I recently asked a friend if she knew how her ex-husband was. They had shared a classical passionate romance that flamed and burned over 40 years ago. She told me that sadly he had died of cancer a couple of years before. She then added that she learned of his passing through a posting on Facebook. The strangest part of that for her was noticing her reaction to the news. It was simply, “Oh, that’s too bad,” and nothing more. “This was a person I was so head over heels in love with that I left my home, family, friends and life to live with him in another continent in a city where I knew not a soul.”
After a stormy few years it was obviously not going to work out and she came back to the States to start the next chapter of a very full life. “He was the sun and moon to me back when we met,” she told me. “And yet all they came out of me when I read this news was, ‘Oh, that’s too bad. It was like I was watching myself no longer care. How weird!”
We had a very good conversation about the people that pass through our life and the many different ways someone becomes “special” to us – lover, pet, mentor, dear friend. So many different flavors of beauty that can touch our heart as we grow to love someone. While that special person or being is in our life, the thought of losing him or her can elicit fear, worry, dread or panic. Something inside of us is sure that we couldn’t survive and go on if they were no longer with us. And yet loss is inevitably woven into the fabric of life. “Everything and everyone near and dear to us we will be separated from,” says the Buddha. He advised us to reflect on this every day so as not to be so shocked when the inevitable happens.
I sometimes ask in classes that I teach how many in the room are still best friends with their best friends from childhood. In a room of a hundred there’s perhaps a handful who raise their hands. There’s no doubt that a lifelong best of friends relationship is a beautiful thing. But think of how many “best friends” most of us have had that we’ve somehow lost touch with or have been replaced by other “best friends.” It’s a wonder we’ve survived and been able to move on. Or maybe it’s the most natural thing in the world.
The truth is that in most cases not only do we survive or “move on” but we make new “best friends” or open up to the next chapter in our life. We can still thrive after loss if we know how to process it.
Impermanence is the one thing we can be sure of and loss is the major lesson we are asked to understand. Otherwise, we will be continually devastated. Certainly there are some losses we don’t just quickly or easily “move on” from—our parents, partners, the pain of losing a child—losses that do for a time devastate us and reshape our lives. But we do, in most cases, move on and do so with an even deeper appreciation of the fragility and preciousness of life. Loss is part of life. How we integrate that fact can either lead to continual vigilance and anxiety or appreciation and surrender.
It’s valuable to see that the truth of impermanence is not only about loss. That’s just one side of the equation. The other side is that a constantly changing world means infinite creativity and limitless possibilities. Our losses are replaced by new people or experiences that we could never have imagined. This truth is right before our eyes every second of every moment and yet we often miss it. It’s the very nature of life – literally happening all the time. After grieving our losses the amazing nonstop show goes on and we can once again participate and even delight in life with gratitude and wonder. Knowing it’s an ongoing continually transforming adventure, we can learn appreciate the continual unfolding fully and even relax into the ride.
The great Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna wrote, “Greater than the highest mountain are the bones of all the lifetimes that you’ve lived. More than all four oceans are the tears you’ve shed through your many lives.” How many past lives do you remember? Whether or not you believe in rebirth or past lives, at some point all that has gone before will be gone and forgotten.
As my friend told me of finding out in Facebook her ex-husband had died and calmly sighing, “Oh, that’s too bad,” a poignant image arose in my mind of what the last moment in life might be like. I imagined when we come to the final moment of each lifetime, our life passes before us with all its experiences and delights and losses and relationships. We experience it like an amazing movie with that moment the one that simply says, “The End.” All those relationships and experiences soon become distant memories or wisps that in the flash are gone and forgotten.
The Diamond Sutra gives this description of the ephemeral nature of life: “A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom and a dream.” Deeply understanding this truth of loss is precisely what can help us be more appreciative and present for all the special beings in our life while they’re still alive. By realizing and truly embracing that this is the way things are, we can honor the cast of characters we’ve been given, share our love and caring, grieve our losses, and play our life out fully while it’s here. We can completely participate and enjoy the ride, and when the end comes have the satisfaction of knowing we did it well.
I go deeper into this topic in the third month of my 5-month Awakening Joy: 10 Steps to a Happier Life course. With a completely revised format for 2017, we’re placing a strong emphasis on experiential practice, going deeper into the course’s 10 themes than ever before. With live and recorded classes, twice monthly live Q&As, guided meditations, practice letters and many other resources, you’ll work on deepening your meditation practice while awakening the innate joy within you. You can participate live or online and can find out more here.