When asked to sum the Buddha’s teachings up in one phrase, Suzuki Roshi simply said, “Everything changes.”
Everyone and their mom knows, at least intellectually, that the whole of creation is in a state of endless revolution. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said, “No same man could walk through the same river twice, as the man and the river have since changed.”
Impermanence is the very nature of life.
In fact, change is just another word for living—“to live” means “to change.” But few people go through life truly conscious of this fact. We “get it” but this knowledge fails to affect our behavior. We simply ignore the way things actually are. So the point of this discussion is not to explain impermanence to you, but to point it out; to wake you up to the truth of change.
Alan Watts used to compare life to music. The point of music is music, he would say. People enjoy listening to music for the rhythm, the stream of melody. No one is listening to music to hear it end. If they were then, as Watts pointed out, their favorite songs would be the ones that ended abruptly with one single uproar of noise. Life is the same way.
The point of Life is Life, to participate in the melody. Melodies are streams; they are flowing. You cannot frame them or dam them up. When you do there is no flow. That is death.
The only way to participate in the melody is through simple awareness. Simple awareness is fluid. A simple mind loses its sense of self in the music, whereas a self-centered mind keeps trying to pause the music. We are trying far too hard to hear what we want to hear, rather than moving to the music, living. We stand back as a spectator, a listener trying catch the beat. We want to grab a hold of it, own it, identify with it.
It is not enough to enjoy the music. We have to know the words. So, we keep pausing the song and rewinding it, in order to commit it to memory and claim it as our own.
The ego derives a sense of identity or meaning from its interactions with “other.”
These interactions produce vouchers, which the ego tries to collect and preserve. Rather than enjoying the concert firsthand, the ego takes pictures and films the concert, so it can talk about it and share the pictures later. The river of life is forever flowing, but for the ego, whose very existence is dependent upon freezing this stream of change, fluctuation is terrifying, which is why we call it impermanence.
From the pessimistic point of view of ego fluctuation represents a threat to its stability, but in the centerless state of basic awareness the space that enables flow or change is the womb of vitality. Life, adaptation emerges from this space. The ego seeks to ignore this space by stuffing it full of credentials and solicited testimonials.
The ego is the ultimate hoarder.
It keeps every voucher, every memory it stands to profit from. In an ego-centric mind there is no space, no room to breathe. But deep down the ego knows the whole thing may come crumbling down at any moment. It remembers the space, the silent gap between each note that enables the music to flow. This memory haunts the ego. It breeds paranoia and insecurity.
This insecurity is the benefactor that finances the ego’s obsession with collecting vouchers. An ego-centric mind is a co-dependent, and this co-dependency is all about avoiding space, fluctuation. The ego is dependent upon relationship or entertainment, which requires separation.
So, the ego has to think of itself as a distinct entity. It has to separate itself from life. Upholding this segregationist strategy is necessary, if any sort of exchange is to be possible. Separation is the foundation upon which the ego’s empire is built. As a result, it is chronically discontented or lifeless.
In addition to chronic discontentment, consider for a moment the problems one is bound to acquire, if they view themselves as an island or a solid entity in a fluid world.
Things change. However, the river is not the only thing that changes. According to Heraclitus, so does the man. But the ego sees itself as unchanging. When we stand in the river of life with our feet planted, like we are an island, life begins to feel like an overwhelming wall of water bearing down on us.
Take for example, the transition between being single and in a relationship. When you are single you develop a lifestyle that that doesn’t have to take into consideration another person. You can wake up in the morning drink your coffee, read the paper, have breakfast, go to work, go to the gym, hang out with friends, and watch whatever you want on TV. But when you bring another person into the mix you cannot continue to operate on the same schedule. The situation has changed, so your old schedule is outdated.
When ‘I’ is a fixed entity or a habit of thought, this transition is difficult. If you cling this expired image, the relationship will begin to feel claustrophobic. There will be one confrontation after the next. The intensity will continue to build over time until everything, your self image and the relationship—the man and the river—washes out.
What we think about ourselves is challenged by change. Many people say, “I shouldn’t have to give up who I am in order to be in a relationship.” I say, if you do not give up who you are, then you are not in relationship.
In fact, if you do not have to give up who you are every moment of every day, then you are not alive. To be alive is to be in a constant state of revolution. Changing situations should affect our behavior. That is sanity; allowing new information to inform my point of view. My point of view—the man in Heraclitus’ example—must remain open or fluid. “Everything changes.” That is the basic point, according to Shunryu Suzuki. Everything—the economy, politics, the weather, relationships, our beliefs, our very sense of identity—is in state of fluctuation. When we are open to change, the transition is relatively smooth. We are going with the flow. On the other hand, when we try to save all of our vouchers we drown.
We cannot swim with our hands full.
An open mind is a sane mind. An open mind is not a mind that gives due consideration to any idea, regardless of how ridiculous it is.
An open mind is a swinging door. It is a mind that does not resist change. An open mind allows thought to be a reflection of change. From this point of view, thought is always fresh, because life is always changing. This is original thought, imagination. In basic awareness, the man and the river pour into one another.
We have to accept the fact that we cannot wrestle happiness out of this world simply by putting life in a head-lock and forcing it to play with us. We have to see that life is change, change is life; that they are one in the same thing.
Trying to organize impermanent phenomena into permanent categories of thought is like trying to herd cats. Furthermore, we are not somehow other than this change, we are Life. We are change. Confusion and discontentment arise from the mistaken belief that we are a noun. Contentment is realized when we stop swimming against the stream and settle into the fact that we are a current in the stream. The current is not other than the stream. It is the movement of the stream.
We are not a co-dependent noun standing on the bank watching life flow by, but a verb emerging out of the stream of life.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Provided by Author