We spend most of our lives trying to find some solid ground, clinging onto things, people and ideas as if by clinging we can defeat the moving hands of time. Impermanence brings about change, loss, gain, growth, life and death. It is reflected in the changing seasons of nature, the life cycles of humans, the birth and death of stars, and the rising and setting of the sun and moon and even the constant flux of our body on the atomic and subatomic level . The Buddha points out that the very causes that have given rise to something, such as our life, have created the mechanism, or the seed, for that thing’s eventual end. Nothing could be more futile than devoting time and energy trying to make permanent, things which are by nature impermanent. However, there is some value in our pointless struggle. Trying to get lasting security teaches us a lot, because if we never try to do it, we never notice that it can’t be done. (When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron)
Our ego longs for security, because it carries with it a deep seated sense of incompleteness, of not being whole. This manifests as a feeling of not being worthy, which leads to the constant pursuit of things to fill this empty space. We try to fill the emptiness with possessions, relationships, power, recognition. For a brief moment, these acquisitions might make us feel better, but this relief is fleeting. No matter how much we attain, the emptiness is still there. None of these things can ever fill the hole. (Eckhart Tolle, the Power of Now). The cure for the emptiness is not outside us. And in reality, the cure is not inside us either, but that is where peace can be found when we learn to honor, but not fear, impermanence. The beauty of this is that once this peace is found, all those acquisitions we worked so hard for can finally truly be enjoyed! Once your inner dependency on form is gone, things, people, or conditions that you thought you needed for your happiness now come to you with no struggle or effort on your part, and you are free to enjoy and appreciate them while they last.
The truth of impermanence can also help us navigate difficult times. Another merry-go-round we often find ourselves on is the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure. Impermanence teaches us that both these states do not last forever. In the words of Maria Rainer Rilke “No feeling is final.” This can be comforting when we are in the throes of a painful experience, knowing that it won’t last forever allows us to soften to the experience, use it to wake up to ourselves and others, and create in us the capacity for greater joy in the future. Then we can be fully present in our joy, knowing that although happiness is impermanent because it is contingent on external circumstances, joy comes from within and can withstand the winds of change.
Our fear of impermanence stems from our fear of death, and is reflected in a fear of the unknown. We may be unique among species in being aware of our mortality. Death is a universal experience, and yet in Western culture we do everything we can to avoid thinking about or dealing with death. In other cultures, it is viewed as a right of passage. The elderly live with and are cared for by members of the family. Even after death, their bodies are prepared by and ceremonially laid to rest by people who knew them and cared for them in life. In the West, we stash our elderly away where we can’t see them. Many of us don’t know the smell, sights and sounds of death. Death is not regarded as a teacher with whom to spend time, but as something to be avoided at all costs. Of course, we can try and avoid death all we want, but it comes for us all, and visits us throughout the course of our life in the form of the “small deaths” of impermanence.
In order to get comfortable with impermanence, for over 2500 years, Buddhists have intentionally contemplated death, and studied the question of how one can best live in the presence of death. Plato told his students, “Practice dying.” St. Benedict famously said “Keep death before your eyes.” The Christian Monks of medieval Europe ritually whispered to one another “Memento Mori” (Remember death). Buddhist sutra tells us, “Of all footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Of all meditations, that on death is supreme.” There are many Buddhist meditations on death. Some even instruct you to graphically visualize dying, death and decomposition. These practices may seem morbid at first glance, and even scary or depressing to the unpracticed. However, the contemplation of death brings a life-affirming perspective. Each moment assumes an air of preciousness. We feel more grateful for the time and possessions we do have, and we are more motivated to share and communicate feelings of appreciation and love. Like all fears, the fear of death grows in the shadows, so looking at it can bring clarity to our priorities and help us get comfortable with impermanence.
If you have ever had a life threatening illness, or know someone who has, you will know that it strips away all the trappings of life. We are left naked -- only “me” with my in-breath and out-breath in this moment. This state is raw, elemental and pure. Things that previously seemed important, no longer do. And things that previously seemed unimportant, take center stage. We can spend some time learning how to navigate the death of a loved one, or our own inevitable demise, so that it becomes a natural right of passage. By studying how to die well, we can learn how to live well. These practices are “Upaya” - sanskrit for “skillful means” - techniques we can use to be more skillful in our living and our dying through training our heart and mind.
In her book Being with Dying: Cultivated Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death, Joan Halifax sets forth Three Tenets for being with dying, which apply equally to being with transformation (“little deaths”). They are based on the “Three Tenets” which Roshi Bernie Glassman wrote as a basis for peacemaking. The Tenets reveal how to be present with our own death, or how to be present with someone who is dying. Keep in mind, we are all in the process of dying, so these tenets are relevant all the time.
Not Knowing. We must give up fixed ideas about ourselves and others and inhabit our beginner’s mind. We have so many questions about death that will never be answered until it happens. How will it feel? Where will I go? Will I be missed? In asking these questions, our “not-knowing” is born, which is the first phase of this rite of passage. This is the nature of dying -- letting go into the unknown, casting off our moorings, and opening to the vastness of who we really are. Joan Halifax suggests a journaling exercise of writing out the answer to the question “What is your worst case scenario of how you will die?” Be sure to notice how your body feels and what is coming up for you as you answer, and make a note of that too. Then answer a second question “How do you really want to die?” And write down your reflections on your answer as well. In Joan Halifax’ experience, ⅓ of people wanted to die in their sleep. Many want to die alone and in peace, or in nature. Only a few wanted to die in a hospital. A violent and random death seemed to be of the worst possibilities. Dying painlessly, and with spiritual support and a sense of meaning seemed to be the best possibility. Then ask yourself “What are you willing to do to die the way you want to die?” We go through a lot to educate ourselves for a vocation, or take a lot of time to take care of our bodies or invest in relationships. So how much time are we willing to devote to preparing for the possibility of a sane and gentle death? Keep in mind, that no amount of preparation can put us in control of the time and manner of our death. Each death is unique. Perhaps you know someone who laid out an elaborate birth plan, only to have an experience of childbirth unlike anything they imagined. The preparation we do is not to control our physical experience, but to prepare our surroundings, ourselves and our support system to be present. We can apply this to caregiving situations. Having expectations about how someone should die doesn’t help anyone. We must give up this notion of a “good death,” or that we will have any idea what it will look like. These rites of passage like childbirth and death are the ultimate teachers of relinquishing control.
Bearing Witness. Often when we are in the presence of suffering we feel that silence and stillness aren’t good enough, and we feel compelled to do something -- to talk, console, work, clean, move around, “help.” In reality this may be a way to insulate us from the feelings contained in the moment, and less about helping our dying friend. Instead we can ask him or her what she needs. We can ask ourselves if anything really needs to be said or if there is a kind of intimacy beyond words and actions that we can share. We can listen fully, and even reflect back so they know they are being heard. And we can offer our mindfulness. By giving our deep attention, we can bear witness to the change without resistance, and make the transition more peaceful. Whatever we do as we work with dying people, vow to do it mindfully-- whether we are giving a sponge bath, changing a bedpan, silently sitting with a sick friend, sitting in silence with ourselves. We can be mindful of their physical experience, and our internal reactions to it, making space for everything. Through this intimacy we learn to be present with the suffering and joy in the world, as it is, without judgement or any attachment to the outcome.
Compassionate Action. We often mistakenly think that our practical caregiving skills are all we have to give. Yet our presence born of openness is really the greatest offering we can make. Sometimes we can do things to relieve pain and suffering (kind words, meditation, physical touch, being present) but other times there is nothing that helps. At those times we need to respect the truth of that experience, and be penetrated by it, be present to our own responses, and remember that all suffering and pain are transitory. Take the lead of the person we are accompanying. They will let you know in one way or another what they need. Dealing with the dying can be a messy business, which we aren’t prepared for because we are so insulated from death and dying. Mortality is something we all have in common. Realizing this interconnectedness is the beginning of compassion, and can bring purpose to our suffering. There is a Buddhist metaphor of being a wooden puppet, which at first doesn’t sound very appealing-- who wants to be a puppet? The idea is that the puppet simply responds to the world as it is. There is no self, there is no other. Someone is hungry, food is given. Someone is thirsty, drink is offered. Someone is sleepy, a bed is made. We respond seamlessly without strategy, motivation or thought of outcome. This kind of service may be just what the doctor ordered because it is not infused with expectations of the death being a certain way or with the desire to be a perfect caregiver. There is no good death and no bad death. No self, no other. No one helping, no one being helped.
The practice of contemplating death helps us get comfortable with impermanence and prepares for the big and small deaths that are a part of life. The first step in getting comfortable with impermanence is learning to recognize it. (Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart). There will be many opportunities to recognize impermanence every day -- when our pen runs out of ink, when we lose something precious to us, when a relationship ends or changes. The more we notice it, the more we will begin to see it as a natural part of life, and recognize our ability to navigate it. The second step is keeping in mind the difference between our outer and inner purpose. All outer purposes eventually fail because everything in the material world is not lasting. These purposes are not a source of lasting fulfillment. When we remember our inner purpose --our connection to the divine, our commitment to love and presence -- the ebb and flow of everything else no longer affects us.
We often make the mistake of identifying with our physical body, and with our own set of experiences and beliefs. Just as we are learning to let go of objects, people and even life, we must also let go of our firmly-held ideas. If our ideas create separateness, or if we are met with new information that adds to or contradicts our belief, we must be prepared to let it go or let it grow. We are not defined by our ideas, and our beliefs can change and it doesn’t have to threaten our ego or our sense of self. (Charlotte Kasl, If the Buddha Got Stuck). Similarly, your physical body is not the “real” you. It is a shell that we inhabit for our time on earth. It is our duty to care for it, and regard it as a temple, but at the same time we must recognize that it is subject to disease, old age and death and is not ultimately you. Your essential reality is beyond birth and death.
The secret of life is to “die before you die,” and find that there is no death. So when you face the fear of annihilation, you don’t need to feed it with a storyline. Rather, you can stay present with the quaky, trembly feeling. It’s the same as the instruction for working with emotions. The final key ingredient to overcome fear of the unknown is faith in a benevolent universe. The belief that the world is conspiring in your favor (Pronoia by Rob Brezny) and that whatever divine power exists is rooted in love, not only helps us weather life’s ups and downs, but supports us in staying in the space of “not knowing,” as it relates to life and death.
“We are fragile creatures, and it is from this weakness, not despite it, that we discover the possibility of true joy.” - Desmond Tutu
**For further reading check out the following books, which informed this article: Being with Dying: Cultivated compassion and fearlessness in the presence of death, by Joan Halifax, When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, Eckhart Tolle, the Power of Now, If the Buddha Got Stuck by Charlotte Kasl, and Pronoia by Rob Brezny.