My grandfather lived to 100. He was a spiritual person, and he probably could have lived to 110 as he was immensely fit, but unfortunately he was run over by a car. During his last 6 weeks, spent in hospital, he went through a lot of stuff, going in and out of pain, in and out of lucidity, and having some moments of great insight. One day he said to my brother:
“In the light of eternity I can see very clearly now that there is no difference between one moment and one hundred years.”
When we get to the end of our life, it is like last night’s dream upon awakening — however long it felt at the time, it’s barely a moment. There is no difference between a dream of long duration and one of short duration, once it’s finished. So whether we live a long life or a short life, it’s still insubstantial, it’s not who we really are. It’s just who we think we are at the moment. In fact, if we’re imputing ourselves on the body of this life, the people of this life, the jobs of this life, the money of this life, the surroundings of this life, and so on, then we are not relating to ourselves as who we really are.
As mentioned in previous articles on rebirth, we are actually a traveler who has come from countless previous lives and is going to countless future lives. That sense of being a continuum of awareness is immensely mind expanding. If we don’t have it, we limit our self to superficial, fleeting appearances.
It is like getting in a train carriage and putting up the curtains, marrying the person in the next seat, settling down forever, complaining about the neighbors in the next row. When we get to the end of the line and the conductor says, “All disembark!”, we panic, “Oh no, you can’t make me get off! This is who I am, this is me and my friends on this train. This is my real world. This is where I belong.” But it’s not.
We do ourselves a great disservice because of identifying so strongly with the things of this life. We are upset when things don’t go our way. Instead of getting any perspective on them, we grasp at everything as being very important; and also we do not set our sights on spiritual training because in fact we’re not identifying ourselves as spiritual beings. To become interested in our spiritual nature entails understanding the nature of consciousness. I don’t think there is any other way around it. If we understand the nature, function, and continuum, or cycle, of consciousness, and if we know that this body will eventually perish, we know that our mind will continue past the duration of this body. From that we’ll conclude that it is extremely important that we take care of purifying and training it so that we experience happiness and freedom not just now but forever.
If we get interested in Buddhism, we find that we can train to overcome our anger, for example, and our attachment, our addictions. We can overcome our fear, we can even uproot our ignorance. During this life we can purify our mind of all its negative actions and pathways to suffering. We can develop universal love and compassion. We can develop bliss and omniscient wisdom. Perhaps we hear these things and we think, “What a great idea!”, but then at the same time, if we’re going to be dead in a few hundred months, and if our mind is the brain, then at that point the candle is going out. If that’s what we think, that the mind is finite, then what’s the point really of training it? Of course it will make us happier and so on, and increase our gray matter, but what is the real point? There’s not much point really, is there? If our mind is just a piece of shriveling soft tissue headed for annihilation, we might as well sit this one out. Just wait for it to pass. Wait for extinction.
Of course that’s not what happens. The whole point is that the mind and the body are not the same.
I have a story about my grandmother too. When I was younger and became interested in Buddhism, doing jobs in Buddhist centers and so on, I got paid a pittance. (Working for Buddhist centers is not a career move by the way ;-)) And my grandmother noticed this and thought, basically, that I wasn’t taking enough care of the things of this life. She would say, “You’re not working hard enough to make money! What about your pension? What’s going to happen when you get to my age and you’ve no money?” One Christmas party she also cornered a good family friend of mine, Pagpa, a Buddhist monk, and spent over an hour telling him the same things …
These were valid points; it is not like what she was saying didn’t have any reality. However, she felt that everything was wrapped up just with who I was in this life and that I was therefore badly letting myself down. And I was trying to explain to her that, regardless of what happens when I retire, my death and future lives may come sooner and I needed to prepare for those.
As my grandmother got old, on one of my visits to see her at her house in the south of England she said, “You know, as I am heading now towards my death and looking back on my life, all these things, such as having money, feel hollow to me. They don’t feel like who I am.” And we talked about this and she asked me, “What can I do? What does Buddhism say about this? What will happen when I die and afterwards?” I showed her the book, Transform Your Life: A Blissful Journey, which I had on me. She read the title out loud and then said, sadly, “It is too late now to make that blissful journey. My life is almost over.” It was very poignant, actually, the way she said it. But anyway I tried to encourage her; I said it is never too late to get interested in spiritual life. Which I think is true, as long as we do get interested when we hear about it.
Later on, my grandmother suffered from dementia and needed full-time care. From having a big house with lots of books, she went down to having whatever could fit in one small room in a nursing home. When I visited her there, I saw that on her book shelf she had just two books. One of them was Transform Your Life.
Many people do have this kind of experience as they get older. As they get close to death they don’t really know who they are anymore. This is because all the things that were propping them up, everything they thought they were, is no longer working. The career is over, they’re retired, the children are grown, health, energy, and looks are failing, and it is clear now that money can’t buy happiness All those measures of who we are and what constitutes wellbeing or success in life are becoming increasingly hollow. But in fact they’re always hollow. It’s just that sometimes as we get older it becomes more evident.
Part 5 is here.