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.

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely reminder for all of us to reflect on. Thank you, Elizabeth, for this well-written essay.