Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Impermanence and Suffering

"New Once Again"
- Sunrise at the Desert Retreat House -

About five years ago, my wife and I moved from Los Angeles out here to the desert where we now live. A few days ago we went back for a meeting in L.A and so, I had a chance to visit some of my “old haunts.” I was very much looking forward to returning to a little sidewalk Coffee House not far from where we used to live. I would often sit in this little café not far from Hollywood, sip coffee and watch all the many interesting people going by;  but the other day, when I finally made my way to this very familiar place from my past, I found that I was far more disappointed than exhilarated by my visit.

It seemed to me that everything about the place had changed- the furnishings seemed  different, the place didn’t seem as clean as I had remembered it to be, none of the “regulars” who used to go there everyday were around, even the coffee tasted a bit more bitter than what I could recall. I found myself slipping into melancholy, nostalgically thinking about the “good old days” and wishing my old favorite place had stayed the same.

I was then struck with the notion that, of course the place had changed and of course I had changed.  I was not the same person who used to go there every day, my body had changed since I was last there, my mind and spirit had also been changed by my life in the desert. Everything and everyone had changed because “change” is in fact the hallmark of the very nature of our human existence.

Most of the time we fool us unto thinking that our lives are permanent, stable and controllable. People buy homes, build careers, and plan futures. As they age some people try to preserve their youth trying to look as young as possible, perhaps trying to stop the effects of the passage of time.  Many of us do our very best to freeze time or to manipulate it so that the world will operate according to our own agenda; but permanence is a myth, everything and everyone is not only changing, everything is an ongoing process of change.

The Buddha taught:

Everything is impermanent.
When one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.

I find this teaching to be so interesting because it is essentially the opposite of what many people believe. We think that we suffer because of all the changes we experience in life. We think we suffer from getting older every day or we may think we we suffer because the good old days have faded away and the present is never as good as we remember the past to have been. But, as I see it, the opposite is true. We suffer when we are unable to embrace the “impermanence” of every single moment of every single day. When we are able to do so, only then do we find that peace that surpasses all understanding.

The other day as I sat at that little sidewalk café near Hollywood, I suddenly realized that my “resistance”  to what “is”, my resistance to the reality of our impermanent and fleeting existence was the cause of my melancholy and when I realized this, it all suddenly changed for me.

Author and spiritual guide, Eckhart Tolle, once said:

Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment.
What could be more futile, more insane,
than to create inner resistance to what already is?
Say ‘yes’ to life
And see how life suddenly starts working for you
rather than against you.

As I sat at that sidewalk café, I stopped “wringing my hands” in regret over how much everything had changed and instead I embraced the newness of the moment – all the people walking by seemed so vibrant, my spirit was lifted, even the coffee tasted good.

Buddhist teacher and author, Alan Watts, once observed:

The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it,
move with it, join the dance.

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