Impermanence

 

It has been said that the entire Buddhadharma might be summed up into three words: “Not always so.” Perhaps the essence of the dharma lies in the realization that there is nothing permanent in this world that we can hold on to; that the nature of this world is ephemeral. This principle is epitomized in a quote from the Diamond Sutra:

Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world: A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream; a flash of lightening in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

This was taught by the Buddha some 2500 years ago. Interestingly, this teaching seems to be validated by 21st century quantum science. Today many scientists are referring to the physical universe as a type of hologram; the entire universe seems like “a phantom and a dream.”

This idea can mentally be very interesting but emotionally it may be very distressing. The human psyche craves some ground to stand upon, something solid to hold on to. To not have this sense of solidity can be very stressful; it may feel like we are in a freefall.

Frightened by this fall we may attempt to hold on to concepts and objects and relationships. But sooner or later we discover that these too are impermanent; they are freefalling just as we are! We may attempt to cling to our body and to our personal identity. Mortality is a continuous teaching of impermanence. To die is to fall into the great Unknown.

The bad news is that there is nothing you can hold on to. The good news is that there is nothing you need to hold onto. Our free fall is an illusion; there is nowhere to fall but into reality itself. Your body will die; but you will survive. Only illusions die.

When I was a child I experienced falling into deep water and nearly drowning. For many years I was terrified of being in the water. I would be in a swimming pool only if I could feel my feet planted firmly on the bottom. But this limited me to the shallow end of the pool; I could not swim in the deep end like most of my friends. I felt quite frustrated and alone. I was a prisoner of my own fear.

A turning point came as I was standing chest deep in water when a friend challenged me to touch my toes. With some trepidation I took a deep breath, bent over and reached for my toes. To my amazement my feet came up off the bottom! I felt a brief moment of fear but then I experienced my body floating in the water– with no effort on my part. It was wonderful.

By letting go of clinging to the bottom I learned to trust the water and eventually became a very proficient swimmer. I experienced what I most wanted, which was freedom and safety. And I discovered that safety came from letting go rather than from holding on.

When we open to the experience of fear rather than push it away we discover that fear itself is impermanent. Fear is just another experience– and every experience is impermanent. And as we open fully to the reality of impermanence we can discover that which never changes. We discover that every experience always occurs here and now; it is always in the present moment.

You, the one who knows, is present in each moment. The one who knows is present in every experience. This presence is not impermanent; it does not change. The poet T.S. Eliot called this the “still point.”

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Everything in this world is impermanent; it’s all a dance. Deep realization of this brings us home to the still point: the eternal presence in every moment.