A guided meditation on impermanence that helps us release fear and anxiety to embrace the constant change at every scale of reality: from particles, possessions, homes, and the environment, to our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, and relationships. When we embrace impermanence, we more easily take on challenges like today’s Coronavirus crisis. We become more fully present to those around us and we can even more deeply appreciate life’s impermanent pleasures.
Settle yourself into a meditation posture on a cushion, cross legged. Or seated in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Or in another way, if you feel more comfortable.
We establish our motivation that we’re meditating today to come to terms with the uncertain, changing nature of reality; to help ourselves become more calm, more rational, and more present during this challenging time. And to be a source of help and happiness and meaning to those around you.
For a moment feel a sense of confidence in your own good nature—that your good qualities are the natural ones, the deepest ones. And that disturbing thoughts and emotions are transitory; that your mind is trainable, and that through meditation you gradually let your natural kindness and warmth and love and generosity shine forth.
And diminish your fear, which may be dominant right now, or other disturbing emotions like anger or compulsive desire.
Stabilizing on the breath
Bring your attention to your breath as it comes into your nostrils, or at the rise of your diaphragm. And just watch the breaths come in, rest, and then go out. Without changing your breath. Just observe it, however it is.
And if feelings in your body or feelings in your mind or memories or plans arise in your mind, just let them go. There’s no need to push them away. There’s no need to pull them in and examine them more closely. Just let the thoughts naturally fade away and bring your attention back to your breath. For one minute.
(Meditate on the breath for one minute)
Impermanence of the body
Now become aware of your body. Think of its parts one-by-one: your feet, your legs, your hands, your arms, your torso, your neck, your head, your eyes, your mouth, your nose, your ears; and then all of your skin, the boundary between you and the outside world.
Begin to see the momentary change in your body. See that your heart is beating. Blood is coursing through your veins, circulating through your whole body once a second. Breath is flowing in and out of your lungs. There’s the energy of your nerve impulses from the tips of your fingers, toes, and skin to your brain and back.
Become aware of the more subtle cellular changes—that your body is made of trillions of cells, each of them alive: living blood cells, skin cells, stomach and brain cells moving, changing, dying dividing, reproducing. They say that a million of your body’s cells die every second and are replaced with a million new ones.
And all of these cells, they’re each made of countless parts themselves. They’re all made of atoms vibrating, exchanging subatomic particles at phenomenal speed.
Impermanence of the mind
Now turn your attention to your mind. Your mind is also composed of countless parts: of thoughts, of perceptions, of feelings, of memories and plans, fears and desires. Your mind is constantly changing. Watch your mind with a distance if you can, without trying to control your thoughts, just watch your mind for a minute. See how thoughts appear and disappear and observe them without becoming attached to them and without pushing them away.
(Meditate on watching thoughts for one minute)
Impermanence of the outer world
Bring your mind to the world immediately around you, without needing to look at any of these things. Picture in your mind the cushion that you’re seated on, the walls, the ceiling, the space around you, the objects in the room. See these the way science tells us they exist, as buzzing clouds of energetic particles that our senses mistakenly tell us are solid.
Think of your possessions, the things that you paid small or large sums of money for: your phone, your car, if you’re lucky enough to have one, the house you own. Each of these is subject to change. Nothing lasts forever. Visualized them old, faded, broken: your house eventually torn down, your car crushed into a cube of metal, your phone recycled, your clothes rags. See how your feelings change about these objects.
And come to the present, to realize that changes is happening all the time, not just when things wear out or when they’re destroyed, but at every instant.
Impermanence of people and relationships
Think of the people around you, the people that you know and also your acquaintances. Each of them was born. Imagine that moment with their mother giving birth. And each of them will die, maybe alone, maybe with dear loved ones around them.
Our view of these people, as unchanging, as clearly labeled with some solid notion of “Steven,” or “Lynne” is inaccurate. Even at the moment, they’re constantly changing, constantly in flux, just as our own body and mind.
Think of your relationships to these people: your friendships, romantic partners, job, work, relationships; these air all in flux. Most of us have friends and partners who were the most important people in our life at one point who are now distant acquaintances or even enemies.
But also somewhere out there in the world, there may be a stranger who will become our dearest friend, or our teacher, or an intimate partner for the rest of our life.
Even if things don’t wear out, or relationships don’t fall apart, our mind changes. The happiness and pleasure we experience from objects and people is subject to change. And we can simply become tired or bored with something that once gave us so much joy and excitement.
Change means fluidity
This current pandemic, the stock market crash, they’re reminders of gross, sudden change in the world. They can help us connect to all these other forms of change that we can become aware of at every moment.
But also, being aware of change helps us to realize that our current situation is also subject to change. It’s also fluid. When you encounter an unexpected huge problem, like the Coronavirus, or ones that are more or less expected, like the stock market crash, this coming recession. With a mind accustomed to reflecting on impermanence, you can know for certain that things will change, as they always have.
And when things reach a very bad point, the direction of change is then quite likely for the better, as the world swings through extremes and back to normality.
Then, finally, the impermanence of our life is a bookend to any contemplation on change. Even if we live a stable, happy life with few problems and little conflict, even if our possessions don’t wear out and we have the same partner for life, eventually we lose these too through death. Contemplating death like this in the context of change isn’t meant to provoke fear or anxiety, but to help us put all our challenges into perspective, to reduce or even eliminate our fear, and let us be present and engaged for the problems, the challenges and the joys facing us now and ahead.
Now, quietly contemplate for a moment on impermanence. Let anything at all come to mind: objects, people, relationships, your body, mind, thoughts, regrets, plans, politicians, this pandemic, and even civilization itself. Contemplate whatever comes to mind for you, particularly objects of strong emotional attachment or aversion, fear or desire. Apply the reasonings of impermanence. And when you glimpse a clear, strong sense of the ever changing nature of any one of these things, let go of the analysis and hold your attention firmly on this intangible feeling of realizing impermanence itself.
Then, when it inevitably fades, analyze the impermanence of your body or mind or another object intellectually. When the sense of impermanence returns attend firmly to it again.
Reflecting on impermanence helps us to accept things as they are, and to anticipate—to expect—problems and change. It allows us to diminish fear and anxiety and be present for those around us.
Remember that whatever is unpleasant or disturbing won’t last forever. It might even change for the better. And whatever is beautiful or pleasing will also eventually change and disappear, so we can’t expect it to give us lasting happiness. But realizing this, paradoxically, can make us enjoy the impermanent beauty all around us, in the world and in our relationships.
Finally, we dedicate the progress toward seeing reality more clearly that we’ve made today to carrying any realizations out into our day; to being able to bring peace of mind to the huge challenges before us, in the change and uncertainty brought on by the Covid-19 virus. And that our actions might contribute to the quick end of this crisis.
If you enjoy something pleasurable today—a great meal, a walk in the woods, your cup of coffee, or the touch of your partner—try and be fully present for it. Try and realize that you won’t always experience such pleasures; that this might even be the last time you do. See if you can enjoy whatever it is that you’re doing without clinging to it, without planning for the next time. So often your enjoyment of life’s experiences is ruined by worrying about never enjoying it again or plotting the next time that we’ll enjoy it.
When we recognize that external things can’t give us lasting happiness and satisfaction, our attachment to them lessens. And they say that by realizing the true, impermanent nature of pleasure, we actually enjoy things a thousand times more, without unrealistically wishing for them to last forever, or to repeat again and again.
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio
Photo illustration by Kanchi Rastogi