There are two kinds of change, each driven by a different force.
The changes we try to impose on life are driven by mind; whereas the changes life imposes on us are driven by impermanence. It’s good to grok the difference.
The change that life imposes on us—the birth, growth, decay, and death of everything in existence, from bodies to desires to ideas to galaxies—is called impermanence.
Understanding and accepting impermanence brings us closer to reality and opens us to a life of humility, a deep spiritual peace accompanied by empathy and compassion. As humility and peace deepen within us, we stop fighting life’s changes and accept the inevitability of impermanence; we more easily accept the nature of existence.
It might seem ironic to say that we can still find our much loved security in this humility: security is no longer sought in permanence, but in accepting impermanence. Life provides its own kind of security as a midwife to the yet-unborn. We can count on impermanence and we can count on death and we can count on birth. It’s the nature of existence. There is a security in aligning with this.
The recognition of impermanence allows us to be open to the poignant beauty of each moment, and we will be able to touch each task, each person, each living thing with love and appreciation. But it is this very poignancy that helps us to open to each other with love and compassion, because each moment may be the last moment. Why spend it in anger? Why be critical of ourselves and others?
Should we not spend each moment, knowing it may be our last, in forgiveness and empathy and love? For me, life is a series of Tibetan sand paintings: I do my best each moment, each hour, to create a vivid and compelling expression of my soul, but I also know that life and its agent, impermanence, will sweep away every painting at the right time. If I try to stop it, I will suffer. And lose. I cannot stand in the way of impermanence. I accept it. I learn to love it. I have become secure in knowing that all things will pass away, without consideration of what I want.
If we become close to the Earth and her seasons, we will be reminded of life’s changes. If we contemplate our own body, we will see that it is in a state of constant change and reflects the cycle of all living things: birth, growth, decay and death. This is impermanence. Shouldn’t we live in accord with this law?
But we don’t, do we? We are usually in a titanic struggle with impermanence, trying to impose our will on life. We want what we want: good health, great relationships, explosive sex, a steady-growth business—desire and ambition pile on top of each other like a towering deli sandwich!
Now, I am not a Buddhist, so I do not have an aversion to desire, or ambition! However, I have noticed that when our desires and ambitions come from our mind, we will often find ourselves in conflict with life. Our mind-based desires want to be fulfilled, all the while life is f*cking with us. We want the tide to come in, life wants it to go out. We want the sun to rise, life wants the sun to set. Who wins?
There is no end to what our minds want. I remember what a woman once shared in one of my workshops: she told us she had recently experienced the perfect night. She had had a sumptuous dinner at a marvelous restaurant with her new husband. Returning home, they enjoyed heartfelt conversation by the fire, sipping champagne. They retired to the bedroom where they had the most wonderful sex; deep connection and three orgasms for her and one for him. And then, in the aftermath of this extraordinary evening, in the midst of her fullness and satisfaction, she suddenly wanted a pizza!
There is no end to what our minds want. And yet, the more we try to impose our personal will on life, the more estranged we become from life. The more we come into conflict with our own self and with others. Have you noticed this?
Have you ever built a sand castle by the seashore? It’s easy to get caught up in designing and building it. We forget to cast an eye towards the inevitable. At a certain time the tide begins to come in, whether we are finished or not, whether we want it to or not.
Regardless of our plans and calculations, the tide will come in at the appointed hour and it will wash our castle out to sea. I think we get caught up in designing and building our lives, too. If we ignore the fact of the tide, we will certainly experience suffering and disappointment. If we understand the fact of impermanence, we can live more fully in the depth and beauty of each moment, without clinging or resisting.
The more we cling to our desires, the harsher impermanence feels. The more we resist impermanence, the more afraid we become. Our fear is rooted in a denial of this basic fact of life.
Behind most of our desires is the desire for security. We want things to be certain and to last. They aren’t and they don’t. The more we impose our desire for security onto life, the more we experience insecurity because our conflict with life increases. We have not seen this clearly; we have not accepted this. An intellectual understanding of impermanence is not enough. We have to give our lives to the truth of impermanence and learn to live fully even as its frothy tide constantly washes over our feet.
There is no firm ground to stand on. There are no legs to stand with. When we see this, our conflict with life will end. Our fear will end. We will be free to love deeply each person, each thing, each moment as it appears and disappears according to the sacred scripture of impermanence.
The spasms of the mind are always at odds with life. The conflict grows into the chaos we can see all around us. This chaos is not natural. The more threatening the chaos becomes, the more we impose our will on it, trying to direct it away from us. But we created the chaos by not understanding the difference between the two kinds of change.
What to do? We need to find a way to live in harmony with life and impermanence. We need to let impermanence counsel us, guide us, mentor us. As a leadership consultant, I’ve participated in strategic planning sessions for teams and businesses. They look five and 10 years out, and make plans. Yes, they consider variables, but those are known or imagined or guessed.
Life, dear life, is just sitting in the corner, smiling, sadly shaking its head.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Wiki Commons