Monday, January 15, 2007

This Too Will Pass

It is said that the famous King David of biblical times had a ring on which there was the following inscription: “This too will pass.” This inscription had been put there to make him thoughtful both when happy and when sad. No matter how happy our situation is it will pass. Likewise, no matter how painful our experience is that too will pass. The ultimate aim of the phrase or rather the wisdom behind the phrase is that we might acquire a certain attitude of acceptance or equanimity as regards the vagaries and vicissitudes of life.

This, like much other wisdom, is more easily said than applied. However, there is a deep truth underlying this wonderful dictum from King David’s ring. This wisdom is enshrined in all the great religions, especially Christianity and Buddhism, to name but two.

I have always been impressed with the wisdom of those who have suffered much in life. The Buddha said that much suffering is caused by attachment and by clinging to things - whether to material things, or to other sentient or non-sentient beings. The only way of dealing with suffering, then, according to the Buddha, is to develop an attitude of non-dependence or non-attachment. That does not mean that we should ignore these good and bad experiences – not that we ever could do so since they result in joy and contentment on the one hand, and pain and suffering on the other. No indeed, we objectively observe them, acknowledge them and move on to the next experience that comes our way. I know this is very hard, but it’s the attitude of acceptance (not a passive acceptance mind you that nothing can be done, but rather an active acceptance that strives to accept the pain positively and then go with it in co-operation with medicines prescribed and other therapies that are recommended.) that counts. All of this is easier said than done.

These thoughts are occasioned by two deeply moving experiences I have had recently. The first was a young boy of 16 years, a pupil of mine from school, who told me that he has been diagnosed with a cancer called Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Then today at a P-T meeting I learned that another boy in fifth year, a year older than this boy, had been diagnosed with Polycystic Kidney Disease and might have to get a kidney transplant. The possibility of death and dying does concentrate the mind as Dr Johnston said.

Sogyal Rinpoche’s beautiful book called The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is a wonderful meditation on death and dying, not in a morbid sense, but in an enriching way where death and dying are looked upon as very much part of living. To read and meditate upon the contents of this book is indeed to live well, to appreciate what it means to be alive. One also becomes much more compassionate with others, with one self and with all the sentient creatures of this wonderful, if at times painful, world. One learns the hard lesson, if one has not already acquired it from lived experience, that suffering, dying and death are essential and inevitable parts of living. It is from the very finitude (philosophical term) or finite-ness (if I may be permitted to use such a prosaic neologism) of life that all the works of humankind spring: music, poetry, art and indeed science itself. In short to live is to die. To live well is to learn to die well. As one of my workmates says, “I don’t mind getting old, because if you’re not getting old you’re dead.” Thanks, Michael, there is wisdom in that comment for sure.

The picture above is one I took in Ballyferriter, Co Kerry. It shows the famous Gallárus chapel.

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