Friday, June 1, 2012

A House of Cards

One of the gifts from spending time with the ones experiencing old age, dementia, sickness and death, is the ongoing opportunity to come closer to the true nature of life. What set the Buddha on his path is good for me too . . . I now understand why the wise man recommended charnel contemplation as one of the mindfulness practices. It is one thing to read about death, and quite another to get close to it with all senses.

Seeing, smelling, touching, being in the presence of one whose body has become a worn out, pain-ridden bag of bones, I get to reflect on the destiny of 'this' body. Being in the presence of one whose mind no longer remember even the steps for basic activities of daily living, I understand that mind is not to be trusted. Sitting at the bedside of one at the verge of death, I get a glimpse of the unavoidable, all encompassing letting go awaiting. This is how things are.

Same with witnessing the many losses to be endured by so many toward the end of their lives, as they get 'placed' in assisted living or a nursing home. A place to call home, no more. The freedom to go as one pleases, forget it. The right to privacy, no, you are getting a roommate, one who may be dying right next to you in the middle of the night.  The pleasure of sitting in the kitchen, nose happily tickled by the familiar aroma of chicken soup simmering on the stove, not an option, you are now being wheeled from your room to the dining room three times a day and that's it. The need to feel useful and contribute to the world, what do you mean? you have paid your dues, now is time to be served and cared for whether you want it or not. A diagnosis of dementia, a stroke, a car accident . . . that's all it takes for one to lose all the basic constituents of one's ordinary well-being.

How precarious the nature of our day to day happiness, and how dependent on so many unreliable factors coming together in some kind of homeostasis! The house of cards could tumble down at any moment.

Ever since my grandfather's sudden death when I was four, I have had this felt sense of tragic unpredictability. An early brush with the First Noble Truth that has shaped my way of being in the world, very early on. Decades later, and rich with many more life lessons, I get a chance to reflect on the many ways that the mind wrap itself around the most inconvenient truth of impermanence. So many mind states, some wise, others not so much. Grief, loss, anxiety, depression, mindfulness, clinging, regret, remorse, anger, fear, patience, denial, avoidance, kindness, oblivion, compulsions, delusions, detachment,  busyness, . . . Finding, verifying the truth of clinging at the base of each instance of mind-created suffering.

I don't want to reside in the house of cards. I want to rest on rock solid ground instead. How about you? What is your relationship to the house of cards? 


  1. I have had the feeling that I could die at any moment, for most of my life. I had to get used to this idea, because it is true, in a sense, and because it comes up often. Once I had accepted it, the notion was not a problem anymore, and I learned not to fear death so much.
    My mother recently died here at home. I had been taking care of her for years, as she went on a steady decline. I agree with you that it is a wonderful opportunity to gain wisdom.

    Kongsaeng Chris Everson

  2. Thank you Chris. It seems that your journey with your mom gave you much, and that you gave her lots also. Thank you for your inspiration.

  3. Thank you for posting this, Marguerite. While I've never been all that close to death and in all honesty I've spent most of my life avoiding it, I find a near constant reflection on the impermanence of all things is beneficial. As I watch the experiences, the feelings, the desires, the physical sensations arise and fall away I'm constantly reminded of the ever presence of change in all that we experience.

    In doing so my life now feels less like a house of cards to me than it once did. Although I'm sure confronting and embracing death as you have would be a very new experience for me. But in my own life I don't see a fragile life that is building to a climax and could just as easily fall away away at any moment. I'm not sure what a better analogy would be but choosing to see each moment (both the joyous and the agonizing) for what they are: transitory, a cause of suffering and not a part of me; allows me to enjoy and experience the moments of my life without seeking more from them then they can offer me. I often think that acceptance of what each moment offers without desire for more or less is a pretty good description of much of what the Dhamma teaches, at least for me it is.

    I hope your experiences with death, dying and grief and the good work you do to help those who are in true need of help also helps you to embrace the fluidity of life, to knock down your own house of cards before impermanence does it for you and to embrace the joys of a life lived with impermanence at it's core.