At present, the outer universe—earth, stones, mountains, rocks, and cliffs—seems to the perception of our senses to be permanent and stable, like the house built of reinforced concrete, which we think will last for generations. In fact, there is nothing solid to it at all, it is nothing but a city of dreams.
– Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Vajrayana master and scholar
We occupy a material universe. Every day, our senses report back to us a world that can be seen, heard, touched, smelled, and tasted. It appears solid, fixed, steady, and reliable. The consistency and relative predictability of our materially realistic universe lead our minds to create a worldview built upon the notion of non-change and permanence. This is due in part to the relative shortness of our human lives. In the span of 70–100 years change often seems to be the exception rather than the rule. However, if we shift our perspective to look at change framed through the lens of human, or even cosmic history, we begin to recognize that everything is always changing.
Introducing the Law of Impermanence
Thus, we come to discover a fundamental principle of nature: The Law of Impermanence. Known as the first dharma seal (primary characteristic or principle) in Buddhist philosophy, the Law of Impermanence is the teaching that everything in material or relative existence is impermanent. That is, everything has a beginning, a middle, and, most definitively, an ending. Flowers, trees, automobiles, buildings, businesses, institutions, political ideologies, relationships, human bodies, mountains, rivers, oceans, planets, suns, and even galaxies are all impermanent and will eventually cease to exist.
Life is perpetually in flux and change is an inevitable constant—as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus reminds us, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” Impermanence lies at the heart of our material reality. Yet, despite its ubiquity and undeniability, it is the concept we struggle integrating into our worldview more than any other. Why? Because impermanence brings us face to face with our own mortality, and it scares us.
When you look around at your life—the objects, people, relationships, possessions, positions, identity, and story of your existence—recognizing, let alone accepting the fact that all these things will one day be gone can be challenging, if not flat out anxiety-provoking for most of us. We identify ourselves with these things, they are the objects that give meaning to our object-referral world. If we lose those identifiers, we are thrown into a sense of disembodied limbo.
Because of the discomfort and cognitive dissonance often triggered by facing impermanence, many of us avoid or procrastinate around situations or circumstances in which it might be brought to the surface such as visiting people in the hospital, attending funerals, or estate planning. Unfortunately, this strategy only prolongs the inevitable and leads to suffering. However, it’s not impermanence that causes our suffering, rather it’s our reaction to it.
Impermanence and the 5 Kleshas
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we are taught that there are five causes of suffering known as the five Kleshas. These are:
- Not knowing the true nature of reality
- Identification with a false sense of self (our ego)
- Attachment to objects of desire
- Aversion or avoidance of things you don’t want
- The fear of death
Consider each of the Kleshas as they relate to the Law of Impermanence:
- In not knowing the true nature of reality, we mistake the material world for the true reality as something permanent and unchanging.
- We mistake our ego for our true self when it too is a field of change and is constantly transforming.
- We become attached to an idea of permanence in a field of impermanence—we cling to objects of desire that will one day be taken from us.
- We flee or run away from facing the impermanence of all things and exhaust ourselves on an endless treadmill trying to avoid the inescapable.
- We live in perpetual fear and anxiety of our own death because no matter how we may try to deny it, we know we live a finite existence.
The Gift of Impermanence
It may seem paradoxical, but embracing impermanence can be a great gift. Indeed, it can be one of life’s great wake-up calls. No matter how we try to escape it, the reality of impermanence will eventually catch us and force us to deal with it. This very moment—when losing a job, losing a beloved possession, the end of a relationship, or the death of a loved one—can be a catalyst for a profound shift in perception and a transformation of our sense of self.
The most evolutionary choice is to consciously accept and explore the impermanent nature of our lives. In doing so we gain confidence, peace, and equanimity. Ultimately, the more we embrace impermanence now, the less we will suffer later when it is thrust upon us. When we allow ourselves to consciously recognize the impermanence of all things, we appreciate life more and we have more joy and gratitude for this precious human lifetime in which we can connect with others and expand our love and compassion.
Knowing this, how do we make friends with impermanence and harness its profound insights into our lives? The following five practices can help you deepen your relationship with the Law of Impermanence and the perpetual change inherent in our material world. Explore each suggestion while being gentle with yourself and remember that for many of us, facing impermanence can trigger feelings of uneasiness or worry. There’s nothing wrong with this—it’s perfectly natural to be apprehensive when exploring impermanence. Move at a pace that is comfortable for you and only explore the practices that seem best for you.
1. Regularly Contemplate Impermanence
Take the time on a routine basis to reflect upon the impermanent nature of all the aspects of your life. At any given time, take what I call an “impermanence inventory.” Look around you and take in all the objects, people, relationships, situations—your physical body, the thoughts in your mind, and the emotions you are feeling.
Now say softly to yourself, “All of these things had a beginning, and they will all have an end. They are all changing, and one day will be no more. I too have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. This body, this mind, this personality, will one day dissolve back into the infinite field of consciousness. I accept the impermanence of life and in doing so I am free from fear and anxiety.”
Additionally, reflect on the story of how a powerful king once asked his advisors to give him a gift that would make him happy when he was sad and sad when he was happy. After deliberating, the king’s wise men presented him with a ring bearing an inscription that read: This too shall pass.
Meditation is a fundamental tool for our overall well-being that helps us embrace impermanence in two key ways.
- In witnessing our thoughts we begin to recognize their inherently transitory and impermanent nature. Thoughts arise and subside; they come and go. The more comfortable we become with observing the movement of our thoughts without attachment, the more comfortable we will be in witnessing the coming and going of the events, objects, relationships, and situations in our lives.
- Through the practice of meditation, our awareness expands allowing us to experience the immortal and unchanging spirit within. On the material level, impermanence reigns supreme, but at the core of your being, lies that aspect of yourself that is beyond change. Regular meditation helps you live from the level of your soul, a recommendation that Jesus gives in Matthew 6:19-20: Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.
3. Practice Everyday Mindfulness
When we move through life with mindful awareness, we become acutely aware of the transient nature of objects, situations, people, and relationships. Each moment is fleeting and will never return. In this space of awareness, we can witness the flow of all things through the timeline of our lives. Furthermore, mindful living helps us deeply appreciate and treasure the unique beauty and miracle that our life represents. Knowing that this and all moments are impermanent we can live our lives with joy, gratitude, and freedom from regret.
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4. Cultivate Detachment
One of the most powerful tools we can cultivate as spiritual explorers is detachment. Detachment essentially means having a willingness to let go; to not be bound or trapped by things, situations, or people. Anything that we cling to persistently can cause us to suffer and drain our energy. Detachment is key to making friends with impermanence; until we can release our attachments, impermanence will continue to loom like a specter over our shoulders. However, detachment doesn’t mean giving up the things, objects, or relationships—it means not holding on so tight we give ourselves rope burn. When we can move through life with a sense of carefree detachment in our heart, the hard reality of impermanence loses its anxiety-provoking grip on us.
5. Cemetery Walking
Although it may seem oddly morbid, visiting a cemetery provides us with a unique mixture of stillness, tranquility, and impermanence that can be transformative. When we walk through rows of graves or stop to view a headstone, it’s difficult to not be drawn into a more pensive and reflective state of awareness. Each gravesite represents a lifetime, a story stretching into the past that was once as full and rich as our own but is now no more.
If you’re willing, the next time you visit a cemetery, as you walk mindfully among the graves, open yourself up to the feelings of finite existence—of the coming and goings of life, and of impermanence. With self-compassion, consider that one day, you too will no longer be here. Contemplate what the world would be like without you in it. Notice how these thoughts resonate in your body and mind. Pause in stillness and recognize that you are the point at which the impermanent world intersects with the immortality of your soul. Be at peace knowing that you are simultaneously in this world, but not of it.
Impermanence is undoubtedly a challenging teaching to embrace. Yet it provides us with the opportunity to awaken to the deeper reality of being that lies beyond our material existence. By exploring the insights impermanence offers us we can suffer less, and live a deeper, more fulfilling life.