Blindsided by Impermanence

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In the years that I’ve been practicing with Still Water, I’ve heard many Dharma talks and read many texts on the subject of impermanence. So many, in fact, that I sometimes react with “Yeah, yeah, yeah – I already know all that.” Then every so often something happens that feels like impermanence punching me in the gut, and I am all over again surprised, shocked, shaken. I realize I had forgotten about impermanence, and here it is, waking me up to reality.

Something like this happened this past week. I learned that two members of my family, who have been a couple for seventeen years, are separating. I love these two people with all my heart. I was totally unprepared for this news and for the wave of loss and sorrow that washed over me when they called and told me. My heart ached for all the pain I heard in their voices. I had often enjoyed visiting them in their apartment filled with books, plants, art projects – all of it ruled over by their two small dogs with big personalities. I felt that the happy environment they had created reflected the happiness of their relationship. Now that place, that reality, had vanished. I was aware of my own pain because something I thought was lasting was changing. I had been blindsided by impermanence once again.

I’ve gone back to Thay’s (Thich Nhat Hanh’s) writings on impermanence. I’ve come to realize that I had an understanding of impermanence as in important concept in Buddhism. But Thay tells us that this is not enough: impermanence is a practice. In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thay writes:

If we see impermanence as merely a philosophy, it is not the Buddha’s teaching. Every time we look or listen, the object of our perception can reveal to us the nature of impermanence. We have to nourish our insight into impermanence all day long.

In Breathe, You Are Alive! he emphasizes the importance and benefits of practicing impermanence:

Impermanence is the first key to unlocking the door of reality. Impermanence is a samadhi, a form of concentration. Intellectually, you may agree that things are impermanent, but you might behave as if they were permanent. We have to train ourselves to maintain the insight of impermanence in every minute of our lives. Then we will always have wisdom and happiness.

How do we go about training ourselves in impermanence? Pema Chodron says we can start by recognizing impermanence when it is arising. In When Things Fall Apart, she writes:

When impermanence presents itself in our lives, we can recognize it as impermanence. We don’t have to look for opportunities to do this. When your pen runs out of ink in the middle of writing an important letter, recognize it as impermanence, part of the whole cycle of life. When someone’s born, recognize it as impermanence. When someone dies, recognize it as impermanence. When your car gets stolen, recognize it as impermanence. When you fall in love, recognize it as impermanence, and let that intensify the preciousness. When a relationship ends, recognize it as impermanence. There are countless examples of impermanence in our lives every day, from the moment we wake up until we fall asleep and even while we’re dreaming, all the time. This is a twenty-four-hour-a-day practice.

Once we are aware of impermanence manifesting, we can notice our reactions to it. Pema Chodron urges us to notice our habitual reactions to change and then to look more deeply into them, with curiosity. Noticing our reactions to things that arise “is called mindfulness, awareness, curiosity, inquisitiveness, paying attention. Whatever we call it, it’s a very helpful practice, the practice of coming to know ourselves completely.”

My habitual reaction to change is anxiety, even if it looks like it could be a good change. Just the possibility of things changing sparks anxiety. How can I know how it will turn out? My habit energy leads me to leap from the discomfort of uncertainty to the quasi-certainty that things will not turn out well. So I risk becoming a person who moves through life fearful of what may happen, since it can’t possibly be good. What should I do when this negative habit energy sweeps me away? Thay offers this guidance in Breathe, You Are Alive!:

Because life and reality are impermanent, we feel insecure. I think the teaching on living deeply in the present moment is what we have to learn and practice to face this feeling of insecurity. We have to handle the present moment well. We live deeply in the present moment so that in the future we will have no regrets. We are aware that we and the person in front of us are both alive. We cherish the moment and do whatever we can to make life meaningful and to make him or her happy in this moment. When I drink a glass of water, I invest one hundred percent of myself in drinking it. You should train yourself to live every moment of your daily life like that.

In January 2020, our senior teacher Mitchell offered a practice weekend where we considered the Five Remembrances. We sat in meditation, deeply holding the truth of each remembrance: that we are of the nature to grow old, to be sick, to die; that we will be separated from the people we love and the things we cherish in this life; that our only true possessions are our actions and the fruits of our actions. After we had looked deeply into each remembrance, Mitchell asked, “If this is all true, what should we do?” I heard his question this way: If we accept that we’re going to lose everything that is dear to us, how can we avoid sinking into despair?

Thay’s response is to return to the present moment; to train ourselves to be mindful of what is happening in ourselves and our environment; and to invest ourselves “one hundred percent” in what is arising, whether it is joy or sorrow, gain or loss. Whatever it is, it will change. Pema Chodron raises the possibility that we could learn to “acknowledge, respect, and celebrate impermanence,” because it is “a principle of harmony. When we don’t struggle against it, we are in harmony with reality.”

This Thursday after our meditation, we will meet our old friend impermanence again. In our Dharma sharing, we may want to consider these questions:

  • How do you practice to bring the insight of impermanence into your daily life?
  • Recall a time when you’ve been blindsided by impermanence. What did you learn?
  • Many of us resist impermanence because we associate it with loss and suffering. Is there a time in your life when impermanence has brought about a better situation and – maybe – even joy?

We hope you can join us. Two passages about impermanence, one from Thay and one from Pema Chodron, are below.

With deep appreciation,

Connie Anderson

An excerpt from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh

Impermanence does not necessarily lead to suffering. Without impermanence, life could not be. Without impermanence, your daughter could not grow up into a beautiful young lady. Without impermanence, oppressive political regimes would never change. We think impermanence makes us suffer. The Buddha gave the example of a dog that was hit by a stone and got angry at the stone. It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.

An excerpt from When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron

Impermanence is the goodness of reality. Just as the four seasons are in continual flux, winter changing to spring to summer to autumn; just as day becomes night, light becoming dark becoming light again – in the same way, everything is constantly evolving. Impermanence is the essence of everything. It is babies becoming children, then teenagers, then adults, then old people, and somewhere along the way dropping dead. Impermanence is meeting and parting. It’s falling in love and falling out of love. Impermanence is bittersweet, like buying a new shirt and years later finding it as part of a patchwork quilt.

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