Death and Illness: Dealing With Parents, Dukkha and Old Age

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I’m back in California, spending Thanksgiving week with my parents. Because of COVID, I haven’t seen much of them over the last year and a half, which as you can imagine has been difficult. My parents are getting older for one. My father is 82, has Parkinson’s Disease, and is terribly frail now. My mother is younger, and in much better health, but the age is catching up to her as well. 

As I sit here in my childhood bedroom, I try and sit with all this. The Buddha often discussed sickness, illness, and death, and how that all inevitably leads to the First Noble Truth: that life is suffering (dukkha). When this is in the abstract, this all seems well and good and noble. But when struck by the realities of illness and old age in front of me, it becomes apparent just how unequipped for the realities of my own aging body. My father, for instance, can barely walk at this point. He isn’t very lucid.  Most of the warmth of his personality has been drained. It’s easy to even get mad at this. Get angry at him for changing! I know it’s irrational but a small part of me wants to be angry. But I can be ok with that feeling. It’s just a feeling. 

And I try and sit with what is behind that feeling: just a deep well of sadness. Sadness for things passing. Sadness for suffering and death. Sadness for all beings that have to suffer, including me

Strangely enough, this sadness feels closer to my salvation. As I’ve written elsewhere, goalless practice is essential to my meditation practice. But it’s hard not to approach meditation this way. Subtly I always want to meditate and achieve something. It’s very American of me, very competitive in a toxic way. But I feel that way sometimes about death and aging. I want to control. I want it to go away. I don’t want any of this to happen to my parents, to myself. But it will happen no matter what I do. And to sit in this space, to sit with the realities of life and let it all hit you, it seems to me, is the only way out. It is here that I can embrace my pain with real love and compassion. It is here in the snow-filled meadows of my broken heart where I can try and live as best as I can as Bodhisattva, with compassion for all beings but first and more foremost my parents and myself. 

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