I’ll pick that thought back up shortly. First, I want to mention an article that a friend of a friend posted during these past months. The topic of the article was impermanence and the emphasis was on the nothing lasts, everything ends aspect. I found it to be painfully unhelpful. The author’s fundamental point was that we should understand and embrace this, and a result we should embrace life more fully and get the most out of it because we don’t know how long we are going to be around to experience it. The sense I got was that the author was speaking more out of theory rather than as someone who had directly and deeply been confronted with the reality of impermanence; perhaps he had felt inklings of it as it approached then came up with a strategy to keep it at bay, as such things can be unsettling. It wasn’t that he hadn’t experienced loss and hardship and any of the various other difficulties that come with living, but rather that he used his understanding of impermanence as a buffer between himself and life; he may indeed have been experiencing life more fully, yet it seemed he wasn’t allowing himself to be affected by it as deeply and directly. It had a subtle flavor of me-versus-the-world with a tinge of manipulation and how to manage life’s experiences in order to better serve oneself. A truly disastrous approach, in my opinion and experience.
The core meaning of impermanence is that things are always changing, and everything is in a continual state of transformation. Yes, loss is one aspect of and within this wider, longer arc of endless transformation, but it’s not the only aspect. That arc also includes gain: at one moment not having something, in the next moment having it. Impermanence speaks to the fact that in life, in existence itself, there is birth and there is death; there is arrival and there is departure; there is arising, there is abiding, there is falling away. We can switch up the order these and still speak to the truth of matters: because there is death, something new can be born; because something departs, the way is cleared for something else to arrive; though something has been abiding steadily for a long time and become quite familiar, it eventually falls away, and within the very space it inhabited something fresh arises and abides for its particular duration. What this clarifies and illuminates is impermanence means nothing lasts and everything comes to an end is redundant statement (nothing lasts = everything ends) and an expression of partial understanding – to complete it, to make it more whole, we must add and nothing ever ends.
As we venture into the territory of nothing ends, it’s important to note and consider this: everything is relationship, relationship is everything. In other words, we are constantly in relationship with the world around us and the world within us, and each of those worlds (which are essentially two aspects of one larger world, i.e. existence) themselves are comprised of relationships, those relationships making the world and each of the things in it what they are. Rather than me going on about this more (perhaps I’ll do so some other time), simply connect with how you already understand this through your own experience, or just stop for a moment, reflect upon it now and see what you find. Instead, I’d like to explore how everything is relationship and nothing ends connect to impermanence, specifically through the example of a loved one passing away.
There’s no denying that the loss happened and something has ended, yet the relationship continues on, via memories and emotions connected to that person, and via what we go through in connection to their passing away. And even though the person is no longer actively contributing new memories and emotions to the field of the relationship, the relationship remains lively and dynamic. For instance, an old memory of a loved one brings up new joys, present and palpable. Or new sorrows and pains come forth, aching within our hearts and our being here and now. In the course of the day, an encounter with a complete stranger can bring up a memory of the person we loved so dearly, and we suddenly find they are right by our side, intimately with us. There’s also the experience of seeing our loved one – someone we were certain we knew very well, inside and out – in a completely different light as time goes by and we learn about and even from them, our view no longer limited to or constricted by the particular dynamic that arose time and time again whenever we were together. So though the loss happened, the relationship never ends, and we get know the other person and ourselves more and more over time; the relationship with our departed loved one never ends, it simply keeps changing. And since everything is relationship, essentially nothing ever ends. Ever. It all simply keeps transforming.
Since this is so, impermanence and its ever-changing never-ending nature certainly doesn’t apply only to the loss of a loved one – it applies to everything all the time. To illustrate this, I’ll make a big leap to something else: The Civil War. This event is in the past, has finite dates indicating its beginning and its end, so it is clearly over and no longer happening. Yet, because I mention “The Civil War” you think of it and what it means to you, and voila! – it’s right here. And though it isn’t actively happening, we can read about its history and accounts of the battles that comprise it – and some people even re-enact it – all of which brings its happening back to life in some way. Even if we’re not looking into it directly or even thinking about it, the reverberations of what happened and the reasons it happened continue to flow through our lives today. And at risk of belaboring the point – and in light of a recent happening – someone can inaccurately remember and proclaim something about The Civil War, and that current happening in some way gets woven into the history that we thought was set and finite, people now finding it’s important to emphasize something that didn’t need much emphasizing previously: Andrew Jackson died 15 years before The Civil War even began.
To return to the essential and overall point, impermanence is not only about the fact that things come to an end. Impermanence is a long arc of continual and unavoidable transformation, within which there are endings and beginnings, and these beginnings and endings and everything between and beyond them are constantly changing. Witnessing and understanding impermanence in this way isn’t so we can uphold a certain view or manage our expectations. It’s quite the opposite, actually. Instead of spending time and energy manipulating things and managing perceptions and expectations, our time and energy are freed from such projects. As a result, we can better accept ourselves and the world as we are in this particular moment, and can more easily invest our time and energy here. This makes it possible for us to more fully meet and be with life and the things that comprise it as they arise and as they fall away, and to abide more deeply and intimately with what is at any given moment. This also allows us to more effectively fulfill our obligation to life and to collaborate with it, doing our part in contributing to and co-creating what is to come, finding our place amongst the endless transformations of existence.
Another way of stating what is expressed toward the end of the previous paragraph is “Not asking things (including myself) to be other than what they are at the moment, then responding more fully and effectively from that place to contribute to what they will become.” To illustrate this, and to end things on more of an ordinary, everyday, feet-upon-the-ground note:
A few years back, there was a series of nights during which our son woke up because of having bad dreams. He would call out “Papa!” and I’d respond, going to him and checking in, encouraging him totry going back to sleep…and he’d end up in our bed. On the third night…
“Papa! I had a bad dream.”
Me, doing the just-woken-up stagger/stumble and speaking grumpily from the still-partially-asleep mind, “Dangit! This is the third night in a row and I’m not getting good sleep and why don’t you just stay in bed and try to go back to sleep instead of calling me? What’s going on?”
Him, matter-of-factly and calmly, cutting right through it all, “It’s just the way things are these days.”
“Yeah. Hmm. C’mon to bed.”