The summer is dwindling. The days are getting cooler, we’re harvesting the tomatoes that have ripened all summer, and the dry leaves seem languished and resigned to their descent. Fall is the season of impermanence. As it approaches, I feel a poignant, soft throb of sadness and gratitude, marked by a desire to linger in the pool, dig in to the sweetest watermelons, and be with the people I love.
This desire intensified when my dad turned 60 last week. At his party, we celebrated the playful, kind-hearted gardener who loves literature and alternative rock. Pictures of my dad in all stages of his life were strewn across the back yard. The beard and kind eyes of young Dan resembled my brother’s beard and kind eyes.
That evening—an evening when people in togas laughed and took pictures, drank Greek beer and toasted my father—felt like it was passing so quickly. My dad says that his full 60 years feel like they have passed so quickly.
As I talked with my family and played in the photo booth with my dad, I realized how strongly I didn’t want the evening to end. I didn’t want to face the impermanence of the time home with my dad or of his time on this earth. Even though the party hadn’t ended, I felt like I was already clinging to it.
Reflecting back on these feelings, I am reminded of a story about the Buddha that I came across in a guided meditation several years ago:
Before saying a word, he [Ajahn Chah] motioned to a glass at his side. “Do you see this glass?” he asked us. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”
(From “Freud and the Buddha” by Mark Epstein)
To be a human being is to experience anxiety over loss. We all want to be connected, experience love and creativity, find financial security, and feel useful. In order to obtain these things, we choose careers that we think will give us meaning and help us support ourselves and the people we love, or we get married, or we develop communities or engage in projects for social change. We do what we can to keep the glass intact and reflecting the light.
The problem doesn’t come from pursuing connection and meaning—in fact, our choices create the groundwork for wonderful experiences. The problem comes from trying to hold on to a glass that is naturally breaking. Pema Chödrön says, “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy. (From, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times).
We all know deep down that nothing is permanent, but we only feel this impermanence when something reminds us (a death, an ending relationship, a new job, a new relationship, a 60th birthday party). We see so acutely that the glass that we want to keep together is already broken and will keep breaking and that we are powerless to when and how loss will occur. This can make us feel crazy, out of control or get resentful at the universe if we don’t make room for the array of emotions that need to be felt. When things end, it is natural to feel sadness, grief, misery, fear, and sometimes joy.
There is nothing sharper and more painful than the loss of a life that we love. But endings and beginnings are parts of the passing dance we are all in. All we can do is experience the freedom of living in this moment. All we can do is honor the dance’s entrances and exits and move with them.
Sitting around in a circle in the night air, we talked about my dad’s life. I heard my dad say that at 60, he feels just as vital and interested in his life as he did as a boy. Kafka said, ‘Everything you love, you will eventually lose, but in the end, love will return in a different form.”
While there is experience, love will always be coming back to us in different forms. And each of these forms is precious.
Emma Kobil is a licensed professional counselor practicing in Denver, Colorado. Her philosophically informed therapeutic approach focuses on helping creative and perfectionist individuals practice self compassion. Learn more about Emma, or schedule an appointment, at mindfulcounselingdenver.com.