We cling to things as if they won’t change, but change is the nature of reality. When we embrace impermanence, we prepare ourselves for big changes, and are able to let go of our fear and anxiety to become more fully present to those around us, to make the most meaningful choices day-to-day, and to more deeply appreciate life’s fleeting pleasures.
Someone once asked Stephen King, who wrote Carrie and The Shining, and hundreds of other horror stories, what people are most afraid of and his answer surprised me. He didn’t say, “serial killers,” or “cancer,” or “terrorists” or “earthquake,” “hurricane,” or “pandemic.” He didn’t even say, “death.” He said that people’s greatest fear is “Change.”
That change itself, in all its forms, is what we fear the most.
It’s one of the paradoxes of Buddhism that reflecting on the uncertainty of life, the possibility of things falling apart at any minute, is seen as a path to happiness and peace of mind.
I saw this firsthand on September 11, 2001, when I was as shocked and grief-stricken as most of us were with the fall of the World Trade Center and the death of so many inside. One of my teachers, Geshe Tsulga, gave a teaching the next day. This was only a year after I started meditating and studying Buddhism, and and I was surprised that this great Tibetan Lama focused not on compassion, or awareness, but almost almost solely on this topic of impermanence.
Geshe Tsulga began by saying how we thought this building would be up forever, none of us imagined that it would collapse, not today, not in a hundred years, not ever! And yet it fell yesterday, and many people died inside, and this is something awful for the world today. We can open our hearts to those who are suffering and to the fear we’re all experiencing. But fundamentally, this is an important lesson in impermanence, that things are always changing and our ingrained illusion that things are stable and unchanging is false.
This is a horrible event, he said, but the good we can learn from it is to try and become aware of impermanence, the constant change of reality. To rehearse thinking about change daily, so that we become more attuned to the fragility of life, to give our lives clear purpose and urgency. We could have been in that building yesterday. And we could die tomorrow. So how do we want to live our lives today? Are the things we chase after and the ways we spend our time truly the most meaningful? What’s the most valuable thing we could be doing right now?
After hearing Geshe Tsulga’s advice, I started meditating on this topic of impermanence. And when I began teaching meditation, it was one of the topics that consistently resonated with people, often the first meditation I’d introduce to someone who’d never tried meditation before.
Meditating on impermanence requires absolutely no belief, no metaphysics. It’s a cold, hard look at reality just as it is. But also, in many ways, it’s a beautiful journey through all the scales of reality like the documentary Powers of Ten or Cosmos.
We’ve had big shocking moments of change over the past couple weeks. With the spread of the virus, the halting or our work lives, social lives, travel: the fall of the stock market.
Moments like this shock and surprise most of us. But if you talk to someone who’s been meditating daily on impermanence for years, you will find that, like Geshe Tsulga, they are unsurprised at times like this. Because paradoxically, by reflecting on change every day—even the worst types of change—you become calmer, more present and more ready to help yourself and help those around you when radical change inevitably occurs, like it is right now.
You can take the rest of this discussion and next week’s meditation as an experiment or an invitation to see whether this way of thinking helps your mind as it’s supposed to. See if reflecting on change in all its forms helps you to accept reality as it is, to be more relaxed and present, and to be a force for positive change with the people and events around you.
So let’s dive into this topic.
How things change
We normally see change as something that occurs only after long stretches of time: we go back to our hometown and see that our favorite stores have closed and that old homes are gone. We see an old friend and notice how they’ve gained a little weight, notice the new wrinkles in their eyes. Or we find an old picture of ourselves and are shocked that we were once that little baby or boy or girl or teenager. But change isn’t something that only occurs after long stretches of time, it’s always happening, instant-by-instant.
From the Buddhist perspective, human suffering and pain comes simply from seeing reality to be other than it truly is. Later we’ll meditate on some of the other illusions that plague us, like seeing ourselves as more important than others, or seeing things as isolated instead of interconnected. But today we reflect on this delusion of mistakenly seeing reality as solid, unchanging, stable, and permanent.
Mistakenly seeing things as static rather than changing, failing to accept the changing nature of reality, is seen as one of our greatest mistaken views. It causes us to suffer by making us cling to objects, people, and pleasures as if they’ll always stay the same. It makes us freak out when these inevitably change. And it makes us exaggerate and extend conflicts and grudges that could be easily let go.
Through understanding impermanence, we can not only accept, but even embrace and find joy in the impermanence of ourselves and everything around us.
And, most relevant for our present moment, impermanence reveals that the most difficult problems we face are also subject to change, offering us hope and flexibility in the face of even our greatest challenges, like the global Coronavirus crisis we’re facing today.
Impermanence unfortunately demands that buildings crumble, that people lose their jobs, that markets crash, and that new diseases appear.
But it also means that we’re constantly building and creating new useful things, that people meet the love of their life, find their dream job, and also recover from illness. New diseases like Covid-19 arise on the planet regularly; but then we also discover cures and vaccines.
I remember the nearly miraculous change that occurred when AIDS treatments were discovered in the 90s, changing AIDS from a death sentence into a disease manageable through drugs. Some older listeners may remember when Jonas Salk invented the vaccine for polio in the 50s, freeing children from the profound fear that that kept them from swimming pools and beaches as kids, when parents forbid their children from crowds and movie theaters like we’re now doing again today. These are the gross changes, the ones we notice, like the big one happening around us now.
But the realization we want to move toward is that change is happening constantly, it’s not just something that happens with disasters, windfalls, a new illness, a stock market crash, or a presidential election.
The buildings around us are a good example. Even the one you you’re sitting in right now will eventually wear out and be destroyed. It may slowly crumble over hundreds of years, or it might brought down suddenly by earthquake, bulldozer, tornado, or flood.
Remember how each building had a beginning, this may even be then first time you have this thought. It was once conceived, planned, funded, and built by people, at great effort and cost. When you’re walking down the street, look at the buildings around you. Imagine the day the builders finished work, stood in front, shaking hands, smiling, proud of their work. And imagine the moment that building will fall, perhaps tomorrow, or centuries from now.
All the precious possessions we buy—phones, clothes, cars— they wear out faster than you think, or are stolen, or lost, or we just get sick of them. When we purchase our new iPhone, we rarely consider how it will feel in a couple years, when it will seem old and slow, scratched and cracked, when we’ll be wanting something new.
Every pair of shoes and every piece of clothing in our closet we carefully chose, compared to others, spent hours browsing online or in stores, trying on, ordering, returning. But most of our wardrobe we’re sick of now. How many things are in our closets that we’ll never wear again?
And whether you love your government leaders or despise them, they are already on their way out, to be voted away in 1 or 4 or 8 years—maybe a bit longer for Vladimir Putin—but eventually replaced with someone new. A leader may have soaring popularity today, and then one action he does tumbles him from power.
Remember Saddam Hussein who ruled Iraq for decades like a king? At the end of his rule, when he was a wanted fugitive, eventually they found him hiding in a small hole in the desert, starving and sick. If you don’t like your current leader, you can rest assured that eventually he or she will be swapped out for another.
One thing many of us rarely reflect on is that societies and civilizations also change. I’ve been listening to the Fall of Civilizations podcast, and each episode tells of the demise of an entire civilization.
I found out that the average age of a civilization—not just a country, or a block of nations, but of a civilization itself—the Romans, the Egyptians, the Aztecs, the Ancient Chinese—the average age of a civilization is only 350 years.
With the right attitude, listening to a history podcast like that can become a meditation too. We can contemplate how our own living civilizations today, Western Civilization, Islamic, South Asian, and East Asian, how each of these will also inevitable change or collapse; slowly through gentle evolution, or quickly through conquest, revolt, or disaster.
When I get worried about little things and little problems, small losses in life, I often come back to this thought, that our own civilization itself is finite, and will eventually crumble. We’re not even in the top ten longest lived civilizations, which might mean we have a long way to go—thousands of years like the Mesopotamians—or we might be near our end, an “average” civilization ready to transform into something new.
Change in your body
So that’s the gross change that has been visible to humanity for millennia. But change is happening constantly at subtler levels too, some of which we can feel or infer, but most of which we only know of through our scientific insights into the subtler aspects of reality.
The change in your body is the one closest to us. But even our beating heart is something we rarely notice. Try and notice it now. Put your palm on your chest, or two fingers at your wrist and feel your pulse. Your heart is always beating. Blood courses through your veins, traveling around your entire body once every second. Breath flows in and out of your lungs. Nerve impulses zip from the tips of your fingers, toes, and skin to your brain and back.
Your body is made of living cells: skin, stomach, brain, and blood cells moving, changing, dying, reproducing. It’s estimated that 1 million of your body’s cells die every second and are replaced with a million new ones.
Cells are made of molecules, jostling about frantically, causing all our body’s biochemical magic through random interactions, every molecule in a cell touching every other once every second. Our bodies work by forcing every molecule to touch every other, and only those that electrochemically mate are able to interact, causing life to continue through cellular respiration and DNA transcription.
At the atomic level, particles are always in motion, exchanging with each other: protons, electrons, neutrons, quarks, muons, gluons, leptons, bosons. It’s said that every seven years all of the atoms in your body are entirely exchanged. So, from the perspective of physics, you are literally an entirely new person, all new matter every seven years. It’s just like the adage that you never visit the same river twice, you are never the same you twice: at the microscopic level your body is always changing, moment-to-moment.
Change in the outer world
Now take a look at the world around you. From the perspective of physics— the room, the vehicle, the objects around you—they have no color, no form, they emit no sound, they have no inherent texture or taste outside of our mind. Through science’s lens they’re silent, invisible buzzing clouds of particles and energy, that our senses deceive us to be solid and unchanging.
Everyone walks the hero’s journey
Then, of course, all people are born and every one of us will die. The people you encounter every day, each of them lives a hero’s journey.
Think how each of them was born from a mother, through her extraordinary care and exertion. She gave birth in pain and treasured her child more than anything else in the world.
Try to imagine that moment of their birth, the joy of their mother at having created a new being. Imagine their mother’s exhaustion and love and responsibility to keep her child alive.
And each of us will eventually die: surrounded by loved-ones, family and friends, or alone; perhaps at peace, perhaps agitated and with regrets. Try to imagine this moment when you encounter people. It’s especially helpful when you’re arguing with someone, it helps put things in perspective. Picture each of them on their deathbed, after a long life, or after one cut short too fast; a life of virtue, or a life of vice; a life ending among friends, or silently, alone.
Each of our lives is an incredible story, an epic journey. Try and see this in the people you encounter; that you see on the internet and on TV; the extraordinary arc of their life: where they came from, where they’re going, where they are right now on their journey from cradle to grave.
Each of them came into life without a name and leaves their name and body behind. Yet we see the people around us as unchanging, we see them firmly as friends or enemies, as obstacles or helpers. These solid, unchanging views of the people around us are inaccurate and unhelpful. Even at this very moment the people around us are constantly changing, constantly in flux, just as our own body and mind.
And to go more deeply into the mind, the conscious world of your mind is also always changing. When we turn our view inward, we experience a constantly changing inner reality.
Your mind moves through so many mental states in a day, in an hour, sometimes even in a few minutes or seconds. You can feel happy, then quickly become sad; you can be caught up in regrets from long ago, and then find yourself engrossed in exciting plans for the future. You can be filled with love for your partner, then moments later resentment and distrust.
When you look inside, with the power of mindful self-awareness, you can watch how quickly your mind changes. Venerable Kathleen McDonald says that when we observe our mind clearly, it often appears, “Like a train station at rush hour,” the thoughts coming and going and whizzing by like frantic commuters.
Suffering through not accepting impermanence
At the moment, these thoughts may feel distressing, you many find yourself wanting to push them away. But this irrefutable view of impermanence is profoundly accurate for objects, for people, and for the mind. The reason we cultivate these thoughts is that by gradually reflecting on impermanence, we become more accepting of change both outside and inside ourselves. It calms and readies us for the big changes happen like we’re living through today.
In this understanding, accepting change opens up all kinds of possibility. “Every moment is new,” is one of the most powerful Buddhist teachings I’ve ever received. It’s a scientifically verifiable teaching, and a realization that never fails to open up space in my heart and mind when I recall it. “Every moment is new.”
But even though all these arguments make sense, our habitual way of seeing makes us cling to things as if they won’t change. That our friend or this beautiful object will always be pleasing. That the irritating person will always be angry. We cling to our own good qualities, like “I’m a kind person,” “I’m a fair person.” Or to our negative qualities, discouraging thoughts, like “I’m an angry person,” or “I’m an imposter.”
The only accurate statements about thoughts and feelings is that they pass through us. We can label them, but we are not those thoughts and feelings themselves. We feel angry, loving, proud, or embarrassed. But these feelings pass through us, they can and do change.
Just as Geshe Tsulga promised when he taught us these techniques after September 11, I find that I can avoid much psychological pain simply by becoming familiar with the transitory nature of things. This is where the invitation of contemplation needs experimental proof, and even though there are now clinical studies on some of these techniques, you can only fully obtain proof by trying it for yourself.
At the times when I’ve been deeply attuned to impermanence, it becomes a cause of peace and contentment and motivation to be a force for good in the world. I see my powerful attraction to an object evolving toward indifference; I see that the acute physical, financial, or emotional tragedy before me will change, will likely weaken or improve. I see the pettiness of my conflicts in the face of the briefness of our lives.
We don’t know for sure how things will change but we can be certain that they will. This isn’t religious or spiritual, it’s empirically verifiable. There’s nothing in the universe that we now understand to be permanent and unchanging: our bodies, objects, the environment, our minds; relationships, feelings, thoughts, and plans.
Now’s a particularly good moment to reflect on impermanence. When it’s so patently obvious that life as we know it can grind to a halt: freeways empty at rush hour, streets deserted, everyone sheltering at home, an invisible virus that may infect millions, that may be profoundly destructive, or that we might head off in a few weeks.
Reflecting, meditating on impermanence can help us to understand that change is natural, that we should expect problems. And it helps us to more quickly adapt when change happens, to return our minds to stability, and the sense of urgency when we are attuned to life’s fragility and unpredictability.
By becoming conscious of impermanence, you can seize the potential of change to move your mind towards greater states of good, and take control of your daily decisions, to make your life meaningful, purposeful, and pursue actions that move the world toward greater equity and kindness.
When you understand impermanence, you become more capable of consciously steering the mind’s power, of seizing opportunities, of letting go of strong fears, regrets, attachments, and conflicts. You become more open to the power in the present moment, and grow your ability to deeply connect with yourself and with others. It’s hard to think of a better time than now to cultivate these qualities, to use a proven contemplative tool that steers our mind away from fear and anxiety toward confident presence and purposeful action.
Next week we’ll go through a guided analytic meditation on impermanence. I wish everyone safety and peace of mind in this very difficult time. If you have any comments on this episode, please share them on our website at skepticspath.org, in a review on iTunes, on our Facebook page, Twitter. You can also privately contact us with individual questions about applying this practice in your own life, through our website’s contact page or a Facebook or Instagram message. On all these services we use the name skepticspath.
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Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio
Photo illustration by Kanchi Rastogi