Imagine Leonardo da Vinci’s face after someone splashes acid on the Mona Lisa. Imagine an old man whose two middle-aged children die before he does. Imagine the funeral of a bright young girl who was silly for only two seconds.
My heart breaks so completely that I know nothing in my life will ever be the same. I cry so hard, I scream so loudly that I turn hoarse and fall silent. But no scream is loud enough or shrill enough. Nothing can change what has happened.
In Tibetan Buddhism there is a healing ritual related to loss. People spend days or weeks using colored sand to make fabulous designs called mandalas. And then they wreck them on purpose and throw the sand into a river.
I think of my former home, my family, my three children, my husband. I thought I was building a successful life, even though it was hard going. After all, I was trying as hard as I could. I made mistakes, but overall, I was doing a good enough job—except that it didn’t keep my family safe. There were some ugly truths I could not shut out and then an ugly divorce and then my ex-husband died. Hurricane Katrina was nothing compared to this devastation. The divorce alone was devastation enough. Our lives were already ruined enough. My ex-husband’s death was like Hiroshima. And I thought I was doing a good enough job.
The trick is that I was not in control. It turns out I am not master of the universe. It’s not that I was building a family and a home like a Lego set. It’s that we were all inside an emotional structure that we thought was strong enough to withstand the tide.
“Life is what happens to you while you are making other plans.” All of us are busily building sand castles, even though the tide is coming in. We think our marriage, our homes, our careers, our health, even our lives are projects that we make. We think if we do it right, they will last forever.
But in fact everything changes, and we are not in charge. Our hearts shatter, and there is nothing we can do to stop it.
Afterwards we sit in the emptiness. Now is when we can change our response. We are in charge of our thoughts and our beliefs. This is what the sand mandalas teach.
Once everything has been lost, the growth is unbelievably precious.
I once attended the funeral of a young woman who had been riding in a boat being towed through town. The trailer hit a bump; she fell and died. Yes, of course, she was silly to ride in the trailer, but she didn’t deserve to die.
In fact no one deserves to die. Death happens, has happened, will keep on happening. Homes are temporary, emotions are temporary and bodies are temporary.
The brilliance that I saw at that funeral was love itself shining out of every eye. We thought they were tears, but it was love. Death outlines every detail of love for us and convinces even the most cynical of us that love is real and each of us matters.
Death and devastation change us forever. We love better because now we know how much it hurts to lose love. We become courageous because now we let nothing stop us from showing we care. We become authentic because we realize how exquisite our truth is. We become kinder because now we know what real pain is.
But how can there be anything right or good about unspeakable loss? If I have spent my whole life creating my family or loving someone, how can anyone claim that the loss is OK?
The problem is that we are not in control. Things happen. Everything changes. Railing against change is hopeless.
And what’s left after change, after devastation, is the most fertile ground possible for the growth of kindness and love. It’s not that the universe destroyed us at all—it destroyed something that was already temporary, like the sand mandala.
Love was not destroyed. In fact love grew. A temporary structure of family or home or body changed, but the essential core of being, the love, the kindness, grew.
Here is a short video of Tibetan monks making and destroying a sand castle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=10084L3Pqsc
As I watch it, I notice two things: First, the monks really care about making the most beautiful sand painting possible, just as I wanted my home to be the happiest and the most secure. Second, after the pattern is destroyed, after the sand is thrown back into the river, the water continues as it always has.
We are not the priests making the sand painting and we are not the painting. We are the water, the living water. We are the love that goes on forever. We merge with all that is, we melt into the divine essence of God.
Because of my past, I love better now. I am kinder now than I have ever been. I care more about family and friends now because I know how important and dear they are.
What I thought would last did not last. What I thought was permanent broke into tiny pieces. I am left with love and strength. Pain, death and disillusion will never surprise me again in that way.
Knowing more about love is huge. Those who have died are safe and warm. They have merged with the divine essence of the living water. In the meantime, while I am experiencing this life, I forget about the little projects that I thought mattered.
Today is all we have, and love is everything always. We are born to learn this painful lesson. Tragedy is the teacher.
Now is all we have and that’s quite a lot, really. You and I made sand paintings and something destroyed them. Everything changes. What’s left afterwards is love and kindness.
We are new, open and fresh. And we have work to do. The universe has given us hard, wonderful lessons about what matters. It’s our turn to see with new eyes and to be love in ways that help the whole world heal. And for me, that is why I write.
–by Jean Gendreau