You will die. That much is certain. It is only a question of when. And between your death and now, you will suffer much loss as well. It may be the end of a relationship or the death of a pet. It may be the loss of a job or something internal and more abstract like the loss of innocence. But it will happen to you just like it happens to everyone. And there is nothing you can do to stop it.
In Buddhism, loss is understood as a part of existence. Impermanence, one of the three marks of Buddhist teaching, is simple enough to understand: everything changes. This presents a problem psychologically for human beings. Human beings crave permanence and security but life is in constant flux. How are we expected to find peace when everything feels precarious and unstable? There are no easy answers here. If there were, people would generally be a lot happier and less anxious. In my experience as a psychotherapist, however, people are a lot more unhappy.
What I can do is give you my perspective as a practicing Buddhist and therapist. Here are three ways to deal with the impermanence of existence.
- Face Death Head-On
As I said above, you are going to die. That is inescapable. Many people say they aren’t really scared of this fact, but I find that if you dig a little deeper, this is always a lie. A person may not admit to being scared of their own death, but if you reframe death to say the loss of their parent, pet, or child, they soon turn glum. And I get it. Death is so final.
So what to do with the inevitable? Chasing pleasure is an option. Buying things, travel, or eating nice meals make life just a little bit more bearable. But consumption only works so far. Nothing will change the fact you will die.
So instead of consumption, I suggest something simple but yet radical: face your death head-on. Wake every morning and know that your death awaits you maybe today, maybe in 40 years, but it is coming. Let this reality overtake you.
This is all ok. Embrace any feelings that come up. It may take a while or it may be a practice for the rest of your life. But to embrace your death is to embrace living. If you know you’re going to die, how do you want to live your life? If people faced their deaths, I wonder how many would start to make different choices.
- Work toward non-judgmental self-acceptance
in a narcissistic, celebrity-obsessed culture, image is the game. We are in constant competition, real or imagined, against the forces of consumption. Social media has only heightened these effects. The point isn’t real joy or contentment. The point is to show off your perfect life. Even if you don’t post, and just lurk, you’re being sucked into this superficial, consumeristic hellhole.
Living in this world means to face constant feelings of inadequacy. Life is hard enough and disappointing. The absurdity of having consciousness, imagination, and desire yet being so limited by the realities of daily life and death is an unsolvable paradox. We will always want more than we have. And the world of social media and advertising only fuels that more.
So how do we live in a world of constant disappointment? I think all of us need to start with self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is simple enough to understand; it means accepting yourself just as you are, warts and all. But this often feels like an impossible task in the social media era.
But I’ve found a few things to be helpful here. Finding a therapist is a start. The orientation of the therapist is mostly overrated. Far more important is a kind, thoughtful, and compassionate therapist. Just being able to express one’s feelings without feeling judged can do wonders for people.
But therapy is expensive. And not all of us can afford it. In that case, I would suggest either journaling or taking up a meditation practice. Journaling can be a reprieve from the judgmental voices in your head. I’ve personally found it useful in dark moments.
Meditation is also incredibly useful for self-acceptance. There are many kinds of meditation but I find a loving-kindness meditation the most useful for non-judgment. If you can learn to practice this daily, the judgmental voices start to become a little less loud. And once you’ve found non-judgment in your life, you start to move forward and live each day with purpose.
- Find your most important values and live them
What do you care about most? Do you even know? I would suggest most of us do not. Most of us have primed and programmed to believe that we need a lot of money or the perfect job. But it’s hard to know if that is real or something the culture has imbued in us.
To find out, I would try returning to your death. Try imagining your funeral. What would you want people to say about you? How would you have wanted to live? Are you living in a way now that meets these aspirations?
If not, not to worry. It’s hard to keep our values in front of us. But once you can really explore your values, you can start to make different choices. I have an example of this from my own life. In the last 5 years, I realized that creativity was one of my most important values but that I wasn’t living creatively. So I try now to have a daily creative practice. That can be writing this essay, a poem, or drawing. It can be taking photos on my iPhone or learning to cook a new dish. It has done wonders for my mental health to live this way.
The difficultly with this is knowing what your values are. As I suggested above, therapy or journaling is a helpful way to explore this. But don’t expect any quick answers. Really take your time and explore who you are.
Of course, this won’t change the facts of impermanence. Loss will still happen. But what it can do is fill your life with meaning. Finding meaning in a meaningless world can feel like an absurd proposition. But it is the only way forward in a world filled with so much impermanence.