The Great Matter of Life and Death
I’ve written a lot about impermanence and cause and effect over the last year. I’ve said that there is no escape from these two aspects of the human condition–an idea many of you have resisted (and, I might add, I’m not surprised–resisting these two conditions seems to be what human beings do).
Over the New Year’s holiday someone posted the following comment about how he had personally responded to my remarks about this topic. Rather than just post my answer under his post, as I often do, I’ve decided that this is important enough to warrant a separate post.
Though this is quite short, I think it will really give you something to think about.
THE COMMENT: I think I may have taken some of your advice too closely, or used it in the wrong way. I took what you said about impermanence and said, ‘If I’m happy I can’t enjoy being happy because it’s impermanent and will go away’… which keeps me from being happy when I notice it. It’s quite strange, and like I’m waiting for something to let me go ‘full happy’. Except if I ever noticed that I was on ‘full happy’ I might say, ‘hey stop that’. –James
You’re experiencing your own resistance to the fact that everything is impermanent–which, unfortunately, is what quite a bit of the human response to life ends up being about. If you go back and read the posts where I talk about impermanence (“News Flash: There’s No Escape”, “Where are You Going–And Why”, “Seeing Things the Way They Really Are, Parts 1-3”–and several others) you’ll notice that I’ve outlined many of the human activities, philosophies, and ideas that are are derived from our attempts to put off, defeat, or deny impermanence (these include magical thinking, including beliefs in some sort of afterlife, attempts to defeat aging by following certain health regimens (wacky or otherwise), trying to accumulate a lot of money, trying to become more powerful, attempts to develop various “powers”, etc).
Impermanence freaks people out, and our own impermanence freaks us out even more than the impermanence of the people and things we’re attached to.
Particularly up until a certain developmental stage people have a lot of trouble acknowledging their own impermanence (see my series of posts on human developmental levels starting at the beginning of this blog). This is why humans have created so many explanations for what supposedly happens after death–it somehow makes it easier if we pretend that the end of our separate self isn’t really an end. One sign of spiritual maturity is the ability to acknowledge and deal with our own impermanence–plus an acknowledgement of something else humans don’t want to admit: that no one really knows what’s really going on, why we’re here, what it’s all about, how it started, where it’s going, etc.
In terms of our own death, we’re talking about the impermanence of the separate self created by our brain/mind–our IDEA of who we are. I’ve extensively written about the fact that the separate self is just an idea, and that there are no separate things or events except in the mind. Separate things and events are merely ideas about reality–handy ideas, to be sure, but still, they are just ideas. There is really just one thing-event (for want of a better word): the entire interconnected going on of it all. The mind chops this one thing-event into many, and then assumes that if many things and many events exist in the mind they must also exist “out there.” This is what some call “mistaking the map for the territory.”
When the brain/mind that creates these ideas comes to an end, so do the ideas–including the idea (and consciousness) of “me.” Certainly the one thing-event, the entire going on of it all, continues, and the atoms that made up what you thought of as “me” continue to be a part of the whole. In fact, during the entire time that you’re being a “me” there is a constant flow of atoms into and out of “you”. You are an ever-changing pattern or “whirlpooling” of matter and energy, with constant input and output. In this way you are connected to, an aspect of, the whole. This is why I say that the universe is one interconnected thing-event.
We don’t like it that our idea of “me” ends, though. We’re quite attached to it, and its impending end freaks us out. We think we ARE this idea–again, the mistaking of the map for the territory. My last three posts were about how when we go into chaos and reorganize we resist the temporary end of the old me as a reorganization at a higher level is creating a new me. A time comes, however, when this reorganization can’t happen. Entropy takes over. The brain/mind dies, and all its ideas cease to exist, including the idea of “me.”
What I’m advocating is an acknowledgement of WHAT IS–including the fact that everything is impermanent. Despite what you might think, this acknowledgment creates a profound sense of freedom, spiritually and otherwise. Even when people use the strategies I mentioned (and some I didn’t list) to not acknowledge impermanence, they still suffer from an underlying fear of it. Impermanence becomes a shadow, a disowned aspect of being human (I’ve also written quite a bit about shadows on this blog, should you care to peruse the library of past posts).
Shadows express themselves despite the fact that they’ve been disowned, despite our attempts to push them out of our awareness. Their expression, though, when disowned, is dysfunctional, delusional, and immature. It creates suffering, both for the person doing the disowning and for others. Much of human suffering and cruelty is, in fact, related to the expression of this shadow.
I suspect that no one, no matter how “spiritually advanced,” becomes entirely comfortable with the fact that his or her life will end. However, when a spiritually mature person acknowledges and makes his or her peace with impermanence, a great deal of the related shadow problems disappear and are replaced with a profound sense of peace, compassion for others, and greater mastery of life–the qualities you see in great spiritual masters.
In James’ feeling that he can’t enjoy anything because it’s all impermanent anyway, I think he may be experiencing Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief regarding his own impermanence. Going through these stages is part of the process of becoming spiritually mature. The most esoteric training of spiritual paths that deal with this question–sometimes referred to as “the great matter of life and death”–are, in effect, methods for moving through something akin to these stages–though the process isn’t always framed in this exact way.
It’s a bit self-defeating, though, to say that since everything ends there’s no value in experiencing it. This is why many spiritual traditions talk about “being in the moment” or suggest that you “be here, now” instead of mentally being in the future, when what’s happening now (and, in an ultimate sense, you) will have ended. When you’re just being here, now, the fear of impermanence has no hold on you. In fact, the now moment becomes much more significant, and much more alive.
Some people say that it’s better to just “have faith”–in effect, to believe that impermanence isn’t real. Everyone is, of course, free to do that, and many people do. Isn’t it interesting, though, that among the most revered humans in history are great spiritual masters who have made their peace with impermanence? Those who look reality (one significant aspect of which is impermanence) in the eye and make their peace with it seem to share certain rare qualities–they exude power, equanimity, poise, peace, and compassion.
You sometimes see these qualities in a person with a terminal illness who, after moving through the stages of grief, finally comes to terms with the fact that they are dying. Family, friends, and caretakers often report feeling what some call “a contact high” from being around such a person, and are often in awe as this person goes through his or her death process.
I’m not sure what advice to give about this question, as it isn’t something easy to explain in a few paragraphs. My own coming to peace regarding this matter, to whatever degree I’ve done that, has been the result of forty-plus years of meditation and many years of work with various teachers, culminating in my association with Genpo Roshi these last few years. Not many people make their peace with impermanence. It’s much easier–or at least it seems so–to avoid the question.
To make your peace with life–and death–you have to look it squarely in the eye, which I think you’re beginning to do, James. That you noticed your response and were able to step back and comment on it shows a higher level of awareness on your part. So, keep going. Sit with this question of life and death until it loses its hold on you.
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