the Ohio River carries Sethe to freedom. Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” imagines old African rivers flowing into the poet’s veins. Thoreau’s Walden celebrates a seemingly bottomless lake. Melville in Moby-Dick broods over the sea’s terror and ecstasy.
Recently, psychologists have realized that the imaginative writers are right: water isn’t simply required for physical life. As liberation, strength, depth, and sublimity, it is also essential to psychological well-being.
In 2011, cognitive scientists randomly texted 60,000 respondents questions about their moods throughout one day. Those dwelling near water scored six points higher on a scale of happiness than those living in drier regions.
Another study has demonstrated the “blue-mind effect.” To immerse yourself in water is to slow your neurochemicals to stress levels close to those achieved by meditation.
It turns out that one need not even be near water to enjoy its benefits. Simply imagining an awe-inspiring experience of water can inspire more ethical behavior; and watching a video about water can reduce chronic pain.
Find a body of water near you. It doesn’t have to be an ocean, lake, or river. You can choose a pond, creek, spring, reservoir, canal, marsh, rill, even a large puddle.
Every other day for a month, visit the water. Look for differences. On the bank, are there changes in greenery, the rocks, wildlife, the amount of litter? In the water proper, do you notice alterations in level, color, creatures? What about the horizon? The sky?
Record your observations in your notebook.
At the end of the month, answer these questions:
What are the primary changes I noticed?
How have my visitations to this aquatic place affected my moods?
If I were to recommend this activity to a friend, what would I say?
Once you answer this last question, you’ll know whether water assuages your melancholy or simply keeps you hydrated.
Adapted excerpt from HOW TO BE WEIRD: An Off-Kilter Guide to Living a One-of-a Kind Life. Copyright © 2022 by Eric G. Wilson. Used with permission of Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. New York, NY. All rights reserved.
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