Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Impermanence Contemplation Day!

It's Easter Sunday, and yes, Jack is making his way through a big basket of chocolate eggs and gummy rabbits. My little Easter Bunny hopped out of bed at 7 AM (yawn) to get the festivities started. As much as I love the traditions, this year I've added a new ritual: the contemplation of impermanence and death. Sounds like a real downer, I know, but it's quite the opposite.
   This morning I've been thinking about the women I met at the dementia caregivers' workshop a few weeks ago. I wonder how they're doing with their loved ones. Did the strategies discussed in the workshop help change their perspective about the task that lies ahead of them? Did they go home and see their husbands in a different light?
   Many diseases—epilepsy, Parkinson's Disease, multiple sclerosis, alcoholism, to name a few—provoke irrevocable physical, emotional and cognitive changes in the affected person. These conditions may manifest themselves in differing ways, but the outcome is the same: a shift in physicality and/or personality and thus, a shift in their relationship with the world and everyone with whom they relate. The relationship between a healthy spouse and a sick spouse is altered permanently when significant cognitive changes occur.
   I admire all those ladies at the workshop. From my experience with my mother, know the challenges they will face, and that their relationships with the men they love will only continue to change and become more difficult in the months and years to follow. Their courage gives me pause: Could I love a man unconditionally and without expectation?
   The reality is this: In every marriage, both parties will experience a decline in health. No relationship will be spared separation through disease and death. We can live in denial and fear, or we can prepare for death long before it occurs. Letting go of our attachment to mortality is not pessimistic. Embracing impermanence is the only way to fill our lives with compassion and love. In the book, The Way to Freedom, the Dalai Lama writes "If your reflect upon death and impermanence, you will begin to make your life meaningful." In other words, making peace with death is the only way to live fully.
  The Christian Easter story provides the same teaching. In fact, this crux of Christian faith is a lesson in impermanence. Jesus did not cling to life; rather he submitted himself to death so that we might live fully. Whether you believe this literally or metaphorically matters not. To truly ponder Jesus' death and resurrection yields the same result: Relinquishing your aversion to death to live a more compassionate life. Too often, however, ill-directed Christian doctrine places emphasis on the end-goal of after life, turning Jesus' death and resurrection into our "Get Out of Jail Free" card: He did the work, so we don't have to. I believe, rather, that Jesus showed us how to practice compassion and love, embracing death without fear, yet it's up to us to emulate that example. And that, my friends, is the essence of Easter. (Who knew? Easter is really the ultimate Buddhist celebration.) I hope the ladies I met at the workshop find some comfort in today's traditions, too. Happy Easter.

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