We are all temporary residents of Planet Earth and none of us knows when our visa will expire. Despite the fact that this is the one certain fact of our existence, we spend our lives either resisting or, mostly, ignoring it. Hoping it will just go away. Or maybe somehow we will miraculously be exempt. Of course, no one wants to dwell on the fact of his/her own demise even though it is inevitable. Our society has an uncomfortable relationship with this concept. Some of us have beliefs about what happens after death that subdue negative thinking on the subject. But mostly what we think of when we reflect on the impermanence of life is it’s loss. And it’s not just people but every living thing on the planet that will undergo the transformation from life to not-life, whatever that entails. Those left behind lose someone or something, creating a void where that living being once was. Those about to move into the transition will lose everything that is familiar, the perceptions that a lifetime of consciousness has provided. They think of all the events they will miss. So it’s not really death that we worry about. Of course, we may fear the potential pain that might accompany death. But what we really fear is loss. And change.
No one likes change. Yet change is as inevitable as death. Everything is changing all the time, and despite our best efforts, there is nothing we can do to stop it. Even when we think we’ve managed to head off certain changes, other changes will still occur that may not have been anticipated. This is not to say that we shouldn’t work to make changes that could improve our lives. But outcomes will most likely be different from what we expected when we began this work. Unexpected things happen all the time. This is why many thinkers on these subjects recommend focussing on the process, rather than the outcome. There’s an old Yiddish saying, “Man plans and God laughs”. Life is unpredictable. Pay attention to the journey, but let the chips fall where they may.
Loss comes in many forms, not just the ultimate. Often we fail to acknowledge the significance of other losses in our lives. Sometimes we know they are coming, other times we don’t. Either way, we don’t always have a choice in how things work out. We lose jobs, homes, money, youth, independence, etc., etc. Even when we think we’ve chosen well, there are many factors beyond our control. Sometimes things work out the way we want, sometimes they don’t. It’s so easy to judge the actions of others. Or to beat up on ourselves when we think we’ve made some huge blunder. Hindsight is 20-20. But most of us do the best we can with what we have to work with at the time. And time only moves in one direction. There is no going back. What exists right now is what we have to work with. We can’t change other people. Circumstances beyond our control create situations that can’t be changed. Sometimes we can change parts and pieces or maybe work toward a change. But for the most part the only thing we can change is our attitude and perception.
In an article in Yoga Journal author Sally Kempton talks about navigating through change. She cites “the Buddhist Doctrine of Impermanence, annica, [which] tells us that change is inevitable, continuous, and unavoidable.” There is also a way of viewing this as the constantly shifting nature of energy:
“the intrinsic, dynamic power at the heart of life. . . . Every moment, every enterprise, every cell, is part of this flow of creation, sustenance, and dissolution. This flow is happening on a macrocosmic level—as the flow of seasons, tides, and cultures—and on a microcosmic level, through the various shifts in your physical states, the ups and downs of your life, and the flow of thoughts and emotions in your mind.”
When seen this way, even the most determined control freak must acknowledge that these changes are happening right before our eyes in every moment of every day. Like it or not.
Perhaps instead of thinking of “endings” and “beginnings”, we can think of change as heralding transformation. Part of our fear of loss is fear of the unknown. What will be on the other side of this loss? We know what life was like before the change. How will we deal with what comes next? Even if the current state of affairs is not optimal, at least it’s familiar – the “devil you know “. In the article cited above, Ms. Kempton also talks about ritual. She writes, “In traditional societies, every phase of life was regarded as an initiation into a new way of being and was marked with a ceremony. . . Nowadays, we don’t always do a ceremony, but we still undergo initiations.” All life changes require us to “step outside your habits, test your skills, and, for a time, inhabit the unknown. . . Each of these changes will subtly or even dramatically redefine you. You won’t be quite the same person after you step out of the old situation and into the new.” Furthermore, “the change itself . . is the doorway into the next stage of growth—one that propels you into a deeper relationship with yourself and the world.”
The article goes on to provide some ideas for moving through change gracefully. These, of course, require practice. Practice implies that success is not guaranteed, but there will always be another opportunity to try. There are many articles and numerous suggestions from all kinds of authors on what to include in such a practice. Everyone needs to find what works for them. Still when change is sudden and catastrophic, it can be difficult to remember how to practice, let alone recognize that you are embarking on a new way of life. Mourning is also a ritual. Recognizing loss and the need to mourn is just as important as accepting change. But all suggestions seem to boil down to the same concept: leave the past behind, let the future take care of itself and simply be here now. In this moment. Hear your breath. Count your blessings. If you’re still a resident on the planet with an unexpired visa there will always be something to be grateful for. Loss hurts. It’s OK to hurt. It’s part of being human. Allow it. Be kind to yourself.