Inspirational Articles

Impermanence. Death. Liberation.

Impermanence.  Death.  Liberation.

By John Pollard

I was stunned recently when a friend told me that a former classmate of hers had suddenly lost her partner through a freak accident at home. In the space of 10 days they went from being a normal, happy family to having a memorial service. The suddenness of this took my breath away. It also reminded me of the truth of impermanence which suggests that everything is constantly changing, and that the only thing that is truly permanent is change itself.

So often there is a sense of us desperately clinging onto various aspects of our lives - our relationships, our homes, our jobs, our bodies. We so want to make these parts of our lives solid and real and permanent. Yet they resist our holding on - they just keep endlessly changing. Certainly the recent global economic downturn has shown us this in terms of our financial lives!

How can we begin to be more comfortable with the notion of change, of impermanence? If you really think about it, it's such a natural occurrence in life but we are not taught to see it this way. We may rejoice in the changes of the seasons and embrace the cyclical rhythms of the natural world, but we cannot see this in our own lives.

What if we began to look at our lives more carefully, or even examined just one day? Are we truly conscious of all of the many changes and transitions that take place over the course of a day? So many experiences and interactions in a day are born, live for while, and then dissolve away. This is just the nature of life and living.

If we can begin to notice and accept these moment-to-moment transitions and changes throughout every moment of life, we will become much more comfortable with the powerful transition that takes place at the end of life. What would it be like if we were able to invite in each transition, each change, each moment of life, each breath, be truly aware of it, let it live for while, and then release it, let it go, having fully experienced it? If we are able to do this, perhaps at the end of life the only thing we will need to let go of is the last experience, the last transition, the last breath.

The experience of my friend's classmate who suddenly lost her partner is a reminder that none of us truly knows when our own death will occur. We may get lost in denial and fear around wanting to look at these difficult issues, and yet many wisdom traditions suggest we should keep the reality of death and dying very present in our lives.

Just think for a moment: if you knew, beyond any doubt, that you would die in the next six months, what changes would you make in your life? What would be most important for you to complete? Is it the healing of a relationship, a trip to a long-treasured destination, or a deepening of your spiritual practice? Whatever it is for you, don't put if off! Anyone reading this article may not even have six months. Who have you not forgiven? What is left undone? Who have you not told that you love them? Please consider this deeply.

These are some of the important topics we will explore in the Death and Dying Unit in TAC’s Spiritual Director Training Program. Stephen Levine, one of the great writers in this field, says that for any other trip we take we would do a lot of preparation - checking maps, getting a passport, booking tickets, etc. But for this most profound transition that we will make at end of life, we are often ill-prepared. We cannot afford to delay this work any longer.

Some of the areas that will be covered in this Unit include:

  • opening up to an exploration of conscious living and conscious dying by examining our denial and fears around death and dying, and how our lives might change if we knew we only had a short time to live
  • finding new ways to turn toward death rather than away from it, and seeing impermanence all around us
  • looking at practices and rituals around death and dying from various faith traditions around the world
  • learning to embrace our mortality with compassion and pondering what a "good death" might entail
  • examining such difficult topics as suicide, assisted suicide and euthanasia
  • understanding the importance of caring for ourselves as we learn how to simply "be" with the dying and honour their needs.

Some people are immobilized by the seeming finality of death and dying, but a number of spiritual traditions point to other truths. The Buddha, using the metaphor of a flame, said that when the fire of our unwholesome desires, ill will and delusions are finally burnt out, the flame has not died away, but has been liberated. In a similar vein, Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore said: "Death is not the extinguishing of the light, but the blowing out of the candle because the dawn has come."

Whatever your beliefs, this is work than cannot be put off any longer. Please join us in this remarkable program and essential training. One of the unexpected benefits of these explorations is that by truly confronting what may be our deepest fear, by looking directly yet compassionately at our mortality, we will have come to terms with what it means to be human. And this will inevitably and profoundly change our living as well as our dying.


The ten-month Spiritual Director Training Program, including the seven-week unit on conscious living and conscious dying.

John Pollard, MA, a Spiritual Director and Psychotherapist, now retired, was teaching and counselling at Transformational Arts and in private practice.