Gone Utterly Beyond
During my senior year of college I lived with one of my best friends, Katherine. We decided early on that our apartment needed a little extra life. Adopting a cat or dog seemed like an irresponsible choice, as our schedules were busy and, frankly, it was a daunting commitment. We got fish instead.
We selected two beautiful shimmery gold fish from the local Pet Smart along with some tacky, but what we deemed “necessary”, sunken pirate ship décor to spiff up the bottom of their shiny new bowl. We talked to them on the car ride home; telling the duo all about their new digs, who we were, and how excited we were to have two more roommates.
Naming them was easy: Infinity and Beyond. The names just came to us in an instant and we never questioned it.
Infinity was slightly lighter in color and his scales seemed to have more sparkle. Beyond was a deeper golden hue and Katherine and I agreed he looked wise.
We set their home up in the finished basement right next to the egress window. They had light, water, food, and a retired pirate ship to explore among bright pink and aqua-colored stones.
And yet, even with the clean water and unbeatable interior design, Katherine went down one morning, just a few days after welcoming the fish home, to find Beyond belly up.
She raced up into the kitchen where I was making coffee.
“Julia!,” her brow was furrowed and her breath was labored from leaping up the stairs, “Beyond.”
“What?” I asked, “Is he ok?”
“He went.” She paused, “ to the Beyond.”
“Beyond went to the beyond?” I asked. Then clarifying, “He died?”
Now, Beyond was a goldfish and we weren’t super attached, but it was still a sad and disheartening feeling to have had a pet for a mere two or three days before saying goodbye forever. We thought it was so apropos that Beyond was the fish who had passed.
“It’s like it was his destiny or something,” Katherine contemplated aloud while we prepared a small, ornate box in which to place his cold, little yellow body.
I had a flashback to my dad tossing my dead beta fish, Simon, down the garbage disposal when I was 16. Simon had been in my care for several years at that point and though it’s hard to cultivate a deep, loving bond with a fish, I did like him and I felt as though his remains could have been handled in a more sensitive manner. Instead, they were shredded to bits with leftovers from that evening’s dinner.
And so, in an effort to do what felt right, we placed Beyond in a fancy fish casket and dug a hole in the back yard. If I recall correctly, we even had a few friends join us for the funeral (it’s hard to know for sure, because we also hosted a bird funeral later that year after the poor little guy flew into a closed window).
We each said a few words about the being we barely knew. We kept repeating the phrase, “Beyond went to the beyond!”. It was a loss, but not a very impactful one. After the funeral, we probably got back to our homework, or TV, or went out with friends. He was buried and we were on to the next thing.
What we didn’t consider was what beyond meant. Where was the beyond? Was it nearby or galaxies away? Where did any of us go once the body shut down?
I grew up in a fairly spiritual family and had been practicing yoga for a few years at that point, so I had a vague idea as to what beyond meant to me. I refused to accept the notion that there was no afterlife; that everything just….ended. I envisioned there being some sort of place where people went reflect on their lives after they died. A place where they could watch over the loved ones they left behind and maybe even offer guidance from afar. I imagined the spirit as formless and, yet, able to take on any form (like showing up as an eagle soaring over the Grand Canyon or manifesting as the ladybug on a little girl’s arm).
As a twenty-year-old, I had no real reason to think deeply about the subject. I had experienced very normal losses for someone that age: a few fish, a dog, and both grandfathers.
So beyond just meant beyond. It was more or less a grand mystery and one that needn’t be solved with any urgency.
What I didn’t know back then, in 2008, was that just four years later the most important person in my world, the center of my Universe, the life that gave me life, would go to the beyond. And that just three years after, my younger brother would choose to join her there.
In Buddhist scripture, there is a sutra, or teaching, called the Heart Mantra:
gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā
While there are numerous translations, the basic idea is something along the lines of:
Gone, Gone, Gone beyond Gone utterly beyond, Oh what an Awakening!
This succinct but potent teaching tells us that to be gone beyond, gone utterly beyond, is not bad. Quite the opposite: it’s an awakening! Here, gate means Gone from suffering to the liberation of suffering. Gone from forgetfulness to mindfulness. Gone from duality to non-duality. Paragate means gone all the way to the other shore…beyond that which we know.
By the time my mom died, I had been studying Eastern philosophy for about a decade. I quickly took to the concept of the infinite nature of the soul. It made sense to me that there was such a thing as “the other side” or “the spirit world”, and that one day our work there would be done and we’d inhabit another body to learn more lessons on Earth. I believed in some higher force, call it Love, The Universe, or God, that had our best interest at heart and shown a light upon each of our unique paths. It was comforting and easy to adopt these ideas as an invincible barely adult with a healthy, whole family.
But things changed. When cancer pushed my mom out of the world as I knew it, everything broke. My confidence in the Eastern belief system began to dwindle and I questioned everything.
A part of me wanted to dismiss all that I had believed and adopt a “fuck it” attitude. I almost romanticized the thought of going down a dark messy spiral that led to self-destruction. And yet, I couldn’t help but see the uplifting signs as they began to emerge around me.
The parting of the clouds as I drove up to my parents’ house, unveiling a ray of sun beaming directly upon the room my mom passed in. Ladybugs everywhere! On my yoga mat, my leg, in my car, and even on my bathroom mirror in the cold of winter. Her name, Rita, showing up in unusual places; a bumper sticker on the car in front of me, getting lost on a road trip only to find myself driving along “Rita’s Way”, the cashier’s nametag at the supermarket, the protagonist in my daughter’s bedtime story—the list goes on.
Old gifts from her seemed to materialize when I needed them; a whisk when I was making muffins, a silver guardian angel token when I was feeling anxious and lost, a hand-written grocery list slipping out of a cookbook when I feared my memory of her everyday existence was fading. I even had dreams that felt like visitations rather than fantastical weavings of the subconscious mind. We’re standing in the corner of the kitchen laughing, or driving in the car talking about normal, mundane things (Should I get bangs? I’d like you to ask me before you borrow my clothes. Want to go for a walk later? Let’s go get a coffee downtown.)
My inscrutable, earthly, visceral grief and the sometimes esoteric, “beyond me”, teachings of Buddhism and Vedic philosophy had begun to converge. It was liberating to realize that I didn’t have to choose one over the other. I could be the heartbroken daughter with a face of tears smushed into the pillow and the daughter to saw her mother everywhere, as an infinite, free, truly joyful spirit.
I went through a similar process of unraveling when my brother shot himself. Once again, but perhaps even more dramatically, the very foundation I stood upon crumbled fiercely and unapologetically. Any final string tying me to the illustrious idea that the world is made of love and we are all one, and everything is played out in the precise way it’s meant to was dangerously frayed.
A year later, while the piercing sadness and pained confusion linger in my heart, familiar signs from the beyond are, once again, coming to light. An old email from him shows up out of nowhere on the day I need it most, I meet eyes with a man downtown who looks so much like him and I get a wink, Facebook reminds me that two years ago he tagged me in a music video dedicated to me and my “yoga posse”, I find a pile of his clothes at my dad’s house and the fibers carry the smell of his warm, still alive, and moving body.
I don’t have it all figured out. Nope, not even close. But I do believe that to be Gone, Gone, Gone beyond Gone utterly beyond is not to be gone forever. Perhaps the beyond is a place where we simply exist in a different way. Maybe to be gone from here and to cross beyond to the other shore is a journey of true awakening. It’s possible that everybody who has entered the beyond is watching all of us here on earth spin in circles and play out our dramas and our joys, explore our wants and needs, love and heartbreak while they indulge in bon bons and laugh with an ease and delight we have yet to know.
I think that the veil separating the world as we (think we) know it and the world(s) beyond is thin and permeable. I believe it’s important for all of us to constantly be looking beyond; beyond seeing things at face value, beyond our own assumptions and prejudices, beyond our own limiting patterns of thought, and beyond even that which we see as real. Because when we do look deeper, we make ourselves more receptive to that which lies beyond.