Six ways of reflecting on impermanence


hand holding an hourglass

In the Google Plus Community that I’ve set up for people who have a connection with my work (my classes, my CDs, MP3s, books, Wildmind, etc.) we discuss our practice. [Update: That community has now been replaced by a private version for supporters of Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative.] It’s turned out to be a very supportive and inspiring community. My own practice has benefited a lot, and as I put it this morning in a post there, “We’re all each other’s teachers.”

Someone in the community said they’d been reflecting on impermanence, and that led me to write a few words about the various ways that I reflect about impermanence in meditation. Here’s what I wrote:

I reflect on impermanence at different degrees of resolution. Here they are, roughly in order:

  1. On the macro level we’re all going to die. I think about that sometimes, in order that I’ll live my life meaningfully.
  2. We’re all changing and growing. When I reflect on this it’s easier to forgive others, and to feel compassion for them. This was one of the themes of my TEDx talk.
  3. My body is constantly changing. In the Six Element practice I realize that what I take to be a separate and permanent object is in fact a constant flow of matter and energy.
  4. Experiences come and go. I reflect on this both when life is pleasant and when it’s unpleasant, so that I cling less to the pleasant and don’t fret about the unpleasant. This too shall pass.
  5. I notice that every breath has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Each in-breath has a beginning, an middle, and an end. And so does each out-breath. Observing this helps me to more fully appreciate each breath, and to stay focused on the present moment.
  6. At the most refined level of resolution, the micro level, each moment is different. Each moment of every in-breath and every out-breath is a new moment. Our experience is a sequence of moments, each one tantalizingly brief and ungraspable. And this applies not only to the breathing, but to every experience that is arising in the body or mind. My entire sense of self can dissolve away into something like mist. The body becomes transparent, light. Even the mind that notices this change is itself changing in every moment. It expands and contracts, it flows, it dims and brightens, it coheres and disintegrates.

All of these levels of resolution are valuable experiences of impermanence for us to cultivate. And they’re all interrelated. I’ve found, though, that even a lot of experienced practitioners tend to focus more on the macro level and not to pay so much attention (or even don’t pay attention at all) to the micro level. And yet it’s at that level that, for me, at least, insight arose. I suspect that’s the case for many people — perhaps for everyone. And this micro level is not that hard to appreciate. It’s not as if impermanence is a secret — it’s there all the time, and we just need to train ourselves to stop ignoring it.


3 Comments. Leave new

  • This is an excellent micro/macro article on the actual things one can contemplate. With specific examples – this will surely help meditation students. I usually use much more general examples and students have some trouble with this. Thank you very much for this.

  • Frank Bridgland
    January 1, 2013 1:01 pm

    “We’re all going to die. I think about that sometimes, in order that I’ll live my life meaningfully.” – that seems on the face of it to get quite close to blackmailing yourself to practice better or else!!

    “Changing, growing ideas” – would that more would intertwine changes in sentient beings and metta..

    Constant flows between matter and energy work best for me when seen as a cycle, which avoids the snare of getting annoyed when you can’t find the mid-point!

    “This too shall pass. ” Once upon a time someone must have said this for the first time – we should be grateful to them.

    “Every breath I take” ….. breaking this down into sections can lead to the fate of the caterpillar trying to count their won steps and tripping over (Old folk tale on dangers of over analysis..) I can tell when I start but the bit where I pause and start breathing in again – which bit is the end? When did I really stop? And just where is that darned mid-point? Should I have counted slower or faster, did I change my speed of counting? Is wisdom the art of knowing when not to get bogged down in detail?

    Micro levels ….hmm, I go back to the days when the electron was the smallest known particle, a time when the electron was the ultimate in ‘micro’-ness. Perhaps the way is to define what micro is for any given set of practice notes

    This isn’t criticism, certainly NOT ‘fierce friendships’ More a set of musings with hopefully a background feel of metta.

    And it has been many years since I handed back my mitra-hood. But it is good to keep in touch.

    • Wouldn’t blackmail be where I threatened to do something nasty to myself if I didn’t practice? :) What I describe is just the traditional practice of reflecting on impermanence, as in the Buddha’s five reflections — no threats required.

      Yes, one shouldn’t take the idea of there being an in breath, out breath, and pauses too seriously. The sensations of the breathing are continuous. But when we approach the breathing those components form the basic “shape” of the breathing, so we start there. The point is not to identify a definite start to, say, the in breath, but just to have a heightened appreciation of change. This “thing” I call the in breath emerges, “exists,” and then ceases to be. None of these has a clear boundary, and if we look closer we see that even the “exists” part is just a stream of ever-changing sensations.

      It sounds as if I should know you! Many apologies, but memories, too, are impermanent! Can you give me a reminder of where I know you from?


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