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Grappling with Impermanence


Even after fresh snow falls here in Louisville, the smell of burnt material still lingers in the air. The first time I walked on the path behind our house after the fires, I noticed rows of houses burned to the ground, random fences, trees, and land destroyed. The second time I passed the same area, I noticed a stone buddha sitting underneath a tree unscathed, just 5 feet away from the ruin, ironically symbolizing one of the Buddha’s fundamental teachings: impermanence.

Everything changes…all the time.

Pause…take a breath here, let that in.

“It is not impermanence that makes us suffer, what makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.”

-Thich Nhat Hanh

I admit, the thought of impermanence can leave me uneasy. Such a simple teaching, and yet to grasp, understand, and come into complete acceptance of this guidance can be transformational.

Letting Go:

The first passage of impermanence begins with letting go. Maybe it's advantageous to realize that every day we are already able to enjoy letting go in small ways. Don’t we find pleasure in watching the sunset, or the afterglow of an orgasm, or sinking into a warm cushy bed at the end of the day? Yet, life is beckoning us to let go of so much more. This may be fairly easy if we are talking about an old worn-out pair of shoes, but what about when it relates to a long-held belief, expectations of ourselves or others, cultural conditioning, an idea of who we think we are, a career, living situation, or loved one?

Squirming in the Emptiness:

I like to think it is easy for me to let go of material things. So why haven’t I let go of one of my favorite shirts with three holes? This may seem like a superficial example, but it may point to some unconscious idea that there will be nothing to replace it. And each time we let go of anything or anyone, we face an empty space where that used to be. As a society, we are not comfortable will any type of void. We often fill our hours and days with shopping for material goods, Netflix, podcasts, youtube, social media, exercise, social activities, and family. Let’s face it, for the majority of Americans, to sit silently and still for any length of time is uncomfortable. To sit in between the world of the familiar and the unknown requires trust and patience. It is an acquired skill that we are not taught.

Linger Here:

Even after 28 years of meditation and week-long silent retreats, my relationship with the void can be less than amicable. Sometimes the space between thoughts is incredibly effulgent and peaceful, and other times just plain empty. My mind can chime in and comment that having no thoughts feels rather desolate. And when I give myself empty space in my days without plans, agendas, and activity, there is an experience of both simultaneously gravitating towards and resisting the unfilled space. What if there is just more nothingness? What if the experience reveals something I’d rather not see or deal with? Then I have to be with the discomfort without numbing out or distracting myself in dozens of ways. I might have to reassess my beliefs or the way I am perceiving something. I might have to do something different. To meet myself in this moment, deep conscious breathing is a helpful first step. And sometimes it requires calling in the support of mentors, friends, and therapists to assist me in shifting my point of view.

“Renunciation is not giving up the things of this world, but accepting that they go away."

~ Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Master

The Way It Is:

Life calls us to submit to its cyclical nature. In childhood we move on from the helplessness of being a baby. Adolescence gives us an opportunity to let go of relying solely on our parents as the authority. Adulthood asks us to release immaturity. Our elder years require that we move toward eventually letting go of the body.

It Can Hurt:

We can still care deeply and love courageously, all the while knowing that there is an end inextricably woven into the fabric of an experience. And yet, when we finally let go of something, then we sometimes face upheaval and distress. As we witness people or pets leaving our lives through death or choice, it is often accompanied by great grief and sadness. The space left behind is sometimes experienced as untenable and unworkable. Yet it gives us an opportunity to feel deeply, to come undone, and to experience the crushing loss of perceived control.

How incredibly bittersweet it could be to surrender to impermanence.

So how do we live with open hands, an open mind, and an open heart, allowing everything to come and go as it will?

Here are some reminders that may help:

  • Breathe and stay present

  • Become saturated in what life offers us each day, with gratitude. And in these volatile times, there are fewer and fewer guarantees that anything will stay the same.

  • Remember that the Universe abhors a vacuum, and the space that is left will fill once again. Whatever fills the empty space could very well be for the better.

  • Trust the changes

  • Look towards the horizon and stay open to new possibilities.

I think on the next walk behind my house I will take a few deep breaths, open my heavy heart, and imagine the burnt land being revitalized with green sprouts and beautiful new sustainable housing. On the other side of release we can rest, and trust in the void. We can welcome the circular nature of things, and open to new prospects. And as we navigate the challenges, we can rest assured that everything will change in this luminosity of being alive.

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