Monday, November 20, 2023

Reflections on Impermanence

by Elizabeth Venart

The only constant in life is change. It is a well-known saying — and undeniably true.

As the last of the crimson and yellow leaves cling to their branches, awaiting descent and decay, I find myself reflecting on the universal experience of impermanence. It seems we are always in the midst of one season or cycle transitioning into the next. 

We know the yearly rhythm, how we move in a predictable path through the seasons of heat and cold, light and darkness. At the same time, on a given day or week, the change may surprise us. It may feel sudden or abrupt to us, no matter the date on the calendar. While every year has the same number of days, sometimes we experience time — and the shifting of the seasons — as if it is racing by. Summer flew by so fast! How is it already September? Or . . .  Didn’t the school year start yesterday? December came so fast! We may lament the end of a season, wishing it could last. Personally, I feel this way every autumn. I adore the fall foliage, the brilliant yellow, red, bronze, and orange, the tapestry of color in forests and hillsides. While I know the season itself will come again, I never know exactly how it will be — or how I will be or life will be— when it does. 

Known as the first principle in Buddhist philosophy, the Law of Impermanence teaches that all of life is perpetually in flux. Our sensory experiences (all we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell) convince us that everything is solid, steady, and reliable. As a result, our minds create a worldview that assumes permanence. However, the fundamental truth about nature is that everything is undergoing constant change. Our attachment to the illusion of permanence is seen as a primary cause of distress and suffering.

Can we accept and make peace with the inevitability of change and impermanence? The average person in our country will have three to seven careers in their lifetime — and twelve different jobs. Our work often evolves over time, sometimes surprising us with what pulls our attention and where we lose interest. Relationships change, with people growing closer or drawing further apart. Children grow older, leave the nest, embark on adventures, create their own meaning for their lives. As older generations pass, the next generation steps forward into the role of elder. Even our bodies are in a constant state of flux, beyond the obvious ways like injury, pregnancy, illness, and aging — but in all the tiniest ways; our bodies contain over 30 trillion cells, and about 330 billion cells replace themselves every day. In 80-100 days, 30 trillion cells are replenished.

Amidst all this change, we may long for the constant, the stable, the predictable, and the known. However, our attachment to things remaining the same is often the source of our discomfort, distress, and heartbreak. If, instead, we can accept impermanence — deeply understanding the transient nature of thoughts, feelings, experiences, and life itself — then we can fully appreciate the beauty of the present moment.

Knowing that nothing lasts can help us appreciate our time with those we love, moments of laughter and joy, awe, authenticity, connection. It can wake us from the dream of “always and forever” that may drive a mindless preoccupation with thoughts and things, achievement and reward. It can awaken us to the mystery, the ever-unfolding dance of being alive. When we don’t need things to be a certain way, we can open to things as they are. The beauty of a sunset, surrendering daylight into darkness. Sunrise in the morning, welcoming light’s return. The radiant smiles of couple exchanging vows. The tenderness of steadfast love at the bedside of the dying. Life is unpredictable. Open and present, here and now, unattached to how things should be, we may begin to experience a greater sense of calm with the unknown that awaits. 

As we enter the season of winter, perhaps we can welcome this time of darkness and quiet to contemplate the teachings on impermanence. Rather than racing to the finish line of another calendar year completed, we can be present. We can slow down, build a fire or light a candle, prioritize connection and coziness, savor the sweetness of a starlit night, and appreciate the gift of being alive.

Elizabeth Venart, LPC, is the Founder and Director of The Resiliency Center of Greater Philadelphia. She specializes in supporting Highly Sensitive People (including other therapists and healers) to embrace their gifts and develop deeper self-trust. A Certified EMDR Therapist, Certified IFS Therapist, and EMDRIA-Approved Consultant, she leads trainings through the Syzygy Institute on the powerful integration of IFS and EMDR therapies for trauma resolution. She loves spiritual and nature-based poetry (Rumi, Hafiz, Mary Oliver, Joy Harjo, John O’Donohue) and leads a free monthly poetry evening. She also leads a weekly laughter yoga class, to encourage more joy and connection. To learn more, visit her website.

Poetry on Impermanence

Thank you to Michael Bridges and Stan Kozakowski for sharing the following poems from their guided hike in November 2023. The theme of their program was impermanence.

Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Gratitude by David Whyte in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words

Gratitude is not a passive response to something we have been given, gratitude arises from paying attention, from being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us. Gratitude is not necessarily something that is shown after the event, it is the deep, a priori state of attention that shows we understand and are equal to the gifted nature of life.

Gratitude is the understanding that many millions of things come together and live together and mesh together and breathe together in order for us to take even one more breath of air, that the underlying gift of life and incarnation as a living, participating human being is a privilege; that we are miraculously part of something, rather than nothing. Even if that something is temporarily pain or despair, we inhabit a living world, with real faces, real voices, laughter, the color blue, the green of the fields, the freshness of a cold wind, or the tawny hue of a winter landscape.

To see the full miraculous essentiality of the color blue is to be grateful with no necessity for a word of thanks. To see fully, the beauty of a daughter’s face is to be fully grateful without having to seek a God to thank him. To sit among friends and strangers, hearing many voices, strange opinions; to intuit inner lives beneath surface lives, to inhabit many worlds at once in this world, to be a someone amongst all other someones, and therefore to make a conversation without saying a word, is to deepen our sense of presence and therefore our natural sense of thankfulness that everything happens both with us and without us, that we are participants and witnesses all at once.

Thankfulness finds its full measure in generosity of presence, both through participation and witness. We sit at the table as part of every other person’s world while making our own world without will or effort, this is what is extraordinary and gifted, this is the essence of gratefulness, seeing to the heart of privilege. Thanksgiving happens when our sense of presence meets all other presences. Being unappreciative might mean we are simply not paying attention.

The Life of a Day by Tom Hennen

Like people or dogs, each day is unique and has its own personality quirks which can easily be seen if you look closely. But there are so few days as compared to people, not to mention dogs, that it would be surprising if a day were not a hundred times more interesting than most people. But usually they just pass, mostly unnoticed, unless they are wildly nice, like autumn ones full of red maple trees and hazy sunlight, or if they are grimly awful ones in a winter blizzard that kills the lost traveler and bunches of cattle. For some reason we like to see days pass, even though most of us claim we don’t want to reach our one for a long time. We examine each day before us with barely a glance and say, no, this isn’t one I’ve been looking for, and wait in a bored sort of way for the next, when, we are convinced, our lives will start for real. Meanwhile, this day is going by perfectly well-adjusted, as some days are, with the right amounts of sunlight and shade, and a light breeze scented with a perfume made from the mixture of fallen apples, corn stubble, dry oak leaves, and the faint odor of last night’s meandering skunk.

The Guest House by Rumi Translated by Coleman Banks

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Lost by David Wagoner

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

Found by Michael Bridges

Here we are, standing still,

Having finally arrived

At this place called here.

With every step we’ve taken

The trees & bushes around us

Have been welcoming us here.

Here that started as a powerful stranger

Now here as a powerful friend.

Asking us with each breath

To feel our hand on our heart

As our heart cries out to our busy mind

For permission to be known.

For as we breathe the forest breathes

Know that for a fact.

This place where we stand

This heart we hold

These hearts we are surrounded by

Are no longer lost.

Even as we stand, the forest, Wren & Raven

Bear witness

That in this eternal moment

Impermanent as it is,

We are no longer lost,

We are truly found

The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Wanderer’s Nightsong II by Goethe (translated by Robert Bly)

There is a stillness

On the tops of the hills

In the tree tops

You fell

Hardly a breath of air

The small birds fall silent in the trees.
Simply wait: soon 

you too will be silent.