On Impermanence and Death
Now there's a cheery subject matter. Actually it may not be cheery to contemplate death, but I do think its necessary and indeed can be comforting or even liberating. As ever, I can only ever give my thoughts and perspectives on situations that are or have been relevant to myself.
Where do we start? The Buddhists have been teaching us the necessity of understanding impermanence since Buddhism began. Thich Naht Hanh tells us "It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not." It is the attachment to people, things or outcomes that really mess us up as human beings. Once we actually get the realisation of this then we can begin to work our way through to understanding non-attachment, seeing it not as a cold approach to life and people, but as a true way to enjoy the present moment. Whatever it holds. So how do we explore this and change the way we live?
As humans many of us develop habits of cravings and aversions, never actually putting ourselves in a situation of allowing whatever is happening to just happen. Here's a few examples. We go on holiday to a great place. The sun is shining, the food is great, the people we meet are charming. We are relaxed and happy because we let ourselves live that moment without the stresses and strains of normal life getting in the way. We are allowed to have this holiday and we deserve it and enjoy it incredibly. The problem comes when we leave the holiday. We go home, there's been a leak in the water pipes, the weather is dreadful, there is no food in the fridge and you are starving and you have to go to work in the morning. Hmmm. What a change. We went from experiencing the bliss of the present moment on a beach somewhere without a care in the world, to experiencing this present moment of flooded house, no food, bad weather and deadlines to meet at work. Where is the joy in that? We spend the next few weeks at working wishing we were back on the beach, on permanent holiday of course with all the finances in place to secure that. We spend the next several months at work, getting annoyed with people, hating the rain, waiting for payday so we can pay all our bills and maybe have enough left to go out with friends at the end of it. Doesn't seem fair right?
What happened was we developed a craving for the holiday experience. We saw ourselves in that shining moment and liked what we were. It was fabulous. We want more of it. We NEED more of it. We are then miserable because the actual present moment looks nothing like that so we suffer. We hate our boss, we despise the rain, the rent is too high in the apartment we share with annoying people and we don't have enough time to get to our favorite yoga class. So then all of that in turn creates an aversion. Everything we don't want and that we are experiencing now we want to AVOID and so leads to suffering.
Cravings and aversions, in Buddhism, are the very acts that lead to suffering. The only way out of this suffering is to be and continue to be in the present moment. There is, of course nowhere else we can be. We are neither future nor past in reality and whatever IS right NOW is all there is. Again, the suffering comes when we are unable to accept that on an intellectual level. Our bodies, emotions and psyche are able to digest this, our minds have a tendency to over-think any present moment insisting we move forward towards something or sit in the past in a place that felt comfortable for us or even uncomfortable. This in turn leads once more to a craving or aversion. An example. You are sitting in meditation. Your mind begins to drift to a point in time just before the meditation when you had an argument with your boyfriend. You stew over this point in your mind for several minutes, creating sentences in your head of all you should have said when he said that thing, and experiencing a feeling of gathering annoyance at how unjustified that point he made was etc etc. Before you know it you spent the whole time sitting and stewing over a time that had already past and was no longer relevant to your life as it is NOW. You missed your chance to observe the present moment by sitting in the past with an aversion. The peace you wished to create is lost. Another time in meditation, your mind wanders towards your stomach. You feel a rumbling in the belly and your mind begins to conjure up pictures of this tasty sandwich and that delicious pudding you will devour the moment you have finished your meditation. You have craved a future situation so much that once again you missed the present.
Having sat for 2 vipassana meditations what materialises (along with the vast array of mental carnage that appears during the course of 10 days in silence) is the absolute necessity to remain present. The vipassana method was taught to the world by the Buddha as a method to end the suffering of cravings and aversions through the observation of the present moment. What is taught is equanimity through anicca (ah-ni-cha). Anicca is the observation of change by noticing what is happening on a physical level throughout the body during a meditation. It is a long and difficult process, I cannot lie, of 10 days of silence and around 10 hours of meditation each day. It is grueling, confrontational, uncomfortable and bloody exhausting. But what happens over this time is an awareness of change. Without going into the details of the method - you really need to experience it yourself to understand it - you begin to understand that whatever arises passes; whatever is created is destroyed; whatever you perceived as pleasure in one instance can be pain next and vice versa. The key being to sit in the middle of all of that and accept this wonderful impermanence of everything without wishing it were different. Because it IS just as it IS so why try to change that when it will inevitably change anyway. Once you have sat a vipassana meditation you can feel a sense of being reborn into the world with new eyes. Of course it is different for everyone and different every time because of course everything is. On a personal level I felt it to be liberating and gave me the tool of acceptance.
So this nicely (ironically) leads me to death. Another subject that is difficult to deal with because, of course, we have developed an aversion to our own impermanence. What a conundrum. Not only do we have to deal with aversions but to our aversion to impermanence. We humans are born into this world almost with a feeling of invincibility and act in many ways, like life will just go on and on. We know this not to be true, but for the most part, this is not something we wish to dwell on or discuss at length with most people. "Hey Jane, how are you? Have you thought about your funerals recently?" In the same way that accepting impermanence can be liberating, accepting the inevitability of our own death can be a comfort. Not macabre or dark, but actually light and joyful. Of course, if we understand that everything changes, then of course we understand that life itself must change. And through understanding anicca - everything that arises, passes - so then must we. For in the end we are only vibration, materialising as matter (or something too scientific for me to get into). But what I am trying to get to is the joy of knowing that we are not here forever. This can transform us into beings of such presence that we can accept every moment to be just as it is. We do not always have to enjoy that moment, but we must accept it We do not have to enjoy the pain of being at the dentist, but we can accept that this will pass and something else will occur afterwards. As it must.
My recent experience with death was having to have my cat put to sleep. Some might say "she was only a cat" but what I found surprising was the waves of emotions that crashed over me at this time. I experienced incredible sadness, guilt and loss manifesting in tears and grief. I had not expected this to affect me so much, but it did. I did not enjoy it, but neither did I suppress it nor create an aversion to it. I allowed myself to experience it in total until the enormity of it passed and I was left with acceptance. I am still processing thoughts of guilt and loss over this small ball of feisty fur that was her personality and for however long this goes on for I will allow myself to feel whatever I am feeling. But knowing that this passing, this death is an inevitability is a comfort. Knowing and accepting that this will come to everything in my life in some shape or form is not always easy, but I will handle that dis-ease as best I can when I have to. Most of all. seeing the rose bush underneath which I buried the cat, come to life with such an explosion of life in the reddest, fragrant, rosiest flowers has brought me a sense of continuation of life and energy. And a sweetness in remembering.
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Wendy Buttery - Yoga Teacher, retreat centre facilitator, cat lover, sun worshipper, nature loving meditator.