Embracing Impermanence 1


Denying Impermanence

Buddha taught that everything is impermanent. We get sick, we lose jobs, we lose homes, we lose loved ones, we die. Even rivers change course; mountains wear away. Nothing lasts; nothing stays the same.

This is not new information. In the book of Ecclesiastes, we are warned to remember our creator “before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.” (Ecc 12:6-7) To cope with this reality, many religious people speak of an eternal heaven where their soul will live in joy and peace.

Before Ecclesiastes was written, a Mesopotamian myth tells of the hero Gilgamesh, who was forced to face the truth of uncertainty, impermanence, and loss when his best friend died. In his attempt to cope, Gilgamesh looked for immortality. He was unsuccessful in his quest, though he learned a lot in the process. [1]

Today, even if we don’t believe in heaven, we still seek eternal life, perhaps through some advancement of science. If that doesn’t do the trick, then there’s always drugs or overeating or hiding under the covers on our bed to help us avoid the reality of impermanence.

A flaming match - all is impermanence

Embracing Impermanence

Of course, this is a fruitless endeavor. Not only is it impossible, but in the long run, we are happier if we recognize and honor our impermanence. When we accept the reality of our deaths, we learn to love life that much more. According to the Buddhist teacher, Pema Chödrön, when we embrace impermanence, our gratitude and appreciation for each moment grows. [2] As the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, explains, when we accept that nothing lasts and everything changes, we find, not fear and anxiety, but “confidence, peace, and joy.” [3] We are inclined to cherish those we love, appreciate the beauty of the world, and take care of our bodies. That’s why Chödrön suggests we open ourselves to whatever happens.

Do not withdraw; do not reject reality. Jump into life, embrace the unknown, take risks. Live fully, knowing that one day we will die. [4]

That sounds good, but it’s not easy. Instead, we expend enormous amounts of energy trying to protect ourselves from loss. That’s true whether the loss is huge, such as the destruction of our home or the death of a loved one, or whether the loss is the shattering of a belief or a worldview.

Clinging to What Makes Us Feel Safe

I once developed a relationship with a patient who had been in the hospital for a while. I knew him better than his wife, though they were both strong Christians, full of love for their god and one another. They could be kind and generous. They could also be stern and judgmental. Certain they knew the one true faith, they wanted nothing to do with anyone who believed something different. The Devil was real, so they had to be wary of wolves “in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15). Therefore, they rejected any idea that contradicted their understanding of reality.

One day, while the man was at a test, I sat with the woman. We spoke of one thing or another, I can’t remember what, and then she asked me what my religion was.

Knowing her beliefs, I hesitated. Surely if she knew what I really thought, she would no longer trust me. Indeed, she would probably feel betrayed. Using some of the techniques I had developed over the years to respond to this question without answering it, I hedged, but she would take nothing other than a direct answer.

So I told her I was Unitarian Universalist.

Not knowing what that was, she asked if I believed Jesus was the way and the only way, that Jesus was the Son of God and was God.

I told her I did not.

She visibly shrank back from me. Though I tried to talk to her of God’s unfailing love and mercy, it was as I had expected. For her, I was now the Devil. The moment distressed her, not least because of all the time I had spent with her and her husband, all the time I had pretended to be good and Christlike.

No One But God Is Good

During my first year of chaplain training, I was in a group with another student whose conservative Christian beliefs left him suspicious of anyone who was not Christian. At that time, I felt uncomfortable using the word “God.” I never talked about Jesus. So you can imagine he was suspicious of me.

As time went on, however, something shifted in him. At one of our last meetings, he said to me, “You taught me that you don’t have to be Christian to be good.”

That felt gratifying. I’ve been told since then that I helped change someone’s heart because of who I was. That’s why I try as much as possible to treat others with respect, compassion, and generosity. Who knows when I might touch someone in this way?

Which is all very well, but it doesn’t always work, I’m not always good, and my beliefs are not necessarily the best or kindest or most true. Over the years, my own views have changed as I have come to see the gifts that a deep faith in a divine power can bring.

Changing Our Worldview

Shortly after I revealed to the woman with the sick husband that I was not Christian, at least not in any way she could understand, I left her and went about visiting others. Then I was paged to support a spouse whose loved one had just died. Checking the room number, I saw it was the same woman who had spurned me. Since I was the only chaplain in the hospital at that time, I went to the room, but the grieving widow refused to talk to me.

If I had been truly good, would I have been able to help her? It’s a foolish question. None of us can help everyone, especially not every time. Part of embracing impermanence is realizing that sometimes things stay broken, no matter how much we try to glue them back together.

That may be why we develop tools to protect us from threats to our worldview: we’re afraid that is we lose our understanding of right and wrong, of life and death, of truth and falsehood, we will never find a new one. I’m not speaking here only of rigid Christians. All of us struggle to listen to different ideas, think about new understandings of the world, consider other ways of living. It usually takes a tragedy to force us to recognize that the ways we have “been living and making meaning no longer ‘make sense.’” [5]

When disaster strikes and we feel threatened, we have choices. We can accept the loss and move on, or not.

Protecting Ourselves

For instance, to one degree or another, we can pretend nothing is wrong. In a a previous column, I shared the story of Kiso Gotami, a well-known follower of Buddha. When her young son died, she carried his corpse from house to house seeking an herb or potion that would heal him. For a while, shd couldn’t even accept that he was dead.

When pretense fails us, we can reject the change. We can ignore it through numbness or substance abuse. When our worldview is threatened by conflicting information, we humans are adept at denying its validity. The woman whose husband died dared not listen to me. If she did, she might lose her god and her salvation. Nothing was important enough to risk that.

I will never know if, in her grief, her worldview wavered, maybe even shattered. Sometimes loss affects us that way. At other times, loss encourages us to hunker down and hold on to what we know. Certainly that woman would need her God if she were to survive intact.

Falling Apart

At times, though, it is better for us to fall apart. Although the process is painful, if we can let go in this way, we can find peace. If we choose, instead, to fight reality, argue with what is, we will suffer. As Hanh teaches us, it’s not the impermanence itself that causes us distress. it’s our aversion to change.

Yet do we really want a changeless life? Without change there would be no life at all, for nothing can happen if it must always stay the same. Our children would not grow up, tyrants would never be overthrown, and our suffering would not ease or shift or cease. Impermanence means not only that what we love will pass away, but that our pain will pass away, as well. [6]

The Illusion of Safety

But we don’t think about that. When we think of impermanence, we think about loss. Since we don’t like loss, we try to protect ourselves from this threat by erecting what Chödrön calls “zones of safety.” When things are going well for us, this works fine. We think life really can be stable and secure. We are lulled into complacency. Yet no matter how disciplined we are, how much we pray, how many rules we follow, “these zones of safety are continually falling apart.” [7] Then, when our world shatters, we scramble to resurrect those safety zones, to shore them up, to keep life from ever falling apart again.

Against all our hopes, this does not lead to freedom or joy. Indeed, we’re more likely to experience freedom and joy if we open ourselves up to whatever happens. Rather than withdrawing or rejecting reality, Chödrön tells us, we should jump into life, embrace the unknown, take risks. We should open our hearts and minds to change, impermanence, uncertainty, and growth. That’s how we’ll become free and joyful.

It sounds so easy. Yet I think that freedom and joy can only come to us after a sustained period of discomfort.

How We Change

In his book about change, James Fowler identifies four states of being that accompany life transitions: disengagement, disidentification, disenchantment, and disorientation.

When something shifts outside or inside of us, we disengage. This could be a divorce, a job loss, or a natural disaster that destroys our home. It could be something simple, like a friend moving away or a graduation. Whatever it is it, the event forces us to let go of our connection to a relationship or a world view. [8]

With “disidentification,” we no longer recognize ourselves. We’re different. We’re no longer married, or a student, or a bartender, or “Jennie’s friend.” Maybe we’ll wonder if we are still the beloved child of God, still a Christian, still a White Supremacist. Are still safe in the world? If the trauma is severe enough, we might find ourselves wondering if we are even completely real. At this time, our old self falls away, our old understanding of life crumbles, yet we have not found anything to put in its place. [9]

Before we can find this new identity or worldview, we must endure the stage of “disenchantment.” This is when we feel our feelings. Pain, grief, loneliness, shame, fear, and other emotions accompany our loss. Experiencing this stage is vital if we want to become free from suffering. If, instead of facing our feelings, we run from them, we will never know the “sense of liberation and empowerment” that Fowler reminds us can be part of this disenchantment stage. [10]

We are not at the end of our discomfort, however. Fowler’s fourth stage is “disorientation.” [11]

Constructing Meaning

I would think disorientation would come first. After all, isn’t disorientation that feeling of being lost and uncertain, the shock that overwhelms us when tragedy strikes? That is one way to think of it. But for Fowler, disorientation is the time when we reconstruct meaning, purpose, and value for our life. We can choose to rebuild our “safety zones,” to go back to our old ways of understanding the world. Yet if we are open to growth, we can choose, instead, to become a new person and live our life accordingly.

The more comfortable we become with the idea of impermanence, the more comfortable we become with change. Life’s turbulence does not unbalance us so much. We accept loss and pain, amazement and joy, as pieces of a day, moments within a life. We experience them, even relish them, but do not cling to them. This makes loss easier to cope with.

My inability to support the woman whose husband died taught me something about betrayal and helplessness. The experience shifted my heart, if only a little. It also forced me to ask questions about my purpose.

As a chaplain, I try to reflect back people’s expectations, projections, and assumptions. I try to be who they need me to be, but in a way that supports their growth. With this woman, I failed. I can’t really know, of course, what she needed from me. Sometimes we may need to be shattered, broken, betrayed, undone. Not that I would choose to be the vehicle for this. I would rather have eased her pain. But I can’t support everyone. Sometimes, being there for them is not my place.

By accepting such possibilities, I change. I learn to recognize my limitations, discover who I really am, and revise my worldview.

Responding to Impermanence

When change threatens, we have choices. We can deny it, condemn it, take drugs to avoid it, make jokes about it, belittle it, and erect zones of safety. Or, we can choose to embrace impermanence, let go of the illusion of security, and accept the temporary nature of every single thing, including ourselves.

I cannot promise you peace, comfort, freedom, and joy if you do this. My own journey toward accepting impermanence has just begun. I do know, however, that the less I try to force life to be something it is not, the better my life becomes.

In the end of the Gilgamesh saga, the hero went home a different man. That is the way with journeys. They change us. Although he never found a way to vanquish death, he did find a kind of peace and hope.

As Gardner and Maier write, “Gilgamesh is cleansed.” [12] He puts on clean garments, returns home, takes his place as king, reunites with his god. Having endured loss and despair, having traveled into the heart of the abyss, he knows more fully who he is, what life means, and what he is to do. He has purpose. His desperate longing has softened. He knows peace and freedom.

We, too, can know peace and freedom. Sometimes we must take a hero’s journey before we stop trying to shore up our hopeless safety zones. Yet until we accept that impermanence is real and that we cannot avoid loss and death, nor the cracking open of our worldviews, we will suffer. We can continue to run, hide, get lost in our addictions, and curse fate and the gods. Or we can choose life.

Knowing that this life is temporary makes it that much sweeter.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Gardner, John and John Maier, Gilgamesh, New York: Vintage, 2011. Electronic reproduction.
  2. Chödrön , Pema, “The Four Reminders,” The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness, Boston: Shambhala, 1991, 97-107, 101.
  3. Hanh, Thich Nhat, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, New York: Broadway Books, 1998, 132.
  4. Chödrön 107.
  5. Fowler, James W., Faithful Change: The Personal and Public Challenges of Postmodern Life, Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996, 71.
  6. Hanh 132.
  7. Chödrön 107.
  8. Fowler 72.
  9. Ibid 73.
  10. Ibid 73.
  11. Ibid 73-74.
  12. Gardner and Maier 87.

Photo by Yaoqi LAI on Unsplash

Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens


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