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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The Grief and Intimacy of my Dear Brother’s death

Note: The following is a transcript from a talk I gave to the St. Croix Unitarians on August 19, 2018.

My brother John died on June 15 2018. This month he would have been 61. He was as tall as I, but weighed a muscular and lean 230 pounds. I thought that he looked good at 250. He was incredibly strong and athletic. He led a healthy lifestyle. It just seemed obvious to me that I would die before he did. The fact it didn’t happen that way changes something fundamental about my life. There’s the obvious hole – grief and sadness – and another way to address my grief through a connection with John, for now. It seems to me that John and I have been in contact since his death, in fact it seems obvious, though I realize it’s not obvious for any of you. Therefore, you are obviously free to believe or silently discount anything that I say, though I hope you realize that I would not speak so openly if I did not believe it was important. Continue reading

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Omen of the Four Vultures

7/2015: I leave my driveway in rural Wisconsin around noon, taking my dog on a walk.  I get to the edge of my property where I had re-planted a white pine that was going to die. The tree is now thriving. I pause there and look back at my house. I see four low flying turkey vultures flying in tight formation, gliding over my home about 150 feet or so away. This is quite an unusual sight, and it immediately occurs to me that it could be an omen. Because I feel it could be a death omen, I decide it is not an omen unless the birds fly directly over me. This seems highly unlikely as it appears they are going to circle back. But in the very moment I make the decision of what is or is not an omen, the birds turn as if on cue and fly straight toward me, still in tight formation – like four fighter jets. This feels numinous, and I’m more than surprised. I watch them for a moment, realizing that this is an omen. Still thinking it could be a death omen, I decide I’m not going to just stand there and wait for judgment. They’re closing fast as I turn and begin to walk away from them. Perhaps a second or two later, I see a shadow, and easily calculate that the birds must be directly overhead. I decide to confront the omen and look for them in the sky. They are nowhere to be seen. I glance in all directions and they simply are gone. I am dumbfounded. Continue reading

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Transitions, Impermanence, and Five Invitations 

Note: The following is a transcript from a talk I gave to the St. Croix Unitarians on October 15, 2017.

There is a story of a Sufi master who was known for his open heart and mind. He died in the fullness of time and found himself at the gates of heaven.  An angel challenged him, saying, “Go no further O mortal, until you have proven that you are worthy to enter this paradise.”  The Sufi master countered, “just a minute, first, can you prove this is really heaven and not the wishful fantasy of my disordered mind undergoing death?”   Before the angel could reply, a voice from inside the gate shouted, “let him in, he’s one of us.”

This story works on more than one level.   It doesn’t have to be about dying and going to heaven. The story can suggest being open to life and challenging our perceptions at the same time.  Any good story or myth can work at many levels.

For example, the Tibetan Book of the Dead is a guide to helping the recently deceased navigate through the confusion of death into their new birth. But that’s not all.  It’s also a ceremonial way to grieve. And it’s intended to instruct anyone who gets stuck in the Bardo. The Bardo is a sticky place where outdated or maladaptive patterns delay transition. Continue reading

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Islamophobia

Note: Following is a transcript from a presentation I gave for St. Croix Falls Unitarians on August 6 2017.

I want to begin by stating that I am not an expert on the topic of Islamophobia.  But what does seem clear to me is that there is a history in this country to distrust outsiders and fear the worst. For example, in 1915 a second group of Ku Klux Klan was founded and flourished nationwide in the 1920s, particularly in urban areas of the Midwest and West. Rooted in local Protestant communities, it opposed Catholics and Jews and used intimidation tactics modeled on the southern Klan. One could fill a book with examples.  Tribalism and fear are problems inherent to the human condition.

To be sure, Islamic extremists do represent a threat.  From September 12 2001 through December 31 2016 Islamic extremist attacks led to 119 deaths in the United States.  Forty-nine of those deaths came from the June 2016 Orlando nightclub attack.  During that same period “far-right extremist” attacks led to either 106 or 158 deaths, depending on how they defined far-right extremists.

We need to be vigilant as a society toward all forms of extremism.  People watching the news need to be aware that a violent extremist group only represents that group, and not a larger group such as all conservatives or all Islamists.  What seems unfortunate is that the American public seems more agitated by Islamic extremists than by far-right extremists. Islamophobia generalizes the extremist threat to include anyone who appears that they could have originated at some point in time from the Middle East.

The Huffington Post tracked Islamophobia in the United States throughout 2016. Having tracked hate for a year, they found that people who disparaged Muslim Americans are mostly reading from the same script. Here’s what they learned, summarized as the 6 Rules of Islamophobia In America – in other words, patterns of belief among those people who hate, scapegoat, or profile Muslim Americans.

Rule 1: Muslims are not American.
Muslims just can’t be from here, the thinking goes ? even though Muslims fight in our military and die in our wars, and even though a United States without Muslims has never existed.

 Rule 2: All Muslims are terrorists.

Rule 3: Pork is to Muslims as a crucifix is to vampires.
Like Judaism, Islam generally prohibits its followers from eating pork. While these pork-based acts of hate are undoubtedly meant as insults, the perpetrators may believe that pork could magically harm Muslims. For example, Trump in 2016, told an apocryphal story of how a United States general killed Muslim insurgents with bullets dipped in pig’s blood.

Rule 4: All brown people are potentially Muslim, and are therefore potentially terrorists.
For example, Singhs wear turbans and are Sikh, not Muslim. Christian immigrants from Lebanon are not Muslim.

 Rule 5: Islam is not a religion, it’s a violent ideology.  Here’s the misperception: Islam “is an ideology posing as a religion. Islam is intolerant and deceitful, and its adherents are ordered to overthrow our way of life and to replace it with ‘Sharia’ law.’  People in less metropolitan areas seem more likely to believe this.  For example, a This American Life documentary focused on the reaction of citizens in St. Cloud Minnesota to Somalian refugees, which included a fear of Somalians imposing Sharia law.  Trump isn’t to blame here, he just happened to be expressing a very real attitude already existing in many rural or less metropolitan areas of our country. In St. Cloud, and elsewhere, the fear is unfounded.

Rule 6: There’s a secret Muslim plot to take over and/or destroy the United States and/or Western civilization from within.

The idea of a “civilization jihad” is a thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory. But it’s also a popular one that has contributed to this country’s dim view of Muslims. According to a UK research company, many Americans think 17 out of every 100 people in the United States are Muslim — that would be over 50 million Muslims in America. There are only about 3 million.

If we’re going to help protect our Muslim neighbors, coworkers, friends and family, these are six “rules” that need to be challenged.

There seems to be a tendency for some Americans to generalize Islam from what they here about Islam in extremist countries.  In the fall of 2014 CNN invited Christian and Muslim scholar Reza Aslan for his response to the view that Islam is a violent and repressive religion. I understand that current events in the Middle East continue to shape governments and cultures. For example, the government in Turkey is more repressive today than in 2014.  But the call to stop generalizing prejudice is still relevant. I’ve pulled two statements and a question from that interview, focusing on Aslan’s response.

Responding to the statement that circumcision for women is a Muslim problem:

Aslan states: the argument about the female genital mutilation being an Islamic problem is a perfect example of [misunderstanding]. It’s not an Islamic problem. It’s a Central African problem. Eritrea has almost 90% female genital mutilation. It’s a Christian country. Ethiopia has 75% female genital mutilation. It’s a Christian country. Nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue.

Responding to the statement that it is not a free and open society for women in Muslim countries.

Aslan states: Well, not in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.

It certainly is in Indonesia and Malaysia. It certainly is in Bangladesh. It certainly is in Turkey. I mean, again, the problem is that you’re talking about a religion of 1.5 billion people and certainly it becomes very easy to just simply paint them all with a single brush by saying, well, in Saudi Arabia, women can’t drive and so therefore that is somehow representative of Islam.

It’s representative of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is one of the most, if not the most, extremist Muslim country in the world. In a month Saudi Arabia, our closest ally, has beheaded 19 people. Nobody seems to care about that because Saudi Arabia sort of preserves our national interests.

When asked: does Islam promote violence?

Aslan responds: Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it. If you’re a violent person, your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism is going to be violent. There are marauding Buddhist monks in Myanmar slaughtering women and children. Does Buddhism promote violence? Of course not. People are violent or peaceful. And that depends on their politics, [their economy], their social world, the way that they see their communities, the way they see themselves.

Stop saying things like “Muslim countries”, as though Pakistan and Turkey are the same, as though Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are the same.   [To generalize] what is happening in the most extreme forms of these repressive countries, these autocratic countries, as representative of what’s happening in every other Muslim country, is, frankly — and I use this word seriously — stupid. So let’s stop doing that. End quote.

The request to “stop  doing that” seems unlikely to be effective when directed at the general public.

Negin Farsad uses social justice comedy to clear up misconceptions about Islam. She’s better at it than I am.  So I’m going to let her speak for herself in this 8 minute TED video.

VIDEO https://www.ted.com/talks/negin_farsad_a_highly_scientific_taxonomy_of_haters

Research suggests that strongly held beliefs are highly resistant to change. Challenging rigid beliefs can actually make them stronger.  It’s called the rebound effect. Our persuasive energy is better spent with folks whose opinions are undecided or less rigid.

If a friend reveals their negative bias in conversation, it should be all right for you to disagree. There’s no need for argument or difficult discussions. Set a tone for allowing disagreement.  Disagreement means that we don’t need to have the same opinion about everything, and that we don’t need to try and change the other person.

But how do we react if we personally witness hatred? To be alert and awake to the moment is a good start.  We are not passive bystanders to the mean-spirited treatment of minorities – including women.  When we pause and become more awake, we are more likely to respond appropriately.

How we respond will be an individual choice, and must fit your predilection, your personal resources, and the potential resources or variables of a situation.

In a public setting with uninvolved bystanders and harassment that has not escalated into violence, it might be helpful to engage the victim in small talk or ask them, “How are you doing right now?”   Try to build a safe space.  Engage in eye contact with potential allies. If it seems feasible, guide the victim out of range of hateful comments.

On the podcast Invisibilia, there was an account of a dinner party that was interrupted by a burglar, and one of the guests asked the burglar if they would like a glass of wine.  The burglar accepted, and the situation de-escalated.

Eckhart Tolle and Fred Rogers employed gentle, quiet, but intense presence in difficult situations, and we’ve heard the stories of elderly women vocally backing down angry youth.

There is no one answer, but we do live in the age of video cell phones and an ability to call 911 when violence seems imminent. Please don’t put yourself in harm’s way based on this presentation alone. The subject is worthy of inquiry, introspection, rehearsal of choices, and the vigils of mindfulness.

Thank you for your kind attention.

 

 

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