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It is good to remind yourself about sickness and death

Even though I am only in my early 20s, I often think about sickness and death. These thoughts really make me feel depressed and scared. Is there something wrong with me for thinking about such things? How can I get rid of these negative thoughts?

TP, Thimphu

While it is not helpful to make yourself feel depressed, it is actually good to remind yourself about sickness and death.

In reality, most people behave as though they will live forever. They never think about the future. Instead, they spend most of their time trying to accumulate wealth and property and concern themselves only with trivial matters, such as social status and short-term enjoyment.

However, if we deeply understand that sickness and death can arrive at any moment, then we will not waste our lives on such trivia, but instead devote our time and effort to what is really important. In fact, some Buddhist teachers suggest that their students try to imagine that they only have only one year to live. If they can do this sincerely, then their priorities will totally change. Disputes over property, for example, will no longer be important. Likewise, social status or material wealth will become meaningless.

So, acknowledging impermanence and recognizing that sickness and death are part of human existence is not pessimistic, but a way to vitalize and give meaning to our lives.

If you are unclear about what is important in life, imagine that you are lying in hospital dying and then reflect over your past. Ask yourself what things in your life give you confidence and enable you to die peacefully and with no regrets? Will it be how many buildings you own or the number of shopping trips to Bangkok you made, or will it be something more profound? This is a question that only you can answer.

In reality, you should not despair that you often think about sickness and death, but instead use these thoughts to help you appreciate the preciousness of your human life.

So, does this mean that you should quit your job and abandon your home? No, not at all, but it does mean that you understand that, like our own bodies, these things are impermanent and so cannot offer lasting pleasure. Even if your home is solid and your job secure, in reality they are no more real than a mirage or rainbow, and will similarly  disappear once the causes and conditions that created them change. At the very least, these things will lose their appeal when you are sick and will vanish entirely when you die.

In reality, the only thing we take with us when we die is our karma – the result of our action. Therefore, even if you do not gain enlightenment in this life, at least you should create good karma.

On a practical level, imagine that you are in a relationship. While you will have enjoyed happy times with your partner, you probably will also have spent a lot of time arguing over minor issues. Now, think that you are at Paro Airport and that your partner is about to go overseas for a very long time. The urgency of the occasion means that you will no longer dwell on small matters, but will instead value those few moments together. You may even forego a trip to the toilet so you do not waste a single second of your time together. And, what makes this time so precious? Recognizing that it is impermanent.

In reality, death does not only occur when the brain stops functioning, but exists in each moment or our lives. For new plants to grow, the old ones have to die. Our lunch has to end so we can enjoy dinner. In this respect, do not think of impermanence as something negative but as a reality of life. When we accept this, our lives will be transformed. In this way, I suggest that you do not fear ill health and the demise of your body, but accept them as an inevitable part of human existence. This will not only prepare you for sickness and death, but will make each moment of your life precious.

To gain a deeper understanding of impermanence I suggest that you contemplate these words of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche (taken from: ‘What Makes You Not a Buddhist’): “We usually appreciate only half of the cycle of impermanence. We can accept birth but not death, accept gain but not loss, or the end of exams but not the beginning. True liberation comes from appreciating the whole cycle and not grasping onto those things that we find agreeable. By remembering the changeability and impermanence of causes and conditions, both positive and negative, we can use them to our advantage. Wealth, health, peace, and fame are just as temporary as their opposites.”

In reality, it was the realization of old age, sickness, and death that caused Prince Siddhartha to leave his palace and to step on the path that finally led him to become the Buddha.

So, in short, don’t try to suppress your thoughts about sickness and death, but instead use them to remind you that everything is constantly changing, dying and being reborn. When we are aware of this reality, we begin to appreciate the preciousness of our short human life and no longer waste time on trivia.

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organising drug outreach programmes. Email to jjwangchuk@gmail.com for any queries

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