As I turn sixty-five in a few weeks, I’m at that stage where we and a lot of our friends are dealing with friends and family end of life issues. Combine that with the research I’m doing around aging and ageism, and it’s pretty impossible not to think about your own mortality.
One of my current reads, Nick Owen’s “The Salmon of Knowledge,” devotes a chapter of stories about, “Themes of Impermanence, Acceptance, and Letting Go.”
Reading that chapter triggered a memory from 1995 when I lived in the mountains above Philipsburg, Montana and commuted 80 miles round trip over a pass to Anaconda to teach middle school. My principal walked into my class one afternoon and said to go call home, there’s an emergency and he’d take my class.
I phoned home to the news that my brother Albert had been diagnosed with Leukemia and I needed to head to Seattle immediately - so I drove my truck over the snowy pass to make a pit stop at home to swap out vehicles and pack a bag. Upon arrival, I found out that while enroute, my mother had called to say that my dad was in critical condition in Ventura, California and I’d better get to there ASAP.
My other brother Larry stayed in Seattle with Albert and I flew to LA, where my father passed the following day. Albert started treatment and made it through the end of the year, giving me a chance to drive back and forth to Seattle and spend precious time with him.
Some months later, when I received the call on a frozen Sunday to tell me that he passed, I was dealing with another reminder of the impermanence of things. My dog, the first one I ever raised, had cancer. The vet drove up to the farm and checked him out that previous Friday and suggested we take the weekend to say good-bye and bring him in on Monday to be put to sleep.
At around 2:00 am Sunday night, during a howling blizzard that had completely shut down the roads, my dog Shadow woke us with awful sounding screams. When I got to him, I saw intolerable suffering, so I did the only thing I could think of, I carried her out into the snow and put her out of her misery.
That chain of events, combined with the fact that my dad and his dad both had heart attacks at 55, (and I was in my forties at the time), set me on a course where thoughts of my own mortality took up way too much headspace. I finally got past the fixation, but it took a few years and other experiences to get me to the point of knowing the value of letting go.
The Nick Owens book I referred to above, shares stories that validate that even though the thought of “Everything comes to an end,” is sobering, it’s our choice to find the liberation in it.
He shares,“For the more we recognise this truth, the more we can make the most of the time we have, appreciating in each passing moment the extraordinary and precious gift of life. Death is the antidote for taking things for granted.”
To do that requires shifting your perspective, beginning with accepting, “We cannot change what is." We can’t change the past and we can look to the future and set goals… but with no guarantees. All we really have is now… and that’s already gone. As Owens so wisely puts it, “There’s now and now and now…”
In most of my work, and non-work, I see people’s resistance to change as their primary blocker of opportunity and self-growth. I work with them to learn to let go, stop resisting change and work within what is… and if you do, it feels like losing the weight of the world… and it’s a healthier path to walk.
“As Buddhists say, ‘Stop wanting it other than the way it is, that’s where suffering lies.”
This is not to say that we’re not supposed to grieve, we are. But we have control over whether or not we get stuck there… like I did for a few years. And being in a stuck place for a little while is okay - just long enough to learn whatever that space has to teach you. We just need to have the awareness of when to move on.
As Owens espouses, “Letting go is one of the great secrets in life.”
I’ll leave you with this ages old Zen story that says it better than I ever could:
It Will Pass
An apprentice monk said to the Abbot, ‘My meditation practice is a disaster. I can’t concentrate, I get pins and needles in my legs, and worst of all I fall asleep. I even cracked my head once on the floor.’
‘It will pass,’ said the Abbot.
Two weeks later, the apprentice told the Abbot, ‘My meditation is incredible. I can sit for hours. I feel so awake, so enlightened, and so full of love and compassion.’
The Abbot smiled, then added, ‘It will pass.”