In the past few months, several dear friends whom I have looked up to as mentors have made their transitions. I have been surprised to find myself less filled with grief than a sense of gratitude and deep connection to those who have passed. As a result, I have been thinking a lot about impermanence and deep connection and how they are intertwined in my life and practice.
In his book No Death No Fear, our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, wrote:
When we lose someone we love, we should remember that the person has not become nothing. ‘Something’ cannot become ‘nothing,’ and ‘nothing’ cannot become, ‘something.’ Science can help us understand this, because matter cannot be destroyed—it can become energy. And energy can become matter, but it cannot be destroyed. In the same way, our beloved was not destroyed; she has just taken on another form. That form may be a cloud, a child or the breeze. We can see our loved one in everything.
The recent passing of Thay, helped me to realize that my relationship with him did not change when he died. It did not change because my relationship with him itself is alive in me. The things I have learned from Thay are the things that I do, they are now a part of me. A simple but consistent practice, being a peaceful presence, learning to be happy even as I suffer are all manifestations of my relationship with Thay that show up with me, as me, wherever go.
My friend David passed away in January at the age of 89. He was a larger-than-life professional gambler who wore a 10-gallon cowboy hat and had the heartiest laugh I have ever heard; you could hear him laugh from blocks away. He came bursting into my life when I was beginning my journey toward recovery from alcoholism, and became my sponsor (whether I wanted a sponsor or not). I was meek and terrified, and David helped me realize and celebrate my ability to be authentic. He taught me how to step out of the shadows of my own demoralizing self-talk to become a more authentic and honest man. Even though he is no longer present on the physical plane, he is alive in me wherever I go today.
My friend Jim was the founder of the International Freedom Foundation and spent the last 40 years of his life teaching forgiveness. Early in his life he experienced severe trauma as the medical officer for a cult leader and this experience drove him to find a path of forgiveness. I met Jim at a church we both attended, and we connected immediately. Have you ever met someone that you know you love from the first words of a conversation? That was my instant connection with him. Jim convinced me to teach forgiveness with him, and we worked together on several workshops. Just prior to Jim’s passing in December, we had a conversation about being examples of love and forgiveness. I carry with me the living relationship of Jim in the way I practice forgiveness and live in the presence of love.
My friend Avery was a former academic who became tired of the grueling nature of a career in science and so decided to change his career and life focus to help others — as a clown. Avery called himself an Edu-tainer (educator + entertainer), because he specialized in teaching important life lessons using humor and compassion. He wore outlandish costumes and told hilarious stories that delivered a powerful message of kindness. Avery’s transition reminded me of how important humor can be in expressing friendship and compassion. When I tenderly laugh with someone who is suffering or gently laugh at myself when I stumble, I am walking with my friend Avery.
These realizations have nourished my understanding of how deep connection and impermanence enrich my life. I have learned that who I am is not the solitary “me” that I appear to be. I am not a single flower, but rather a bouquet of beautiful flowers — an ever-changing bouquet that is constantly transforming and evolving with each deep connection I make. Thay spoke of the power of impermanence in No Death, No Fear:
We are often sad and suffer a lot when things change but change and impermanence have a positive side. Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible. Life itself is possible. If a grain of corn is not impermanent, it can never be transformed into a stalk of corn. If the stalk were not impermanent, it could never provide us with the ear of corn we eat. If your daughter is not impermanent, she cannot grow up to become a woman. Then your grandchildren would never manifest. So instead of complaining about impermanence, we should say, ‘Warm welcome and long live impermanence.’ We should be happy. When we can see the miracle of impermanence, our sadness and suffering will pass.
This Thursday evening after our meditation, our Dharma sharing will focus on impermanence, deep connections, and letting go of grief. We will begin with these questions:
- What does impermanence of loved ones and mentors mean to you and how has your understanding evolved with your practice?
- How have you been changed by the deep connections you have formed with others?
- How have you moved on from grief in a kind and loving way?
I hope you will be able to join us, and I look forward to a wonderful discussion.