The Gift of Impermanence

There have been times in my life when a certain product or service stopped working or became unavailable for reasons beyond my control. It could have been a restaurant I used to visit, that has long since shut down, a piece of software that is no longer being developed or supported, or a service that was no longer taking new signups for one reason or another. Each time I would come across such a situation, I’d find myself somewhat frustrated simply because I had previously made a final choice about that thing and now I have to invest more time to find a suitable replacement for it — and use it until that thing becomes unavailable and so on and so forth. If it isn’t already clear, I like making final choices. When I find something that works, I stick with it, because why fix it if it ain’t broken?

As much I would love for this weblog to exist for many years to come so more readers get to read my drafts (and learn from my mistakes), the sad reality is at some point this weblog will cease to exist (for a variety of reasons). While that somewhat saddens me today, it doesn’t stop me from showing up every day and doing the work, not the least because I said I would. That said, at some point, I may self-publish them in the form of books as a matter of public record for posterity, as our history has shown books can be preserved for generations.

Likewise, I have had a few friendships in my life that I thought would go the distance, but for one reason or another seem to have run their course unexpectedly. While I occasionally think about these lost friendships, I’ve come to accept that losing them is a part and parcel of life.

While it’s great to have partners in our lives, we shouldn’t be dependent on them (or any one for that matter) in any which way for our well-being. After all, we require our own space to grow as is the case with trees that cannot grow in each others’ shade. The last thing we want to do is to depend on others.

Take the case of this pandemic itself — we all desperately want our lives to return to normalcy (whatever that means now), but perhaps we may be better off to stop this wishful thinking about the “normal” from our past and do the best we can with what we have got now, since that is all we can do anyway. We need to swim with the tide rather than against it. A part of me believes there is a light at the end of this tunnel; the only thing that remains to be found out is when we’ll get through the other side.

Here’s the thing, we are in a constant state of flux. The only thing that is constant in the world is change itself. Life on this planet as we know it will cease to function at some point. As souls, our journey may be infinite, but our lives on this earth are short-lived. Perhaps the best example of impermanence is our own mortality.

I’m reminded of what Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said:

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

We know from Buddhist teachings that life is impermanent. Everything in life has a start, middle, and an end. Everything we see around us today will cease to exist one day. While it’s depressing to accept that one day the people in our lives and all that we hold close will perish, that’s just the reality (more on that below) and although we know and understand that our time on Earth is limited, how many of us live our lives with a sense of urgency? We live as if we will live forever. We are so caught up in the allure of the physical (material) world that we have lost touch with our true self.

Rather than seeking to make a difference, we spend our lives collecting stuff. We make it about enriching ourselves in some way when we should focus on making an impact in the lives of others. We forget the purpose of life is to give, and not to get. While we know we will leave this world one day, it’s hard to acknowledge that we don’t live our lives in a way that reflects that reality. In the end, all that will matter is if we lived to our true potential and left this world better than we found it. When we do, we’ll feel happy and truly fulfilled, and if not, we will have nothing but regret.

Impermanence can be a blessing or a curse depending on how we look at it. It’s worth noting that impermanence in and of itself does not cause any suffering, but it’s our response to it that matters. It’s only when we fully accept impermanence as a fact of life that we can lead lives truly worth living. I think of it as the greatest example of constraint there is, within which we live our lives. Without it, we wouldn’t value our lives as much. When we have less of something, we value it more, lest we forget. We wouldn’t appreciate our lives as much if we were immortal.

As the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh has said:

It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.

Think of impermanence as a gift. Rather than feel depressed about the limited time we have, we can be liberated and use our time wisely. In the end, it’s not about how long we lived, but how well did we live our lives with the time we were given. In any case, it’s better to live a short and meaningful life rather than a long and meaningless one. I’m reminded of what Steve Jobs said:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Rather than seeking ways to find permanence in our lives, we need to be okay with the temporary. We are, after all, guests on this planet. We need to live our lives with the end in mind. I wrote earlier:

Stop trying to avoid failure. Stop chasing money. Stop trying to go after the low-hanging fruit. Strive to make a difference in other people’s lives. Make a dent in the universe. The fact that you know you are going to die one day should not be thought of as demotivating, but it should be seen as the biggest motivation to put your best foot forward and make the most of your life. In other words, thinking about death should clarify your life.

This might seem oddly morbid, but let’s remind ourselves of our mortality from time to time. I heard a story about someone living across from a cemetery because it kept their mortality front and center. When thinking about this matter, I realized that I’ve never actually attended a funeral. In fact, I can’t recollect the last time I went to a hospital to see someone recover. It could simply be that I was avoiding being reminded of my own mortality and perhaps because it brought me face to face with my own impermanence. In so many words, maybe I put it off to avoid being in conflict with myself, lest I forget the obstacle is the way forward.

Anytime we feel saddened or depressed from the setbacks in our lives, we remind ourselves that this too shall pass akin to clouds that obscure the morning sun which eventually give way to the light.

Meditating can help us recognize the transient nature of our thoughts as they come and go. It’s only then we will be able to stay detached from people and situations from our past. This helps us remain light, happy, and powerful within.

We can be mindful of things in our everyday lives. It helps us slow down and be in the moment. This way we are more appreciative of all that we get to experience.

When all is said and done, the only thing we will leave behind is our character and contribution — who we were and what we did (in that order). That will become a part of our human history.

While the nature of impermanence may be easy to understand, truly accepting it is something entirely different. When we do, we will live beyond the material world, suffer less, and ultimately lead a far richer and meaningful life.

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