Death and Equanimity
Name Two Things that Belong Together?
And the answer is: death and equanimity.
Knock Knock! (A haiku)
Oh, it’s you again.
Really? No place else to be?
OK, death—come in.
I remember driving to pick up a refill of Dad’s morphine prescription. He was definitely in his final stages with lung cancer. All around me in the drug store were people just going about their business. Teenage girls looking at the makeup selection, a woman buying greeting cards, and a father buying his little children ice cream. I recall thinking, Dad used to buy me ice cream, too. And now he never will again. It was hard to understand how all of these people could just be going about their business.
When Mom and my husband Ed died, I recall having a similar reaction. I would see people running their errands, buying groceries, filling up their gas tanks. Didn’t they know that I was utterly torn up? Eventually, I began to see the routines of others as reassuring. Watching people navigate the everyday business of life gave me hope. There were others who were well and happy. And I would be, too. It was good to be surrounded by people who did not seem to be impacted by death. Of course, I had no idea how many of them were watching the rest of us and thinking, “How can they just be going about their business, don’t they know my loved one has died?”
Equanimity helped me to watch all of these experiences, and to smile at the father buying his daughter ice cream, and to wish metta to the woman at the pump across from mine at the gas station. I did not know what other experiences life had brought them. I did know that at some point they would experience sadness. And if today I saw them experiencing joy, then I was happy for their joy.
Equanimity helped me to accept the importance of living the life that I had been given and to realize that already having experienced difficulties was no guarantee that there would not be more difficulties.
My friends would say things like, “Well, you are done now. You have already had some difficult experiences. There is no way that life [or God, if that was their belief system], would send you anything else to deal with. That just would not be fair.”
But it is not about fair or about what you have had to deal with. There are many people who have dealt with situations that are much more difficult. People have lost their entire families in one tragic moment.
Your karma will send you what it sends you. That does not mean that your life is fatalistically predetermined. It means that based on your past and current actions, your karma will take root. And you will live the fruits of your karma. Equanimity brings you a balanced perspective. It helps you to set your priorities. You understand that it makes no sense to spend your energy on your past actions. Own these actions and the karma that stems from them. Do your best with what comes your way. Do not use your energy wishing that your loved ones would not die. Use your actions skillfully, to help yourself and to help others.
I cannot go back in time and change anything about my current or past lives. Time travel storylines, while fun, are inherently flawed. You are only supposed to change one thing, but if you change other things the universe is damned forever. You are never supposed to meet yourself in another dimension, or the universe is damned forever. Forget about all that. It is much easier to just work on your life as you live it right now.
Not knowing what will come but knowing that whatever happens is part of your karma is less stressful than worrying about what is coming. Grief is something to learn from and not simply to be endured. It is not a series of mile markers on a racetrack. There is no need to rush through any part of your life; it is all as it is meant to be. You need to keep practicing.
Expectations for a life completely without dukkha are unreasonable. It is our views that make a situation either easy or difficult, to be avoided or to be embraced. Equanimity and compassion and loving-kindness help us to see our role in our own suffering.
Equanimity means that we accept death. It is one of the many events that make up our lives. In one moment, you might be with a friend who has just lost her husband and in the next moment, you receive a text that your other friend is newly engaged. On the same day, you might learn that a former co-worker has died and then you receive a text about someone else’s new baby.
All of these moments are important and are meant to be experienced with equanimity. This does not mean without feeling. It means to direct your energy and emotions in the best possible way. Be happy for your newly engaged friend. Don’t be manic about it. Be sad at the loss of your co-worker. Understand the truth—that you cannot feel everything for everybody. You cannot prevent others from having difficulties, and you are rarely the cause for their gains. YOU are not karma.
I won’t promise you that death will become easy for you. That death is no big deal, and that you will not be sad when someone dies, or that you will not cry. I won’t tell you that because it is not true. What I will say is that your relationship with death can become much more balanced. Equanimity will help you see that death has its place in the overall landscape of your life.
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