“What do you mean by death with a lower-case ‘d’?”
“How does impermanence help us face the bigger challenges in life?”
Just this past week, these two questions came to me from two different groups. Season 2 of the Death Dhamma podcast has launched, and this season we do not explicitly discuss the death of a loved sentient being. Instead, we discuss the other types of death we experience; death with a lower-case “d.” In the course of your lifetime you will experience loss. Sometimes the loss might be minuscule: you went to the store for mint chocolate chip ice cream, and it was sold out. You had to select something else. And in that moment, you experienced the loss of your ability to fulfill your craving for mint chocolate chip ice cream. Other losses feel much more significant: the end of a relationship, or your job is eliminated, or your car is totaled in accident.
These are the types of losses that can be called death with a lower-case “d.” On any given day, you have things that you believe went well, meaning you believe that you got what you wanted, and you have things that did not go according to your plan. This leads us to consider how impermanence can help us face the bigger challenges in life.
It is how you handle these various losses that condition you for the bigger challenges you will face. I described the inability to buy your favorite flavor of ice cream as a minuscule loss. What do you think? How do you react when you cannot have your mint chocolate chip? Do you accept it, select another flavor, and move on? Or do you take it as a personal affront, perhaps inspiring a rant along the lines of, “They know this is a popular flavor, why can’t they keep it in stock? Who does the ordering? I should complain. I just wanted this one small thing; can’t I even have that? Don’t I deserve my favorite ice cream at the end of a hard day?” While there are some very entitled people who do rise to the occasion during times of loss, for many of us, how we handle these lesser challenges can be an indicator of our ability to deal with death with a capital “D”—when a sentient being we love dies and when we face our own mortality.
Your Buddhist practice gives you the tools you need to build your resilience. The Four Noble Truths remind you that there is dissatisfaction. And you control your own level of dissatisfaction through clinging and aversion. This is not a statement of blame. This is an observation of what it means to be human. When you can accept this truth, you will find it easier to navigate impermanence.
Start small. You do not have to immediately go right to “I am going to die!” You can benefit from truly reflecting on the truth that there is suffering and on the source of that suffering: wanting things, people, and outcomes, and also from not wanting other things, or people, or outcomes. You want your favorite ice cream; you do not want to have to make another choice.
You know that things are always changing. And the more we hang on to our perceptions of how things must be, the more difficult our lives become. If you really did experience strong negative emotions over the ice cream, what did that do to your day? Your blood pressure went up, you felt anger, you experienced tension in your body. You had hard feelings toward the store or the employees. And this disrupted other events and probably your interactions with others. And these reactions did not magically make your ice cream appear. Next time, you can try going to the store with an open mind. You are going to buy your favorite ice cream. If that flavor is not available, you have a second and possibly a third choice. And, if there is no ice cream, you have another choice, or you are not attached to having ice cream at all.
When our plans fall apart, we are presented with an opportunity to embrace impermanence. Those broken plans are a representation of death. Something you relied upon went away. An assumption becomes invalid, a cherished thing breaks, a relationship ends. Pay attention to your emotions as you watch your plans die. Pay attention to your emotions as you begin to watch your plans die—with acceptance. As you begin to become comfortable with how uncertainty is always a part of your daily life. You can begin to project beyond your daily plans.
The plans you have made for your week, your month, your year, all of this is built on a perception of control and an illusion of certainty. Yet plans help us to navigate our lives. Keep making plans and, as you do so, acknowledge that there will be impermanence. Some of your plans, or elements of your plans will die. And when this happens, call it death. Remind yourself that this is a type of death. Now you are living with death.
This is how death with a lower-case “d” and impermanence work to help you become more resilient. Being resilient does not mean never feeling disappointment or anger or sadness, it means feeling these emotions and not allowing them to run your life.
Related features from BDG
Suffering and Rainy Days
To Say Goodbye to Suffering, Learn to Say Hello to Difficult Emotions
Buddhism and Nature, and the Relationship with Human Suffering
The Buddha and Bing Bong on How to Eliminate Suffering from Your Life
The Good News of Suffering: Four Questions on the Four Noble Truths with Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche