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Accepting & Coping with Impermanence

I was asked to deliver a Dharma talk at our Buddhist Temple, which I delivered this past week. The topic was on Impermanence. So, I thought I would turn the presentation into an article as well, to share with our members and readers…

Many of us are probably familiar with this scenario: someone becomes infatuated with another person, perhaps even in an early relationship. But they haven’t had time to really know them or develop a fuller love for that person. Instead, they are infatuated with their idea of the other person. Most people know this is not a genuine relationship, though it may one day grow into one if it doesn’t end as the two come to know one another more deeply. We can all appreciate that, for the relationship to be really meaningful, a person must be loved for who they really are.

Ignorance, in this and many forms, can lead to great suffering. Suffering, of course, is of what life consists according to the First Noble Truth of Buddhism. Dukkha is the Pali word, which might be better translated as dissatisfaction. It refers to all forms of negative experience due to the conditions of existence. The Buddhist Dammapada lists three ‘marks of existence’. Among them:

  • Suffering (dukkha)
  • No-Self (anatta)
  • Impermanence (anicca)

Formations

That last one, impermanence, refers to the nature of all things. All of the usual things we interact with in our world, and in our minds, are what Buddhism calls formations (or Sankara). This means they are composed of sub-components which are in constant motion. Because everything is a formation (physical or mental), this means the forms arise, change, and disappear.

As components come together and forms arise, this is birth (as you can see, a much broader concept than simply the birth of an organism). As components dissolve and forms disappear, this is death. But it is a mistake to think of the forms as being ‘a thing’ with mere disassociated components mixing around in between all the ‘things’.

Instead, all forms arise because of dependent origination. This means they come together because of conditions and many co-dependent causes. This chain of cause and effect is continuous. In biological evolution, for example, species evolve and branch off from one another continuously. The common question, “where are the transitional fossils?” is misguided. These folks do not understand that it is one long continuous film roll showing morphing forms, and we happened to find certain stills which have been cut up and scattered around the planet. The ones we found we gave names to and called a species. But our named species in the record might have looked very different if we had found different stills of the movie. The truth is that they are all transitional. The categorizations and names are, then, somewhat arbitrary, though useful to us as tools. In similar fashion, the forms we deal with everyday are more arbitrary, provisional, and utilitarian for our subjective needs, than we often appreciate.

Some people misunderstand Buddhism as saying that nothing is real, or the world isn’t real. In Buddhist philosophy, the world is real – it’s just that it’s true nature isn’t what we typically assume or tend to intuitively think it is. For example, is The Big Dipper real? Certainly, it is a constellation in our sky. You can look it up, it has a name, a location. But it only looks like a dipper from the vantage point of our Solar System. If we could travel to other stars easily, we would see that some of the stars are closer and some further. We decided which stars to include in this arbitrarily defined ‘thing’ and which not to. It is a tool for us to use in remembering the positions of stars in our sky. At the same time, it isn’t a fantasy, like some superstition.

Buddhist philosophy points out that all of the things we see around us, even ourselves, are aggregates in this manner. The way our brains make sense out of the complex swirl of particles and light are the ways it categorizes for survival purposes. We draw imaginary lines around things like mountains, people, animals, plants, etc. and give them names – just like the Big Dipper.

This is what the Buddhists refer to as emptiness – the realization that forms are empty of any independent and permanent nature. They are therefore somewhat illusory. That includes even a person, who is made up of thoughts, memories, emotions, sensations, etc – who comes into being, changes, and dies. But if forms are illusory, and birth is the coming into being of a form, then what does that say about birth? If death is the going out of existence of a form, what does that say about death?

In everyday life that may not seem important, but remembering the world and everything in it (and ourselves) for what it truly is, turns out to be very important for human happiness and wisdom. Sure, we can all acknowledge that the world is permanent, but do we really carry on that way? Do we really live and react tot he world as we would if we deeply, really knew at all times how transitional and impermanent it all was?

I like to use the example of mountains and clouds. Both are huge structures. We have probably named every mountain on this planet by now. You can look at maps and see their names. But we have no name for any cloud. Of course, a cloud will be ‘gone’ in such a short time that we don’t bother making sky maps of them or naming them. But if our lifespan were one minute we probably would. This arbitrary scale of our perception of time leads us to name some forms and not others. But in reality, the mountains are no different than the clouds. They are constantly rising and falling as the continental plates shift. And one day, even the continental plates will be gone. Wisdom consists of staying aware of this.

 

Staying Aware

The seventh of the Eightfold Path is called Right Mindfulness (or insight). It includes being constantly aware of the wisdom/teachings/truth (dharma). We may all know, intellectually, that even the mountains will one day “crumble into the sea” to quote the great Ben E. King. But the trick in insight wisdom is to really know it deep down. If we have internalized it on an intuitive level, we will naturally react to the world, moment by moment, as it truly is – which is the heart of wisdom, and ultimately relief from suffering. But how?

The most basic step is simply repetition and immersion. We can make reading the philosophies of our practice a part of our practice. I have found that reading sources like these is like peeling an onion. Even when you come back around to the same teachings, you find that what you thought you understood before, was like a whole new level after a little more life experience and learning. Discussion of the philosophies with others, and learning with others in our sangha (spiritual community) is also very important for getting comparative perspectives and understandings.

But reading alone will never get us there. We will need to develop our ability to maintain our focus, to still our mind, and an awareness of what is going on in our minds as thoughts, assumptions, false judgments, and emotions arise in daily life. Meditation is the best way I know to develop these faculties. It interlocks with nearly every other practice.

Experiential events, ritual, and other kinds of special time taken to stop thinking and see is also essential. Put away the words, the categories, the judgments, the opinions sometimes. Simply sit and listen without thought. Perceive first hand the reality around you. Runners do not think about how legs move to keep balance – they run! Surfers do not think about how water and waves move – they feel the world in real-time – they surf! Musicians do not think about musical theory. They are consumed by the music – they play! This is essential for deeply instilling the truth of wisdom into our character and way of being.

In all of these ways, what we do is begin to build a relationship with the cosmos. And, as in any healthy relationship, we must love it for what it is – not our fantasy image of it.

 

Coping with Reality

It might be very easy to imagine that adjusting to impermanence could lead to nihilism. But Buddhism is far from a nihilistic philosophy. We do not merely accept impermanence, but we must learn how to flourish within it.

Pema Chödrön, the popular Buddhist nun and teacher, has said one way is to remember that each breath is a small birth and death. By this I think she means that birth and death are a continuous process happening all around and within us all the time. For that matter, each time I go to bed at night, my consciousness is broken and I wake up a little different person than I was before (this is why we often ‘sleep on it’ to think about things differently). If I go back further, say when I was a 13 year old boy, I have many memories of what that boy did and even thought, but they aren’t much different to me than if you implanted memories of what someone else did. I am not that person anymore. That person has died. Going back further, I can’t remember complaining about not existing before I was born. I have no reason to suspect the eons after my time to be much different.

Yes, rebirth (and redeath) are happening all the time. What we must do is shift our focus from attachment to the forms, toward loving the process. In this way, it is like lying in a shallow stream as the water flows around us. We do not desperately grasp at the water to collect it all – we let go and come to see the beauty of the flow.

But what we often do is forget the true nature of things. We purchase some prized item and we imagine we have gained something permanent. Then we are distraught to see it broken or stolen. If we had remembered that we had come to possess an impermanent thing, then we wouldn’t be so moved. If we appreciated the impermanence of our loved ones we might appreciate our time with them even more.

After my talk, someone asked a question about coping with tremendous things like 9/11. I said that was an excellent example because those two towers were like mountains to us. We saw them as permanent – a monument to our civilization. When they fell, aside from the terrible toll in human life, we also felt shock because they represented to us, in that place, the might or our very civilization. In that moment we learned the hard way about the impermanence of life. Nothing ‘stands the test of time’. The goal is not to seek out impervious things, but to treasure now in all its fragility.

Impermanence means endings, but it also means beginnings and potential. It makes all of the new and good things possible, and it is that flow that is necessary to both. It also means we don’t have to be trapped by our past or ourselves. Many people like to say, “Well that’s who I am” and use it as an excuse to continue in unhelpful behaviors. But the truth is, all things can change (see Brain Plasticity). “Who you are” is boundless.

When we learn to deeply know the cosmos we can then deeply fall in love and build that relationship with it – not for what we selfishly fantasize it to be – but for what it is. This right mindfulness is one of the ways we begin to avoid forming the attachments that lead to suffering.

See Also: Contemplating Impermanence

 

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