Impermanence and Love

S E P T E M B E R   2 0 1 8

A little child runs across the lawn into her mother’s waiting arms. The mother cuddles the child and makes cooing sounds, and then the little one slips off her lap and races around the yard again, tumbling and showing off.

impermanence and loveThat was many years ago. Now the child no longer exists; a grown-up person has taken her place. The mother is no longer waiting with her arms open. She, too, no longer exists.

This is the hard truth of impermanence, and it’s how we usually think of that word — the endings it forces on us, the goodbyes, the losses and poignancy of never again.

The old Buddhists tell us the nature of impermanence is ultimately unsatisfactory. I imagine that’s doubly true if you believe we’ve had countless lives before this one, all of them marked by the losses we’ve endured. We come here, we get attached to these beautiful bodies, to our loved ones, to the places and activities we love, and then they change and disappear. Impermanence tears at our attachments and makes dukha, suffering — this is the reason they say impermanence is “unsatisfactory.”

Of course, impermanence doesn’t only work at the level of human attachment and suffering. If we look closely at the fine-grain of our experience, we can see impermanence acting in every instant and in every place. Each moment yields to the next and never returns. The events we are experiencing right now — physical, thoughtful, emotional — have already changed. You breathe. Your attention moves. Your body shifts. Appearances arise and vanish. Nothing stays the same.

We might think that “I” stay the same through all this change — but what is this “I” that stays the same? When I look closely at the evidence of the moment, at the point-instant of transience, what kind of “I” is really there?

Looking directly at impermanence like this is not easy. But when we can manage it, when we can look clearly at the transient nature of our experience, that recognition naturally floods back into us and erases our sense of being something outside of transience, something substantial and separate. As an early Buddhist scripture reports the Buddha saying:

In one who perceives impermanence, the perception of nonself becomes firmly established; and one who perceives nonself achieves the elimination of the conceit “I am” and attains nirvana in this very life.

And in the words of the Koran: “Everything is perishing except God’s Face.”

God’s Face, nirvana — what are these scriptures pointing to? By perceiving the continuous flow of impermanence (the perishing), the conceit of our isolated selfness is washed away. But we don’t vanish, just as the universe doesn’t vanish because of the impermanent nature of each moment. What’s holding everything together? What isn’t perishing?

This is where the deeper secret of impermanence is revealed. As we come face-to-face with the fact that everything is perishing, that our lives and all appearances are thoroughly ephemeral, the realization of what’s called “nonself,” or “emptiness,” or “openness” is born. In that realization we sense, beyond our senses, something that resists all description, something that we might variously call God’s Face, or nirvana, or holy intimacy, or simply, love.

Whatever we call it, this-that-does-not-perish is what connects us with everything — each other, the trees, the mountains, the sky, the stars, and all beings who have ever appeared. We remain the unique beings we are, but we recognize we’re not alone in our beingness, we are with the entirety.

I think of this “with-ness” as love— love that’s both complete in itself and endlessly creative, a holy intimacy that is cosmic, inconceivable, awesome, and at the same time ordinary, everyday, and particular. It’s the primordial generosity and ecstasy of light flooding the universe, and it’s the energy of the little child running to her mother.

Of course, impermanence is painful for us too — there’s no way we can escape loss and grief since everything we have ever been given in this life we will lose. But our grief too is love, it’s the form love takes when great loss comes to us, the cry of with-ness as it breaks free from particular love into universal love.

Knowing this doesn’t avoid the sorrow that impermanence visits upon us, but it embraces it in a larger order. People, things, and experiences come and go, but the truth of our connectedness is the reality that doesn’t.


Loneliness and Openness

A U G U S T   2 0 1 8

Oh look at all the lonely people —
where do they all come from?

lonelinessWhen I was a young man I often felt lonely. Even though I had friends, being around them didn’t relieve my loneliness. I think I even liked feeling lonely — it defined my “me.” I was inside it. No matter how much my loneliness ached, it was the little place from which I looked out on the world, the place from which I could judge what was happening and feel like a righteous victim of the world’s uncaring nature.

Back then I thought existential loneliness was the unavoidable human condition, and even though everyone was scrambling to avoid it, they did so in vain. In my case I even cultivated a kind of romanticism about feeling lonely — I think I believed it would make me more artistic and loveable.

That didn’t work. The self-preoccupation, the feeling of being inside my loneliness, simply ached too much. I wanted out.

Looking back, I see that both loneliness and “wanting out” of it determined the trajectory of much of my youth. Luckily, I had had glimpses of an awesome and holy “something” beyond my little loneliness, and those glimpses drew me toward a life of spiritual study and practice.

Slowly, gradually, I began to suspect that self-pity defined my lonely place. It was an echo chamber, a room of mirrors, a self-preoccupied illusion that separated me from real life, from being vividly alive. Even deeper than self-pity, I came to realize that the feeling of being “lonely me” was held in place by my fear of death.

Yes, I wanted out, but I wanted it to be me who got out, and that wasn’t possible. My lonely me, my inside me, my victim me, couldn’t survive the getting out. A terrible dilemma!

I’d like to be able to tell you there was a single miraculous epiphany that broke through the dilemma, but it didn’t happen that way. It happened much more gradually, through a whole diet of reminders and quiet contemplations, and through relationship struggles and failures, but it did happen.

In a way, I’m grateful for the intensity of loneliness that shaped my early years. It enabled me to relate to how loneliness is experienced by others. Often people don’t code what they’re feeling as loneliness — for some it feels more like alienation, depression, or repetitive annoyance with how they’re treated, for others it’s simply a feeling of unworthiness — but I think it amounts to the same insular sense of “me-in-here not seen or appreciated by world-out-there.” Whatever form it takes, it’s the illusory shell of the self-sense, and our reflex to retreat into that illusory shell is what all authentic spiritual paths try to release us from.

Though there wasn’t a single epiphany for me, the shift that happened in how I experience life comes down to something very simple: openness— the direct recognition of the open nature of my being and all being.

I came to see that the shell of hurt and self-pity that defined my “me” was made up; it was an invention of my mind, a habit. And what was more, the “me” it was protecting was made up too. Every time I tried to find my “me”, I could only glimpse a quickly vanishing feeling or thought, and those obviously were not me. There was nothing inside the shell! It was completely empty and open.

At first this was unnerving. It felt so exposed, as if I wouldn’t know how to function or relate without the habit of being my “me.” Yet slowly by slowly, and with the encouragement of spiritual teachers and teachings, I risked not retreating. The absurdity of doing so was not lost on me — after all, what was retreating to where? I experienced my nature simply as openness, an invisible, clear presence in which memories, thoughts, feelings and sensations arose and disappeared.

Perhaps to call openness a “presence” is misleading since that word seems to pin it down as a thing, which it isn’t. It’s openness — spacious, welcoming, and present. While it hosts my thoughts, emotions, and sensuality, it’s not attached to them.

This is how we all are — openness at the heart of us. The beautiful thing is that this openness doesn’t need to be improved. It doesn’t need to be protected. It can’t be hurt; it can’t even die. It can’t die because it’s the very nature of reality: vast openness.

Recognizing my nature is openness — rather than a “me” — dissolved my mental habit of feeling that I’m something that’s located “in here.” The sense that reality is threatening also dissolved. I could be intimate with what arises and passes without fear or self-protection. In the end, that may be the best way to describe openness: it is intimacy, and intimacy is love.

I know to say such things probably won’t assuage anyone’s loneliness — these habits can be stubborn, as I’ve learned. But I wanted to share my little story anyway, just in case.




J U L Y   2 0 1 8

Say you wake up one morning and notice that something is different about you. There’s a beautiful quietness inside your body that you haven’t felt before. It seems to emanate from the middle of your chest, a clear quietness opening from your heart area, filling the entire volume of your body. You sense how your skin envelopes this silence, but inwardly it seems to be without limit. The quietness disappears into the depths your body without coming to a boundary.

quietnessIt’s an unfamiliar feeling but not alarming; it has a peaceful and spacious quality to it. So you sit in a chair and allow the inward quietness to have its way with you. You notice that you can’t really stand outside of the quietness to look at it — it takes up the whole interior of your body. There’s no place for you to be except within the quietness and pervaded by it.

Your attention is drawn to the boundary of the quiet where it touches the inside of your skin. You feel how this inner silence defines the shape of your body. And then an extraordinary thing happens. The quietness within you seems to open right through your skin and expand outwardly, or perhaps it’s just the opposite: the quietness of space outside your body instantaneously meets the quietness you feel inside. You are within the quietness and simultaneously held by it. Encompassed.

Although it’s purely intimate with you, you sense the quietness also has a numinous feel of otherness to it. You are it while at the same time it’s infinitely beyond you. Your private experience as a sensate body and distinct person arises within it and is somehow an expression of its vast, silent, and indefinable presence.

As you sit there experiencing all this, you feel a great tenderness — the quiet that pervades you and encompasses you is alive with a kind of tender warmth, though not a warmth of temperature. It’s intimate and dear and tender and not even approachable by these words. You feel safe.

After some time you get up from your chair and begin to attend to the necessities of the morning. At first the presence of the boundless, intimate, and safe quiet is still palpable to you — it’s everywhere as you move around and as normal sounds and sensations occur. Its intimacy unites with the phenomena of the world around you — you are within everything while at the same time you remain your unique bodily experience.

The sense of tenderness pervades your awareness of the people and things you encounter. When you touch something, a button on your shirt, a piece of toast, a cup of coffee, your touch seems to come from the tender quiet you have recognized. When you listen to someone speaking, and when you speak, the words seem to come from and be held by the same tender quiet. The sense of safety makes you gentle and unhurried.

Later, when you realize the world’s noises and your own thoughts and feelings have obscured the all-pervading quiet, you start to feel annoyed with yourself and with the people around you for taking the quietness away.

That’s when a second extraordinary thing happens. As you notice your annoyance, you see it for what it is. You see it’s given you a position from which to complain. The moment you feel the constraint of that position, you experience yourself outside it, as if you no longer needed to care whether the quiet has been obscured or not. You relax. The feeling that you’re missing something falls away, and in that instant, glory be, the tender quietness opens from your heart again as if it never left.


The Place Where Nothing and Everything Meet

J U N E   2 0 1 8

If you walk into a forest and put your ear against a tree, you will hear a silence in there that is like your own. It is a silence that has no end. Empty silence is the background to everything we perceive, in the same way that space is the background to everything we perceive. mistMost people don’t like listening to that silence because it makes them feel alone, and they equate aloneness with loneliness. But the silent aloneness inside us — and inside all being — is not lonely.

The Zen master, Katagiri Roshi, once said, “When you see the bottom of your life, you see emptiness right there. You are standing by yourself, completely left alone in emptiness. That is a very deep sense of aloneness.”

Accepting emptiness like this, accepting our perfect aloneness, is not isolating; it is an essential part of our awakening. As Katagiri puts it, accepting emptiness allows us “to stand up in a new way.” When we stand up like that, with recognition of the ground of emptiness everywhere, we enter the reality of what he calls togetherness and creativity. 

By accepting our perfect aloneness we embrace our perfect togetherness. Our aloneness extends to others because we see that everyone shares this same empty nature. “A bodhisattva,” Katagiri concludes, “constantly becomes alive from emptiness, and that life helps others.”

Sufis have a different way to describe all this, but it amounts to the same thing. “Essence is emptiness,” Rumi tells us. “Emptiness brings peace to your loving.” And this:

Dear soul, if you were not friends
with the vast nothing inside,
why would you always be casting your net
into it, and waiting so patiently?
This invisible ocean has given you such abundance…

And this:

…lying in a zero circle, mute…
when we have totally surrendered to that beauty,
we will have become a mighty kindness. 

The sufic equation of dissolving into emptiness and emerging as love is identical with the image of the bodhisattva constantly becoming alive from emptiness. It is the movement of awakening described in Sufi teachings as fana and baqa. Fana is deconstruction of the self-illusion, most often translated as annihilation of the self. “I honor those,” Rumi says, “who empty the self and have only clear being there.” 

Baqa is what comes after. As Coleman Barks describes it: “Baqa is the coming back from annihilation with cleansed enthusiasm for particulars. In the state of baqa one reenters the moment fully, doing small quiet work, sewing the robe of absence.” This is Katagiri’s “standing up” in a new way, the way of togetherness and creativity. Or, as Sufis might say, it is the expression of love and of doing the beautiful that naturally flows from emptying oneself into clear being.

In my own life this “move” has become a practice that happens — in shortened form — dozens of times each day. Let’s try it together now. As you follow the practice below, notice the subtle kinesthetic sensations that occur in you. When you do this a number of times, those sensations will begin to elide, and the “practice” will happen almost instantaneously.

As you sit reading this, notice the clarity of your vision. Notice there’s nothing in the way of your seeing these words. 

Now notice the clarity of the awareness in which these words appear. That clarity is unobstructed — there’s nothing in the way of the words appearing in your awareness; there’s no color or background, your awareness is perfectly clear. 

Bring your attention now to the space between your forehead and the back of your head. Notice that the space inside your head is also perfectly clear. This clarity is emptiness. 

Notice the sensations of your breathing. Notice how each inhale arises out of nothing and, at the top of your in-breath, it vanishes into nothing. Your out-breath does the same. Very gently, notice the space surrounding and pervading each breath. Recognize its clear, empty quality.

Now allow your intuitive openness to expand, seeing how this clarity, this empty quality, is not bounded by anything — it is all around and through you, it is everywhere, like space is everywhere. 

There is nothing you need to do to “hold” this recognition of the empty quality that pervades you and all the people and phenomena you encounter; it is always present. Relax in, and as, this clear, empty presence. 

This is the “intentional” aspect of this practice. What happens next is where the magic is: baqa; “standing up in a new way;” reentering the moment with “cleansed enthusiasm for particulars.” However this occurs will be unique to you and the moment you are part of.

The place where you stand up is the place where nothing and everything meet. It’s not a place where your intellect will be of much use. We might call it a “heart space,” though it’s a heart space that pervades reality, not just the space inside your chest. In the place where nothing and everything meet, love opens all by itself, amazed and kind and creative.

Only this ancient love
circling the holy black stone of nothing,
where the lover is the love,
the horizon and everything in it.
                                 — Rumi


Befriending Unfriendliness

M A Y   2 0 1 8

While the world we encounter day to day is not always friendly, it is our job to befriend it. Of course, befriending the world’s unfriendliness is a profound challenge; it requires equanimity and a great capacity for love and compassion.

Black Lives Matter PhotoWhen Jesus was being nailed to the cross he prayed that his executioners be forgiven. Although we may honor his response as an ideal, when someone criticizes us or expresses animosity toward us, what is our response? Most often we react with defensiveness: we try either to defend ourselves or to return the attack in ways that will diminish the accuser. Yet we can see from the world’s history of conflict, violence, and revenge the predictable outcomes of this kind of reactivity, just as the many small examples we can think of from our own lives show us the painful results of our own defensiveness.

Befriending unfriendliness is not something easy to accept, especially when we consider the horrendous examples of victimization and oppression throughout human history — befriending that unfriendliness can look like passivity, or foolhardiness, or even cowardice.

As a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, I grappled at length with the dilemma of pacifism — and it is far beyond the scope of this essay to deal with its many nuances — but most succinctly, for me it comes down to “situational ethics”: our job is to befriend the world, yes, but sometimes so many mistakes have been made, so many opportunities for befriending have been missed, that there is no alternative but to say No! and to stand up to oppression, as the Allies did when they stood up to the Axis war machine in the Second World War. Befriending must be our natural response in nearly every situation we encounter, but when it is too late and the only recourse to prevent even greater disaster is through force, then the use of force may be justified.

But then what?

This is the crucial point — there are endless possibilities for the healing power of friendship to avert violence and oppression before they have a chance to spread. For example, if something like the Marshall Plan had been initiated following the First World War, the Second World War might never have happened. As the lines I often repeat from Wallace Stevens tell us:

After the final no there comes a yes,
and on that yes the future world depends.

And so it is in our personal lives. We can and must say no to abuse and meanness, and to our own unfriendliness toward ourselves, but even that no has its roots in our love for life and for the well-being of all. Our everyday work must be to water those roots. There are many ways we can do this, most of them quite small and intimate — practicing kindness, forbearance, patience — but the most profound way is by opening our hearts to the nature of Pure Presence (or whatever name we wish to call it).

This is the gift of the mystic path. In its essence it is not a complicated path, but it asks of us complete openness and release of self-concepts, opinions, and judgment.

To the extent we can open our hearts to the nature of Pure Presence we realize that its nature is love, a love that is light-years beyond what we usually consider that little word to signify. It is unconditional. It’s the love that flames the stars and spins every atom. It’s the gift of this beginningless, endless moment, the infinite generosity of now.

When we recognize that this love is at the root of our own nature and the nature of all being — even though it is so often eclipsed by fear in the human realm — we open ourselves to the unshakable power of befriending.

* * *

NOTE: while there isn’t space here to recount personal stories and examples illustrating the power (and challenge) of befriending unfriendliness, I have often told these kinds of stories — if you’re interested you can find some of them in the archive of Notes from the Open Path —  in particular: 

The Gift of the Flower
The Tears of the Bank Robber
A Prayer in the Militant Mosque
Link Arms and Sing
The Beautiful Revolution


This essay was first published in the Spring 2018 edition of FRESH RAIN, the Sufi Way E-Letter, which was devoted to the theme of friendship.