Thich Nhat Hanh uses four simple words, “A cloud never dies,” in one of his calligraphies to express a concept that I have found helpful recently when thinking about life and death. This post dives deep into the calligraphy and some of my experiences practicing with it. To sum it up at the start, rather than moving into “non-existence” when our physical body is no longer alive, our “existence” is simply transformed and our mark on this world continues through what we have transmitted to others. As I practice with this insight, I can recognize both that I transmit something to everyone I meet, and that I inherit a transmission from my ancestors and all those I interact with.
As I practice with this now, in reflection on people that have recently passed away, I am able to see myself and my grief more clearly.
I hope that this post is helpful for anyone out there working with loss or the fear of loss.
A note on the featured image
I originally planned to simply find a digital copy of the calligraphy for the featured image of this post. However, after I put together a first draft, I accidentally came across a copy of the calligraphy stored away in my home waiting to be framed. Happily, I was able to arrange it with some personal items that have a connection to a recent loss for the image you see above.
Looking deeply into a cloud
First, let’s dive into some meaning found within the calligraphy.
If we explore the water cycle, we can see clearly that a cloud never moves into non-existence or nothingness. It’s “life” continues through transformation. I’ll use a very simplistic model of the water cycle to get into this, but I also recognize it’s a bit more complex than how I describe it. Bear with me.
Water has three phases: solid, liquid, and gas. Clouds are actually made up of water that is in ice or liquid form (I just learned this and my mind was blown). When conditions become sufficient for rain to manifest (e.g. the water collected becomes heavy enough), the cloud transforms and rain falls to the ground as precipitation. So, one way a cloud continues (and does not “die”) is by becoming, what we call, rain.
We don’t call rain a “falling cloud” and yet, rain and clouds are not so different from each-other. We have different words for them in the English language, so we might be tempted to think of them as “different” things. When we look deeply, it becomes clear to see that they are made of the same stuff, H2O. Rain is simply a transformation, and so the cloud has not disappeared or had a “death.”
The rain that falls on the earth permeates vegetation and forms bodies of water. So again, the cloud continues and transforms from rain into something that we don’t usually call “rain.” We have all kinds of different words for water that is settled on earth (dew drop, puddle, creek, river, lake, ocean, etc.) and yet, when we look deeply, we can see that it is also simply a transformed cloud. The ingredients are the same. The cloud has not died, the rain has not died, the form is simply altered.
The cloud continues, and does not “die,” through the process of transformation.
This is not to imply that we should not have any sense of grief or loss when a beautiful cloud transforms. Maybe we miss the sense of the physical cloud, and that is ok. We can simply add a layer of understanding here that may be helpful.
This body as a cloud
So, how does this relate to the human body?
We can look into the human life-span and use the example of a cloud as a lens through which to see a bit clearer. Hopefully, this can help us suffer a bit less when we experience grief and loss.
Let’s start at the level of DNA and my physical body. If I look deeply into my hand, I can see that it is made up of the DNA of my mother and my father. I know that their DNA is made of their mothers’ and fathers’ DNA, and so in this way, I can see that in my hand are the hands of all of my blood ancestors. They continue within me at a biological level.
I could get real deep here and go back into human ancestry to go all the way back to the continuation of single-celled organisms within me… But, I’ll leave that for another time. This is explored wonderfully in this podcast episode that is a meditation on the history of planet earth 🙂.
My mother and my father
In the same way that I was passed DNA by my blood ancestors, I can see that so much has been transmitted to me through my interactions with my parents.
When I look at the young children of my friends, I am so quick to say to the parent, “What your daughter just did, is exactly like you!”
The continuation of parent in child is so clear and obvious. Maybe part of it is through biology, but we also know that much is passed through interaction and psychology as well.
I think this is simple to grasp when we look at a toddler because we know that tiny human has spent so much of their time on this earth with their parents. As we get older, the picture becomes a bit more complex because we are influenced by so many other humans along the way.
I can see the influences of my teachers within me. Writing this post is a continuation of Thich Nhat Hanh and my friends in the Plum Village community. They influence me deeply.
What I’m writing is also a continuation of all of my science teachers (including biology and psychology), my literature teachers, and my film-making storytelling teachers. The words being typed right now would likely be different had I not encountered any one of them.
Therefore, I am a continuation of all of my teachers.
I can also see that I am a continuation of my culture and society. I grew up Jewish in Rochester, New York, USA, and was influenced by the culture there and the broader American culture.
Being raised Jewish influenced how I interact with the world within me and around me. One example that comes to mind is from the first time I went to Germany. I had a full-body response when I was first surrounded by the German language. I have never been personally persecuted, but I could see, at that moment, that my feelings were a continuation of my Jewish ancestors and were influenced by the cultural spaces I inhabited as a Jew. Those feelings were transmitted to me. It was fascinating to observe.
I also have white skin, and that has influenced how I take up space and am received in American society. The American culture continues to discriminate based on race and undoubtedly, this systemic issue impacts me. I went to schools where, for the most part, kids separated into groups (e.g. in the lunchroom) based on skin colour. Furthermore, the kids who were streamed into the “achievement” classes were pre-dominantly white. In these instances, I was transmitted an idea of separation.
I was also transmitted a deep sense of love and care from the African-American community that I interacted with growing up. The teacher I remember the most from elementary school was Mr. Reese, a kind and loving African-American man. The most compassionate kids in elementary school were African-American, and they took me in when I was bullied by other kids that, I thought, were my friends. Maybe this is, in part, is why I felt so connected recently to a movie directed by Questlove (of The Roots), called “Summer of Soul” about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.
One last example of cultural influence on me is from a memory of going on an exchange with my Jewish temple to a Baptist church. The Jewish culture has a strong culture of singing in community, and so did that Baptist church. I felt so at home, surrounded by song and the energy of love. This is probably part of why I fell in love with Plum Village songs later in life.
I was transmitted all of this. The “beautiful” and the “not so beautiful.”
I am a continuation of my friends.
I am a continuation of the compassionate friends who took me in when I was bullied in elementary school. I am a continuation of my Highschool friends and my University friends who show me what true friendship means. I know that they have had a deep influence on me, and I am grateful for all of their support and love.
All of my experiences that came before this moment subconsciously continue to influence my view of myself and the world around me. In this way, I am a continuation of all of those people and diverse cultures that I have experienced.
I am “me,” and yet, I am made up of so many “non-me” elements.
Therefore, I would not exist by myself alone. I am not separate from all of these people who have surrounded me throughout my life. I am a continuation of all of my blood and spiritual ancestors. I am a continuation of my teachers, my friends, and all that has come before me.
In this way, I am empty of a “separate self.” I could not “be” by myself alone, and I would not “be” who I am without any of these “non-me” elements.
I am composed of the “non-me” elements of my family, my friends, my teachers, my colleagues, and so many others.
The Danica elements within me
Less than a week ago, I heard from Ben, one of my closest friends from childhood, that his mother Danica passed away peacefully in her sleep. I spent a lot of time at Ben’s house growing up as a teenager, and so naturally I spent a decent amount of time with Danica as well.
If we accept what I discussed above about the many “non-me” elements that exist within “me,” then we can also see that Danica is made up of many elements that are “not her.” It is also then true that there are many people in the world that are made up of elements of “her.” Danica continues through what she has transmitted by her words and actions.
Danica is not limited by her physical body.
Take me, for example. I remember Danica being amazingly kind and supportive of my artistic endeavours as a young kid. She was an artist and had an artist’s heart. She transmitted that to me in so many small moments.
The featured image of this post includes fabric placemats that she offered as a gift to Elli and I for our wedding. They are made with her fabric patterns, one of her many artistic endeavours.
I spent a lot of time with Ben at Danica’s house when I was first starting to explore photography as an art, and I have this strong memory of feeling her acceptance of me as an artist.
I feel that she understood and saw me in a way that not everyone did. It had a strong influence on me without me realizing it consciously at the time.
I am grateful for this feeling of support transmitted to me by her. I am grateful for the part of me that broke open as I recognized this.
At this moment of recognizing that she saw me clearly, I also see myself more clearly. The parts of her, that are within me, help me to be kind and accepting of my vulnerable artist heart.
In this way, I receive a great transmission from her, even after her physical body is no longer alive. She continues at this moment.
Because of this realization, I am also reminded of all the different humans in my life who have seen and loved this artistic side of me as well. For all of you out there, I am grateful.
I aspire to continue these qualities that Danica transmitted to me. I can see that some of my kindness and patience with others is a direct reflection of how I was treated as a young person by my Danica. In this way, there are elements of “her” that are within “me.”
So, while Danica’s physical form is no longer alive, what she has transmitted to me continues to live on. She has not become “nothing.” She has not moved into the realm of “non-being.”
It’s only now, that I reflect on what she meant to me, that I realize how her kindness and acceptance is something that I continue.
Water transforms from a cloud to rain and then back into a cloud. Just as the cloud continues, so too does Danica through her transmission to all she has come into contact with in her life. I know that Ben received countless messages from her friends and community as she was transitioning. In this, we can see that she has had significant influence on others, and therefore she continues with them.
Danica is continued by countless people, including her son and my good friend, Ben.
Dear Ben, and all those readers who have lost someone dear to them, I invite you to look into your body, feelings, and mind to see that you are a continuation of the one you have lost. They, in fact, are not lost entirely. You now have the opportunity to reflect and consider what you will transmit to others.
For Danica, I choose to continue your acceptance and support of others that came with your artist’s heart. Thank you for being one of many who has transmitted this to me. I cherish this transmission and aspire to continue you within me.
Dear reader, what do you choose to continue in your life-span that honours your loved one?
Reminder: the resources page is always here for you. It is where I collect all the links, resources, and references from every post.
For those that are reading this that might not be subscribed, please subscribe! Knowing that there are folks out there reading helps motivate me to continue.
As always, please leave a comment or message me. I’d love to hear from you 🙂.