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!“.