I had been looking forward to our trip to New Zealand for almost a year. Not that I haven’t been traveling enough, but work trips are not the same as exploring a new country with my husband. Despite my aim to live in the present moment, I started organizing my travel gear more than a week ahead of time. I like to be prepared. Life, however, reminded me that no matter how much I think I have control over it, I actually don’t. I was given the most profound experience of what it actually means to be fully present with each moment as is. As a wise man once said: “Planning is priceless, plans are useless.”
Nine days before our travels my 97-year old mother-in-law was admitted to the hospital. We assumed it would just be for an overnight stay and expected her to be back at her apartment the next day. The next day became another day, and another one. At that point I began to realize there was a strong possibility we’d have to cancel our trip. I felt a huge disappointment welling up inside of me, together with a feeling of guilt: it is not right to feel this way. Isn’t the well-being of loved ones more important than a vacation? Then I started to feel angry at life: this isn’t fair; we haven’t been away together for relaxation purposes for so long! A similar thing happened last year! Isn’t it obvious that I need some time to not work and just relax?! Wow, I am really not supposed to think this way. This is so selfish! In other words: I felt hugely conflicted.
I called my mom in distress. I shared my frustration, while she listened and said she was sorry I was having a difficult time. She also offered that perhaps spending time with my husband and his family could be just as valuable – if not more – than going on a far-away vacation. I had to let that thought sink in. Could this whole situation actually be a good thing?
The next day my husband flew out to Houston to be with his mom and his two sisters. The only thing I kept thinking: I want to be there too. Twenty-four hours later I took that same flight. My husband greeted me when I arrived at the hospital. “I am so glad you are here”. I was too. “There is no other place I’d rather be right now”, I responded. Unfortunately, my mother-in-law’s condition had deteriorated. That afternoon she was taken back to her apartment for hospice care.
In the days that followed we spent our time in my mother-in-law’s apartment. I had always thought I was afraid of the dying process. As I child I never wanted to hear the word “death” or listen to sad music that made me think of it. I can now honestly say there is nothing to be afraid of. On the contrary: the moments I sat next to my mother-in-law, listening to her breathing, are one of the most peaceful ones I’ve had in my life. I felt I was exactly where I needed to be, and experienced the immediacy of each moment and the glory of life. I realized what a privilege it is to be in the presence of someone who is at the very end of her life. Indeed – despite the sadness over her inevitable transition – this time with my husband and his family was sacred.
A week later my mother-in-law passed away peacefully. I was bereaved and at the same time I rejoiced in the fact we had had this invaluable time together. This was a living experience of the first two Mind Changings. These Buddhist contemplations that are part of the Lojong practice to train the mind in fostering compassion, remind us to not waste the miracle of life and to embrace the fact that nothing lasts.
The First Mind Changing is: Life is precious. The way we come into existence is a miracle. How can a hardly visible specimen grow into a being with hands and feet, a beating heart and breathing lungs? The fact that our body takes care of uncountable internal processes without us having to think about it is nothing short of amazing. We owe it to life to take care of ourselves and those around us. We need to honor life, especially in times of dis-ease, sickness or imminent death. Instead of walking away from the difficulty of suffering – whether it is your own or of your loved ones – can you be fully present with the gift of life no matter how it presents itself? Can you offer a listening ear to those in despair? Can you take care of the needs of others? Can you hold the hand of the person who is about to transition to a different dimension? When you do, you will find that there is nothing to be scared of, nothing to resist: life is precious and should be lived to the fullest rather than judged.
The reflection on the preciousness of life automatically leads to the Second Mind Changing: Everything is impermanent. We should not waste our ephemeral existence. Even though you know you will die one day, when asked the question if you believe you will be no longer here at some point in the future, you will probably say “no”. Of course you know that your life will end some day. However when you really think of it, it is also hard to imagine. Contemplating your own death is a very humbling practice, however. It puts things in perspective: what is actually worth pursuing? Which thoughts, words and actions enhance your life? What behavior is not serving you or those around you? Can you be fully present in each moment, knowing that it will not last? Can you bathe in the splendor of life instead of throwing away the moments by lamenting the past or fretting about the future? Every day, ask yourself: what is most important?
For me, the answer to that question was very clear during the past few weeks: supporting my mother-in-law in her transition and being with family. This was a unique experience that I would not have missed. New Zealand will be there next year.