Mayflies live their entire adult lives during only a few hours or perhaps up to three earth days. They belong to an entire order of insects, Ephemeroptera, which means lasting a day in Greek.
Pumpkin pies also usually last only a few hours or up to perhaps a couple or three earth days (depending on how many are baked and how many are eating them).
With these and so many examples of #impermanence surrounding us, how is it that we can be so surprised when someone leaves us through choice, accident or death? We ask, “Why?” as if there would an answer different than this, just for us, just for this occasion: “because everything ends.”
Why are we so caught up in our illusions of continuation that we neglect to recognize the preciousness of each moment, each hour, each day we inhabit these fragile, ephemeral bodies? We meet, greet, hang out with friends, family, colleagues, groups of loved ones and leave without realizing that one or more of us may never see one another again in these bodies, in this lifetime.
I am struck at this time of year especially by how much we take for granted, how many of our days we deny the temporary nature of the license any of us has to go on living. I feel lucky that, as a #Buddhist, I intentionally spend a part of each day in an integral part of my practice reciting and recalling the truth of impermanence. We do this whether we are #Zen, #Theravadan, #Vipassana, #Mayahana, Vajrayana or non-sectarian practitioners.
Impermanence is one of the key concepts we learn as beginning students of #Buddhism and we contemplate it repeatedly: everything is impermanent and bound to die. Everything that exists ends. Everyone who is born dies. Nothing earthly lasts. No one escapes this fate. Relationships, jobs, activities, emotions, diseases, meals, sexual encounters, pleasures and pains of all descriptions eventually end.
I am in a state of melancholy. I am ebullient and filled with hope. I am curious. I am anxious. I love. I fear. I receive. I give. I end.
During my mini-#retreat I begin each day with the Ngöndro, the preliminary practices for #Vajrayana #Nyingma #Tibetan #Buddhist #meditation. These practices themselves begin with “The Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind,” and one of these is the contemplation on impermanence.
The way this contemplation affects me has changed over the the 17 years I’ve done this practice daily. At first, I was resistant, looking for the loophole. Maybe everyone ELSE dies, but I will not. Maybe YOUR relationship, YOUR job, YOUR life ends, but MINE continues. On and on, denial after denial, to the point of absurdity.
At one point, some friends and I joked that one of us was the “designated dier,” meaning, the one we chose would die on all of our behalves so that the rest of us, i.e., we, would not have to die. We volunteered D. He objected, but we prevailed. We kept telling him this for many years. Luckily, he’s still alive, so I do not feel guilty about this. However, I do remember feeling a tremendous sense of relief that the group had not chosen me to be the designated dier; I do feel guilty about that relief.
Regardless of anyone’s guilt or innocence, being chosen or not, D could not take my place or anyone else’s. We all die.
More than many people I know, I have lost friends and relatives to death, starting when I was 7 years old and was with one of my great-grandmothers when she died while getting dressed. Since I didn’t know she had died at the time, I was not afraid, merely puzzled that she would choose to lie back on her bed to take a nap while putting on her stockings.
When I was given to understand that she had died, I realized that I hadn’t been scared because there had been nothing frightening or startling in her death. One minute, she was talking with me (in Yiddish), putting on her clothes. The next minute, she stopped talking, laid back, her stockings in her hands, and was silent, the stockings resting on her body. No clutching at her heart or head, no screams or moans. Just gone.
While the dozens of others who have died around or right in front of me did not go so silently or easily, I still do not find death frightening. Sad, often. Feeling sorrow and compassion for those in pain or suffering, surely. But afraid? No. I often miss the person who dies for many months or years, grieving with great sobs, laughing and reminiscing about those I yearn to see again.
But, I never think: “Oh, why did s/he die?” I know the answer.
We all die.
The best any of us can hope for is to appreciate one another while we are alive. So, this is what I try to do. I tell people I’m grateful. I say “I love you.” I give them what I can of mine: time, stories, gifts, resources, help, support, encouragement. I let them know often, not just when they’re sick or I’m in pain, how much they mean to me.
Many call me “sappy,” or “sentimental.” I prefer to view my actions as realistic. We truly never know when we are going to die, which of our loved ones will die and when, between one visit or encounter and the next. Not knowing this, I treasure each call, each visit, each email, even when I don’t tell them this.
What else can we do? You tell me. Comment here. And, go tell someone you love that you love them. Again.