Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Holding On to Impermanence

If you bring up the pervasiveness of impermanence for all life on the planet everyone nods in agreement. But do we really get it?

In the earth-based spirituality in which I trained and taught we talk about “making Death the Ally” -ie- allowing an awareness of impermanence and mortality to help us value life and live fully. But it’s hard to hold this awareness close when you're young or healthy or living in a culture with so much of everything. Seeing my parents’ struggle with what most would say was not an unpredictable development (my father has advanced Alzheimer's and has recently had to go into a secure care facility) I wonder why we find it so difficult to grasp the reality of impermanence even as we say we know that change is the only constant. When my mother (referring to my father’s need for care she cannot provide) said, “Who could have seen this coming?” I wanted to say (but didn’t) “Everyone! Anyone! All of us!”

It seems to be a species propensity, this ability to deny the probable if not inevitable unfolding reality. After all, who could have predicted that building nuclear reactors on fault lines would put life at risk of exposure to radioactivity? Everyone. Who could have foreseen that propping up despotic dictators would impede local democracy or result in civilian deaths when stirrings for justice and freedom arose? Anyone. Who could guess that dumping toxic chemicals into the earth and air and water would cause death and destruction for humans and other species? All of us.

I am stunned by our ability to ignore the truth when the truth is hard. Driving home from my parents, I really got it: old age and death is where we are all headed (if we are fortunate enough not to die young) no matter how we live. That’s right- whether or not we eat well, exercise diligently, are blatant materialists or focused on spiritual matters; whether or not we get everything on our to-do list done; whether or not we make or disparage to-do lists- it is where we are all going. Just let that sink in for a minute, let it shift your perspective on what you think you need to do or who you think you need to be.

I’m not saying that the quality of our lives is not shaped by how we live. To a large degree it is, although this remains in many ways unpredictable. Diseases like Alzheimer’s can strike anyone and profoundly shape the quality of life. But the ultimate destination- old age and death- is not a punishment for not getting it "right." It’s just the reality for all living things- including human beings- on this planet. And this is true whether or not you believe death is The End or a transition into a different state of being. Pretending that death is not the end of the human life we know reminds me of a woman in the birthing class I attended when I was pregnant with my second son (who was twelve pounds ten ounces at birth.) She suggested that if we called labour contractions “sensations” instead of "pains" they might not hurt as much. Ha!

In moments of clarity, when I accept Death as an Ally, I wonder at our timidity, our worry, our endless weighing of possibilities, our fears about and suffering over many of the choices we make. The denial of death paradoxically seems to lead to an almost casual disregard for the predictably dire environmental consequences of large decisions, but endless anxiety around smaller, unpredictable changes in our personal lives. We seem to perpetually sweat the (relatively) small stuff and sprinkle the big stuff with the fairy dust of denial.

And all of this makes me wonder where I’m not living fully who I am, where I am putting in time, waiting for something hoped for or unnameable, where I am allowing the small stuff to distract me from this moment, this breath, this life and all it asks of me. I shake my head at the wasted energy of holding onto hurt from past injustices, the missed opportunities to be kind to myself and others, the failure to greet each day as the gift it is.

Driving home from my parents’ I spoke out loud as I drove down the highway, addressing my soul and the Mystery that is larger than myself, saying, “Speak to me. Direct me.” And I recommited to listening and following what comes from that which is deeply sacred within me and around me, without hesitation or timidity or worries about where it might take me.

It’s not that I’ve never done this before. I have and continue to do this regularly. But with the changes in my parents’ lives the reality of our mortality has become vivid for me again, in a deeper way. And with Death as the Ally, the questions, the listening, the courage to follow the impulse when it comes from the soul becomes, if not easier to heed, harder to ignore. I don’t want to be surprised when death comes, not because I have any fantasy of control, but because I want to arrive in that moment having spent myself completely on living fully committed to Life, holding close the reality of how impermanent it all is and, as poet Mary Oliver writes- “When the time comes to let it go- to let it go.”


  1. I was diagnosed with cancer, at age 54, 3 months ago. My entire view of life has altered. I no longer sweat the small stuff. The number of my days may, or may not, be less than those for which I hoped. My beloved husband and I have ceased saying 'One day we will...', if we can we get out and do it there and then. Who knows if we will have a chance, one day. Oriah, I love your writing. My favourite is The Invitation. I am blogging my journey through the impermanence.

  2. Thank you, Oriah.

    I myself have been thinking about this in these very days.

    I've recognized that by turning my attention to spirituality I was partly trying to shield myself from life.
    I've tried to create my reality by focusing on remaining "on high levels of vibration" - on a very false premise: the fear of the unknown, the desire of controlling outer circumstances. The motto was: "If I keep on being happy enough, only good things can happen". Ehehe!

    Also, spirituality has been long the excuse to force me to squeeze the eyes in front of the miseries of my fellows human beings ("well, on some level they have choosen it") and death ("well, in the end it is only a rite of passage").

    Truth is: it is not easy to stay in fear and uncertainty.
    It is not easy to accept that some things are as they are, without knowing the reasons for them to be so.
    It is not easy to accept that some things will simply happen; that no matter how good a student of the Universe I am, no matter if I act better than my fellow human beings, if I more compassionate, caring, respectful of nature... I won't get any special reward in the end. I will carry my burdens as everyone else does, I will be exposed and vulnerable many times in my lifetime - and yes, I will die, too.

    This month I am facing some challenges, there are changes to be made. And here it is - uncertainty, again - pressing on my chest.
    And I have to smile: there is no way my being spiritual will protect me from being exposed to live, nor save me (for I already am saved), nor grant me happy outcomes.
    And it's ok.
    I'm sitting down with my inner child, and hold her by hand. I'm not going to leave me alone.
    I will turn to my Higher Self not to obtain a false sense of security about the outcomes of the present circumstances, but to remember my name, and what I stand for, so that circumstances won't define me.
    And somehow it feels so good.

    Thanks for the chance of sharing this.

    In beauty,

  3. Thank you for this, Oriah.

    At each New Moon I set an intention supported by a motive in alignment with the intention. For the New Moon of May 2 I touched on this element of impermanence you speak of:

    Intention -
    To dwell in possibility, creating space for hatching a new idea in a changing world — through the gift of love.
    Motive -
    Engaging in a life well-lived, well-loved, no matter how long or short the journey.

    Being trained as a hospice volunteer has really brought to light for me the importance of truly living and honoring each moment of life until our bodies cease functioning. I see so many people in this world who are what I call the walking dead, so fearful they are of death and aging that they are not really living.

    So precious and miraculous is this embodied experience, it is my wish that as many as possible could engage in a life well-lived, well-loved, no matter how long or short the journey.

  4. Thank you Oriah. I wanted to a moment to say I appreciate the time you take to share your inner life journey with us.

  5. Fabiola, what great insights about the ways "spirituality" can be used to avoid or go into denial about real suffering- our own or others. Thank you for this- and may the journey of an embodied spirituality bring the richness of life with minimal denial! :-)

  6. Thanks for another heartfelt piece of writing, Oriah. It really resonates with me so much ...
    I would like to share some thoughts of my own (forgive me - it's a bit long) on death and impermanence:

    I’ve always had a strong inclination to believe in ‘God’, the ‘Afterlife’ and all those other potential experiences that we only have lame words for, words that are easy to ridicule.

    My belief, though – and all that I had read about such things – didn’t help me much when I once was in the psychiatric hospital.

    Although I was not physically ill, I was so consumed by fear of many things, including that I was going to die soon – that they did not help much, all the things I believed in before, all the things I had read.

    Please, don’t misunderstand me: I helped me to pray, yes, but it did not help me that I thought ‘I knew so much’ about religion, spirituality and the frontiers of science, like near-death experience research.

    When you are afraid to die, as I was – Really Afraid To Die – for whatever reasons, psychological or physical, there’s a switch in the brain that just goes down. You react very much ‘out the mind’ – instinctively, maybe even like an animal some would say. I don’t know.

    But I know there’s a limit to how much reason will do for you when you positively FEEL that you are going to stop existing at any moment.

    Then you do not feel fear. Then you ARE fear.

    In the years that have followed, I had never felt – not one day – like I was ‘free’ from the fear of death.

    After my ‘dark night of the soul’ I am more than ever sensitive to the fact that I’m going to die. And I'm only 37 now ...

    And no matter what else I may read or believe about death, there’s always a part of me that connects death with 1) suffering and 2) that I stop existing. And that part of me will always be afraid.

    I can handle it now - from day to day. But I don’t think it’ll ever go completely away, that basic naked fear of death, no matter how many ‘master’s degrees’ I acquire in spirituality in the future or how many new scientific discoveries arrive about the possible existence of a part of ourselves that are not dependent on the body for existing (in near-death studies, for example).

    One of the ‘handles’ I think I've found, is quite comforting actually. And that's what I wanted to share.In my case it has given me comfort to imagine... how I was going to die, and that I could - to some extent - decide the circumstances.

    What did I imagine? Going to a small Scottish island called Iona, and dying there. It is a a well known retreat for many Celtic Christians (and for many Christians and other people).

    It is a very small island off the west coast of Scotland with a few churches and some Celtic crosses standing as lonely guardians out there in the green hills, watching over the sea, and a lot of history.

    So one day I was suddenly thinking: ‘I’d like to go there – if I could – when I have to die.’

    And then I’d just like to go out somewhere, among the hills, and lie down and meet whatever I had to meet, when it was time for my death.

    Silly, huh? And yet ... it felt ... comforting. So I get something I need when thinking about it this way.

    Of course I know I may not be able to decide this – when and where I die.

    But the day I got that thought – about Iona – it didn’t matter to me. In a way it still doesn’t.

    It feels, even when I think about it now, like it doesn’t really matter if I get my wish or not.

    Even if I lie in a hospital bed somewhere, it feels like it would be okay just to imagine that I was going to Iona.

    It really does.

    I’m not sure why this is so.

    There's a sense of ritual about it. A sense of control... Imaginary maybe, but still ... comforting. So that may be it. But I suspect there is a lot more as well.

  7. Christopher, thank you so much for your honest account of what you have learned about your fear of death. I think you're right- it is in many ways instinctual and like other things (like how we reacte to extreme pain) we don't know much about it and our theories/academic knowledge do not help much when we experience it. But the way you have learned to handle this is brilliant- and, I think, a real mirror of the gift of being human. We humans are meaning-makers and your vision of dying on Iona is, I think, comforting because it is both literally and metaphoricaly from within your psyche/soul and cultural framework a symbol of a "good death." Yes, the fear is still there, but out of the fear comes this incredible story/image/possibility of what it means to you to have a "good death." Opens my imagination to sit with what place/time/way might be the same for myself. Thank you!

  8. Thank you Oriah for generating this discussion and to everyone who contributed. Some wonderful, powerful thoughts here. I look forward to the blog and to the commends every week but I forget to let all of you know how much I appreciate it.Christopher, some life-changing events happened to me at Iona, I hope to be back there in Sept.

  9. Dear Oriah, This is an incredibly powerful post. It is so true. I have watched my mother's quick decline over the last 5 years with a mixture of frustration, compassion and terror. All of a sudden, it has occurred to me that, even under very good circumstances, I too could be partially blind, mentally confused, and totally dependent on others within the next 20 years. It feels as if the first 54 years of my life have flown by as I focused on the daily worries and challenges. I have become aware of the time and energy I have wasted and how I have allowed fears to limit me. But, as someone who has spent a lot of time working to transform public policy, I have also become frustrated by the public's ability to disconnect from the realities of their choices (I.e. Electing politicians who deny climate change and the horror of crushing poverty in other countries).

  10. Dear Oriah,
    Thank you for your moving post.
    It reminded me of the time when my mother died last year after 6 weeks in hospital, the culmination of 40 years of alcohol abuse. Not only did my mother spend her whole life denying the pain she felt from her difficult upbringing, she was in denial about the scale of her alcohol use and the ultimate effect it would have on her body (not to mention the effect on her relations with those that loved her).
    She used denial as a shield for fear. I often wondered if she ever believed she was going to die or if the fear of facing her past and an alcohol addiction was worse than the fear of dying?
    But when she died, the thing that suprised me the most was that everyone - close frineds, family etc - was so shocked. Except for me and her partner. I thought I must have been callous to not be surprised when to me it seemed so inevitable. Did I give up on her? Or was it that me and mum's partner were the only ones who loved her enough to be honest with her ...

  11. Emma, I am guessing that your mother's death was not a surprise to you and her partner because you were the ones who were most vividly aware of what she was doing. So sad- not just the death, but more the life not lived. You were not callous, just awake and so, not surprised. You had lost someone you loved long before she died. Prayers for ease in your heart and soul. Perhaps there is some peace for your mother now.

  12. Only way out... is in. Impermanence, for most people without a contemplative background is just an idea, a notion, a concept that is grasp intellectually.

    There is a cup of tea in my hand. To me, it is already broken, that is why I can hold it and look at it as if it was the most precious thing on earth, that is why I can feel the heat enter my skin through the clay. That is why, when it breaks, I can say, "Yes, that's it."

    Birth, old age, sickness, and death are the four mountains slowly approaching us from all sides, yet people laugh and cry, remain in the mud of illusions, pursuit of endless pleasure, live deep pain like lepers scratching a wound.

    When life and death are together. The silencing is ultimate release. But these things do not come easy, cannot be bought or read. They need total attention and care, day in and day out, but worldly people cannot do this as they are all lost in desires and ideas.

    It is worth writing about though, in hopes that it could ignite this flame of awareness for someone to read, not for comfort, but to push them in the pursuit of truth. Thank you.

  13. To die before you die - seems to be the very key to living. I could never have imagined myself in this space just two and a half years ago - prior to becoming ill. My passion now lies in living a life that not only reflects this gift - but sheds light on the grace of it's knowing. With all that I am - I hope this for my world.

    One Moment One Life

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