It is all around us. It is present with every breath, but we barely notice. More important things are on our minds: “Who won the game? What’s for dinner? Should we buy a house or keep renting?” What is it that we barely notice? In the Pali language, it is called anicca or impermanence — the fact that every moment of our existence is disappearing even as it arises. We live in a sea of ceaseless change.
The poet Rilke described it thus:
The knowledge of impermanence
that haunts our days
is their very fragrance.
We kind of know that things are changing, but we hope for the best—gentle, predictable changes that we can control. But then something dramatic happens an explosion, a disaster, an earthquake, a diagnosis. Or perhaps an unexpected windfall: we win, we meet our soul mate, we inherit a fortune! And we didn’t see it coming! Change may happen like that, seemingly out of nowhere, sudden and irreversible.
At other times, change may be so subtle as to be imperceptible. Aging can be like this. It happens slowly, one wrinkle at a time, a single gray hair followed by another and another until our once beautiful hair has disappeared. I call aging a kind teaching in this regard, it happens so slowly. Imagine if we got old suddenly and all at once: you go to sleep one night as a 23-year-old and wake up as an 80-year-old! You wouldn’t even recognize yourself! Instead, the sure signs of aging appear silently and slowly. When we look in the mirror, we somehow see the “photoshopped” version of ourselves. We may see aging more easily in our old friends: “What has happened to them? Why have they let themselves go?” we wonder, little realizing they may be thinking the same about us!
Like gravity, impermanence is one of the indisputable laws of our existence. We learn early on that to deny gravity is risky. We try to fly like Superman, and we fall. Over time we learn to live in harmony with gravity. Can we do the same with ceaseless change? Not noticing the fact of impermanence is not life-threatening but may lead to mental suffering. When we think we are in control and something unexpected happens, we easily react: “This should not be happening,” “Who is at fault?” and “Why me?” are some of our common reactions. A student told me the story of her very successful oil tycoon father who, on his deathbed, kept asking his daughter, “What did I do wrong? What did I do wrong?” as if his dying were a personal failure.
But unexpected changes do not connote personal failings, nor do we have to be victims of change. Instead, the Buddha recommended that we use the fact of impermanence and death itself as a worthy object of our reflection and contemplation.
There is a Japanese art form inspired by Buddhism called wabi sabi. Its focus is on material objects that are worn and weathered by time—an old wooden table, ordinary household objects worn by use, such as brooms or utensils, weathered stone, or trees gnarled by time. In the Japanese tea ceremony, such “imperfect” objects are honored. A once cracked or broken Japanese tea bowl is repaired, the cracks filled with gold, revealing its fragility and its preciousness. Wabi sabi points to impermanence as a phenomenon worthy of our contemplation. In a similar way, we are encouraged to do this in our meditation practice to make impermanence itself a focus of our mindful awareness.
Suzuki Roshi was once asked, “What is the essence of the Buddhist teaching?” He replied, “Everything changes.” Burmese Sayadaw Nanamoli said it equally succinctly, “Everything that is will be was.” Everything that is currently present in our lives will one day be a memory if that. A New Yorker magazine cartoon depicts a couple strolling down the street, one saying to the other: “These are the ‘good old days’ that someday we won’t be able to remember.” Memory itself is subject to impermanence!
In the Pali language, the word anicca has a number of implicit meanings: ephemeral, unreliable, unstable, ungraspable, dissolving, uncertain, imperfect, and transforming. These are pretty much the antithesis of what we are looking for—we want something stable, reliable, and certain that we can hold onto and claim as ours.
Children are consoled by the words at the end of every story, “and they lived happily ever after.” Later on, there are marriage vows promising love and safety, “as long as you both shall live.” This is what we want to believe in—life as the fulfillment of our deepest longing for love, happiness, and security. Gandhi called this state we long for “blessed monotony,” a reliable and predictable life, undisturbed by sudden changes in fortune or health or state of mind.
In the monasteries and practice centers of Asia, there is a daily chant meant to inspire wise understanding of how things are:
All things are impermanent
They arise, and they pass away
To be in harmony with this truth
Brings great happiness.
Really? We can be in harmony with the very thing that seems to disrupt our happiness? Is it possible? The chant suggests so. How might this happen?
In my classes on aging, we explore the question, “What is my relationship to change?” This often ignites a discovery process with many revelations. What is the mind’s reaction when we are faced with challenging or unexpected change? How does our practice teach us to ride the waves of change with greater ease and confidence?
When we make the fact of impermanence the object of our mindful awareness, we can notice the flow of our changing experience—sights, sounds, thoughts, sensations, and feelings all arising and passing without any doing on our part. We can directly experience the process of life living itself moment to moment in our sensory experience—fleeting, momentary, vivid, alive. We may no longer feel so solid and separate from life but rather intimately immersed in its flow. We may experience ourselves less as a noun and more as a verb—sensing, hearing, thinking, and feeling unfolding moment-to-moment.
This breaks up our fixed perceptions of ourselves and others. We see how truly fluid we are. One moment we may feel grumpy, the next moment may bring elation. We see that the words “always” and “forever” simply do not apply. We are not always angry, always in a good mood, or always anything! We are a changing flow of sensory and emotional impressions, arising and passing, moment-to-moment.
This changes our perception of not only ourselves but those around us.
We can also begin to intuit the inherent openness and potential of each moment. We are not as bound by habit as we had imagined. There is the possibility of new choices, new directions, and creative problem-solving.
Over time we develop a greater capacity to be at ease with change, whether pleasant or unpleasant. We may even taste the exhilarating freedom of letting go of control. This was the welcome discovery of an elderly physicist as he was dying. “I can let go now! I can let go now!” he repeated as if he had been waiting his whole life to do just that.
Philosopher George Santayana said, “To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” Our practice asks us to be open to all the seasons of life: old age as well as youth, sickness as well as health, failure as well as success, loss as well as good fortune. The longer we live, the more we experience all the many facets of reality that impermanence reveals. Out of this experience of change, we become wise. We see that there are seasons, there are beginnings and endings, there are times of sorrow, and times of abundant joy, and that is the natural way of things. The truth of impermanence as universal and impersonal penetrates, helping us to let go more and more.
There is an often-told story of the Thai forest master, Ajahn Chah. During a dharma teaching, he held up a glass that he used for drinking water. “You see this glass? To me, this glass is already broken. I have no illusions that it is permanent. But while it is here, I can enjoy it and appreciate it.”
Can we likewise say, “This body is already broken. But while it is here, I can enjoy it and appreciate this rare and precious human incarnation.”
This very life we are living is a temporary event—we will certainly die, but the time of our death and how we die is not known to us or to anyone. In the midst of such uncertainty, what is our refuge? If we have included impermanence as an object of our awareness practice, our own mind’s equanimity as we ride the waves of change will be our refuge, revealing a deeper source of true satisfaction and peace.
Lama Yeshe said it perfectly:
Chocolate comes, chocolate goes, chocolate disappears. (. . .) All such transient pleasures are like this. (. . .) But take heart! There is another kind of happiness available to you, a deep abiding joy that comes from your own mind. This kind of happiness is always with you, always available. Whenever you need it, it is always here.
This is the true refuge that meditation practice offers us, even in the midst of the stormy seas of ceaseless change.