Each time we meet someone we know and like, there’s joy. Each time we part from that same person, there’s…what? Could be sadness, relief, appreciation, or perhaps nothing in particular. We generally leave others with both parties assuming that they’ll see each other again.
It has long been my practice to remember when parting from loved ones that I may or may not see them again. Even as we make plans for our next meeting, that event is in the uncertain future.
This is another “death awareness practice” that Toni Bernhard recommends in her book, “How to Wake Up”. The practice of saying the phrase “goodbye forever” internally came from meditation teacher Mary Orr to Toni; and Toni reports that she will sometimes say to herself “goodbye forever” when parting from family members.
Nine years ago, I moved to a new continent (for me), very far from my family and most of my friends. Once a year I go to see as many of those distant friends and family members as possible. This situation heightens my awareness that each parting may be a last parting. In some sense, every separation is final, and every connection has infinite depth. There is a richness in being fully present with whoever we are with; if we let go of our assumptions about what will happen in the future, we can fully commit to now. We may be moved by the recollection of death to show our love and appreciation now, at each meeting and parting.
But most of us assume that we will live a long, full life, and that those we love will likewise not make an untimely departure from the planet. We often take people for granted. We may also assume that no one we know and love (including ourselves) will suffer any catastrophic loss, in spite of the evidence all around us.
The Buddha didn’t recommend worrying about what might happen. Rather, he pointed out that we don’t know what will happen, with the exception that we can be certain that we and everyone we know will die one day.
So this exercise, in whatever form it takes, is a way of examining our assumptions about what will or won’t happen, and an acknowledgement that at some unknown point in the future, maybe today, death will come to us or to someone we know. At first this might seem a shocking notion, but the more we practice with it, the more evident it becomes that acknowledging death is simply a way of living in reality rather than in delusion.