With the recent passing of my father, I’m once again reminded of just how impermanent our existence is, here on earth. I can honestly say that, for much of my life, I tended to gravitate towards intellectualizing the concept of impermanence — seeing it as solely a loss of body and mind, rather than embracing a more holistic approach.
Understanding impermanence from a more spiritual perspective, however one chooses to define that, has the potential to release us from suffering. Ultimately, like so many other challenges we face, it’s yet another lesson on learning how to let go.
I think what made this experience quite different than what my mother endured some 10 years ago was the length of time he spent in decline, and our family’s involvement throughout the entire process. It’s safe to say that my brothers and I were wholly in agreement, quite open to discussing our father’s situation socially among friends and family, rather than keeping it to ourselves. We felt that it was important for us to “normalize” this end-of-life experience, while simultaneously giving him the proper respect that he rightfully deserved.
There’s a passage from spiritualist Ram Dass’s epic work “Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying” that resonated with me, in which he states, “I can say that sitting with the dying – has helped to ease my resistance to death, and to familiarize me with what would otherwise have remained an abstract, and therefore unmanageable, demon. By confronting ourselves consciously and deliberately with mirror reflections of changes that worry or frighten us, we learn to weaken our dread of the future. Having seen the inevitability of change, we are not surprised or overwhelmed when the laws of nature take their course.”
Throughout our lives, we’ve been so conditioned to seek control of our destiny, as if we could program destiny to perform whatever outcome we desired. We discuss with our loved ones just how we want this and that to proceed, giving little or no credence to the inevitability of our demise.
As one might suspect, there’s rigidity in this approach, which is primarily based in fear, where we are literally suspending our logic as it applies to conscious aging. We witness it happening to others, yet are unable to comprehend that we too will eventually meet a similar outcome.
World-renowned Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us: “The practice and understanding of impermanence is not just another description of reality. It is a tool that helps us in our transformation, healing and emancipation. The insight of impermanence helps us to go beyond all concepts.”
The methods and means with which we distract ourselves from acknowledging the truth are invariably the moment-to-moment happenings we experience throughout our day. Not unlike other stress-inducing impediments we encounter (either those which are actual or ones perceived), we say to ourselves, “If only I stay busy enough, maybe it will go away.” Invariably, it is impossible to escape impermanence, despite our best efforts.
One of the methods we implemented during our father’s remaining months focused on integrative engagement, whereby, despite some of his physical limitations, he was able to situate himself comfortably in order to participate in whatever functions were necessary for that particular day.
A perfect example of this was his desire to help my brother with some of the tasks required for maintaining his oversized vegetable garden throughout the summer months. As much as he’d hoped to assist with the maintenance and harvesting of crops, he would ultimately find gratification in the post-harvest duties — prepping all items for sale. Though his ability to sustain such engagement would predictably wane by season’s end, it nevertheless provided him with great satisfaction while simultaneously stimulating each of his senses.
As I most certainly found, having the time to prepare for an aging loved-one who is about to pass presents us with a unique opportunity to connect with our Soul consciousness. Viewing such an experience through a different lens allows us to step outside of our ego-driven mindset that simply chooses to reduce us to mind and body. As for my father, who throughout his life often struggled to embrace concepts of a spiritual nature, he would eventually confide in me that he hoped for something so much more than that.