TLDR: We have all said goodbyes at some point in our lives. Does it always have to be a sad occasion? How can we better deal with goodbyes? Wilson reflects on his departure from loved ones and friends.
Departure (4 Oct, 08:00am)
Knowing that I only had one month left, it felt like there were so many people to meet and so many things to do. The outpouring of love and kindness from the people in my life gave me an indication of the quality of relationships that I have forged in my time here.
However, I could not help but wonder about the intentions behind these gestures.
I felt a tinge of guilt for thinking that all these were more for them than for me, that these helped them to make peace with my eventual departure.
I struggled with myself, “My friends and family seemed to assume that they have a right to ask for whatever time I have remaining. Yet, it also feels wrong to tell people that I want more time for myself and to reject their kindness. Also, how can I make assumptions about their intentions? That reflects more about how I view the loved ones in my life.”
As the end drew near, I thought I would feel sad, nervous or even excited. Interestingly, it just felt like the end of every other day that I have lived so far. I guess maybe I have prepared enough and that the end just feels like it would come sooner or later anyway.
Or maybe it is because I’m still on the way to the other side and that it will all start to sink in once I arrive.
At this point, I want to take the chance to thank the people in my life for loving me, helping me to learn and grow and eventually, letting me go with your heartfelt well-wishes. I think that is one of the greatest gifts I have received. Thank you all.
Oh, you are still here? After reading the previous few paragraphs, you may be thinking, “This Wilson has gone crazy already. Say until like he’s dying like that.”
Or maybe you are texting me now to scold me for scaring you. Hehe, please forgive me for deciding on such a dramatic and possibly triggering way to start the article. 😅
To set the record straight, I left Singapore for Japan to study and do research for the next 1.5 years. I do hope that the opening captured how I felt about the similarities between going overseas for a long period and dying.
However, if you are still cross with me (and understandably so 😛), I hope the rest of the article explains well the thought process of this weirdo here.
There are many ways in which we may leave this world. It could be sudden, leaving you shocked like a deer in headlights. Or you would have an idea of the end drawing near, giving you some time to make preparations.
I was reminded of a quote by Paul Kalanithi in his book, “When Breath Becomes Air”, which described his journey of facing his mortality as a surgeon himself: “I began to realise that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I know knew it acutely.”
I feel blessed to be given the chance to say my goodbyes and to feel the love and care of my loved ones. It made me think about how I would ideally like to leave this world and how I could live my life so that when my time is up, it would reduce the suffering for myself and the people around me.
While I mentioned the similarities between going overseas and dying, I noticed a major difference.
When it comes to going overseas, it is usually celebrated. However, when it comes to dying, it is mostly grieved. You may retort, “Of course lah! Dying is a permanent goodbye leh. You go overseas we can still visit each other what.”
Also, people also tend to celebrate deaths if the deceased had lived till a “ripe” old age. Even the choice of words betrays our value judgments on the importance of living a long life.
To me, this often-quoted phrase captures my attitude succinctly: “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” I think it may be also because I believe that I would not be able to live a long life due to my extreme levels of carelessness.
With all these said, I am not proposing that we ignore the fact that others may be grieving over departures in their lives and therefore, trivialise the suffering that they are experiencing.
It is perfectly normal to experience sadness and grief as a response to loss in our lives, be it due to death or otherwise. However, we can also choose to respond to those by celebrating the life of the deceased.
For me, I had the idea that at my funeral, guests would be invited to note down a favourite memory that they shared with me. They can then probably laugh together at the silly things that happened in my life, including falling into the swan lake at the Singapore Botanic Gardens and getting into a tussle with monkeys at the Penang Botanic Gardens.
Preparing for Departures
How should we then prepare for departures, be it our own or others’, going overseas or dying? Instead of considering the plethora of things that one can prepare to make the departure easier, I think it would be good to focus on something manageable that we can do regularly.
The Buddha encouraged his disciples to use separation and death as part of 5 themes to reflect upon to support them in their spiritual practice.
“Bhikkhus, there are these five themes that should often be reflected upon
… by a householder or one gone forth.
1. ‘I am subject to old age; I am not exempt from old age.’
2. ‘I am subject to illness; I am not exempt from illness.’
3. ‘I am subject to death; I am not exempt from death.’
4. ‘I must be parted and separated from everyone and everything dear and agreeable to me.’
5. ‘I am the owner of my kamma, the heir of my kamma; I have kamma as my origin, kamma as my relative, kamma as my resort; I will be the heir of whatever kamma, good or bad, that I do.’”
Initially, you may find it weird or even uncomfortable when conducting this set of reflections and that is perfectly normal since we do not usually consider our mortality as we go about our everyday lives. However, I do hope this practice can support you in living a good life, so that when the time comes to leave, for whatever reasons and in whatever ways, you are ready for it.
We often go through life without thinking about departures of different natures, possibly even avoiding the idea of departures.
The grief that we associate with departures arises easily in our minds and while that is perfectly natural, we can approach departures in a different light.
We can choose to celebrate the moments we shared with the person who is leaving while taking the chance to reflect upon separation and death to support us in our spiritual practice.
Reminding ourselves of the 5 themes that Buddha taught us help us not to take life for granted
Grief is perfectly natural; what matters is our response to it. finding the right community to support you through it is most crucial!
TLDR: Once you fall in love with suffering, you won’t have to suffer anymore. Here is why and how to go about doing it.
What? Have I read the title wrongly? Fall in love with my suffering? Why would I ever want to do that? Well, to begin with, we have misjudged and misunderstood suffering.
Recently, I was invited by the Singapore Buddhist Mission to speak on How Buddhism has transformed my life? Throughout the 45 mins, I noticed most of what I talked about was how I overcame my sufferings.
Sufferings come in many forms.
“Lucky” for me, I’ve experienced many from the grief of losing my father, the guilt of not seeing my father for a year before he passed away due to my medical condition, go the physical and mental pain of my cancer treatments, I could go on and on, but that would make this article too depressing. So, why don’t I turn my sufferings around?
Suffering does not discriminate
If you take a closer look, suffering is an inevitability in life. I have not heard of anyone who has not suffered, whether it is physical or mental, we all suffer. It is bound to happen, and I’ve not heard of anyone immune to it as well.
All existence is Dukkha. According to the first noble truth in Buddhism, there is dukkha, often translated as suffering (though a sense of dissatisfaction is a closer meaning).
I simply thought it’s true, and it makes sense, but I didn’t heed the advice as a warning. I mean, I have had my fair share of sufferings, and I dealt with them promptly. But I neglected to pay attention to the second noble truth, which said that our constant wanting and resisting causes suffering.
What I failed to understand is my resistance to suffering when I’ve been warned. Can accepting the fact that bad things do happen in life reduce suffering? Apparently, it does.
It’s ok to not be ok.
Acceptance does not mean you are ok with it. But by reacting against the pain—resisting or rejecting it—we create unnecessary suffering. It doesn’t mean that you’ve chosen or agreed with what has happened to you.
It doesn’t mean you like panic attacks, the side effects of cancer treatments, or suffering an injustice that has happened to you or someone else.
Rather, you’re choosing to allow it to be there when you can’t change it at that moment. To make space for it. To give yourself the patience to understand what’s going on, feel what you feel, or have experienced what you’ve experienced without creating unproductive anger or anxiety.
The pain might still be there, but some of the “by-products” of the suffering will be alleviated.
Sufferings are to be embraced.
One of my strengths, or I personally like to think of as a strength, is I have the ability to go deep into my experiences and examine what is truly happening to me. My life experiences are like a school; I attend to each experience like a student in the class, waiting to see what is going on and what I can learn from it.
What I have learnt is that I haven’t become stronger after much suffering. I just feel more exhausted and weak, but I also feel more resilient towards suffering.
It’s like if I embrace every suffering, wouldn’t I get better at dealing with the unavoidable? Wouldn’t it make sense to embrace it rather than detest it?
Whenever I face any bad situation or problem that happens to me willingly and enthusiastically, it eases me into making better decisions. I feel less stressed out in dealing with it.
Suffering can be a valuable teaching.
Most of the time, we misinterpret suffering, thinking it comes from the world or the people around us. But it’s impossible for the world to cause you suffering if you don’t allow it. Also, suffering is a good thing, a kind of nourishment.
In order to be happy, you have to first find the meaning of happiness, and suffering becomes a catalyst for you to define it. It’s like using the dictionary – in order to understand happiness; you need to read up the definition of the word.
You can treat suffering as nourishment, a kind of tonic for your life that activates your willpower and allows you to discover your own strength and clarify your doubts.
For instance, the side effects I suffered from cancer treatment reminded me to stop procrastinating and postponing the things I really wanted to do. It also helped me focus on the present and discover the meaning of life.
Pain is certain, but suffering is optional.
External forces have always caused us much suffering. Although they can trigger our negative emotions, we forget that peace in the heart is also there. Our lack of awareness might be the cause of many of our sufferings, but it’s not like we can’t do anything about it.
We might not be able to control what has happened to us, but we can choose how we respond to it. So, my point here is that no matter how horrible a situation may seem, we can still stay focused in the present moment.
Being in the present moment helps us to become aware of our peaceful mental state within. We shouldn’t let bad situations rattle us into a corner and face defeat, thinking there is no way out of it.
A bad situation could be an opportunity for something good.
Sometimes, things aren’t as bad as we think they are. It just so happens that we’re conditioned by society to get what we want, and if we don’t get it, we automatically feel disheartened or disappointed.
Bad things in life can also be a stepping stone towards good things that may happen in the future.
I remember desperately wanting to secure a job which I was rejected. But that allowed me to apply and secure another job opportunity that was far greater and better than what I had expected.
Suffering doesn’t belong to anyone.
Suffering is only as bad as you want it to be. If I remove “me” from my problem, it will just be a problem and not “my problem.” Suffering no longer becomes personal; the problem is as it is.
There are no good or bad experiences. An experience is an experience if you see it for what it really is. It only becomes good or bad when we judge it.
If I know something will be bad for me, it will be bad for me. I choose to suffer; then I suffer. It all depends on how we look at things.
When we stop owning our sufferings with our egos, our sufferings will end. In Buddhism, phenomena are characterised by impermanence, no-self and dissatisfaction (dukkha). Suffering as taught by the Buddha, only occurs when there is an “I” (Self-identity), “Me” (Self-ownership), and “Mine” (feeling of a Self) due to our erroneous belief.
No-Self, or anatta is the hardest to comprehend because it is a deep-seated belief that we own our thoughts, feelings and body when in fact we are more a slave than a master to these impermanent phenomena.
We tend to attach ourselves to problems due to our egos. As a result, we make suffering a problem, my problem.
Every suffering will be worth it.
Suffering can be valuable if we can understand the underlying truth that suffering is the gateway to enlightenment. Although it does not mean we pursue suffering, it can help open the door to awakening if we become aware of it.
Pigs can eat rotten food and still find it delicious. Lotus cannot grow without the mud, and enlightenment cannot be attained without becoming aware of the causes of suffering.
Only when we are aware, can we change suffering.
By accepting that sufferings are inevitable and can’t be avoided, we can learn to embrace them as a catalyst for happiness.
Treat sufferings for what they are; they don’t belong to you or anyone.
Not every suffering is bad; we can choose to look at it differently and turn it into an opportunity leading to something better.
Sufferings are worth having only if they lead us to our own awakening.