Contemplating death may seem like a morbid exercise yet this practice not only helps you accept the changes you experience throughout life but brings richness to your everyday experience.
Everything changes, nothing stays the same Download
Ozymandias; exploration of “Everything changes, nothing stays the same” by means of a group contemplation called response / inquiry.
The theme that we’re working with right now is Everything changes, nothing stays the same. And one of the more famous poems in English on this theme is by Percy Bysshe Shelley called Ozymandias. A sonnet that he wrote:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
’My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on [upon] my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
So, things change. Now, as I described yesterday evening, what we’re going to do this morning is kind of a group contemplation. It really is a definite structure which could be called response-inquiry. And it’s a way for a group to engage a theme through a discussion which the structure supports the reflection and contemplation. We don’t have—there aren’t strict time constraints or anything. And we’ll put one of the microphones in the center of the room and, (thank you Janet). I’ll probably pick a person at random, blindly. I’m going to throw out a question, and we can all reflect on that question. When that first person feels ready, they’ll come take the microphone, come back to their seat, and give their response to that question.
Now in giving these responses, keep to one, two, maximum three, sentences. So this isn’t an occasion for a lecture or anything. And this means that you’re going to take the time to boil down, “Okay, what is it that I want to say here?” or “I’m called to say,” however you want look at it. Then that person, when they’ve said that, they are going to return the microphone to the center and return to their seat. And we’ll continue to sit together, and when that same person has a question which will probably be somewhat related, but coming out of that, then they take the microphone again and ask that question. Then the person next to them goes through the same process.
Now we’re a fairly large group, so this will take a little time. If we get around the whole circle before our time for this morning is up, then we’ll just do it at random. Anybody can come at any time. But they always go through the same process. They take the microphone; respond to the question that was asked; return the microphone; then take the microphone to ask a question. And you don’t get to answer your own question. [Laughter.] Too bad there. Any questions about the process before we begin? Okay. And Elena, when I finish this, I’ll shut this microphone off. So we’ll just be using that one.
So the question that I’m going to use to start this process is, If I really took in that everything changes, and nothing stays the same, what would be different about my life?
Student-1: If I really took in that everything changes and nothing remains the same, my initial experience is a sense of panic. And then right underneath that there’s also a sense of relief that they’re both happening simultaneously.
Is it necessary to feel this sense of panic?
Student-2: If there is a feeling of panic, it’s very important to feel it.
Where does the question come from?
Student-3: The question comes from opening to what I’m experiencing.
How do I live if what I’m experiencing continually changes?
Student-4: You live each moment in each experience.
How do I live each moment if I’m so used to not living each moment?
Student-5: So I run into this all the time, and on a good moment, I make the bold intention to live each moment fully. And when I do, I count it as a joy. And when I don’t, I let that go.
What preparation can I make so that my last moment will be conscious and loving?
Student-6: My practice develops space for me to open with compassion in preparation for my last moment.
When another is brought into my feelings and my sensations, perhaps another from the past, how do I work with the deep grief of that other, and myself?
Student-7: I feel like saying you asked the wrong person. That I have no idea how you deal with deep grief from the past in particular. Grief that seems too big to bear, that you can’t—it’s too painful to let into your consciousness all at once. I’m kind of mindful of something from the Christian tradition, which says you’re not going to be given any burden that’s more than you can bear. And I sometimes think that you just have to deal with things a little bit as you’re able, as it comes in to your consciousness. But deep griefs from the past—very very hard.
Even though everything changes, aren’t there some constant truths in the universe that we’re trying to cling to and find, or is that in itself a problem?
Student-8: The truths that we cling to cause us suffering.
Why does seeing that everything changes bring so much regret for every unkindness I’ve done?
Student-9: Seeing that everything changes and that no one stays in this life forever, I also feel a sense of sadness when I think of how I’ve hurt other people, and have added more to the suffering that is already there in life.
Why does my heart beat so wildly and I feel such a strong sense of wanting to escape when I know that I’m with a group of people and especially when it’s my turn to speak or present my thoughts or my ideas?
Student-10: Sometimes we judge ourselves without realizing that others feel the same way that we do.
Why—since human beings have been around for so long—why is death something so difficult for us to accept?
Student-11: The question, Why is death so difficult to accept? can be answered two ways. One, from a personal perspective that each one of us will have an answer inside ourself. And the other, broad generalizations about our culture and how it influences our lack of attention to death.
It seems to me that my mind throws up all kinds of roadblocks to getting closer to death. How does one quiet the mind?
Student-12: Each one of us tries to quiet our mind in our own ways, and we’ve come here for Ken to show us another way or to learn more about how to quiet the mind.
Is it true I need to quiet my mind?
Student-13: If you rest and let things be, not pushing anything away, then naturally the mind will slowly become quiet by itself.
How do I keep from rejecting or covering over the parts of me that are coming with fear and pain?
Student-14: I can think of one possibility, which would be to offer hospitality to the parts of you who want to reject and cover over.
Since in a large way it might be possible to imagine that death and impermanence are the source of everything that we know, could it be possible to find joy in acceptance of death and impermanence?
Student-15: Perhaps the ability to accept the reality of death and impermanence, once accepted in the same way as we accept birth and all other aspects of our life; birth not being possible without death. It’s simply an is-ness, it’s part of the trip, and perhaps that understanding enables going into death in a joyful manner, almost a celebratory manner, if a person perhaps is able to embody the acceptance of death in that way.
How does our ego, or the way in which we see ourselves or wish that others perceive us, impact the way in which we relate to everything changing, nothing lasts forever?
Ken: Okay. We need to stop here. How to chew up an hour very quickly. Did it seem like an hour? It’s a different way of having a conversation. And at least from where I was sitting, it’s really quite wonderful to feel the attention in both the questions and the responses. In a few minutes we’ll take a break, start meditation at 10:30. And in the meditation this morning I want you to continue with the same reflection that I put forward last night. “Everything changes, nothing stays the same,” and holding that statement and experiencing what arises in association with it. The resistance, the acceptance, and everything in between.
Now, there are a few points which I want to touch on that were raised in here. And one of the reasons I like this process is that I get to hear questions that I would never hear in any other situation, I think. So, “Do I need to quiet the mind?” Well, in Buddhist circles it would be, like “Well, of course you do!”
But the question invites a wonderful exploration in potentially several different directions. One direction is, “Okay, I’ve heard it’s good to quiet the mind. Does that have any place in my life?” And it brings you in touch with the whole question about intention in practice. “What am I actually doing here?” That’s one direction. But another maybe related, maybe different, direction is, “What exactly does it mean to quiet the mind? Does that mean having no thoughts? Or does that mean not being disturbed by thoughts?” Or, “What does it mean?”
So questions like this invite us to look at things in different ways, re-examining our intentions and exploring potentially very different relationships with elements of our experience that we just take for granted. Or goals and ideals that we take for granted.
I’m reminded of the story from the Zen tradition of this monk who comes to the teacher says, “I can’t quiet my mind. What do I do?” And the teacher says “Show me your mind.” And the student replies, “I can’t find it.” To which the teacher responds, “Done.” [Laughter.]
And then there was the point made that clinging to truth causes suffering. Or clinging to truths causes suffering. I think that’s worth thinking about, because part of us looks and longs, possibly, for something to hold onto which doesn’t change.
And then the comments about grief and the sadness which comes up with this statement of the obvious: everything changes, nothing stays the same. It brings up a certain sadness or grief or seems to. And what I want to suggest here is that maybe one of the reasons the statement brings up sadness and grief is because we see or sense—maybe we don’t even see but just sense—that much of the grief we cause or experience comes from our own inability to accept change. So I think you’ve got plenty to work with.