Life has been somewhat up and down for me recently, I have been taken away from my usual routines to deal with the sharp end of being alive – namely sickness, old age, and death. But at the same time I found myself in a curious juxtaposition: in the same week I both attended the funeral of my brother and was a guest at three days of wedding celebrations. Ordinarily this kind of contrasting experience is one that we struggle to reconcile, how do these two very different aspects of life fit together into one big picture? We welcome one with happiness and joy, in fact see it as very much a part of life’s progress: to meet someone, to get married, and perhaps to start a family. But the other, death, we spend all of our time trying to avoid, trying to avoid thinking about, never really engaging with it’s inevitability until it lands on our doorstep. One we view as positive, one we view as negative, but rarely do we look for the similarities between the opposite ends of human experience.
It was a busy week but in between the activity I felt a drive to consolidate these two very different experiences. These two events felt like polar opposites but I had a sense that they were really part of the same continuum. I wanted to get these two experiences to sit comfortably together in my mind. Eventually I came to understand that the thread that connected these two very different events was the effect of conditionality on our human lives, and how important this knowledge is to developing our practice.
Buddhist practice is very much focused on opening our eyes to the reality of death and accepting that it is our inevitable destiny – having been born the only possible end result is death. This is what conditionality means, because of this, that happens, one condition makes the next condition possible. Death is only one of many conditions that we are working within as humans, old age sickness and death were three that the Buddha wanted us to pay attention to but there are many more. If you are aged 30 and you are 5 foot 6 then it is impossible that you will grow to be 6 foot tall by time you are 40. If you were born with two arms it is impossible that you will grow a third one. These seem like ridiculously obvious statements but they underline that being a human has some conditions attached to it. It can be easy to think that understanding conditionality just means shrugging your shoulders and saying ‘well that’s just how it is’; to really understand conditionality means we need to look deeply into all of our experiences and see just how many of them are tied to one condition or another, and how little of it is under our agency
W can get very good at understanding what can feel like the negative aspects of life – like death – and accept them stoically, but we rarely stop to examine the ‘positive’ aspects of life in terms of conditionality too. You might think that Buddhism only deals with the darker side of life but you’ll see the rules of conditionality apply to everything that happens in our lives if you take the time to investigate.
Both my brother and my father were in hospital at the same time. During the visits to the hospital I observed the contrasting experiences around me; in one ward old men, their bodies slowly failing, their functions shutting down; in a palliative care ward men of mixed ages, but all of them dying; in a general ward people of all ages and all conditions; the visitors; the frail and the strong; the young and the old; the just born and the just about to die. All of life right before my eyes.
One scene particularly caught my eye; as I walked to the car park a toddler and his father were walking in front of me. The child was holding his father’s hand as he jumped and skipped down the hill. As I watched this I saw how vulnerable the child was, how much care he needed taking of him, and I was immediately reminded of the old men in the wards who also needed help with even the most basic things like drinking, eating, going to the toilet. In that moment I saw that the start and end of our lives have this vulnerability attached to them, we need someone else to look after our bodies because we can’t control them properly. This is a condition of having a human life, at the start and at the end (if we live to be elderly) we need to be taken care of.
I also saw that this wasn’t optional, it was the way it had to be. A small child can’t will himself to self-sufficiency, the conditions just don’t make that possible. The body needs to grow and the mind needs to learn before this can happen. Through this observation I saw that our life stages have these fixed conditions attached to them, so it made me wonder what other things are conditioned to our life stages. I continued to investigate with this as my theme.
Being at a hospital I could also observe many couples around me, partners visiting their sick husband or wife. I saw that there was another condition fixed to our life stages- love of the kind that causes us to want to marry someone, romantic love if you like, can only happen when we are functioning fully both physically and mentally as adults. This kind of love can’t happen when we are children because we simply don’t think that way, and it can’t happen when we are elderly and losing our faculties because we are have neither a mind or a body that is able to engage with it.
Romantic love relies on physical and mental maturity, on vigour and vitality, and when you spend a lot of time around people whose bodies and minds are withering away you can see that there comes a certain point in the natural deterioration of the human body that those kind of experiences become untenable. Now if you are 18 you probably think that the age that you lose interest in romantic love is 40, but really there are plenty of active years after that! What I’m talking about is when we become very elderly, losing our memory, our cognitive functions, losing control of our bodies, incontinent, deaf, blind, etc.
So sitting at the wedding I could observe those conditions in action, the bride and groom were very much still in the flush of their adult years (despite being over 40!), physically and mentally still having full use of their functions. I could see how this wedding relied on those conditions to make it possible, it couldn’t happen if they were 10 years old for example, or 92 years old and in wheelchairs.
This showed me that our life experiences and capabilities are very much reliant on our life stages, and like the seasons these stages come with some inevitable elements. Our childhood, our spring, has us vulnerable and reliant on others. There’s nothing we can do about it, it is simply where we are in our life. Our summer is our young adulthood, we come fully to life and we live and love, we are active and vital. Our autumn is our late adulthood, we reach our fully maturity, the heat of youth is wearing off and our minds and bodies start to lose some function. Our winter is our elderly years, we become withered like the leafless trees and again we are vulnerable.
Through these seasons of life I saw the connection between the wedding and the funeral, between the child in the car park and the old men in their hospital beds, I saw that these were life stages, reliant on conditions – not personal, often inevitable – and part of the same continuum not separate events.
In Buddhist practice we work towards accepting the conditions of our lives because when we don’t accept reality we create suffering for ourselves. We know death is inevitable and yet we exert so much effort in not only doing what we think will help us to avoid death, but also efforts in finding ways to avoid thinking about death. All this avoidance creates suffering because death cannot be avoided, we make ourselves averse to death, scared of it, saddened by it.
Nowadays we spend inordinate amounts of time and money on trying to avoid growing old or, heaven forbid, looking old. But old age is a condition of human life, you cannot avoid growing old yet still we try. This inevitably leads to suffering because we don’t accept that this is something that will happen to us, so when it does we feel like we have failed somehow.
But there is more to understand from conditionality: when we don’t recognise that we are reliant on conditions then we can miss our opportunities. If you want to get married some day then don’t leave it until you are 75, because the chances are it will be too late by then, your season for that will be over.
If you want to devote yourself to the practice but think that you can leave it until you have retired then think again – you only have the faculties to develop your practice during a few seasons of your life, don’t imagine that you will still be able to do this in 20 or 30 years time. As if to draw our attention to this in the Forest Sangha tradition it is hard to be accepted into monastic training after the age of 45. The Buddha tells us repeatedly that you need your mind and body to be functioning well to be able to make progress on the path, yet we can fall into the trap of thinking that it is something that can wait.
Seeing the conditions that the stages of our lives rely on helps us to understand the purpose of the recollection that “the days and nights are relentlessly passing how well am I spending my time?” and the necessity of cultivating a sense of urgency. When we embrace the limits of our human life we see clearly that the time we have is finite, and when we embrace conditionality we see that we are even more limited by the conditions of our life stages. It is then that we fully understand that time is of the essence if we want to get the most out of our practice. Look all around you to see the limits of our human lives and let it strike at your heart – the season for practice is short, don’t miss your opportunity to see life as it really is.