It’s not hard to understand the ordinary operations of impermanence. Things come & go, including people. Human beings are caught in “the relentless grip of time,” as the physicist Sean Carroll writes in The Big Picture.” And various versions of the self wax & wane over the course of an hour, a day, a month, a year, a lifetime. Most human beings most of the time are only minimally aware that they are so gripped by time & change. It’s that big change at the end that eats away at consciousness & that we try to forget about, though of course we can’t really forget about it fully. It’s a mistake to push awareness of mortality into the unconscious, though. It is bound to manifest elsewhere. For much of my life the attempt to suppress thoughts of death emerged in various forms of misbehavior that I’m too modest (or embarrassed) to report here. Suffice it to say I only made myself more miserable.
But my marker on the gameboard has suddenly been advanced by some invisible hand so as to make me acutely aware of my own approaching mortality. Timor mortis contrubat me, wrote the poet William Dunbar at the beginning of the 16th century. The fear of death confounds me. He was ill & thinking of all the fine poets who had preceded him into death; he lists them by name & how they were carried off. He repeats the line in every stanza of a twenty-eight stanza poem, hammering it home & near the end writes, “Sen he has all my brether tane, / He will naught let me live alane.”Dunbar has seen what’s coming & now knows that poetry will not protect him. Perhaps it’s silly to imagine it ever could, but those old Scots bards were said to have magical powers.
Last week I downloaded & completed three legal documents: Last Will & Testament; Healthcare proxy; & Power of Attorney, the latter two giving my wife C. power to act in my name when I cannot, the first instructing her how I would like my megre assets distributed after my death. Working on these documents projected me into the future with a strange, ambiguous affect. On one hand, I was extending my control into the future by telling others what I wanted in a legally enforceable way; but on the other hand I was projecting myself into a future in which only my ghost existed–in these documents. I felt a little like a ghost in constructing them. Once they were completed, of course, they had to be witnessed & signed.
It turns out to be fairly difficult to assemble three witnesses, a notary & the two principals involved. So I set up a meeting at the hospital where I am being treated. The notary (a vice-president in the hospital administration & a very friendly woman about my age) met us & we sat in an alcove of the lobby, signing & grabbing staff to serve as witnesses as necessary. All done in fifteen minutes, during which we made small talk & joked about this & that, knowing but ignoring why I was concluding this business at this particular time. (I was the one in a wheelchair.) I don’t think we were being dishonest. We were strangers, after all, dealing with reality. But I suspect there was just a touch of unease in each of those random witnesses, picked out today to be confronted with a reminder of mortality. A dark wing passing through the sunlight, trailing a shadow. That’s probably why we laughed so much. (They work in a hospital–maybe they don’t need to be reminded.)
Flux & flow are the way of the world, or so the most advanced physics attests, to say nothing of several sophisticated sacred traditions. But this condition is by no means all Whitmanian slip & slide & spiritual smooth sailing. Change–especially the big change at the end–will punch you in the head, knock your feet out from under you, frighten you out of your wits & rub you raw. These days, I live with the big change on intimate terms. My cancer could spread, or decide that the drug we are using against it tastes like candy & go wild. But I actually don’t think in those terms most of the time. Most of the time I talk with friends, or eat a meal, or read, or listen to music, or write this blog, or make poems, or practice Zen. In dreams the shadows will descend in a confused mass sometimes, without resolving into a pattern. A particularly sharp stab of pain, or a new pain anywhere, will produce a cry of anguish or pulse of anxiety
There are those who seek to mitigate the vertigo induced by this kind of radical impermanence by finding some sort of foundation–traditionally, something like God, but taking many other forms, from dharmas1 to selfish genes & blind watchmakers. At this point it would be simple enough to slide off toward a discussion of entropy & the arrow of time, but I’ll just stipulate that the physics confirms a more intuitive insight that Buddhists have been developing for two & a half millennia: Everything is changing all the time, but our perceptual & psychological systems smooth out change & seek patterns that allow us to function in the world.2 Normally, then, we see the world through a series of filters & reducing valves. “Through a glass, darkly,” as Corinthians has it. I’ve said in a recent post (“Reincarnation”) that the universe seems just strange enough to me to allow for some subtle flow of energy out of one’s consciousness at death. But what happens to it or where it goes I would not pretend to know.
- The word dharma comes from the ancient religions of India and is found in Hindu and Jain teachings as well as Buddhist. Its original meaning is something like “natural law.” Its root word, dham, means “to uphold” or “to support.” In this broad sense, common to many religious traditions, dharma is that which upholds the natural order of the universe. This meaning is part of the Buddhist understanding also. (Source: About.com). ↩
- Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception makes this idea central to his thesis about psychedelic drugs. ↩