Death and Impermanence


North American Society has still not yet come to terms with death. In a consumer society, we can use things and throw them away, almost without a second thought.

Times change, fashions change, technology changes, but we don’t want people to change. And we certainly don’t want them to die: to go away and never come back. However, this discomfort with death creates a grasping, clutching feeling around our life and the lives of those we love.

A couple of times when I was visiting in the tropics, I had occasion to see Tibetan monks working on sand mandalas. They work on a table, and construct a beautiful, intricate circular design, using nothing but sand of different colors. It is a complex work of art.

It takes four monks, working several hours each day, almost a week to complete the design. People watch, and are in awe at the complexity and delicacy of the task. At the end of the week, there is a special ceremony, and then the monks brush the sand off the table into a container, often pouring it into the ocean with a blessing for world peace. It is clearly a lesson in impermanence. The work is all the more appreciated because of its transience.

I read in a local paper a few years ago that the Tibetan monks were coming to Canada, and that they would be making a sand mandala. I was shocked then to read that someone was looking into some way to preserve the mandala. I wondered if next they would try to mass-produce them.

Clearly the whole point had been missed, but then that is the way of our culture. We want to hold on, and in holding on, something of the preciousness of the present experience is lost. Live roses are appreciated so much more than silk ones, because we know they will not last. We take the time to savor them, to truly enjoy them before they wilt and fade. This is what death teaches us.

How tiresome life would become if it went on forever. We spend a lifetime learning about grasping and releasing. What child has not learned that a butterfly in a jar loses something of its essence? The illusion is that if I put it in a jar, then it belongs to me.

We grieve so much for loved ones because we feel that something that belongs to us has been taken away. But life belongs to no one. Some people are in our lives for a long time, constant like a big oak tree. Others share a presence that is only fleeting: they are like the rainbows and northern lights. We simply have to celebrate them while they are here, knowing that our life has been enriched by their souls.

When we grieve, we are not so much grieving for the person, as we are for our shattered dreams. The illusion of permanence has been shaken. Grief is often the awakening of compassion for the pain of all human life, the pain of being human.

How do we write someone out of the script that we so carefully created, and upon which we feel our life depends? The answer is that we don’t. We are still deeply connected at the level of soul. The love that we feel may seem even more powerful than when the person was physically present.

Like the butterfly in a jar, a soul released from the confines of physical form is free to fly upwards, to totally celebrate its essence. Our challenge is to celebrate this freedom , and to recognize it as soul moving forward, rather than feeling it is the end of everything.

Consider the sand in the mandala. It came, in the beginning, from the ocean. It is separated, dyed different colors, and carried around the world. One day it ends up as part of a magnificent display for all to admire, and the next day, at the end of its long journey, it is returned reverently to the ocean. What beautiful completion.

We are all just here for a while. We each have our own journey, a journey of one thousand joys and one thousand sorrows. And then we will all go home. We will return to the ocean of oneness, out of which we were born, to be reunited with those souls who went before.

In the meantime, our life is our mandala. Soul decides when it is complete; destiny brushes it away and we remain forever in the hearts of all whom we have touched.

Copyright © Gwen Randall-Young, All Rights Reserved. Contact us if you would like permission to reprint.

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