Everything changes all the time: our bodies, other people and the world around us. In fact, change and impermanence are the fundamental realities of our lives. Change is often painful, so typically we resist it, and that can cause all sorts of problems.
Mindfulness practice helps each of us to see how we respond to life’s uncertainty. We are more able to explore how our reactions can lead us into difficult states on mind such as stress, anxiety and depression. Mindfulness also helps us to accept impermanence and even embrace it.
Here are some exercises that explore change and how it affects us. These are quite potent and you if you think you will find them distressing then just think them over rather than meditating deeply on them. The basis for all reflections like this is self-acceptance or what the Buddhist tradition calls metta
1. Noticing Resistance
A list of all the ways we find to resist change (denial, distraction, blame, resentment etc. etc.) would be a catalogue of our frailty as human beings. These all come from an underlying sense or distress at losing things we love or bring us a sense of security. Mindfulness can allow us to feel that distress directly, and explore how we might let go a little.
It’s important to remember that impermanence isn’t just a negative force. The fact that things are always changing means that we can change in our turn; and that difficulties will pass.
Sit quietly, settle down and pay attention to your breathing. Bring to mind something that is going badly for you at the moment. Now reflect that this came about for particular reasons and it won’t stay the same forever. Notice the reactions in your body, feelings and thoughts, staying with those feelings and breathing …
Now bring to mind something that is going well in your life. Reflect that this came about for particular reasons and that it can change as well. Notice the reactions in your body, feelings and thoughts, staying with those feelings and breathing …
2. Letting go of Identities
Perhaps the fundamental way in which we manage life in a changing universe is by having a sense of who we are. We have roles (wife, father, doctor, carpenter etc); and we have identities (e.g. “I’m a winner/loser”; “I’m popular”, I’m an idealist”, “I’m different from other people”). These identities make up the story we tell ourselves and others about our lives
We need a healthy sense of self in order to be happy and healthy, but if we hold that too tightly we will be thrown when the world challenges this idea of who we are. What might it be like to let go of those identities, even just a little?
Take eight pieces of paper and on each one write a role or identity that’s important in how you think about your life. These may be positive or negative. Put them in a pile with the most important at the top and the least important at the bottom and turn the pile over. Take the top piece, turn it over and reflect on the role or identity that’s described there, feeling how it is to be that person. Now imagine that this role has vanished from your life and ask yourself the question, “Without that, who am I?”
Go through all the cards in the same way, taking a few minutes to connect with each, imagining it has gone and asking yourself “Without that, who am I?” until you come to the role or identity that is most important to your sense of who you are. Let that go as well and rest in the open space that is left asking, “Who am I, if I let go of all the ways I define myself? What is it like just to be me, without any labels?”
3. Facing Mortality
Our lives, themselves, are impermanent. We all know that we will die, but somehow we manage to keep this knowledge at the back of our minds. People in many cultures have found ways to remind themselves that they are mortal and our time is limited. What would help you do that and make the most of your precious and unique life?
Imagine you are on your deathbed and looking back on your life. What is the one thing you wish you had done differently? Now ask what could you start doing that right now to make that possible?
Quotes on change and impermanence
“He who bends to himself a Joy,
Doth the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the Joy as it flies,
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.”
“Many people do not realize that we are all heading for death. Those who do realise it will compose their quarrels.” The Buddha (Dhammapada)
“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a
king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.” Hamlet