My friend Impermanence

The good news, on a bad day, is impermanence. It is also cause, on a good day, to slow down and savor.

A few years ago I attended a Death Cafe, where a small group of people eat cake and drink tea and talk about death. Not grief, no end-of-life planning, just opening an avenue on a taboo subject. It was interesting.

But then, it got fascinating.

While most of the group shared our thoughts about death, fears, experiences around death, one attendee sat silent. Towards the end of our time the facilitator asked him how he felt.

“I was lucky, as a young person, to make friends with impermanence,” he started, going on to describe that when you recognize impermanence, you accept it, you engage with it in such a way that you believe for all of the loss it will entail it provides corresponding newness, and you agree to accept the present at the cost of the past, death is not so unnerving.

He got a little resistance, as if even at his advanced age he might not have experienced the kind of loss that is categorically devastating. That’s when he described the long process of the death of his daughter in her early 30’s with 4 young children. But his message remained clear. Every moment with her was a gift. He had no expectation that her life would be a certain way or end at a conventionally accepted time (ie., after him), so he engaged fully, accepting what was as natural.

He said even the chaplains at hospice marveled at his approach, but to him it was quite simple.

That was four years ago. I think of it quite a bit.

This gentleman got right to the core. In one attitude, he blew right through the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. This “friendship” with impermanence made him wildly present to enjoying what was alive and true in his life, and gently accepting of that which was passing.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

Suffering is resistance to pain. Suffering is the story that our pain “should be different.” Suffering is any of the stories we get entrapped in, that the pain means something is wrong, that we are wrong, we did something wrong and are being punished, that God is wrong, that this condition is keeping me from my true destiny, the one I want, the one I deserve… the stories could go on endlessly. They typically do.

But when Impermanence is the reason, well, that changes everything! Everything alive is going through change, either growth or decay, sometimes both at the same time. Of course we will, too! This is just the natural progression of life, and nature doesn’t work in straight lines very often. It zags. It just does. We can’t control it. It is the purview of life itself.

I had been fasting for the equinox and felt pretty good. As I’ve reincorporated food, I’ve had some pain. Not terrible, but significant.  The reprieve was impermanent. My current pain is impermanent. Once again, I am trying to learn to be receptive to my body’s messages. I’m letting the pain slow me down even further, to give my body rest and to try to attune to its messages.

I get in trouble when I try to keep score. When I use this moment as the deciding factor in a win or failure that will carry the future. While it’s good for me to be aware of what activities or foods or attitudes may be a contributor to a change in pain levels, I’ve been on this road long enough to know that sometimes it just spikes, and sometimes I get lucky.

Embracing the flux, the impermanence, lets me address it completely differently, more slowly and with less at stake. This moment’s expression is not a judgment on the sum of my past actions, nor is it the authority on what is possible in the future. It is just this moment’s expression. And, when I meet it for what it is, without all of those stories, it’s never so bad.



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