Impermanence, or What Comes Around, Goes Around

My brother emailed me the other day, prompting me to go off on a tangent about the Buddhist idea of impermanence.

He said:

“[When living on a boat] you really learn to appreciate the small things. Like grapes. They taste better when you’re on a boat. Because you realize once they’re gone, you don’t get any more until you pull in again.”

His statement illustrates one positive result of a well cultivated understanding of impermanence—because you know something won’t last forever, you can appreciate it more while you have it.

Some of my older posts, like the ones about suffering and attachment or the Four Noble Truths, mention impermanence without going too deep. Since impermanence is one of Buddhism’s core concepts, I thought I should give it a closer look.

The Nature of Reality

It may seem ridiculously obvious to consider that everything that currently exists will eventually cease to exist, but the average Joe or Jane doesn’t usually sit around thinking about it. When they’re playing with their Weimaraner, they don’t consider that it won’t be around in 11 years, and when they’re sipping their coffee it doesn’t occur to them that our Sun will one day expand into a red giant and turn the surface of the Earth—along with their favorite mug—into a sea of molten rock.

The inevitable nature of reality is that nothing lasts forever.

The Nature of Thought

To my understanding, Buddhism believes that thought and emotion (mental states in general, really) arise from causes and conditions—they are a reaction to the things that are. We ascribe “form” to reality, and in so doing create a framework on which to hang our thoughts. “I think, therefore I am” illustrates the traditional Descartian view of self-aware existence, while the Buddhist take on it might be more like “things are, therefore I think I am.” There is a co-dependent relationship between the things and the thinking, between self and other.

If form and reality are inherently impermanent, then thoughts and emotions must be doubly so.

The Lessons of Fundamental Impermanence

As my brother pointed out, facing impermanence directly can help you appreciate what you’ve got. The last slice of cake, the last cookie, the last week with your daughter before college, the last walk through your old house before you hand over the keys, these types of things heighten that sense of impermanence and encourage you to process the experiences in a more directly present way. You know that, as the saying goes, you can’t have your cake and eat it too—once it’s gone, you don’t get to enjoy either the anticipation or the delicious taste again.

Conversely, if you’ve had a particularly bad day at work, you’ve been in an accident, or your daughter skipped her second nap and is apparently summoning hell-born demons, the reality is that no matter how much these things suck, they are impermanent—they will not last forever. You’ll go home from work, your leg will heal, and your daughter will finally give up and go to sleep. The bad things, the annoying things, the boring things will all eventually end in some way, and give way to another set of conditions which may be better or worse.

Flipping both these ideas of impermanence over, we can also see how positive and negative conditions can contribute to opposing experiences. Having savored the delicious grapes, my brother might lament that they’re gone. He might be thinking of them and not fully enjoying the delicious meal in front of him. Likewise I, knowing that my daughter hasn’t taken a good nap all day, might dread the thought of fighting her for an hour before bed, which might then color my appreciation of the playtime we share after dinner.

If we could see into the future, we could use that knowledge to temper our negative experiences—”man, you think you’ve got it bad now!“, or “chin up, soldier, in 10 minutes, you win the lottery!” But, of course, that’s not an option, so we have to figure out some other way of getting through them.

This Too Shall Pass

I’ve listened to recorded talks at Dharma Seed for a few years, and one of my favorite anecdotes is about the monarch who requests a single sentence from his wise men, which will always be applicable in any situation. The wise men confer, and bring the king the words “this too shall pass”. An excellent encapsulation of the idea of impermanence, this phrase is as applicable when conditions are favorable, as when they are not. When times are bad, it reminds us that they won’t always be so. When times are good, it reminds us that they can’t last forever.

If we find ourselves getting caught up in our attachments, we can pull out this phrase to humble or uplift us, or to simply wake us up enough that we can take the moment as it is without having to cram it into the box of our expectations or drape it with our pleasures or pains. However, having this phrase, or any expedient, to help reinforce our understanding and acceptance of impermanence doesn’t really get us any further down the path—it merely points us in the right direction.

Impermanence and Attachment

The Buddhist path leading to the end of suffering depends on our ability to relinquish our attachments to inherently impermanent conditions. Perhaps that’s a gross oversimplification, but it’s adequate for our purposes. We can consider the impermanence of reality and the implications that holds for us, but if we don’t then apply that to our web of attachments we’re not learning anything. If we properly integrate this understanding of impermanence and learn to appreciate the current moment in the current moment, then, I suspect, many of our attachments will at least loosen.

There is no overnight success to be had, but many opportunities for incremental success, and I think that is good enough for a start.