There have been times, more than a few, when I have been obsessed with death. Two of my three uncles died before retirement age. Uncle Jimmy, the father of six, was in his 30s when he died of a sudden cerebral hemorrhage. Uncle Stan was sixtyish and looking to retire, when the gas pump he was calibrating caught fire and burned him so badly, he died.
My mom was only 61 when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She died one week shy of her 64th birthday.
For years I had dreamed about moving to “the lake” when I retired. The untimely deaths of my mother and uncles prompted us to move here before I retired. I thought I might not live to retirement age. Who knows? “Nobody gets any guarantees,” I was fond of saying in those days.
In late November 1998, we were literally packing our things in Louisville, preparing to move here to Nolin Lake, when I got a call from my best friend’s wife, Suzie. My longtime best friend, Steve Stillwell (Suzie’s husband), had a heart attack and died on Thanksgiving morning. Steve was 44.
I had envisioned the move here as an adventure and the fulfillment of a dream. Instead it was somber and joyless and sad. Death was stalking me relentlessly, it seemed — a dark wolfish shadow that was always just a step or two behind me.
There was scant comfort to be found in my Judeo-Christian background. I didn’t believe in life after death, much less heaven or hell. More and more I was embracing the teachings of the Buddha, but I wasn’t entirely sold on the concept of rebirth, so I couldn’t find much solace in that, either.
I did, however, find great comfort and much wisdom in the Buddhist belief that the greatest of all teachings is impermanence — and the ultimate expression of impermanence is death.
In Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom for Our Time (1/12/2018), “Death: The Greatest Teacher,” Judy Leif writes: “Whether we fight it, deny it, or accept it, we all have a relationship with death. Some people have few encounters with death as they are growing up, and it becomes personal for them only as they age and funerals begin to outnumber weddings. Others grow up in violent surroundings where sudden death is common, or see a family member die of a fatal illness. Many of us have never seen a person die, while people who work in hospitals and hospices see the realities of death and dying every day. But whether death is something distant for us or we are in the thick of it, it haunts and challenges us.
“Death is a fact. Our challenge is to figure out how to deal with it, because it is never a good plan to struggle against or deny reality. The more we struggle against death, the more resentment we have and the more we suffer. We take a painful situation and through our struggles add a whole new layer of pain to it.
“We cannot avoid death, but we can change how we relate to it. We can take death as a teacher and see what we can learn from it.
“Reflecting on our own mortality and the reality of death is practiced in many contemplative traditions. In the Buddhist tradition, the contemplation of death is said to be the ‘supreme contemplation.’ It encompasses reflecting not only on physical mortality, but on impermanence in all its dimensions.”
Contemplating the impermanence of all things can be enlightening and helpful. For example, let’s say you’re angry at someone because they have offended you. How long will you stay angry? An hour? A day? A week? Surely you won’t stay angry forever. Your anger, like everything else, is impermanent. Sooner or later, you’ll stop being angry — so why not stop sooner rather than later?
With practice, letting go of anger becomes nearly automatic. Sometimes I used to stay angry for days — literally, days. Indeed, when someone offended me, I typically stayed angry for three days.
The Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, says: “Anger is like a howling baby, suffering and crying. The baby needs his mother to embrace him. You are the mother for your baby, your anger.”
As soon as I became angry, my whole focus was to soothe my howling baby and alleviate my anger. In time I learned to soothe my baby, my anger, in two days — and then just one. Finally I reached a point where I could reject the beginnings of anger — nip it in the bud, so to speak. I didn’t like being angry. So, why bother getting angry in the first place?
Moreover, I asked myself: What if the person who offended me died tomorrow? Would I be glad they were dead? Or would I wish I had forgiven them while they were still alive? If I were suddenly stricken and found myself dying, would I want my final thoughts to be angry and vengeful?
No doubt, Christians will recall the admonition of Jesus found in Matthew 18: 20-21: “Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.”
I no longer struggle to forgive those who have hurt me. I forgive them automatically, not just because Jesus and Buddha say I should — but rather, because it gives me peace of mind and wellness in my heart. (That was the intent of Jesus and Buddha — that we should be well and free from negative emotions.)
This took years of practice and effort. When we are hurt, our natural instinct makes us want to hurt others. I was able to master this valuable teaching by recognizing and working with the impermanence of my feelings and emotions — and the impermanence of life itself.
Judy Leif continues and concludes: “Awareness of death — hearing its teaching — cuts through the subtle clinging at the core of our experience. It cuts through our self-clinging and our clinging to others. This may sound harsh, but all that clinging has not really helped us or anyone else. Our clinging to others may have the appearance of real caring, but it is based on fear and an attempt to freeze and control life. It is a way of tuning out death and pulling back from the intensity of life. But if we develop more ease with our own impermanence and struggles with death, we can be more understanding of others and their struggles. We can connect with one another with greater genuineness and warmth.
“Death turns out to be the teacher who releases us from fear. It’s the teacher that opens our hearts to a more free-flowing love and appreciation for life and one another. When we get stuck in self-importance and earnestness, death steps in. When we get caught in self-pity, death steps in. When we become complacent and take things for granted, death steps in.
“Death spurs us forward with a sense of urgency and puts our preoccupations in perspective. Death lightens our clinging and mocks our pretensions. Death wakes us up. It is our most reliable teacher and most constant companion.”
Mark Heinz lives at Nolin Lake. Visit his website at amazon.com/author/markheinzbooks.