The Facts of Life: Impermanence

From Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chodron

The Facts of Life: Impermanence

According to the Buddha, the lives of all beings are marked by three characteristics: impermanence, egolessness, and suffering or dissatisfaction.  Recognizing these qualities to be real and true in our own experience helps us to relax with things as they are.  The first mark is impermanence.  That nothing is static or fixed, that all is fleeting and changing, is the first mark of existence.  We don’t have to be mystics or physicists to know this.  Yet at the level of personal experience, we resist this basic fact.  It means that life isn’t always going to go our way.  It means that there’s loss as well as gain.  And we don’t like that.

We know that all is impermanent; we know that everything wears out. Although we can buy this truth intellectually, emotionally we have a deep-rooted aversion to it.  We want permanence; we expect permanence.  Our natural tendency is to seek security; we believe we can find it.  We experience impermanence at the everyday level as frustration.  We use our daily activity as a shield against the fundamental ambiguity of our situation, expending tremendous energy trying to ward off impermanence and death.  We don’t like it that our bodies change shape.  We don’t like it that we age.  We are afraid of wrinkles and sagging skin.  We use health products as if we actually believe that our skin, our hair, our eyes and our teeth, might actually escape the truth of impermanence.

The Buddhist teachings aspire to set us free from this limited way of relating to impermanence. They encourage us to relax gradually and wholeheartedly into the ordinary and obvious truth of change.  Acknowledging this truth doesn’t mean that we’re looking at the dark side.  What it means is that we begin to understand that we’re not the only one who can’t keep it all together.  We no longer believe that there are people who have managed to avoid uncertainty.

From the wall of the Zen Center of Denver zendo:

Great is the matter of birth and death.
Life slips quickly by.
Time waits for no one.
Wake up!  Wake up!
Don’t waste a moment.

From As Bill Sees It by Bill Wilson

God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

We treasure our “Serenity Prayer” because it brings a new light to us that can dissipate our old time and nearly fatal habit of fooling ourselves.  In the radiance of prayer we see that defeat, rightly accepted, need be no disaster.  We now know that we do not have to run away, nor ought we again try to overcome adversity by still another bulldozing power drive that can only push up obstacles before us faster than they can be taken down.  Grapevine, March 1962.

Our very first problem is to accept our present circumstances as they are, ourselves as we are, and the people about us as they are.  This is to adopt a realistic humility without which no genuine advance can even begin.  Again and again, we shall need to return to that unflattering point of departure.  This is an exercise in acceptance that we can profitably practice every day of our lives.

Provided we strenuously avoid turning these realistic surveys of the facts of life into unrealistic alibis for apathy or defeatism, they can be the sure foundation upon which increased emotional health and therefore spiritual progress can be built.  Grapevine, March 1962