Q: My mother is dying and I cannot help but ask myself bitterly, “What’s it all about?” She is 90 and therefore I have many memories of all the things she has said and done and the way she was. I feel that something’s missing and that I should have the answer. — Christine, Australia
A: Hello, dear Christine,
I send you the deepest respect for this nearing loss, and the deepest respect for your question of “What is it all about,” including the bitterness in the question.
This question has been central to my own life for the 35 years I’ve practiced Buddhism and the 20 years I’ve both been leading meditation retreats and have worked as a social worker at a hospice. And I’m not unfamiliar with the bitterness. Your question is a universal question, but it is always personal, so I wish I could actually talk to you.
When the question is real for someone, there is no generic answer – like “it’s all God’s plan” – that will work. I assume you already know all the generic answers, and they haven’t satisfied you. But because I can’t talk with you about your question, to really explore it with you on a personal level, I’m stuck with describing my own exploration, my own experience with what the poet Rainer Rilke called “living the question.” Rilke said that if we do sincerely live a question, we might find that over time, we have lived our way into some form of “answer.” But this question-living is typically not a comfortable process because it means going on a journey of not knowing, of being vulnerable, of being humbled by mystery.
One of my Buddhist teachers said: “If you really ask these questions, you won’t get an answer that you can own. But you may get an intuition. It may come as a whisper, or it may be as loud as the sea, but it will be an intuition, a kind of knowing that is more like knowing the warmth of the sun on your skin or the rising of joy in your heart than something you can prove in a science lab.” What she said has helped me so much over the years. I know nothing of grand cosmic plans, but there are times I can directly feel some sense of a profound and inherent value of everything – including your mother, with her dying body, and you, with your pain and what may be your anger – and me, with my laborious efforts in writing this clunky reply to your question. I can sometimes know the inherent value and beauty of gestures of kindness and respect and attention; of the joy of generosity; and the sober beauty of steadfastness. These intuitive senses come and go, but I feel so lucky to be able to say that over time they have started to give me some sort of confidence in that underlying presence of love and awareness in this universe.
I am profoundly grateful for my spiritual practice because I think it has focused and concentrated my intuitive experience of the underlying ground of love and awareness that is under all of our living. That ground is palpable to some extent to almost all of us at least some of the time, and I have seen this in my hospice work. That ground seems utterly non-sectarian, and we are all welcome. I think it was a deep experience of this ground that led Dame Julian of Norwich to say, “All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing shall be well.”
Dear Christine, I wish you well as you live your question. I wish us all well.