The Wisdom of Impermanence

“The Unchanging Truth of Change” taken from Turning the Mind Into an Ally by Sakyong Mipham.

The face of impermanence is constantly showing itself. Why do we struggle to hide it? Why do we feed the circle of suffering by perpetuating the myth of permanence? Experience, friends, relationships, possessions, knowledge – we work so hard to convince ourselves that they will last. When a cup breaks or we forget something or somebody dies or the seasons change, we’re surprised. We can’t quite believe it’s over.

Most summers I conduct a program at our retreat center in the Rocky Mountains. We create a world of tents in a huge meadow – dining tent, meditation tent, sleeping tents. It’s refreshing to live like this, since most of us live in buildings all year round. At the beginning of the summer we put up the tents, and at the end we take them down. After the tents come down and we look into the meadow, we’re always surprised. We feel happy and sad. We’re happy in reflecting back on what occurred during the summer; we’re sad that all the tents are gone. It seemed so real. No matter how many times we’ve done it, at the end of each summer we have the same feeling.

The bittersweet taste marks our lives. The movie ends, our relationship’s over, children grow up. Impermanence is always pounding at the door. Of course, acknowledging impermanence doesn’t mean we get permanence. It means we’re more in tune with reality; we can relax. As we relinquish our attachment to permanence, pain begins to diminish because we’re no longer fooled. Accepting impermanence means that we spend less energy resisting reality. Our suffering has a more direct quality. We’re no longer trying to avoid it. We see that impermanence is a river that runs through life, not a rock that stands in the way. We see that because we resist impermanence, pain and suffering are constants. We realize that pain comes from our desire for permanence.

Contemplation helps us understand profound truths that we rarely consider; even though our life is contained by them. We contemplate these truths to bring about a shift in our understanding of reality, our perception of our life. When, during a meditation session, we hold our mind to the words “Everything is impermanent,” the meaning begins to come through.  When we have a glimpse of impermanence, we hold our mind to that realization. In this way we become familiar with a simple truth that we may have overlooked. We begin to live our lives with a deeper understanding.

At this very instant the weather is changing, our hair is growing, people are dying and being born, and the earth is shifting on its axis as it circles round the sun. We’re growing older. Perhaps our mood has changed since yesterday. No matter how clear this may be to our intellect, we tend to put ourselves into a trance, thinking things are permanent. We’re hypnotized into thinking the world is permanent, we’re permanent, relationships are permanent, feelings are permanent. But all of it is impermanent. This contemplation brings us to a very basic level of understanding. It brings us back to the middle of the saddle.

When I was eight, I flew from India to England. I had never been in an airplane before. As we began to land in London, looking down I saw a world of tiny buildings, tiny streets, and tiny cars and trucks. This delighted me. I couldn’t wait for the plane to land so that I could drive one of those little cars. But as we landed, that little world suddenly grew to adult proportions. It changed.

The world is made of infinite moving parts. The mind produces a seeming continuity of events and ideas. What we call “war” is a series of calamities arising from beliefs and opinions, which are always subject to change. What we call “peace” is the absence of aggression, a tenuous state. When it is winter, summer no longer exists. We organize our life around the concept of a solid self in a solid world, even though all of it is simply ideas and forms coming in and out of existence, likes thousands of stars flickering in the night. Is there anything that is not impermanent?

In contemplating impermanence we can consider what permanence would mean. Permanence would be awkward. It would be an unchanging situation, isolated in space, unaffected by time or the elements. There would be no beginning and no end, no causes and conditions. Everything would last forever. There’d be no seasons. We’d never be born, grow up, fall in love, have children, grow old, or die. We’d never eat because we’d never be hungry. We couldn’t be in relationship to anything else, because it would change us. In contemplating impermanence, we see the impossibility of life being anything other than what it is. We begin to lighten up and enjoy the constant play of light and dark, of visible and invisible, of increase and decrease.

Contemplating impermanence can be a liberating experience, one that brings both sobriety and joy. In essence, we become less attached. We realize we can’t really have anything. We have money and then it’s gone; we have sadness and then it’s gone. No matter how we want to cling to our loved ones, by nature every relationship is a meeting and a parting. This doesn’t mean we have less love. It means we have less fixation, less pain. It means we have more freedom and appreciation, because we can relax into the ebb and flow of life.

Understanding the meaning of impermanence makes us less desperate people. It gives us dignity. We no longer grasp at pleasure, trying to squeeze out every last drop. We no longer consider pain something we should fear, deny, and avoid. We know that it will change. This is a very strong direction toward opening the mind of enlightenment. We’ve learned to look at what’s in front of us. We don’t have to keep imitating an idea of permanent happiness: “If I work hard, I’m going to make a lot of money, and then I’ll be happy.” We see that happiness doesn’t come about that way; it comes from cultivating the virtues that lead to enlightenment. Ultimately, it comes from wisdom, from understanding the unchanging truth of change.

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