Switzerland: Woke up this morning and it was a paper day, according to Jiab – meaning the day the garbage truck comes to collect cardboard and paper for recycling: ‘jeter les papiers’. The garbage guys are fast so I have to go down to the basement immediately, get all the newspapers, then up one floor to ground level and put everything out by the entrance. Waiting for the elevator to arrive, check the phone is in my pocket because the basement is 8 floors down, below ground level and there’s only one key. The key fits in a keyhole inside the elevator that takes you down to this strangely claustrophobic space. I wouldn’t want to get stuck in the basement. Unless I meet any other tenant, it’s a solitary experience. I come down here and it feels like entering the death state.
“… death is as near to him as drying up is to rivulets in the summer heat, as falling is to the fruits of the trees when the sap reaches their attachments in the morning, as breaking is to clay pots tapped by a mallet, as vanishing is to dewdrops touched by the sun’s rays …” [Visuddhimagga, Mindfullness of Death]
Elevator drops all the way down and stops, solidly at the bottom. Door opens, I’m inside a large mysterious network of small rooms, white walls, grey doors. It’s a reinforced concrete nuclear fall-out shelter built for the occupants of the apartment building. This is the law in Switzerland. A lingering sense of paranoia all around here; strangely thick doors on huge hinges held open with large iron stays. Lighting system is permanently on, they just replace the bulbs. Years from now, it’ll be exactly like this; and maybe even generations into the future, a vast supply of continually replenished light bulb stock keeps this space illuminated.
I find our concrete room, number painted on the door, another key on the ring opens the lock and I step into this familiar place. Discarded old things, vestiges of a former life. Papers in stacks, carboard cartons flattened into sections and bundled up. What a curious space. I suppose this is where we’d sleep, in the event of a nuclear catastrophe up above. ‘All that is mine beloved and pleasing will become otherwise, will become separated from me.’ The simple fact of being alive seems to take on a whole different meaning when you’re aware of the nearness of death. There’s some old furniture here, a broken chair. I can squeeze around, back against the wall, and there’s just enough space to ease the body down on the old chair and sit. What does this feel like?
Rupa kandha, a distinct sense of ‘body’ just sitting there, patiently waiting for instructions, quite still and at ease, inert. I am ‘contained’; internal organs in a sack of skin. Meditation in a subterranean room; reinforced walls to create the space I’m in. The grave. This is how it’ll be when I’m dead? Focus on the breath, after a moment, it’s calm. Strange acoustics. The silence is exceptional. There’s the solidity of the body, the totality and weight of all the internal systems, the earth, fluids, heat and breathing; just being comfortable in the taking up of the space it’s occupying.
Mind flow drops down a notch, thought patterns and changing images, flitting around, have no identity; darting all over the place like little flashes of energy. Body acts as a conductor, through which the sparkling electric current flow of small thoughts can be earthed. It’s like a fireworks display. Strange how, in contemplating death, it ends up that you’re contemplating life.
Phone rings. An extremely loud ringtone. It’s Jiab: what are you doing down there? Breakfast is ready! Okay, coming now. Pick up the paper bundles, lock up the room. Into the elevator and up one floor. Out of the door into the daylight, drop the papers and there’s the fresh mountain air. Into the elevator and up again to the 7th floor. Large, spacious interior, picture windows, landscape below, white clouds above; clear open sky. It feels like nothing really matters. It’s a paper day.
‘As contemplation deepens, the contents of the mind become increasingly rarefied. Irrelevant flights of thought, imagination, and emotion subside, mindfulness becomes clearer, the mind remains intently aware, watching its own process of becoming. At times there might appear to be a persisting observer behind the process, but with continued practice even this apparent observer disappears. The mind itself — the seemingly solid, stable mind — dissolves into a stream of cittas flashing in and out of being moment by moment, coming from nowhere and going nowhere, yet continuing in sequence without pause.’ [The Noble Eightfold Path, Bhikkhu Bodhi, page 82 – 83, Contemplation of the State of Mind (cittanupassana)]