by Ben Cohen
The weekend my friend and long time co-worker Chez died, I had been thinking about what we could be doing differently at the Banter, and how we might expand our team to include new writers. I was very confident about our future prospects with the team we had in place, and I felt we had hit our stride after many years of struggle. Chez was a major part of this dynamic, and I had only envisioned a future with him in it. But as the old Yiddish proverb goes, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans."
The death of Chez has been a pretty significant blow to everyone around him. As I wrote in my obituary for him, he was a uniquely talented person with a huge heart. His departure has left his family, friends and co-workers in pieces, with no real idea what to do next. While my own sadness is irrelevant when compared to those closest to him, the sense of uncertainty about the future is undoubtedly similar.
Uncertainty has a very powerful way of undermining ones sense of self, because if you are not sure about the long term survival of your surroundings and the people around you, then who exactly are you? We define ourselves in part by our surroundings and the way other people interact with us, and once something or someone disappears, it feels like a part of us has gone too. When neighborhoods gentrify or local restaurants close this too has an unsettling effect. Change, particularly unexpected change, can feel like the ground beneath us has been removed, and we are left grasping at memories to remind us of who we are.
The Daily Banter is part of who I am, and Chez was an integral part of The Daily Banter. Now he is gone, I cannot help but feel out of sorts -- a feeling everyone who knew him must also be going through.
Recently, I have been meditating on a daily basis and reading about Tibetan Buddhism. Initially this mostly had to do with the awfulness of the Trump administration and the anxiety I feel covering it on a day to day basis, but it has now taken on a path of its own. I've kept up my daily meditation for well over a month now, and the benefits have been immense -- and I credit it with helping me manage the loss of my friend. Central to Buddhism and meditation is learning to deal with the constant change we face in our lives. In Buddhism, the concept of "self" is illusory, and with the practice of meditation one can help see the true nature of reality and come to terms with the inevitability of change. And should you think this is New Age woo, consider Albert Einstein's remarks on the subject of "the self":
"A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive."
"Liberation from the self" comes about by learning to momentarily remove oneself from the process of thinking, an incredibly difficult feat that takes an insane amount of practice. But once you have experienced it, and entire universe opens up and feelings of uncertainty and fear can be transformed into a calming "knowingness" that everything is temporary and there isn't much point worrying about it. I'm unsure what I believe about the afterlife, but I am beginning to understand that the Buddhist concept of reincarnation, or what we might better understand as the continuation of consciousness after death might not be so crazy. Through the practice of meditation, it becomes fairly self-evident that everything we believe about death is an illusion anyway. How can we possibly know about something we haven't experienced? It may be the end of consciousness completely, but there is no real way of coming to a definitive conclusion. Meditation at the very least opens up the possibility of the continuation of consciousness, because once you can remove yourself from your own thoughts and recognize them as just that -- thoughts -- you get a strong sensation that we actually know very, very little about what it means to be alive and what it means to die. When you enter egoless states of being, everything just becomes an interesting possibility and nothing more.
Speculation about life after death aside, the ability to take a more removed view of ever changing events is astonishingly helpful. It allows you to not become so emotionally attached to outcomes, and to appreciate what you have in the present moment. And more than that, it gives you a feeling of control over how you respond to change, loss or uncertainty.
I have certainly experienced moments of powerful grief when thinking about my friend, but for the most part I have been able to calmly assess how I want to respond to it all. I would like to honor his life positively, give back to his family, and continue the project we started all those years ago. Yes, the Banter will change now he has gone, but that doesn't mean it dies or loses the authenticity and standards Chez helped create. That part is up to those of us still here, and we get to choose how to shape the future. Of course there will be greater, unknown challenges ahead, but then this is simply part of what we call life.
So in honor of my friend, it's onwards we go, writing and fighting until we finish what we started.