We spend much of our time and energy trying to pretend impermanence isn’t real, but the strange thing is that when we embrace impermanence we become happier.
Here’s a very “queer thing” about life: sometimes the things that we think will make us miserable actually make us happier. When Professor Eric D. Miller of Kent State University’s Department of Psychology asked people to imagine the death of their partner they reported that they felt more positive about their relationships and less troubled by their significant others’ annoying quirks.
I spent the afternoon musing on Life. If you come to think of it, what a queer thing Life is! So unlike anything else, don’t you know, if you see what I mean.
We live in a world marked by constant change and impermanence. The things we love decay and perish. The people we love will pass away, or we ourselves will pass away, leaving them behind. Wary that thinking about impermanence will be too much of a “downer” we try not to think about these things too much. And yet, ironically, when we do happen to experience the fragility of existence we often find our appreciation of life is enhanced.
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Often the things we think will make us happier—like impressing the boss or getting that raise—ultimately deprive us of happiness. As a well-known saying goes, “Few people on their deathbed think, ‘I wish I’d spent more time in the office.’” And yet that’s so often how we live our lives. Life has the potential to be glorious. There’s the joy of witnessing birth and growth. The joy of loving. The joy of learning. The joy of deepening relationships. Sometimes there’s just the sheer joy of being alive. But those moments can be rare and, again rather ironically, we’re often too focused on things that don’t give us lasting pleasure to pay attention to those that do.
Our existential situation is such that it’s hard to have anything but a sporadic experience of security and wellbeing. After all, the world is inherently insecure. There’s nothing in the world that we can absolutely rely upon. True, it’s pretty certain that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, but then again there’s no guarantee we’ll be around to enjoy it. Sometimes we forget this, and it’s been argued that in fact we try very hard to forget it.
The self is like an eddy in a stream. It has the appearance of being a separate thing, and of having permanence, but in what sense can an eddy be separate?
An entire movement in psychology is predicated on the hypothesis that we have strategies for dealing with the painful reality of uncertainty and loss. In studies it has been found that we frequently try to find something unchanging and reliable with which to identify, something that acts like a secure island in the midst of a river of change. Often what we cling to is an ideology, or a religious identity, or a sense of belonging to a group or nation. This response is one of fear and clinging. We see change around us and we’re afraid. And so we try to find something to cling to—something more permanent and stable than ourselves.
Another common strategy is that we imagine that we ourselves are small islands of stability in the river of life. We cling to the idea that we have this “thing” called a self. And we imagine this self to be separate and permanent. We become the thing that we cling to. But as Sylvia Plath once wrote, although with a rather different intent, “I am myself. That is not enough.” Our selves are not enough. We find ourselves incomplete, lacking happiness and—despite all our clinging—security. And so we engage in grasping for those things we think will bring us happiness and security, while trying to keep at bay those things we think threaten our happiness and security.
We think that focusing on our own needs will maximize our happiness and wellbeing, but it often turns out that this merely impoverishes us.
Fundamentally, we all just want to be happy, secure, and at peace. The problem is that as strategies for finding happiness, clinging and aversion just don’t work very well. They don’t deliver the goods. It turns out that thoughts of impermanence often enrich our lives and make us happier. We cling to status, material possessions, approval, and pleasure, and yet the pursuit of these things often turns out to have been a misuse of our time. We think that focusing on our own needs will maximize our happiness and wellbeing, but it often turns out that this merely impoverishes us, and that including others in our sphere of concern brings us greater satisfaction.
We can swap our ineffective strategies for others that work better, but this requires that we change the way we see ourselves. The self that we imagine to be separate and unchanging is not that way at all. The self is like an eddy in a stream. It has the appearance of being a separate thing, and of having permanence, but in what sense can an eddy be separate? There’s no borderline that we can say for sure marks where the eddy stops and the river starts. The eddy cannot exist without the stream, and the stream itself is nothing more than a mass of eddies and other currents. I suggest that the self is like that too. We are not separate from the world around us; we instead exist as the sum total of our relationships with a vast web of interconnected processes. We are not physically separate, and we are not mentally separate, and realizing these facts is infinitely enriching.
The Buddha pointed to an alternative way of living, which is that we radically embrace impermanence. In his path of training, we systematically notice all acts of holding on, all acts of trying to resist impermanence, and learn to let go. In doing so repeatedly, we start to see the disadvantages of clinging, and the advantages of non-clinging. Training the mind in this way, we cling less, we experience more freedom and expansiveness, and we find we can face impermanence with less fear.
This post is an edited extract from Bodhipaksa’s forthcoming book, “Living as a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change,” to be published by Sounds True in October, 2010.