Over the 4th of July weekend, a family friend lost her sister in a freak accident.
Sometimes death is more expected, giving us time to prepare; when my mom died, for instance, it was from cancer and we knew it was coming.
Many other deaths, however, just… happen. You see the person, speak with them, everything is as normal as it has been for years upon years, and then, in a moment, they’re gone.
I’ll tell you right up front, Buddhism offers no magical answer to make the death of loved ones not suck.
In Buddhism, we use the term anicca to refer to a core concept of our training: the realization that all things are impermanent. Nothing lasts, and there is nothing that we can do to change that fact. You, me, everyone we’ve ever known or loved will age and ultimately die.
Does that sound negative? Do you want to click away from this post?
You can; many will. We don’t like to accept this fact, and we do many things to hide it away from our thoughts. We rationalize, we refuse to think about it, and – in many cases – we accept false teachings as a drug that can help us ease the pain of the unpleasant truth.
Still with me?
In Buddhism, we endeavor to accept anicca – impermanence – not just in terms of rational acceptance but a deep, abiding realization of its ever-present truth. Through meditation, impermanence becomes one’s ever-present reality, an expectation of change as a constant. Today, things may seem good, one might feel s/he’s on top of the world, and tomorrow it may change drastically. And if today is a very bad day, we can also know that this, too, will change.
We humans cling desperately to the good things and run from the bad. This is not, however, a terribly effective strategy for dealing with life as we know it.
When impermanence is an accepted part of one’s outlook, how does this help?
I started this post speaking of an unexpected death. I didn’t know the person well, but the few times I met her, I did not behave with her in a way that I’d regret.
I do know, however, that some people spoke ill of her, and those people may right now be dealing not only with the shock of a sudden death, but with the regrets of their own behaviour.
On the surface, an intimate acceptance of the impermanence of all things might seem to present itself as a negative outlook on life. It is not, I assure you; instead, it is a realistic outlook. Having such an outlook doesn’t make one gloomy; quite the opposite, it makes one inclined to embrace every moment of every day in from an entirely different perspective.
When I lost my mom, I knew that she knew that I loved her, that I respected her, and that I was there for her. Why? Because I didn’t try to pacify myself with false beliefs that hid the realities of life and death; I knew that someday she’d be gone and, conscious of that, I lived differently while she was here. I told her that I loved her, I told her stories of how her example had improved my life, and I was there when she needed me.
On the one hand, the total acceptance of impermanence changes how we behave toward others, but it also changes us. Unexpected deaths are still shocking, and the pain of loss is still there. There is, however, a sense of peace about it for those who have accepted anicca as a reality of our existence.
Most flavors of Buddhism incorporate reincarnation as an aspect of its larger picture. Many western Buddhists of the strongly scientific-materialist variety reject reincarnation, while many westerners who know little of Buddhism embrace it.
It is a topic for another post, but western views of reincarnation tend to differ from those born in the east. Nevertheless, westerners have offered much to the field; for about seventy years now the University of Virginia has engaged in serious scientific study of reincarnation with some surprising results.
Personally, I lean strongly toward an eastern view of reincarnation, but in the tradition of Theravada Buddhism and the original teachings, I do not wish to share anything here that requires that one believe in anything other than themselves.
Thus, if we think that we only have the here-and-now, that those we love could be gone tomorrow, never knowing how we feel about them, never again available to us as companions… how differently might we behave?
Why “Anicca” Matters
That is one of the purposes of anicca, of Buddhism’s strong focus on impermanence. It isn’t to lead us down a path of doomsaying and fear, but instead to free us to live life fully, knowing that when the inevitable happens, we’ve done our best to live and love well.
If you are struggling with the death of a loved one or would just like to know more about how to develop acceptance of the impermanence of all things, please feel free to reach out via the contact page.