Writing from the Heart: Impermanence

When death comes, we find it shocking, when, of course, it is inevitable.


My teacher, Ram Dass, used to tell a story about a guy who had a painting of a sunset. Most of the painting is blah, gray, kind of nothing. But in the right-hand corner, there is a swath of magenta that is so electric, so brilliant, so breathtaking you don’t even notice the BLAH. So the guy takes it to the framer, and two weeks later he goes back, and the framer says, “Gee, I didn’t have a frame big enough, so I had to fold over that pink thing.”

I am listening for your audible gasp.

The reason I love the story is that, over the years, I have realized that we’re not in charge of much of what goes on in our lives. Husbands walk out, kids die, our best friends get cancer. But we are in charge of the size of the frame of our story. There is always tragedy, but there is ALSO always magenta.

So if you see only the gray, the depressing, the blah, you won’t be able to get out of bed; and if you see only the magenta, you’re in la-la land.

I know I’ve been writing a lot about balance and death lately. The middle way. Being able to feel broken and being able to celebrate with great joy, sometimes in the same minute.

I’ve been learning a bit about IFS, internal family systems, a therapy model that recognizes the many parts we have inside us.

And I have been accessing one of my scaredy-cat parts.

Two Sundays ago, I lost my brother-in-law. I loved the 19-year-old James Dean wannabe the minute I met him, 58 years ago. And this week I lost a dear, dear friend.

When someone dies, aside from grieving, I don’t know about you, but I’m always shocked. Part of me thinks, How could this have happened? But of course, the logical part of me knows, Why wouldn’t this have happened? However, emotions are not logical, and emotionally, I think that when things are going along, I expect them to continue going along. The scaredy-cat part of me doesn’t want the change if things are great, and has insisted that everyone will die except me and my close loved ones.

But because my close ones keep dying, either I have to amend my long-held fantasy, or get real. That’s where impermanence comes in.

Many years ago in Hartford, Conn., at Trinity College, there were two Buddhist monks creating a mandala. It took three months for them to complete the piece of art. We were told the ancient ritual symbolizes the transitory nature of material life.

Crowds would come and watch in silence. Since I was working right there, I would go as often as I could.

I learned that one of the things the monks were doing was making the connection between their inner worlds and their outer reality. And that the mandala is constructed to be dismantled immediately after it is finished.

I’ll never forget when this absolutely exquisite mastery of color and texture was carried to the river and thrown in. Even though I knew that this was supposed to happen, I was still shocked.

How could such perfection be discarded like some piece of useless trash?

I remember standing on the banks of the Connecticut River and, for the first time, having this new, profound understanding that this was a brilliant teaching that nothing is permanent.

But brilliant as I knew it was, I think the only teaching I got at the time stayed in my outer reality. Intellectually, I thought it was a great concept. But emotionally, I now know I hadn’t let it seep into my inner world. Otherwise, I wouldn’t still be so shocked when someone I care about dies.

But I’m coming to understand that when losses are painful, when the gray is so gray, I need to remember the magenta.

Maybe it’s time for my scaredy-cat to remember that mandala — the beauty of it, and the lesson of letting it go.