Youth in Focus: A few months ago I was sick and the first tests seemed to show that I had aggressive form of cancer. More intensive tests were held and I even went to Siliguri for a second opinion, and I just got the all clear. Now I am fine. Although the thought of cancer and death scared me, the incident somehow made me more open about life.  My friends want me to celebrate and treat myself to new clothes, but I feel I have something more important to gain from this experience than just a celebration. Lama, how can I use this experience in a positive way?

-Wangmo, Thimphu 

I am happy to know that you are fine now, but you are correct that your experience can definitely help open your mind and change your outlook in a positive way. Unfortunately, though, we usually forget the things we learn in such situations and soon revert back to our former life-style, complete with its old prejudices and petty disputes.

Actually, most people just drift through life thinking only about accumulating material things and having fun. They act as though they will live forever and never consider that one day their bodies will be nothing more than ash, nor do they realise that their material goods will fall apart and that the fun times will merely become distant memories.

Actually, thinking we have a serious illness can be a wakeup call to reality. Suddenly, disputes with family members and colleagues don’t matter, and the expensive car or branded shoes that we craved for are no longer important. Instead of chasing rainbows, we are confronted with the truth that everything changes and that nothing lasts forever.  Basically, we see life as it really is.

Now, some people will respond to this reality with fear and struggle against change, while others will understand it as a positive lesson and a way to open their minds. Actually, it would be helpful if we could all live our lives believing that this is our last year of life. If we can do this, we will not waste our time fighting over property or spending time brooding over small incidents, but instead we will focus on what is important in life. If we are a Buddhist, we may decide to devote time to practice so that we can achieve enlightenment. Otherwise, we may try to spend peaceful moments with our family and friends. At the very least, we will find inspiration in small things that we never even noticed before.

In your case, I suggest that you understand that on this occasion you got the all clear. Next time you are sick, you may again find that your illness is not serious, but one day the doctor is going to call you into his chamber and say, “Wangmo, I’m sorry to inform you but your disease is terminal. You will not recover.” So, don’t celebrate your all clear as though you have permanently escaped death, but instead understand that you have merely postponed you’re your trip through the bardo.”

Basically, you need to realise that change is inevitable and that life and death follow each other like day and night. When we accept this fact, we do not reject life, but appreciate and value it even more. Each moment becomes precious and we are filled with courage and inspiration.

Actually, rather than change, it is permanence that should fill us with fear. Imagine if everything lasted forever. Our present problems would never disappear. Even listening to our favourite piece of music would drive us crazy as it would be played continuously without end.

Basically, in your situation I recommend that when you wake up each morning you reflect on the fact that everything changes and finally disappears. Contemplate this until you recognise impermanence in everything from a mountain to a flower, from a universe to a grain of sand. When you fully accept this reality, you will be mentally prepared for illness and death. Of course, this does not mean that you do not try to recover when you are sick. Definitely, you should visit a doctor and try to regain your strength, but at the same time you recognis    e that at some point in life, doctors, medicine, plastic surgery or yoga are not going to work and you will die – not only you, but every one of us.  If you can think like this, then you will have gained invaluable wisdom from your experience.

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organising drug outreach programmes.

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