What’s your reaction to the word, “impermanence”? Do you begrudgingly acknowledge the fact that all things end? Maybe it is one of those subjects you’d rather not think about.
One teacher we might associate with the teaching of impermanence is the American Buddhist nun and best-selling author, Pema Chӧdrӧn. She’s often reminding us of impermanence as an inescapable fact of life.
The basic teaching of impermanence is that you can never step into the same river twice. With the next step the river has changed, and so have you.
The River of Life
Imagine being on a craft gliding down the river that is Life. Conceptualized this way, it brings certain questions to reflect on:
- Where do you tend to focus? Is it on what’s right here or what is up ahead (how far?), or are you still thinking about where you “put in” (began the journey)?
- Can you let this river flow by in its own natural timing? Can you let go of what no longer is, or must it be torn out of your grasping hands?
- Do you grieve the inevitable losses or deny them?
- Can you be like a skilled river guide flowing with the changes, aware that the fullness comes in meeting each moment?
On this journey down the River of Life, the landmarks keep changing. This is true in both our outer and inner worlds. Our bodies, our environments, our work, our relationships, where we live and what we do—it all keeps changing.
It is true in the spiritual landscape as well, although people who spend their lives deepening into one tradition may feel it less. Your teachers may change. Your affiliation may change. Your practices likely will change. And certainly on the spiritual journey what most changes is you.
Aging is whole course in impermanence. Yesterday a friend told me that for her aging is watching doors close. No longer going to do that. There’s another possibility that won’t come to fruition. She didn’t feel depressed about this, but was rather acknowledging it as simple truth.
Acknowledging What Has Passed
Even though something has passed from our life, often we have not consciously let go of it. Not said goodbye. Not really groked that it is gone. It is still somewhere in our ‘library’ – whether our bookshelf, our computer, or a primary concept through which we organize our perceptions.
I recently went through my files, throwing out what is no longer current, which included a lot of past writing and past work. I was surprised how much grief was there. Not that I wanted those things back, but each represented a part of my life that is over. Gone. The process was more painful than expected, and yet at the end, there was an opening and freshness that surprised me.
There are times we do the same thing psychologically, seeing that we’re no longer where we once were, that our beliefs have changed, what we identify with has changed, our reactions to things have changed.
Often we don’t notice things as they fade from view, until suddenly we notice something is gone. Of course the more we’re caught in our heads, the slower we are to notice: Oh, I’m not young anymore! The world I grew up in no longer exists.
Change You Can’t Deny
Life tries its best to wake us up, and there are moments when the changing landmarks cannot be denied.
I live in Colorado where we experienced severe flooding last September. Our land feels forever changed. I still want to cry out, “No! I want it as it was!” It is hard to accept changes I did not want and had no time to prepare for. As is so often the case. We don’t plan on the accident, the fire, the hurricane, or oil spill. Or that a tsunami could wipe out a whole way of life.
There are so many moments in a lifetime that signal irrevocable change: when a loved one dies, when you leave a job or profession, move, end a long-term relationship. My mother is about to move from her home to a community providing continuum of care. It’s her last chosen move.
When something you have oriented to for decades is no longer there (be it a mate, a home, a role….) there is often disorientation. You can feel a little lost. It will take some getting used to, and in the meantime, there will be grief. That’s exactly where you need to be.
At some point you look up again. You notice that you are moving through new landscapes, and beneath you the river is flowing. This current will carry you, if you let it. The river has a wisdom of its own.
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