Monday, June 27, 2011

Dependent Arising

I'm sitting on my porch in the early dawn light, sipping my coffee and staring at a fence post.

That post started its life somewhere as a mighty tree, I think.  Someone, somewhere, cut down a tree, and shipped it to a processing plant where it was fashioned into a post and then shipped it to a store - did it travel on a barge? a truck? - where some previous owner purchased it and installed it around our little house. 

I wonder who painted it first, and how many years ago. I ponder what their life was like at the time; did they have a gaggle of kids running around?  Were they sweating in the hot summer sun?  Did they think they would always live here?

I remember when Steve applied a fresh coat of paint to the fence a few years back.  I barely noticed.

Get a grip, Ellie, I start to think.  It's just a fence post.  But I've been looking at life through these new lenses a lot these days, as I struggle to adjust to my New Normal.  I think about the inter-connectedness of all things, and how all these little non-events, these non-things, barely register as we rush through life.

There is a name for this concept, and I search my brain until I remember what it's called:  dependent arising. 

It's a Buddhist concept, one I read about in a book at some point. A cornerstone to Buddhist philosophy, an essential element of Natural Law, it states that all phenomena are arising together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect.

Dependent arising, I think.  We don't notice how interconnected we all are until something comes along to knock us off the rails.

We are self-centered, as a whole, believing that the direction and flow of our lives emanates from us, from our will.  We like to believe that we are firmly in control; it is more comforting that way.

In reality, though, life flows through us, around us, the culmination of millions of decisions, thoughts and relationships.  We don't register that picking up the phone as we were running out the door, instead of letting it ring, could have saved us from a car accident, or led us straight into one.  Or how a kind word to a total stranger creates a ripple effect of positivity in the world.  Of course, the opposite is true, too. 

We don't think about how many little events had to occur to culminate in each individual moment of our day - how many things had to fall into place to run into that person at the supermarket, or be there to pick up the phone when a friend needs a warm voice.  

Eveything we do, everything we think, everything we say - it all matters.  A lot.  It's just that we don't think about it much, because we're rarely in a moment, always thinking about the next thing.  

When life knocks you for a loop, when someone you love is ripped away, you do think about these little non-events.  Last phone calls, last visits, become treasured memories instead of just another conversation.  

The last time I spoke to my Dad, he called my cell phone - something he rarely did - to give me the name of a Trust and Estates lawyer he knew, so Steve and I could get started on a will.  I was rushing around Target, making little decisions about groceries, and I was distracted.  He also wanted to tell me he was going through his things, looking for tools and equipment he didn't need living life in a condo.  He told me he was setting some things aside for Steve to look over the next time we visited.  A next visit we will never have, because two days later he was gone.

I think back over this conversation a lot.  The irony that he called to talk about wills and giving away some of his things is not lost on me.  Dad and I usually ended our phone conversations with an 'I love you'.  I'd like to think we did this time, too, but I don't remember.

These new lenses hurt my eyes sometimes. It's difficult to feel the importance of all the small things, and easy to succumb to fear.  When every moment, every decision, feels so important - what if it's a last moment? what if making this small decision leads to disaster? - it makes me want to curl up in a ball and sleep. 

But slowly, slowly, I'm adjusting to this new found clarity.   The trick, I'm learning, is to surrender to the fact that we're buffeted about - buoyed, really - by dependent arising.  We suffer when we fight against the natural flow of things, when we rail against a current that sweeps us in a direction we hadn't planned on going.

Mostly, this new clarity is helping me keep my head and my feet in the same place. I remember to utter that kind word, to try to bring gratitude, and not fear, to the forefront.   It helps with anger, too.  Because sometimes I'm just really, really angry, and I stamp my existential feet at the unfairness of it all.   I want him back, I think.  I want just one more hug, one more chance to say I love you. 

But, of course, one more time could never be enough, and I find peace when I recall that I ended every visit with a hug, every phone call with an 'I love you'.

As I sip the last of my coffee, the first rays of sunshine peek over the horizon.   Dependent arising, I think, and vow to carry wonder, awe and gratitude in my heart today, to appreciate the culmination of events, people, thoughts and decisions that carry me from one moment to the next.  

What I carry in my heart is the only part I have control over, really, I think, with a final glance at the fence post, and I choose love.


  1. I call this the "Crash effect" after the movie Crash. It's also found in a young adult novel that I teach my students--Whirligig. This idea that what we do right now, this minute, has an effect on someone, somewhere 10 years from now is one that's hard to grasp but kind of impossible to deny.

    I'm still sending you good thoughts.

  2. This post is coming at the perfect time for me and my husband (I plan to share it with him). Now that's dependent arising.

  3. I just found your blog through a chain of links, also crying out now. I have been reading back posts all afternoon and I really appreciate your writing and your honesty. I am really glad you are here.
    So sorry for your loss. Sending good thoughts...

  4. Ellie, you are a most eloquent writer. Thank you for sharing these thoughts. You are quickly becoming the "companion-read" to my daily dose of "Courage to Change." Lee Ann

  5. Ellie: The following is from a person who has also gone through various stages of losses/awakenings and seemed to echo your thoughts in your post today. Hope it makes some sense to you during this healing time. "“Do everything in love” 1 Corinthians 16:14

    YIKES! ‘Can you imagine 4 little words that could be so disturbing? I read today’s Scripture and it turned my day upside down.


    Everything Lord, are you serious? It shook me to the very foundation of my being because it spoke right to the very core of my existence (see Hebrews 4:12). God was setting the bar and the bar was love, the bar was the cross.

    My world was turned upside down a week ago, I must have read the verse a hundred times but a week ago, it finally penetrated and I was stabbed, my heart would never be the same.

    “Do everything in love” is playing over and over in my head and I can’t get away, I can’t flee because wherever I go, God is there and so is His love. I can’t think of a crazier and more comforting thought.