“It’s heartbreaking, now, to see so clearly how we get in the way of our own happiness when death is just some distant possibility for us.”
A good friend of mine received the news that her cancer was incurable. “You know what, “she told me, “this ain’t so bad after all. It could be worse!” Seriously? What could be worse than being told that one’s cancer is incurable? Her attitude astounded me. She must have registered the surprise written on my face. “I finally have to stop running away from life, and this is,” she continued with a warm smile, ‘” such a relief!”
When we realize our days are finite, everything, absolutely everything - suddenly and shockingly - comes into a sharp, piercingly clear focus. Life, relationships, priorities, meaning.
In a society still ill at ease with the realities of dying and death, it is no wonder that we keep death at bay. It is the last thing we want to consider. Death is something that happens to other people, not us. Also, when it happens, it will be, we hope, far in the distant future.
Death is real. We all will die; we don’t know when and how. Though we may understand this truth intellectually, it is infinitely more difficult to relate to it personally, to connect it with a sense of reality for ourselves. Even after years of accompanying friends and patients during their last months, weeks or days, I still catch myself thinking, “if I die” not “when I die.” Denial runs deep, doesn’t it?
Once or twice a year, I guide a retreat on the challenging and personal topic of making friends with death. Once a year, I lead a retreat on the breathtakingly beautiful and rugged west coast of Ireland at the Dzogchen Beara Meditation Centre.
People tend come from vastly different backgrounds, and their age ranges from the early twenties to mid-eighties. In the beginning, people often share the fear that looking at death will be morbid, depressing, just too painful, or even hasten their actual demise. It is tremendously helpful to shed light on these fears and beliefs; however ‘irrational’ they may turn out to be. Through examining our assumptions and getting in touch with our deeply held beliefs, they slowly lose their firm hold on us, and we can begin to see the real situation. During the retreat, people experience, to their surprise, that contemplating the reality of death can be inspiring and liberating, even joyful.
Some years ago, I met a young woman who shortly afterward got diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Before her death, she wrote a moving letter to her friends and community. I like to share her message during these retreats. She writes, “I would never have chosen this journey. Nonetheless, I find myself filled with gratitude for the clarity and freedom embracing it has brought me. It’s heartbreaking, now, to see so clearly how we get in the way of our own happiness when death is just some distant possibility for us. We try so hard to maintain and defend ourselves, spending so much of our energy and missing so much of life trying to hide from the fact that death is real.
Until we are fortunate enough to awaken to this truth, we tenaciously live in denial of the one thing that, if embraced, brings us real freedom. As I look around with new eyes, it seems to be a common experience most of us share . . . I invite you to start practicing with impermanence. Take the reality of death to heart. Let it pierce you. If you can open and surrender to your own mortality and vulnerability, you will discover a fundamental, unconditional source of strength and confidence.”
I invite you to start practicing with impermanence. This is a poignant invitation. One that will be wasted if we wait too long to accept. I like to invite you also to start practicing impermanence, even in small ways. Try it out for one day, two days or a week and explore what happens. There is no right or wrong way of doing it. Hold this practice lightly and with great kindness and gentleness towards whatever you’ll find.
I use an app on my phone aptly called WeCroak. Five times a day it reminds you of death. These reminders come at random times during the day. Short quotes from writers and thinkers. Most of them are well chosen, and there are few odd ones in between that make me scratch my head wondering how they relate to the topic. In any case, these reminders make me stop in the midst of what I am doing. They put the small stuff into a much vaster perspective.
You can use such an app to practice impermanence, go on retreat, if you can, or just think about it a couple times during the day. Embracing impermanence is practicing kindness. Embracing impermanence, we have the chance to appreciate and celebrate what we already have, and see what gets in the way of our own happiness.
Kirsten DeLeo is author of Present Through The End. A Caring Companion’s Guide To Accompanying The Dying. Available now!