The emotions caught me off guard. I wasn’t expecting them, particularly during a meditation class. I had no realization this was something about which I felt so deeply. I sat with forty or fifty others in the Buddhist meditation hall. The leader guided us in meditation to consider the ways we are attached to things that bring us suffering. As he spoke, we were reminded of ways that people value wealth and possessions, power and influence, or position and reputation. As he went through the list, I thought about the ways I value having nice things and receiving respect from others. He reminded us that all things we’re attached to will pass from our lives. One day, they will all be gone. If our happiness is based on them, what becomes of our happiness?
That’s when an overwhelming sadness welled up within me. Tears began to stream down my face. My emotional response had nothing to do with my worldly possessions, accomplishments, or the esteem of others. Instead, the awareness came to me that one day I would lose what I valued so much: my relationship with a spouse, my companion and friend.
The truth is that I’m not much bothered by my own death. I recognize that life has been very good to me. But for ten years, I’ve shared my life with another. I simply don’t want it to ever end. Recognizing that I am the older person, I know that I am likely to die first. The thought of leaving my beloved and not seeing life continue to unfold was simply overwhelming.
During the break between sessions, I spoke with one of the other participants. She noticed I had a strong reaction to the meditation. As I tried to put words around my experience, she said that she too was struck by her mortality – even though the leader never drew us to consider that our lives would end.
Over the last few days I’ve sat with these feelings. I’ve tried to understand them, particularly in light of the Buddhist teaching of impermanence. It’s a simple lesson found in other great spiritual traditions. Every thing is always in a state of flux. Every thing that exists is changing. What is today will be different tomorrow. When we try to hold onto what is now, we are only left with frustration because it will change. That’s the nature of the lives we lead.
We are impermanent. We are here today but will be gone on some tomorrow. We can’t know for sure what lies ahead of us. We do not know whether our time as human beings will be long or short. Because of this essential truth of human existence, our happiness and fulfillment are only real when we live in a way that affirms the present moment within the context of our transitory lives.
Of course, it is inevitable that the things we cherish now will one day fade away. We ourselves will also fade from life as we know it. No matter what deep convictions we may hold about life after this life, we can’t know for certain what is to come. What I know for certain is that the happiness I find today as a partner in a relationship will inevitably come to an end.
I’ll admit: I haven’t come to full acceptance of this limitation. But I’m finding some consolation in something that another friend once said to me in a very different context.
About twenty years ago, one of my long-time friends got caught up in drugs. At some point, we had a serious conversation and I asked him why. He said, “I want to experience everything there is to experience.” As he was hitting bottom, I took him for a weekend trip in Northern California. There, he had the opportunity to climb rocky shores, watch whales in the distance, and walk among redwood trees. I told him that this was part of my version of experiencing everything there is to experience.
Now, in a very different context, I am renewing this affirmation. I want to experience everything I can. That will include one day passing from this life to something I really can’t know. It will be the experience of leaving behind everything and everyone behind that I have come to cherish. But just as I have come to understand life as profoundly good, I trust that I will discover a goodness in my own impermanence – a goodness I can’t begin to understand today.
Indeed, all of life – and our lives, in particular – continue to change. Nothing stays the same. It’s all impermanent. By affirming this aspect of the nature of all things, we have the opportunity to appreciate and experience gratitude for everything we experience in this present moment.