I Can Hardly Wait

Ajahn Yatiko • April 2013

I was at the Island Hermitage in Sri Lanka this past winter, where it was very beautiful. While there, I did a fair amount of contemplation around the topic of illness, which I found very useful to my practice. The Buddha recommends this contemplation as one of the subjects for recollection: I am of the nature to sicken; I have not gone beyond sickness. While on my walking path I would bring it to mind: This is going to happen to me, there’s no question about it. Sickness is going to come upon me and most importantly, pain is going to come upon me. This sort of reflection isn’t meant to be depressing or to increase anxiety. It simply functions as a means of facing an existential truth.

Here at Abhayagiri, we might be walking up and down on our walking path on a beautiful day. It could be 75 degrees, the flowers are out, and we feel strong and bright. Times like these are especially good for reflecting that illness is coming and at some point we will experience great pain. Rather than treating the matter in an abstract way, it’s best to be realistic, asking ourselves, What does it mean that this body is subject to pain? How am I going to prepare for that? What does it mean that pain is going to come upon this body?

This kind of reflection is valuable for several reasons. When we reflect like this, it is possible for the superficial things that preoccupy the mind to fade away into the background. It feels quite liberating to be mindful that pain or death will be experienced. That awareness itself fosters a sense of readiness for the time when pain eventually does come to the body. We can also use this practice when illness or pain is actually present within us.

If we use our intelligence and think too much, it can lead to intellectual endeavors that are not helpful. Truly, what we want to cultivate is the mindfulness and awareness that can help us recognize that, This body is not who I am. This body is subject to many experiences—feelings, pain of all sorts, and death. If we are mindful, this reflection can be uplifting—we recognize that we are facing something that is the truth of the condition in which we are living. It helps us feel much more familiar and intimate with these realities and therefore, less afraid of them.

When Luang Por Sumedho was once asked how he feels about death, he grinned and responded, “I can hardly wait.” I can relate to that. Once we truly accept death we can simply see it as a fascinating transformation, as a great change that will come upon us. That is all that is happening, nothing more. We are moving into the space of a total unknown, and it is going to be a radical transformation. That’s exciting and interesting, to say the least. Admittedly, death is uncertain, so we don’t want to slip into superstition or ungrounded confidence with regard to it. We simply want to be willing to open ourselves to it, to trust in the kamma we have made as human beings and especially, as Buddhist practitioners. By trusting in that kamma, we can have the courage to open up to the uncertainty of what will come. That is the real adventure of the death process.

We are all involved in this project together. There is no project more important than deeply coming to terms with, and understanding, our condition as beings who are subject to birth, aging, illness, and ultimately, death. Everything else is far down the list.