It was only last year that I had the pleasure of meeting the guys who set up The Spring Foundation, an organisation that educates and holds retreats using mindfulness as its approach to coping with cancer, both during treatment and during remission.
This week, however, cancer came closer to home. My mother-in-law was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Obviously this has hit my wife pretty hard, and needless to say the last two nights have been restless ones. I am a little better placed to deal with the circumstance because my mother had skin cancer a few years back – thankfully she has remained clear since treatment. Nevertheless, the news naturally brought tears to my eyes.
The Challenge of Carrying on as Normal
This morning I woke up, and for a moment or two, I forgot this had happened. I made my fruit shake in the blender and whistled away as I worked. Then the news came back into my consciousness and I assessed my mood. I thought it a bit insensitive to be happy, to be going on as normal. But then I remembered Buddha's words, there is only one permanent thing in this life, and that is change.
What good would it do me to force myself to be miserable, to wallow in this bad news. But this is pretty much what we are taught to do, isn't it? The words, how can you be happy at a time this? sprung to mind.
When we hear of illness or death, it is deemed insensitive to show any other emotion than sadness. In truth, however, sitting around being miserable on default, wishing things were different doesn't change anything, and certainly doesn't help anyone.
The fact is, she has just been diagnosed, she isn't dead or anywhere near dead, and like many others she will hopefully get over this illness. Moreover, what use am I to my wife if I am all doom and gloom, acting like it's the end of the world; this will only further imprison her in sadness.
We do need to carry on as normal, in a positive frame of mind as usual. We need to spread that positivity over the phone and in person to her mother, who is, needless to say, quite scared at what lay ahead.
We also need to be upbeat enough to support her father and sister. There's a lot to be said for collective positive energy. Moreover, if she is told she doesn't have long left, why on earth would we spend the time in a black cloud – what a waste.
A while ago I wrote a post called Don't Die and Realise You Haven't Lived, and in many ways, this is an unintentional follow up.
In this post I'd like to digress and think about death for a moment, not to scare you, but to empower you to start truly living. Because when someone falls ill, we are given a powerful reminder that if we refuse to accept death now, while we are still alive, we will pay for this throughout our lives, and in the hour of death.
Refusing to accept death in life is to run from the only certainty we know. To do so means to continue relying solely on the unreliability of the fleeting mind, which will imprison us in the very aspect of ourselves that has to die.
The only certainty in life is that we will exist and we will die. We have no control over when we will die, only our efforts to prolong the process.
But for the most part we ignore this fact, and it is only when we are forced to face death through serious illness (personal or the illness of a friend or family member) that the panic sets in; the regrets, the questions, the speculation:
- Why me?
- I haven't done what I really wanted in my life?
- I wish I had…?
- Why did I …?
- What do I really want from life in the time I have left?
- What did I do to deserve this?
- Where will I go if I die?
But why wait for illness to question existence, to explore ourselves and truly start living? Living a full life helps us prepare for death, whenever that may be.
So today, reflect calmly and assertively on the fact that death is real. It can come suddenly and without warning. Don't ignore the truth of impermanence because you so desperately want everything to stay the same.
What is born will die, what is gathered will be dispersed, what has been accumulated will be exhausted and what has been built up will collapse.
Nothing stays the same.
And to hold onto this make-believe only causes suffering of the mind through a refusal to accept that everything about life is impermanent.
Look around you. Everything is in a constant state of change and decay. Your thoughts are changing from second to second, your face is changing, your mood is changing, the weather is changing, the time is changing, the neurons of our brain are decaying.
There is nothing solid or lasting anywhere.
The only truth we can hold onto is the realisation of impermanence. And what better truth is there to make you get up in the morning and really start living, appreciating, loving, enjoying and sharing.
Make a decision today to live AND die without regret. Whenever you get complacent, lazy or begin taking life for granted, simply reflect on impermanence to shake you back into living.