The Practice of Impermanence: Learning how to be Alive
In our most recent blog entitled “The Top Ten Mistakes made by Meditation Practitioners”, at fourth place was the mistake of “Forgetting about death”. This section provoked some interesting comments and questions which we would now like to briefly address.
Not forgetting about death means to remember that all phenomena are impermanent. All things are in a constant state of flux. Moment by moment all things change. We were born, we live, and we will die. Absolutely nothing escapes the cycle of impermanence.
The Buddha said:
“This existence of ours is as transient as autumn leaves. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky, rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.”
According to the Buddhist view, the law of impermanence represents one of the three ‘marks of existence’ (Pali: tilakkhana): (i) impermanence (anicca), (ii) suffering or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and (iii) non-self (anattā).
As human beings, we have the tendency to ignore the fact that we have a limited time to walk upon the shoulders of this earth. Rather than simply experiencing the moment, we tend to superimpose our last moment onto this moment. That is to say, we cling on to whatever experience conditioned us yesterday, and we experience the ‘now’ through that conditioning. In this manner we prevent ourselves from experiencing the present moment exactly as it is.
Therefore, as meditation practitioners, we should aim to remember that whatever we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch in this moment will never happen again – this ‘happening’ has gone by and if we were not aware of it, then we have missed it. So try not to sleep-walk through life. Give yourself a pinch to remind yourself that you are awake and life is happening now.
We are born with an in-breath, we leave this world with an out-breath. That which lies in between is this very precious thing called life, and this life can exist only because of the law of impermanence. In fact, it is actually thanks to impermanence that any phenomenon can come into existence.
Basically, impermanence has three aspects: (i) an outer aspect, (ii) an inner aspect, and (iii) a hidden aspect. These three aspects of impermanence constitute a temporal doorway to intuiting emptiness. This is different from the concept of interconnectedness which is a spatial doorway to intuiting emptiness. We shall discuss interconnectedness in a future post.
The outer aspect of impermanence is its most obvious form. The fact that a phenomenon that existed at one point of time, does not exist at a future point in time implies that its nature is impermanent. Take the universe for example: the universe was born some 13.7 billion years ago and from it emerged our sun and the other planets in our solar system. They, in this moment of time, are all ‘existing’, but one day they will die. That which becomes has to dissolve, all that is born must die, all that is accumulated will be dispersed, and all meetings must end in separation – this is the nature of things, this is the law of impermanence.
We can, if we wish, easily recognise this outer aspect of impermanence in our daily lives. We can witness impermanence in our relationships – former friends become our enemies and people we previously didn’t get along with can become our close friends. One moment a person is happy but the next day the bubble bursts and they feel low again. The seasons come and go, as do the years, months, weeks, days, hours, and so forth. Impermanence is all around us.
In order to best describe the inner aspect of impermanence, We have chosen a quote by Pema Chodron:
“That nothing is static or fixed, that all is fleeting and impermanent, is the first mark of existence. It is the ordinary state of affairs. Everything is in process. Everything—every tree, every blade of grass, all the animals, insects, human beings, buildings, the animate and the inanimate—are always changing, moment to moment.”
This is slightly different than the first aspect of impermanence in which we were basically saying that things which currently are, will ultimately not be. Here however, we are extending this logic a little further and are now saying that because phenomena ultimately cease to exist, they must be subject to an ongoing process of change that eventually leads to their dissolution.
You might think that the mountain is solid, has always been there, and will always be there. However, as any geologist or physical geographer will tell you, this is actually untrue. The mountain is changing all of the time. Furthermore, every time you look at the mountain you and your perspective have also changed. So essentially, the mountain that you saw in the first instance can no longer be said to exist. Likewise, the ‘I’ that first apprehended the mountain no longer exists. If you try to impose your first experience of seeing the mountain onto the present moment, then effectively you are not experiencing the mountain as it is now. In exactly the same manner, this truth can be applied to your life in all of its aspects.
The hidden aspect of impermanence is the most subtle aspect and, conceptually speaking, is perhaps a little more complex. Although it is called the ‘hidden aspect’ of impermanence, it is in fact in plain view of everyone but only few people have their eyes open enough in order to be aware of it.
This aspect of impermanence is probably best explained by a verse from a short doha (a kind of spiritual song) that we wrote:
“Recognise that all phenomena are composite and therefore impermanent.
Yet if all phenomena are momentarily transient,
then what exists to undergo change?
And so recognise too the contradiction of impermanence!”
Tips on how to practise impermanence
Use impermanence as an antidote to ‘mental poisons’ and ‘mundane concerns’ by reflecting upon the following:
1) Greed: No amount of wealth can be used to barter our way out of death. Whatever we have accumulated, we will have to leave behind.
2) Power: Not even the General of the strongest army can overpower the process of death.
3) Fame: No amount of followers or reputation can protect us at the end of our life. It doesn’t matter who you think you are – death has no interest.
4) Desire: All phenomena, no matter how beautiful and attractive, are subject to the process of decay (change) and death.
5) Anger: Where this involves another party, try viewing both angry parties 100 years from now – is there really any point to anger?
6) Procrastination: Try not to put off until tomorrow because tomorrow may never arrive.
Integrate impermanence into your meditation/contemplation by reflecting upon the following:
1) As suggested in our post entitled ‘Life is a Precious Happening’, contemplate the preciousness of this life and all that happens in it. Each life on this earth is extraordinarily fragile and unique. The beat of a heart is all that separates life and death. So do not squander this precious gift of life.
2) In a similar manner, contemplate all of the conditions that were necessary in order for this life to come in to existence. Things exist only as a result of the complex interplay of innumerable causes and conditions. We exist in dependence upon the sun, stars, moons, planets, and every other living being upon this planet. Without any one of these ‘happenings’ this life now would simply not be.
3) Understand that the past is a memory never to occur again. The future is a fantasy that never actually happens. All that exists within the scope of experience is to be found in the here and now. However, as referred to above, if the past is only a memory and does not exist, and the future is only a fantasy which will never arrive, then does the here and now actually exist?
4) Try to recognise that impermanence flows through all phenomena. Begin by looking at your thoughts, emotions, perceptions, the words you have spoken, and the words you have chosen not to speak. Observe how they too are transient in nature – especially if you choose not to cling onto them.
5) Contemplate the uncertainty of life and the inevitability of death. Death is part of the process of change. Just as birth gives rise to death, death gives rise to birth. This is the cycle of existence.
Practising impermanence correctly will certainly bring great joy and is a very liberating experience. By allowing the realisation of impermanence to infuse our being, we will gradually learn not to hold onto things too tightly. This means that when the things we love are present we can cherish them even more, but when they dissolve we can let go of them more freely. Just remember, every time we do something, that will be the last time we do it. The recognition of this will invest the things we do and say with great meaning and joy. We no longer have to sleep-walk through life – we are no longer walking corpses. If we become proficient at this practice, in time, we might come to realise what we call the ‘permanence of impermanence’. This is when impermanence becomes a place where we can always be. We have liberated ourselves by learning to completely let go so that the recognition of impermanence becomes a permanent way of perceiving reality. Now we are truly learning how to be alive!
Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon