Shifting Sands: Dealing with Impermanence

Photo by Wonderlane A Philosopher of ancient Greece before the time of Socrates, named Heraclitus, used to profess that everything in the Universe is in constant flux and that nothing remains the same. “You cannot step in the same river twice” Heraclitus used to say. This is because all the observable world and even the imperceptible one is changing all the time even if it may appear stationary or permanent from our limited subjective observation.

This is true in so many levels and has been echoed in many philosophies and folk wisdom across cultures and centuries all the way down to modern science. The physical world is in constant movement. Matter and energy is exchanged from one place to the other. Even our own bodies never remain the same. As we grow  each and every atom in our body is changed many times and replaced by new ones. In a way you can say that the body you have now is completely different than  the one you had 5 years ago although it looks more or less the same.

Everything Must Go

Nothing stays the same. This is something that we all observe as time passes by, sometimes to our dismay or anxiety because we cannot come to grips with  change, loss or drastically new things.

We all get through that moment in life when we ponder and reflect back on our past and realize that so many things have irreversibly changed or come to an  end. Of course, aging is one of the most obvious signs although not every one is affected by aging in the same way.

It doesn’t mean that we always get nostalgic or panicky when we look back at our past. We get a lot of nice memories of wonderful moments we passed with loved  ones or friends in lovely places or in special episodes of our lives. But there are other times where we get attached to our past or those happier moments in  life and so we end up getting all emotional especially when the present gets a bit tough or the future is more uncertain than usual. As a line from one of  U2’s old song goes “We glorify the past when the future dries up“.

The Illusion of Permanence

This is normal but can haunt us in more extreme situations. So what is the remedy?

Nostalgia, attachment to the past or fear of change all point to a common, deeper problem: our perspective on permanence.

It is a natural part of our cognitive and mental makeup to attribute permanence to objects or events otherwise we would never make much sense of our  environment. Since we are developing as toddlers we learn that the same object can persist through time and hence learn to recognize it through its  unchanging features and attribute a fixed identity to it. As we color objects or events with emotional overtones, our view of permanence or impermanence,  continuity or loss take on a new dimension of meaning. This is where emotional attachment comes in.

Buddhist philosophy teaches that emotional attachments to things or events, together with ignorance and desire are the root of all human suffering. I tend to  agree with this. So much unhappiness can come out of attachment. In fact Buddhism (the little I know of it at least) recommends meditating on impermanence to  its followers. You might have seen in some documentary a ‘sand painting’ made by Tibetan Buddhist monks. Usually it’s an intricate geometric design made by  colored sand in the form of a Mandala. After spending many back-breaking hours creating the piece of art, the monks blow or wipe the sand away the very  second they finish it. crazy? Not really. The significance of it is that everything is impermanent so you better get used to it or you’ll suffer.

When we realize that everything is impermanent and accept with our heart that everything we know, possess, value, love, hold dear or hang on to will come to  an end, we are able to face the ever changing world fearlessly and afresh.

The Power of  Non-Attachment

But what does it mean to accept impermanence or live your life unattached? Does it mean that you cannot love, take care of your dear ones or keep something  if you like it? Not at all. This is where we can easily fall for half truths or falsehoods. On the contrary, living unattached means that you can value, love  or appreciate something for what it really is without the illusions we create in our heads and without being held in chains to the object such as that our  happiness or sorrow depend on it. This is the great irony of it all. We think it’s perfectly human and normal to be in that situation (we even epitomize it  as quintessential human subjectivity and sensitivity) when in fact it means living unconscious and enslaved to your frivouous emotions.

Liberation and freedom means to break free from the spell of illusion and awaken to see things in perspective without being overpowered by emotional and  subjective distortions. It means loving with more power, strength and focus. When you love something or someone without attachment or the constant fear of  losing it, there is more authenticity and power to it. It feels like vibrating at a higher level. There is more clarity and less obsessions or expectation. It’s quality caring or quality loving.

I know it may sound contradictory or paradoxical to some. I won’t blame anyone becuase it runs counter to what we were always made to believe. The truth is  always a big pain in the ass.

when I look at my beautiful two year old daughter as she is hopping happily around the place and beaming with life and joy, I always get that unavoidable  thought in my head saying: “Alas, what a perfect moment yet so impermanent. Kids grow so fast and this will be just a fleeting memory soon“. Then I always  think back at that thought: “It is beautiful because it is impermanent. (The Japanese culturally recognize this sense of aesthetic that is why such things as  the cherry blossom are so valued as beautiful because they are ephemeral) Instead of wasting your time complaining about it shut up and enjoy it. Cherish  the moment and live it piece by piece!“.

Category: Heart MattersPhilosophy

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6 comments

  1. We can rest in the permanence/One/All-That-Is/God/Buddha/It/Silence as we observe the impermanence rise and fall.

    The breath is an apt microcosm of the process.

  2. I have been talking a lot with people about imperence lately. I don’t get it. I don’t understand why people fear things ending. What scares me is the idea of noting changing. No growth no new beginnings just everything the way it is forever and ever. now that is terrifying.
    .-= Quinn´s last blog ..A problem with confidence =-.

  3. Insightful.

    I think in our dualistic minds, we think non-attachment is equivalent to nihilism. Non-attachment is simply the detachment from the drama of the ego.

    Thanks, very helpful.
    .-= Kaushik´s last blog ..Expanding out from Stuckness =-.

  4. An insightful post. I try to use my daily activities as meditations on impermanence.

    As I renovate my rental I think about these sand paintings. The house is full of termites and parts fall off all the time, I am using my own funds and time, and who knows maybe an opportunity will come along and I will just move. Friends and family think I’m mental for doing it.

    But my home is going to look beautiful when it’s finally bulldozed. Till then I’ve created a healthy, bright, giving environment~ all without a mortgage.

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Article by: Gilbert Ross