Impermanence and Joy
As we get deeper into 2020 and the world seems to get stranger and stranger it is easy to feel the desire to 'turn back the clock.' I have heard many people express the sentiment that they want to go 'back to 2019' or 'back to January.'
Of course we all know this is foolish, but it is worth taking it apart a little: What is this imagined past that was so much better, so much more stable, so much more familiar?
When we think this way we quickly realize that we are becoming caught in one of the main delusions we share - that things are permanent, that things can be permanent, and that things should be permanent. It is clinging on to these delusions of permanence that causes us to suffer.
When we first learn about the truth of impermanence we learn that all things are subject to change and that clinging to their current form causes suffering. Often when we first learn this it feels negative and a bit of a downer. Who wants to know that the things they love will pass away? The taste of the vinegar seems bitter. And yet when we move on from the delusion of permanence we can experience a deep joy.
A couple of years ago I was introduced to a poem by Ellen Bass titled 'If You Knew.' The first stanza says this:
What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.
You can find the whole poem here - it is very beautiful and I highly recommend reading it and meditating on it. The sentiment of the poem echoes the words of the Buddha in the Dhamapada:
There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels.
In many ways this year has been hard because many of the things we cling to have gone away or been threatened. Our livelihoods, our health, our loved ones, even our political and social systems. But all of these things have always been impermanent - we just haven't fully acknowledged that.
So why am I saying be joyful? When we truly acknowledge impermanence it is freeing, and that liberation causes us to treat ourselves and others with more compassion. When we cease to cling to things we appreciate them as they are right now, without holding on to any belief of how they will be.
The joy that comes from understanding the nature of impermanence is a profound one, but one that we often need to work on. I have linked below a fully guided meditation on Impermanence and Joy. You can of course listen at any time, but a group of us have committed to press 'play' together at 7pm PT on Sunday June 14th - you are welcome to join us.
Whatever you do I would encourage you to meditate on impermanence at this time. We can choose to stay in the delusion of permanence or experience the joy of being freed from that delusion. And 2020 is the perfect teacher for this.
PS: If you would like to read more on Impermanence and Joy there is a beautiful book of poems called "The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness and Joy," which is where I first encountered the Ellen Bass poem I quote above.
If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.
Dhamapada quote from Access to Insight.
Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash.