River of Change: Reflections on Impermanence

Note: The following is a (close) transcript from a talk I gave to the St. Croix Unitarians on April 14, 2019.

The Japanese eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans.
The French eat a lot of fat and also suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans.
The Japanese drink very little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans.
The Italians drink excessive amounts of red wine and also suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans.
The Germans drink a lot of beer and eat lots of sausages and suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans.
CONCLUSION: Eat and drink what you like. It’s speaking English that kills you.

This flower will change over time.

So, maybe we feel if we eat the perfect diet, nothing bad will happen to our bodies. But life has an aspect of unpredictability. We want to be in control of our lives, and sometimes our skill makes for smooth sailing, and sometimes there is a storm no one predicted. The condition of existence, this ever-changing life, is impermanence. Change. A flower grows, blossoms, the blossoms whither or fall off, and seeds make their way to the earth. Everything that arises also passes away and is reborn. The cycles of change are at the core of our experience. Buddhists suggest that honoring impermanence allows us to let go of our need to be controlling, and to let go of things that weigh us down or separate us from loving awareness.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow, best known for Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, wrote the following quote in a letter written while recovering from a severe heart attack in 1957:

The confrontation with death–and the reprieve from it–makes everything so precious, so sacred, so beautiful, that I feel more strongly than ever the impulse to love it, to embrace it, and to let myself be overwhelmed by it. My river has never looked so beautiful…. Death, and its ever present possibility makes love more possible.”

This understanding of impermanence has much to teach. According to Carlos Castaneda, when you use Death as an adviser, all pettiness falls away – we have no time to be insensitive, unkind, or spiteful when faced with the backdrop of impermanence. Castaneda writes, “An immense amount of pettiness is dropped if your death makes a gesture to you, or if you catch a glimpse of it, or if you just have the feeling that It is somewhere nearby.” This idea, using Death as an adviser, isn’t morbid thinking. It leads to an understanding that our time is precious and limited, and that we can use this insight to experience gratitude, live more fully, and discover what is most important.

Impermanence can inform our choices. If many of your decisions were informed by the background awareness of impermanence, the brevity and preciousness of life, what might you do differently now or in the future? If you had a near-death experience, might you rearrange priorities? A hospice doctor, Ira Byock, wrote a book about the four things that matter most to people who are dying. These four things can be summed up in the four phrases: ‘Please forgive me’, ‘I forgive you’, ‘Thank you’ and ‘I love you’. At the end of the day, these might be the most powerful things we that we can say to each other. Why wait? The good news is we don’t have to wait until the end of our lives to realize what is essential and life affirming. Awareness of our own impermanence can help us to discover what matters most.

Another aspect of impermanence is change. Some changes are easy, some are neutral, and some are hard. It’s those difficult, unexpected, and contested changes that can cause suffering. Some changes deliver temporary hardship, like the coldest day in winter. And some changes seem more permanent, like the death of a loved one. We grieve.

But change and impermanence also have a positive side. Thanks to impermanence, Life itself is possible. If a seed is not impermanent, it can never grow into a tree. If children did not change, they could not grow up and become adults. There would be no grandchildren. Their unique gifts to the world would not manifest. Because the world is ever-changing, in time we will experience both loss and wonder.

There’s a Zen story of a farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit.
“Such bad luck,” they said. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses.
“How wonderful,” the neighbors said. “Maybe,” replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, he was thrown, and broke his leg.
The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by.
The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

Thich Nhat Hanh states that impermanence – moments of change – can flow into a connection with life. He suggests we imagine the birth of a cloud. Before being born it was the water on the ocean’s surface. Or was it in the river and became vapor. The wind is there too, helping the water to become a cloud. The cloud does not come from nothing. There has been a change in form.

Sooner or later the cloud will change into rain or snow or ice. If you look deeply into the rain as it hits the ground, you can see the cloud. The cloud is not lost; it is transformed into rain, and through a connection with the Earth and Sun, the rain is transformed into vegetables and fruits that you eat.

Looking deeply, you do not see a set date of birth or a set date of death for the cloud. All that happens is that the cloud transforms into rain or snow. There is no real death because there is always change and transformation – the inter-connectedness of all things.

So when we drink the water as a cup of tea we can take a moment to become aware of connections. You can recognize the cloud in your cup. By doing that, you have insight into the flow and connection of all things – in this case the cloud as water in your tea. When you feel connected to life, in all its forms, you’re more likely to act with respect/reverence.

All of us can understand impermanence with our intellect, but this is not true understanding. We may find insight when we pause to observe the changing nature of our experience.

If we cultivate a heart-felt understanding that we live in an ever-changing world, a world that is beyond our ultimate knowing, we can begin to let go of our resistance to change, make peace with the flow of our experience. With patience and kindness we might let go of fixed or outdated perceptions that no longer serve us, let go of whatever weighs us down – old baggage that gets heavier each time we have an ongoing disagreement with reality. Jack Kornfield’s Buddhist teacher, Ajahn Chah, states: “If you let go a little, you’ll find a little peace. If you let go a lot, you’ll find a lot of peace. If you let go absolutely, you’ll find absolute peace and tranquility.”

Philippe Deshoulieres - Dhara Peacock Teacup

Jack Kornfield tells us that Ajahn Chah was given a beautiful Chinese cup that he used every day. One day Ajahn Chah held up the cup, “To me this cup is already broken. Because I know its fate, I can enjoy it fully here and now. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.” When we understand the truth of uncertainty and relax, we become free.

We can begin the practice of impermanence by imagining an object that you own, something breakable that you care about. This is the practice of learning to face what is difficult. Don’t practice with something too dear to you at the start. Acceptance of loss is incremental – some losses are more difficult than others. Start with something you would miss, but losing it wouldn’t undo you. It could be your computer or a decorative glass that you inherited from your grandmother. Impermanence means that you honor the object when it is present in the moment, but that you also understand that it might break, that it cannot last forever. So let’s take about ten seconds to imagine that an object that we care about breaks – shatters. Close your eyes if you’d like, and bring an object to mind. Now, imagine both conditions, joy and gratefulness when it’s whole, and then loss or change due to impermanence.

Seeing the things we own through the eyes of impermanence is one level of practice. Seeing our relationships through the eyes of impermanence can be a bit more challenging. We may have disagreement or conflict with friends and loved ones. I’m not talking about dysfunctional or harmful relationships that may require boundaries or distance. But sometimes we get confused, tangled, or conflicted in a generally good relationship. It’s because we’re human. Then it might be useful to contemplate impermanence. When we know we can lose someone at any moment, our priorities might shift. We may see that this person is very precious to us. We may want to express our gratitude: “How wonderful, you are still alive. Both of us will die someday and while we are still alive and together it is foolish to be petty. Our time is precious, let’s try to honor the sacred that lives in each of us.” I’m not suggesting that we ignore actual problems, but that we act from a place of balance, a place that honors impermanence.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on how impermanence might inform conflict or confusion in a relationship that matters to you. When I ring the bell, I’ll suggest that you make a contemplative inquiry into a relationship that matters, an aspect of the relationship that has unnecessary tension, or perhaps you have forgotten gratitude. An inquiry opens you to a question that’s worth contemplating. The answer might come now or later, if you choose to let the question percolate – allowing further reflection. You can close your eyes if you’d like, and participate to the level of your choosing. This will be short, about a minute.

Bell: Bring a relationship to mind, and make an inquiry: can the knowledge of impermanence influence how you might interact day to day? Is it possible to take someone for granted and forget their true worth?          Bell

Inter-being is the felt sense of connection with all life.

There’s one more aspect of change I’d like to mention: the sometimes hidden and ongoing potential for joy and amazement. When we let go of fixed or outdated perceptions and open up to the potential wonder inherent in the stream of life, we can begin to feel connections flowing through our world. Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term inter-being – the felt interconnection of all things. In the state of inter-being, we do not feel like a separate self, an isolated being. We can feel the connections of kinship, community, Nature, and of all life. As the Lakota say: “All life is connected.” When those words come alive, we feel the expansion of the separate self into the connected self. That understanding will instruct us, each in our own way.

I’m going to end with a poem by Rumi.

Everything you see has its roots in the unseen world.
The forms may change, yet the essence remains the same.
Every wonderful sight will vanish,
every sweet word will fade,
But do not be disheartened,
The source they come from is eternal, growing,
Branching out, giving new life and new joy.
Listen, the source is within you
And this whole world is springing up from it.

Thank you for your kind attention.

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4 Responses to River of Change: Reflections on Impermanence

  1. Irina says:

    Jim, this is a beautiful essay that conveys wisdom, insight and peace. I made a printout of it that I shall keep on my desk, and I’ll meditate on the image of the cloud.
    Thank you,

  2. irina says:

    Jim, could you please give the title of Ira Byock’s book on dying that you cited? He has written several.

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