I have always felt that impermanence and death are rather weighty topics because of my personal history. I was first drawn to attend a Buddhist retreat by my inability to come to terms with the death of my father and brother. Dwelling on death was something I was trying to avoid as I felt it would add to my depression, rather than become a reason for hope.
Like myself, many people actively avoid thinking about death and loss. Yet avoidance does not change the fact of death as reality. We are bombarded with examples of the many ways we can die every time we watch the news or read a newspaper. War, starvation, murder, cancer, car crashes, terrorist attacks – so many ways to die, so many ways to experience pain.
We empathise with the sufferers and their families. We experience the shock of knowing that this could easily happen to us. We feel helpless in the face of world suffering.
In the face of death we feel small, vulnerable, and powerless – yet these are simply facts of life and dwelling upon them will not make it better or worse. We cannot run away from death and impermanence just because thinking of it frightens us. People die every moment of every day. Things get lost or broken; events are concluded; relationships end – impermanence happens every moment of every day. This is inevitable because form is inherently impermanent. It is the nature of form to move, change, arise and dissolve. By the time you finish reading this sentence, several people in the world will have died. In fact approximately one person dies every 0.6 seconds – about ten for every sentence in this book2. The end of what we conceive of as ‘life’, in the particular physical form we inhabit at the moment, is definitely going to occur and we do not know when this will happen. The only thing we can say about life with absolute certainty is that it will end in our death.
When I say goodbye to my loved ones as they set off to work or school I do not know whether they will return. It is quite possible that I may never see them again. I may die of a heart attack this day. They may meet a fatal accident.
These are sad and upsetting thoughts which we usually try to avoid, because we do not like to think of being separated from our loved ones and this life coming to an end. I may try to avoid thinking such thoughts as much as possible, and find it upsetting when circumstances make this impossible. I may find it almost unbearable when forced to face my own mortality, or the mortality of my loved ones.
However, avoidance of the fact of death does not change it any more effectively than thinking about it all the time. Some people use that as a coping strategy.
They think about death a great deal and rehearse scenarios of how it may be dealt with. I found myself imagining losing my children when they were little. These imaginings of what would happen if I died, or about losing my husband or one of the children dying, somehow made me feel that I had gained some power over death and reduced its capacity to impact upon me. ‘I’m totally miserable thinking about death, so when it does happen I can’t be any more miserable than I am now.’ However, the reality of loss, illness, catastrophe, and death are never quite as we imagine them to be, and living in what might be can be most detrimental to what is. The fact is that death is certain and the time and nature of death is unknown.
We cannot effectively rehearse death, because our thoughts about death always dwell in past or future. We think of what might be or look at what has been. If I think about my father and feel sad for things we were never able to share, I am grieving for what might have been. I may imagine walks in the country together, or him playing with his grandchildren, or seeing his pride in my achievements as an adult. But all this is imaginary. It is natural to feel sorry for things we might have shared and to miss him, but nothing of what we actually shared together can ever be lost while I still remember it.
Another strategy to cope with thoughts of death may be to limit ourselves to try to avoid opportunities for loss and death. So I do not engage in anything too adventurous and am overly protective of my loved ones. I require statements of health and permanence from my loved ones at increasingly frequent intervals in order to assure myself of their security.
I may fly into a panic if my partner is just a few minutes late coming home—after all, I know what terrible things can happen, I have thought about them so often—perhaps one of those awful imaginings has come to pass.
Alternatively, I may continually challenge death. I may flirt with impermanence to demonstrate that it holds no fear for me. Perhaps I take up a high-risk activity, increasing the danger factor every time I succeed in flouting death. I find a higher mountain to climb, or search for a more difficult approach. In fact the closer I come to death the better, because then I know that I am really safe, having survived. I may avoid close relationships so that I never have loved ones to lose. I may try to own as little as possible so that I have hardly any possessions to lose.
2. Source: Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, World Population Prospects: The 2002 Revision and World Urbanization Prospects: The 2001 Revision, http://esa.un.org/unpp