Grief and Impermanence

People attend our retreats in Cantabria for many reasons. One of the more common reasons is to come to terms with the loss of a loved one. In our society our experience of death is quite limited, so when it comes, it comes as a shocking, painful surprise. Unfortunately, we don’t generally talk about death. We receive no training and we do our best not to think about it which means it always catches us unprepared.

The Buddha said that life contains inevitable suffering: birth, sickness, old age and death. None of us can avoid these events; they are as inevitable as the sunrise, as breathing. In this we are all brothers and sisters. What turns the inevitable pain into suffering is our attachment to things as they are. We desire that – above all the good things – will never change.

Impermanence is a fundamental truth of existence. Nothing is permanent; all will pass and everything will change. All that is born contains already the seeds of its own death. All that you see – animate and inanimate – (mountains, seas, planets, stars, sun) have and will continue to change. Our emotional states, good and bad, are impermanent. Our identity, our bodies, our relationships – nothing is permanent. All will change. Nothing in the physical world is permanent. Existence is in a constant state of flux. When we first begin to accept this life can feel both bitter and sweet at the same time. However, even though these are inescapable facts – reality, we do our best not live in this reality. When things are good we want them to stay that way: we want our relationship to go on forever; we want our loved ones never to die, we want to go on making more money, always be happy. We live our lives with our attention on the future – planning, organising or reliving and rehashing our memories of the past.

When we become attached to things, we do not accept impermanence. When we live as if things will continue as they are forever, then we live in ignorance; we create and experience suffering. Life will inevitably cause us pain, but it is we who create the suffering. I love the words of Mike Tyson:

Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the mouth”.

If you have not experienced that “punch in the mouth”, be sure that you will. It comes in many forms: the cancer diagnosis, the car accident, the miscarriage, divorce, death of a loved one, loss of your job, a stroke. As much as we want to stay the same, the “punch in the mouth” has changed us and will continue to do so. We cannot go back to “the way things were” (which was anyway just an illusion).

In my experience the two most common ways that we try to deal with grief are: like a child, we rage that life is not fair, we become trapped by our grief and eventually we become depressed, lost in our grief. The other common strategy: we try our best to “swallow” it without “tasting” anything. We try to avoid the pain and emotions so we can “get back to normal”.  

Whether we like it or not grief changes us. Meditation and other resilience practices remind us that happiness, pain, joy and sadness, grief and euphoria, like all else, are impermanent – an inevitable part of life.  Does this mean that our grief, our sadness will completely disappear?  Of course not! But it does mean that it will change texture and form; it will come and go. Some days it will hurt so much and some days you will start to smile as you remember something with a sense of fondness. Our grief, like everything else, is impermanent and ever-changing. Once we accept this, even if initially only on an intellectual level, then our suffering starts to diminish. Then we can start noticing our thoughts and feelings and how our bodies feel, accepting these things just as they are in the moment with open curiosity and kindness to ourselves. When we adopt this perception, this attitude, we can see that sadness and grief are a process of healing and then we can embrace the change. We open the door to the experience and the lessons that it brings.

Author: Geoffrey Molloy

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