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.
That 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.