Last week, I heard from a longtime student that her beloved furry companion of 12 years died suddenly and unexpectedly. Deep in grief, she had questions about the why of it all. What are the lessons? How do we pay attention to what matters most and what are we supposed to learn through the process? Coming up on two years since Padma’s departure, I could easily feel into that pain and immediately thought of this is what love feels like. Love. Loss. Two sides of the same coin.
Every person I know was faced with these questions during the pandemic- a season of loss and change for all of us. I’m wondering as you reflect back on that time, what did you learn about love, loss, and attachment? What was revealed to you about your priorities and what you take for granted? For me, I was (and continue to be) faced with lesson after lesson on impermanence. I seem to be in the long-term Earth School extended study program on acceptance, surrender, and the transitory nature of all things. Perhaps we all are.
We are not going to live forever. Everyone we love will die. Every relationship we have will end. If we’re paying attention, we can even watch previous versions of ourselves pass away as the years tick on. Jobs, friends, homes; our appearance, capabilities, interests— everything changes. Nothing is permanent. Not our happiness nor our despair. Not our greatest success nor our most hopeless failure. All of it comes and goes. Every ending is the seed of something new. Each fresh start is made possible through the rich soil of what was before.
The Sanskrit word abhiniveśa is usually translated as fear of death, and while that’s definitely part of it, when you break down the word, you see there’s more. Approached from its roots, abhiniveśa speaks to our extreme attachments to the externals. It’s not just about our fear of death, it’s about our fear of losing all the things. From fear of the unknown to the ways we cling to our material possessions; from our attachment to relationships to our resistance to change, abhiniveśa is a part of our daily lives. We cling to what is familiar and comfortable. We resist what is uncomfortable. The idea of losing everything is uncomfortable. And so we push it away.
This is the paradox. Though we intellectually know that nothing is permanent, we’re not necessarily (in fact, are very rarely) living the truth of it. And the lessons of impermanence, though painful, offer us the potential of sweetness available in every moment. Bring these ideas of loss to the fore and get honest about where that fear lives in you. Right in the center is a space where the bigger questions arise: when everything you know falls away, what is left? Who are you, really? Why are you here?
When I was teaching on this topic a couple of months ago, the group’s collective takeaway in dealing with the reality of impermanence was about intention: moving with intention and living with intention; being more awake, more of the time. Maybe you can or maybe you can’t quite get on board with the idea of living each day like it’s your last, but the more we own our choices right here and now and accept what is, the more we are truly living in the present, uncolored by our attachments. Whatever is being offered to us right now, it’s temporary. For its richness or its difficulty, it will not be this way again, and approaching the “this” with joy and gratitude changes how we see our lives and our individual place within that life. We don’t get to stay here forever. This. is. It.
One of the participants shared this quote and it felt spot on:
“It isn’t primarily a practice of thinking of one’s last hour, or of death as a physical phenomenon; it is a seeing of every moment of life against the horizon of death, and a challenge to incorporate that awareness of dying into every moment so as to become more fully alive.” – Brother David Steindl-Rast
This moment is just a blip on the screen and if you close your eyes or turn away, it will be gone and you’ll have missed part of your precious life. Ask yourself: what is here for me? How have I participated in creating this moment? How is this moment the necessary conclusion of the moments that have come before? And most of all, what can I create with what I am being given right now?
If these ideas of living with more presence and intention sound like an appealing bit of work you’re ready to step into, join me next month for The Art of Mindful Living. In the meantime, I hope you’ll pause and reflect on these questions about impermanence. Far as we know, we have just one life. What is reflected back to you when you hold that truth in your two open hands?