Goodbyes (written 2015)
There have been a number of goodbyes in my life recently. Loved ones moving away. People who have touched my life passing away. It always has seemed that, like a TV show, periods of my life have themes. Sometimes I'm learning about not having my way. Sometimes I'm learning about joy. Sometimes about patience. Lately, I'm in a season of learning about letting go. A common theme. It has to be, since it's so easily verified by experience that nothing is permanent. No matter what sort of fictions we make up to the contrary. No matter how strong our desire for “forever” and “ever after”, the stuff of fairy tales and love songs.
Goodbyes are painful. A short period in an airport illustrates the universality of this. An honest look at our personal experience is like tearing off emotional bandages. Fast or slow? Doesn't much matter. It just hurts. Why it hurts begins to become clear in meditation. The first Noble Truth in the Buddha's teaching is most often translated as “There is suffering”. The second that this suffering has a cause. And the cause is clinging or attachment. In the light of this, comparing a goodbye to the ripping away of a bandage is apt. It hurts to be separated from what we've grown attached to, and we attach mightily to the people in our lives. The adhesive there is heavy duty.
I glued my hands to a music box I was repairing once with Crazy Glue. Not only did the removal hurt, but the anticipation, the fear, was pretty painful in itself. I'd gotten myself into a fix (pun intended) and the only way out was going to be unpleasant. My busy mind conjured everything from scalding water to exacto knives! When we attach to someone in our lives we're inevitably in the same fix. The letting go itself is going to hurt. And knowing this, the anticipation we dwell in hurts just as much. The mind gets busy with scenarios that give rise to fear and sorrow and anxiety, even while the person is still present and suitcases aren't even packed, or no diagnosis has been given.
Meditation is about watching the mind. Watching just these sorts of habitual pain-making patterns. Seems like one wouldn't want to do that. It seems it would be a better “solution” to the pain to block it out. And there are certainly a lot of ways to do that. There are TV shows to watch, books to read, parties to go to, friends to call. Sleep is a good escape and drinking might seem like one too. Anything that clouds or closes down the mind, that distracts us from the stories it's telling. The problem with these solutions is that they only work for awhile. And when you wake up, sober up, turn off the TV, close the book, hang up the phone, get back to the empty house, the gremlins are waiting. So the cycle of hurting and numbing gets rolling. This is the way many of us live long stretches of our lives. It's at least as bleak as a bad TV show.
So what if, instead, I choose to watch my mind. I begin to see what happens. Each time I let the mind move into anticipation of parting, lean into the future, suffering arises. Each time I let the mind reach into the past, conjuring up melancholy memories of times I cannot relive, suffering arises. When I succeed in keeping the mind here, in the body, with the breath, in the simple sensations and flickers of passing moments, it is like being in the eye of a storm. Here it is calm and comfortable. Here is ease. Because here the story of “me” and “what I'm losing” doesn't exist. Here I stop the story telling and creating that makes me a protagonist in my own TV series. Instead there is just experience unfolding.
This is not a grim acceptance of something I don't like but will put up with (like tearing off the bandage). It's clear seeing of this moment as it rises and passes away, impermanent. Rather than writing a script, gathering the material as I reach behind and ahead of this moment, creating a self who suffers, I simply stop and rest. When I do, even these goodbyes don't last. The third Noble Truth tells us that ending suffering is possible. We can taste that in every moment that we're free from the self and its stories.