Impermanence and the New Year 1

A stone path leading around a bend, leading to fog - we cannot see the future; all is impermanent

Change Is Inevitable

As the new year approaches, we start to think about who we are and who we want to become. In the tradition of New Year’s Eve, we may make a resolution to consciously change something significant about ourselves. Maybe we want to improve our diet or exercise regularly, or we could focus on being more generous, tolerant, or organized.

None of this seems too hard. After all, change is inevitable. They say, for instance, that every seven years, all the cells in our body get replaced. This has led the infamous “they” to make claims about seven year cycles and psychological transformation. We humans manage to interpret random facts or myths most any way we want, but this assertion about a seven-year psychological – or even physical – renewal is more fantasy than truth.

It derives from reality, though. The cells of our body do eventually die. The lining of our stomach, for instance, wears out in about three days, while other cells live within us for five years, six, a decade, or more. The ones in our cerebellum are nearly as old as we are, having formed while we were toddling around, which makes sense since they have to do with body movement. Those in the occipital region of the cortex, which has to do with sight, are the same age as our bodies.

As Cells Die

So, while this idea that our bodies slough off the old and bring in the new every seven years contains some truth, the number seven is not magic, and the physical change doesn’t translate into emotional, psychic, or behavioral transformation. [1]

That doesn’t mean our personalities stay the same throughout our lifetime. They do. Though we might not notice much difference over five or ten years, by the time we reach old age, we are no longer our childhood self.

At least, that’s what researchers concluded when they compared the personality assessments of 174 fourteen-year-olds with their seventy-seven-year-old selves. They concluded “that personality changes gradually throughout life, which can lead to personality in older age being quite different from personality in childhood.” [2]

A path that leads around a bend into fog - we cannot see the future; all is impermanent

Nothing Remains Unchanged

We don’t notice the changes from day to day, but they’re there. The Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, tells us that “nothing remains unchanged from moment to moment.” Like everything around us, we have no “fixed identity or permanent self.” [3] Yet all this change is gradual. The little differences add up. One day, if we live long enough, we will notice our skin has started to sag and wrinkles line our face. We may wonder who is staring at us from the mirror.

If we are fortunate, along with our aging bodies will come a deeper perspective and a bit of wisdom. We may have calmed down, become more mature, be more accepting of the idiosyncrasies of life.

How did we get to this kinder, gentler place? Not everyone does, of course. Some people die angry and spiteful. But if we do grow and become, it is not because we have willed ourselves to. Many people in recovery discover this. We can’t force ourselves to make the sober choice.

Instead, change is takes time. This is part of what makes it hard to stick to New Year’s resolutions. We want to make the change right now. Yet urges, rationalizations, fears, and habits get in our way. Often, we don’t notice the changes that do occur. They show up as a result of experience and education. Before we realize it, a transformation has become second nature to us, and we may forget we ever behaved or felt otherwise. We think we have always been this way.

The Illusion of Immutability

That’s one reason we think our personalities are immutable. Another reason is that, assuming we experience no debilitating illness or injury to our brains, the majority of the cells in our cortex follow us through our lifetime. Memories and relationships define us. We feel consistent, like one separate, individual person. Indeed, our culture encourages us to claim an identity and label ourselves and others according to that identity. We define each other according to gender, race, economic status, and career. We think we know who someone is because of their marriage status, their sense of humor, their criminal tendencies, their economic success, or their mental health.

Once we categorize a person, it’s hard for us to see beyond those categories, and it’s hard for that person to lose the identity thus conferred. Labels don’t have to determine our behavior, but it takes effort to ignore the messages we receive from friends, family, and even strangers about who we are.

On New Year’s Eve, we can consider what messages we’ve taken on. What identities have we accepted? Do they still work for us? If not, what might we choose instead?

Talking of the Future

This question of what to choose presumes we have the power to make choices. So much in life is out of our control. The genetic mix we are born with, the parents to whom we are born, the language we hear in the womb, the literature we read, the games we learn, and the religion we are taught all influence us, yet we choose none of it.

Nor can we control the future. People sometimes toss into conversation the reminder that we can die at any moment, but when life is going well, those words don’t mean much. We may need a near disaster to make us feel this truth. In a small and, fortunately, uneventful way, this happened to me not long ago.

Most days, I walk beside the golf course near my house. There’s a four-foot strip of dirt and grass that runs along the street, bordered by a chain link fence. One day as I walked there, a car in the far lane headed straight toward me, getting to within a few feet of me before veering back to where it belonged.

Running from the vehicle might have made sense, though there was no guarantee I could have gotten out of the way had the car kept coming. Instead, I glared at it. This wouldn’t have helped at all, but my brain didn’t give me any better advice.

I was lucky. The car did not hit me, yet not because of anything I did. Beyond paying attention to traffic, I have never had control over the many times I was not struck by an oncoming car. We take such safety for granted.

When Life Happens

Unless we have experienced major trauma that has heightened our sensitivity and enhanced our vigilance, we go about the routine of our lives oblivious to the danger of living. For instance, we expect to wake up after we sleep. We think our loved ones will continue as they always have, that our house will be there when we return from work, that at the end of the day we will be whole of body and mind if that is how we started.

In everyone’s life, though, there comes at least one moment that turns this expectation on its head. Someone we love dies. We get sick. A fire destroys our home. These things happen when we’re not looking. We don’t expect them. If we do expect some “other shoe to drop,” the one that does fall is usually not the one we were anticipating. That’s what the future is, a path that winds around a bend, swaddled in deep fog. We can’t see where we’re going. We can affect our future to some extent, but overall, life takes us for a ride.

This ride, this series of unexpected experiences, has much to do with who we are and who we become. The person I was when I started writing this essay will be different from who I am when I’m finished, but I won’t notice the change. Only when tragedies strike, when a part of us dies, do we feel the loss of our old self. Then our task is to develop a new story of who we are, of what life is, of what it means to be human and to love, to live, to die. This takes time. All meaningful change takes time.

Time, Resolutions, and Freedom

We’re not comfortable taking time. We want instant gratification, instant change. We like making resolutions, setting goals and objectives, outlining steps to complete projects and transform our souls. This makes us feel as if we are in control. It gives us the illusion that we can, by force of will, become someone we’re not.

But time and again, our resolutions fail. We can complete projects, institute laws, pave roads, yet internal change, whether of individuals or systems, is slow work. To make that kind of deep, long-term change, we need more than resolutions. We need to pay attention to our emotions, notice our thoughts, look deeply into our true nature, and, then, be gentle with what we discover.

Whether consciously or not, we are changing. Though we feel immutable, we are fluid. According to Buddhist teachings, we have no firm self. Most religious traditions tell us that there is no security in clinging to the material world. God, fate, karma all affect us. Control is an illusion.

This may sound frightening, but according to Hanh, this awareness offers us equanimity in the face of terror and tragedy. It promises us freedom. [4]

The Teaching of Impermanence

Impermanence means that everything changes, nothing stays the same from one moment to the next. Neither we, nor the world, have a permanent, fixed self. This is a good thing.

For instance, as Hanh points out, if we have a daughter, we should be glad to have her grow up so she can have children of her own. If she were immutable, she couldn’t do this. She would be stuck as a little person. If children everywhere stopped growing up, no new ones would be born. Life, which requires growth and decay, would cease. Impermanence might seem frightening, but the alternative would be worse.

To help take away our fear of impermanence, Hanh offers the example of a cloud. A cloud forms from water that has risen into the sky. After a while, it changes into rain or snow, which merges with a pond or a stream, eventually becoming vapor that rises from the earth once again.

We can see that the cloud is impermanent. Even clouds that seem to hold their shape for hours shift and transform, get buffeted by the wind, dissipate, and fall. Hanh talks of “conditions” that are right for a cloud to “manifest.” For humans to manifest, conditions must also be right. When those conditions change, the manifesting changes. The cloud thins as it releases rain to the earth. We grow older. At some point, we cease to manifest completely. That is death.

For the cloud, death means returning its essence to the earth where it is subsumed into the ground, into the ocean. For humans, it means returning to that place from whence we came. What is that place?

Interbeing

Hanh says that if we look deeply, we will see that within the flower there is also the sun, the plants that died before it and fed the soil, the soil itself, the water from the cloud, and the cloud itself.

In us, there are also the sun, the cloud, the soil, and there are our parents and grandparents and ancestors far, far back. Along with everything that exists, we contain all other elements within us. We are part of the universe. Like the cloud and the flower, we have no separate existence. We and everything else are interconnected. We are “interbeing.”

Our nature as interconnected interbeings means that, though everything is impermanent, nothing is born and nothing dies. Things arise and pass away, but since everything “is in a constant process of manifesting,” Hanh writes, “phenomena are neither produced nor destroyed.” [5] Our form may change, but we remain part of the eternal essence. Hanh promises us that if we can understand this with our bodies and our hearts, we will find freedom from fear.

In some deep part of my brain where distant memories lie, I realize that he is right. I have felt that oneness with everything and the emptiness of self that impermanence implies. This realization hasn’t lasted, though, and fear returns to my heart. To live with constant equanimity would require an enlightenment I have yet to experience. Either I trust, or do not trust, Hanh’s words.

Freedom from Fear

Many spiritual leaders express a similar message. This life is temporary, a part of something larger, a veil, an illusion. We are simply passing through. Like the cloud, we never really disappear. We just change, manifesting in a different way, as rain or snow or a stream. The ocean wave doesn’t mind falling back into the sea. It is returning home, becoming part of the water once again.

If we are part of a whole, if our essence as individual humans is an illusion, we need not worry about the future. We need not know what will happen, for regardless of what takes place, we can stay calm because, even if we cease to manifest, which for us would be to die, our form continues to change. First, it takes days for all our cells to expire. Then there is the decomposition process, and the resting in the earth as bones, assuming we are buried. During all this, what happens to our consciousness? Indeed, we might ask, what is consciousness?

Different teachers tell us different things about this. Ultimately, we do not know. Yet if we understand that we are part of a whole that is greater even that this planet, we realize that even this doesn’t mater. What matters is our experience in this moment. The future will unfold without our effort, and we need not try to guess what it will contain. Besides, the more we live in the moment, the more we focus on what is happening within and around us right now, the better equipped we will be to cope with whatever comes.

How Change Happens

If we believe the Buddhist teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, we will realize that it’s not important how often the cells of our bodies transform or even what parts of our personalities stay the same over the course of a lifetime. What’s important is that we see our true nature. We are impermanent beings. We are made to change. So we do change, and we can set intentions to change in particular ways, but we need not do so with great force of will or urgent strivings. These tend to get in our way more than they help.

Patience, acceptance, tenderness, and faith in ourselves and in life is what allows us to grow and become. Transformation happens when we look inside, understand our emotions, and take care of them.

Yet, setting intentions is important. As humans with bodies and minds, we live in time and space, and we must set goals and make plans. But we are not who we seem to be on the surface. When we know ourselves, and when we accept that self we see, we can behave according to the values we know are right and good and kind.

Life is impermanent. Though in this moment we exist as uniquely manifesting selves, we are part of everything that is. May it be our New Year’s resolution to look deeply within and discover the truth of our nature. If we can do this not just with our minds, but also with our bodies and hearts, we will discover a peace beyond all understanding.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Spalding, Kristy L., Ratan D. Bhardwaj, Bruce A. Buchholz, Henrik Druid, Jonas Frisen, “Retrospective Birth Dating of Cells in Humans,” Cell, Volume 122, Issue 1, 133-134, July 15, 2005, 135 and 140, https://www.cell.com/action/showPdf?pii=S0092-8674%2805%2900408-3, accessed 12/23/19.
  2. Harris, Mathew A., Caroline E. Brett, Wendy Johnson, Ian J. Deary, “Personality Stability from Age 14 to Age 77 Years,” Psychol Aging, 2016 Dec; 31(8): 862–874, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5144810/, accessed 12/28/19.
  3. Hanh, Thich Nhat, No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life, New York: Macmillan Audio, 2012, Chapter 3.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Hanh Chapter 1.

Photo by John Salzarulo on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved


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