In Buddhist culture, monks make sand art, called mandalas, to demonstrate the idea of impermanence. They work together and often spend days creating these stunningly beautiful and colorful masterpieces. When they have finished, they let people look at and take photos of them briefly. Then shortly after, they begin a ritual to brush the sand away. This process is done symbolically to remind people that nothing in life is permanent.
I have always been drawn to the concept of mandalas, and I find myself turning to that now more than ever. I am currently in a pretty bad place. My Gastroparesis is worsening faster than the doctors are equipped to deal with. I can only tolerate a few bites of food before unbearable pain sets in. And in addition, many of my old neuro symptoms that had started improving are actually coming back. It seems to have correlated with the high fever I had a couple weeks ago. With the fatigue and pain and near inability to eat, it is difficult to leave the house. There aren’t any great treatment ideas on the table either. So I find myself thinking a lot about the life I used to have, before all this illness.
I think about how busy I was and how I was doing all the things I love. I was working 14 hour days in the ICU, jet setting on last minute trips, baking elaborate cakes, going for runs with my dog, lifting weights at the gym, visiting friends and family out-of-state, helping my parents around the house, getting outside every day, driving my car, and dancing in my underwear. I was living the life of my dreams. And instead of that being a happy thing, it has saddened me recently. It’s as if the extent of how perfect things were make my present seem that much more imperfect. But I’ve been looking at things all wrong.
Nothing in life is permanent- not the good times, not the bad times. I never should have expected things to stay the same. That’s too much pressure to put on the universe. Nothing ever stays the same- we grow, jobs change, desires change, surroundings change, everything changes. That’s the track record so far, and yet when we finally get what we want/are happy, we expect that to be the new norm. As if we think that’s what we’re owed. But the universe doesn’t owe us anything. Those expectations we inherently tend to have are selfish. When we get what we want in life, we should rejoice and appreciate and be grateful and know that it will eventually change. Maybe it will change into something even better. Maybe it will all be taken away.
There is a saying that pain is inevitable, but suffering is avoidable. We are bound to have periods of pain in our lives. Suffering comes from having expectations that cannot be met and from holding onto things that we need to let go of. I am in a lot of physical pain these days, and aside from medications that may slightly improve that, it is unavoidable. However, I don’t need to suffer. I kept thinking that soon I would be getting back to my old life. Then another month would pass me by. I realized that even if/when the doctors come up with some miraculous ideas that are able to help both my Gastroparesis and the unknown virus, I wouldn’t be able to jump right back into my old ways. It would/will be quite a process to regain the level of strength and memory necessary to live and work the way I was. And that is a bridge I would be absolutely delighted to cross. But for now, I need to let go of my past and simply remember it as the wonderful, happy, and lucky time that it was. Rather than expect that to be what every day of my life should be like. In doing so, I feel that I am no longer viewing myself as a victim of this situation. And that alone is empowering.
I realize that at this point in my article it may still be hard to see the positive spin I intended to extract from the mandala metaphor. So I’ll try again. It brings me comfort to recognize that if my good times could change so quickly and drastically, then my bad times could too. I have also learned that if I can endure what I have for the last 14 months, them I am strong enough to go through whatever other experiences will be thrown my way during this life.
I am going through an incredibly hard time right now. One that is not fully grasped by anyone unless they have similar illnesses or see me on a daily basis. But despite that being the case, I am not salty with the world for dealing me this hand. I am only 23 and I have already achieved more goals, seen more places, gone on more adventures, loved more people, and jumped out of more planes[;)] than some people ever get to do in their full lifetime. I am not owed anything. But even if I was, I was already given a huge gift. I don’t know what will be next, but I do know that it could be anything. The impermanence in this world can be life’s greatest tragedy and greatest blessing. I have experienced both. And just as the ocean’s waves ebb and flow, I know those two kinds of impermanence will too.
My mandala may have been swept away. But that is part of its beauty. And when I am strong enough, I will start to build a new one once again. xox