Impermanence – 2015

Fran Miller, Ph.D. ©

For those who are dealing with anxiety, fears, or serious illness, it is very helpful to reflect on impermanence. When we are overwhelmed with anxiety and fear, we are not as functional in our endeavors and not as attentive in our relationships. Most of the time we avoid thinking about inevitable changes, the brevity of life, and others mortality or our own. This is directly related to levels of anxiety and fear. When dealing with a serious illness or your own mortality, it is surprisingly beneficial to reflect on, and to try to grasp, the reality of impermanence.

The brevity of our lives can be seen all around us and in the wider world. Flowers are a beautiful example of brief existence. The Japanese have a special reverence for the cherry blossom because it is such an ephemeral, short lived bloom. All flowers reveal impermanence as they are constantly changing, and we can observe their transformation from young buds to full bloom to their withering and falling away. In The Original Dwelling Place, Robert Aitken, an American Zen master and my own Zen teacher for six years, discusses a haiku about morning glories:

“The morning glory!
It has taken the well bucket;
I must ask elsewhere for water.” 

He says that the exclamation point after morning glory “changes a rather precious poem about someone who finds that the morning glory has entwined the bucket and does not want to disturb it, into a Zen-like poem (or haiku) about someone who is struck by the beauty of the morning glory and can only exclaim, ‘The morning glory!’–and then as an afterthought considers borrowing water from the neighbors.”

We often overlook the beauty and significance in nature. Our minds are usually too busy to notice the subtle changes around us. If we look for new buds on trees in Spring, or watch the formation of leaves, we can appreciate the coming of a new season. In Fall we are reminded of impermanence as leaves dramatically change color and scatter in the wind. I used to walk daily in the Hoyt Arboretum, and I could watch leaves falling in the wind and then I would see them later as they decayed under trees. In winter they were covered completely with snow. The next Spring only some broken pieces remained of the leaves until they were covered by new grasses and lost to sight completely. The bits of leaves then become nutritious elements that fertilize the trees new growth. Creeks and rivers also change their paths and shape, even when its unnoticeable. Sometimes in storms they tear down mountainsides and through deep valleys. Oceans erode the shoreline, and even mountains change in height each year. Everything on earth and everything in the universe is in a constant state of change and flux.

When it comes to our own health and aging, we have a more difficult time in facing inevitable changes. In Buddhist monasteries in some countries there is a practice for monks to observe the decaying of a corpse. This is an extreme exercise in grappling with the reality of physical change. In our society it is difficult for us to notice even the changing faces of political figures, celebrities, and news personnel on television. We are shocked to have to confront these matters when a family member is aging or becomes ill, or when we need to oversee the care of someone who is dying.

In the book, Advice on Dying, the Dalai Lama comments on a seventeen stanza poem by the First Panchem Lama. The book provides a reflection on the impermanent nature of life and the dying process for the purpose of reducing suffering and to promote understanding, acceptance, and peace. Stanza three in the poem states that death is definite, but the time of death is indefinite. We do not know when we will die, but we do know that we will die at some point. If we cannot accept this reality of impermanence we will most likely experience anxiety, distress, and panic when we are actually dying. If we can come to terms with our own impermanence then we may be able to avoid anxiety and fear, we are more likely to be able to be present with our own experience and our own process, and we may be able to come to a true inner peace.

In the article, Being in Real Time, Dainin Katagiri Roshi states, “When you see the true nature of time and understand how impermanence works in your life, you can use time to cultivate your life and to keep up with the tempo of life without feeling despair.” He said a moment, according to one Buddhist definition, consists of one seventy-fifth of a second, and according to another a moment is sixty-five instants. He quotes the patriarch, Nargarjuna, “The mind that sees into the flux of arising and decaying, and recognizes the transient nature of the world is called the Way-seeking mind.“

We try to avoid the reality of time by focusing our attention on the concerns of our everyday lives, our activities, relationships, our health and emotions – or on the broader concerns of economics, science, politics or culture. We try to define our purpose or greater meaning. These concerns are all extremely important and obviously necessary to think about and deal with. It is important to give them extensive attention even in the process of psychotherapy. But none of them of themselves resolve the reality of impermanence. Katagiri writes, “If you take those concepts and ideas away, what is left? Just the transient stream of time.” It takes a more extensive and deeper effort to grapple with impermanence. One of the goals in a meditation practice is to go beyond concepts and ideas. “We can touch the core of time, see the whole world in a moment, and understand time …” in a different way. He adds, “But we cannot ignore the fact that our life in the stream of time is constantly changing.”

Impermanence is one of the primary teachings of Buddhism. Interconnectedness is another. If we can come to understand – and even – experience the reality of impermanence, then naturally we come to also understand interconnectedness. When we understand interconnectedness, impermanence is no longer frightening! In the book, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, Thich Nhat Hanh describes how everything in life and in the universe is interconnected. In Buddhist teaching Indra’s Net is a visual representation of the interconnectedness of all things. Indra’s Net is an endless web of interconnections with a jewel at each intersection – a jewel that reflects all of the endless connections. Thich Nhat Hanh explains that even within one piece of paper we can see trees, sun, earth, water, lumbermen, equipment, lumber mills, paper works, trucks, stores, and salespeople! Another example is the Buddhist Meal Verse which is recited before the noon meal in Buddhist monasteries. It begins:

Innumerable labors brought us this food; 
We must know how it comes to us.

This, too, is a reminder of the interconnectedness of everything in life. 

Katagiri Roshi quotes Dogen Zenji, a thirteenth century Zen master, “Open your eyes and let’s see time from a different angle! When you see your life from the broad view of time, you see that your life is not something separate from time — your life is time.” Katagiri says, “When you understand how the various aspects of human life unfold in a moment, you can live freely in the realm of time. You can face the moment and know what to do.” This “living freely” that he is referring to means to experience precious moments without concepts and ideas – without our usual inner dialogue of opinions, judgments, analyses, and discriminations, appreciating each precious moment as it is – the beauty in nature, precious time with loved ones – at the same time remembering everything is impermanent, everything changes. We can avoid the reality of inevitable change and experience fear, or we can come to terms with the brevity of life and the impermanence of all things and experience gratitude, joy, and inner peace.