A friend recently emailed about a retreat she had attended, and added that the husband of the presenter died two days after the program ended. “A real lesson in impermanence,” she said. She was not being dismissive or flip. “Impermanence” is a term we share as members of the same Buddhist sangha (community of practitioners).
The Buddha made the simple observation that everything in this world, without exception, is changing, and he called it, “Impermanence.” Big events, like birth, death, or illness bring it right to mind, but over the weekend, I was reminded of impermanence in a simpler way. I was hunting for a particular family photo. I didn’t find the one I was after, but came upon some other pictures in a desk. Look at pictures of yourself, or your dog, or someone you have grown up with, for a living experience of impermanence.
The Buddha said the problem is not with impermanence itself, but that we “attach” to conditions as they are with desire or aversion, and suffer when we try to hold back or push the river.
We like youth but we don’t like old age. What are the odds of having one without the other? Or rather, what’s the alternative to growing old?
Here’s the good news about impermanence: when things are bad, we know for certain, this too shall pass. Here is the bad news: when things are good, we know for certain, this too shall pass.
Impermanence is right at the core of “the American Dream,” our confidence that we can better ourselves, lift ourselves up by our bootstraps. Whether true or not, that image is in direct contrast to the European cultures the original settlers fled, where one’s place in the world was fixed (permanent), based on the circumstances of ones birth.
Seen from the right perspective, there’s a lot of good news about impermanence: because change is possible, I was not condemned to live my life as the Bob Dylan wannabe pictured above. (Actually, I’ve developed a lot of compassion for my younger selves. They simply didn’t have a clue).
Of course it’s always hardest to watch impermanence play out with the people and things that you love:
With you I don’t hear the minutes ticking by,
I don’t see the hours as they fly,
I don’t see the summer as it wanes,
Just a subtle change of light on your face.
– Bruce Springsteen
No one would pay attention to the Buddha if all he had done was point out the problem, say, “You’re really up shit creek – good luck.” People have been seeking his solution for 2600 years. What the wisest teachers seem to say is that the solution turns out to be very simple once get it, but that it cannot be conveyed with words. Kind of like first year calculus I guess.
What can be described in words are various bits of advice and practices that will take us in the direction of ending the kind of suffering impermanence conveys. One of the practices that old photographs suggest – and this anticipates one of Buddha’s most profound teachings – is to gently pose questions like:
Where are the people in these photographs?
Where is the me in these photographs?
All these different photographs of “me” – which is the real me? All of them? None of them? Some of them? Which ones?
You get the idea.
And if the teaching of impermanence is troubling, it’s often helpful to ask, “Who (or what) is troubled? And to notice if the me who is there thirty seconds or five minutes from from now is also troubled, or is troubled in quite the same way.