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May 16, 2022

Comment from a listener on Episode 70 - Disappearing? Transcending? Her "disappearance" due to a "life-limiting diagnosis"

Please note that this is an unedited response from a reader of my Substack article, where this podcast episode evolved from. The article is located here:

https://wendyshinyohaylett.substack.com/p/disappearing-transcending?r=y3dfo&s=w&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web

Thank you to Kelly for this deeply personal and beautiful response!

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I read a substack article by my lovely friend Wendy Shinyo-Haylett a couple of days ago entitled ‘Disappearing? Transcending?’ [1].  It really spoke to me.  While Wendy associates her experience of this with isolation during COVID and the ageing process, for me, my experience has been triggered by my life limiting diagnosis and recent family events. 

My dear old mum, who is a central person in not only my daily life, but also that of my 8 year old daughter and my husbands, has recently found out that she may have cancer. The news that we all dread to hear, especially when someone so close to us grows older. Not that I am being pessimistic about the situation, but it has got me thinking about life without my mum.  I regularly meditate on impermanence, I guess as someone who knows that are going to die ‘young’, this is an important mental exercise for me that helps me to keep sight of the way things really are, as opposed to how we tend to think they are - the reality that everything changes, nothing lasts forever and clinging to things are they are now only causes us suffering. 

So, I asked myself what things would I miss most in life without mum.  As my daughter is still only 8, I think one of the biggest things I will miss is having another like minded woman to talk to and confide in about life.  I have other email friends that I could talk to, but nobody ever quite gets you like your mum does, and you never feel as comfortable talking to someone else about private matters, especially those with a particularly emotional element that husbands tend to see and manage in different ways to women.  I will also miss the shopping trips with mum - not only the weekly big shop, but also our trips out window shopping and going for a coffee and a chat.  I’ll also miss birthday and Christmas cards and presents from mum.  That’s not because I’m being greedy and mourning the extra gift, but because the tings that my mum gets for me are always thoughtful in a way that nobody else can really achieve.  Christmas shopping with mum, or food shopping when we’re away on a self catering holiday is also unique and will be missed.  Mum gets that we both like to have extra nice food on these occasions and will go hunting for nice treats that I can eat (difficult with my bowel condition) to provide a little extra cheer.  Doing these shopping trips with my husband will be very different - I love him to bits but he is a Yorkshire man through and through and would simply be moaning about the bill!! 

Now, of course there are the practicalities of not having my mum around anymore that this makes me think about.  Mum is my carer.  It would be impossible for me to go shopping, or indeed go out to many places, without mums help.  So in thinking about the things I will miss without her here, my mind goes to the need to organise a carer of some sorts to help me continue with daily life. But, the other avenue this led me down, was how my little girl might miss me when I am no longer here.  Sadly, she will experience this loss at a much younger age that I am going to, which also reminds me how grateful I should feel for all of the years that I have had with my own lovely mum. 

Can I mitigate some of the things that my daughter might miss about me when I’m gone, before I die?  Maybe I can facilitate certain female friends to take on more involved roles in her life as she grows older so that she will then have those ladies as confidents to talk to when she needs some emotional support.  I could purchase and prepare gifts and cards for her future birthdays and those christmases without me.  Can I think of a way that she might be able to get some sort of surrogate hug from me when she needs one, or a way she can still talk to me when she needs to confide in her mum, and nobody else will do? 

It is this, that has led to me feeling like I am disappearing.  Unlike Wendy, I am lucky enough to not be so medically threatened by COVID in it’s current form that I have to stay in the house.  I have been able to get back out and about, with help of course.  I’m also fortunate enough to be just about the right side of 40 still, so it is not the natural ageing process that has led to my experience of disappearing.  But, I do know that I am likely to die at some point in the next 10 years.  Yes, none of us know when we will die and anyone can die at any time - something that Buddhists meditate on when we consider impermanence. But there is something about having a limited prognosis, that focuses the mind even more on this subject. 

As I consciously make efforts to replace certain of my functions as a mum in my daughters life, in a bid to make her losing me less difficult, I feel that I am being replaced in some way.  I feel like I am becoming less relevant as a living person, like I am disappearing ahead of my death.  BUT, as Wendy says, there is a positive side to this too.  It reveals the true nature of things to us and reminds us that everything is temporary, impermanent.  The ‘me’ I think exists - the doctor, the mum, the wife, the friend - are all conceptual.  Created by my own mind rather than existing as concrete in reality.  The definition of ‘me’ is fluid and is now being shifted, redefined, to become something else altogether. But do I stop being ‘me’? In some ways, yes.  I am being replaced/becoming replaceable, by my own design.  For the greater good of others and by my own choosing at this moment in time.  But this happens to us all naturally during old age and at the time of death.  But really, I can’t ever stop being ‘me’, because there never was a ‘me’ in the first place.  This is just ‘me’ as I am now.  It is different to the ‘me’ that existed 20 years ago, just as it will be different to the ‘me’ that will exist 5 years from now.  The ‘me’ that we all cling to can never actually be found.  Point to the bit of you that is ‘me’, can you find it?  It is actually impossible to find the ‘me’ that we think exists and remains unchanged throughout our life.  It is simply a concept, that only exists in our imagination. 

Is this me transcending? Gaining a new understanding into the reality of things? Am I ageing, at a younger age? Experiencing what older people go through.  Or is this a different transition - the transition into death, elongated into the few years before my actual death by my spiritual awareness? 

This then leads me to thinking about other people who struggle with change in their lives.  I mean, most people struggle with big changes, don’t they?  In the West at least? Why is this?  It is because of our beliefs about the nature of things.  We believe in a concrete ‘me’.  We grasp to things being as they are.  Our egos lead us to becoming attached to nice things, comfortable things, familiar things.  So when we no longer have these - when say, we lose our careers and our self identity, then we suffer.  Doctors are a very good example of this.  Having worked with doctors with a variety of mental health problems during my last 2 years in practice, I know that doctors have very fixed views of their self image.  They ‘are’ doctors.  Their self worth, self esteem, everything, becomes entangled and enmeshed with them being a doctor.  So, when something strikes that means they can no longer practice as a doctor - erasure, suspension, medical retirement - they suffer enormously. These are often hugely traumatic, turbulent times that crush their self esteem, self worth and sense of existence in some cases.  Many doctors in this situation, end up needing significant mental health support.  So I can’t help but wonder if, having an awareness and understanding of the true nature of reality, would be helpful for these people, and might even prevent the mental health fallout at the sudden end of their careers.  Of course, I use this example because it is one I am familiar with, but I honestly feel that the insight into the reality of nature that comes from the teachings of the Dharma, could benefit almost every person.  We all, no matter what our age or job, suffer when life moves in an unwanted and difficult direction. 

This then leads me to thinking about other people who struggle with change in their lives.  I mean, most people struggle with big changes, don’t they?  In the West at least? Why is this?  It is because of our beliefs about the nature of things.  We believe in a concrete ‘me’.  We grasp to things being as they are.  Our egos lead us to becoming attached to nice things, comfortable things, familiar things.  So when we no longer have these - when say, we lose our careers and our self identity, then we suffer.  Doctors are a very good example of this.  Having worked with doctors with a variety of mental health problems during my last 2 years in practice, I know that doctors have very fixed views of their self image.  They ‘are’ doctors.  Their self worth, self esteem, everything, becomes entangled and enmeshed with them being a doctor.  So, when something strikes that means they can no longer practice as a doctor - erasure, suspension, medical retirement - they suffer enormously. These are often hugely traumatic, turbulent times that crush their self esteem, self worth and sense of existence in some cases.  Many doctors in this situation, end up needing significant mental health support.  So I can’t help but wonder if, having an awareness and understanding of the true nature of reality, would be helpful for these people, and might even prevent the mental health fallout at the sudden end of their careers.  Of course, I use this example because it is one I am familiar with, but I honestly feel that the insight into the reality of nature that comes from the teachings of the Dharma, could benefit almost every person.  We all, no matter what our age or job, suffer when life moves in an unwanted and difficult direction.

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