Thoughts on Impermanence

August 6, 2012

I’ve recently had reasons to reflect on one of the essential concepts of the world’s great wisdom traditions.  It’s so fundamental to our life here on earth, yet few of us ever take the time to recognize the lessons it has to teach until we’re forced to face it.  The concept I’m referring to is the impermanent nature of existence.  While impermanence is part of many belief systems, it is one of the building blocks of the Buddhist tradition in particular.  As the future Buddha meditated and reflected upon the nature of reality, he recognized the transitory nature of his thoughts, his breath, and his emotions.  He came to a realization; everything that has a beginning has an end.  In fact, everything on the physical and mental level of existence is equally impermanent.  Everything that is born will one day die.  Everything that is created will one day be destroyed.

Consider for a moment, that in 100 years, everyone you have ever known will no longer be living.  The buildings in which you live and work will one day be gone or replaced.  The institutions, organizations, businesses and governments that you belong to will likewise someday come to an end.  The largest, most enduring features of our world; great buildings, wonders of the natural world, our planet, our sun, solar system, the Milky Way Galaxy and beyond are not eternal.  We’ve come to experience these things as never-ending due to our limited and narrow view of time.  However, on a cosmic time scale we can see that even the grandest and most spectacular features of our universe are not immortal.  It’s a sobering thought, knowing that, nothing lasts forever.

As I mentioned, this idea is not something most of us embrace willingly.  It’s usually in the face of some crisis that we are forced to come to terms the impermanent nature of the world.  This resistance is completely natural though.  Despite the fact that our bodies are a living expression of impermanence as cells and atoms are constantly being replaced, DNA is replicated, and tissues and organs are renewed, we still feel uncomfortable with the notion of where this constant change is eventually leading.  Contemplating impermanence, we cannot help but to face our own mortality, a prospect that for most of us creates no small amount of fear and anxiety.   So from a psychological standpoint we run away from this undeniable truth.  But in our flight from the reality of impermanence, we create our own suffering.

According to Vedanta, one of the world’s oldest spiritual philosophies, there are 5 causes of suffering.  Known in Sanskrit as the 5 Kleshas they are as follows:

1.       Not knowing the true nature of reality

2.       Identification with a false sense of self

3.       Attachment to objects of desire

4.       Avoidance or fleeing from objects of desire

5.       The fear of death

While each of the Kleshas are a significant cause of suffering, it’s important to realize that they all tier up into the first cause – not knowing the true nature of reality.  In this first essential cause, all the other forms of suffering have their root.  Understanding the Kleshas gives us valuable insight into how the nature of impermanence can lead us to suffer.

Let’s skip the first two Kleshas for a moment and look at the more obvious relationship between impermanence and the last three.  First, in our attachment to objects of desire, be they material objects, relationships, emotional states, conditions, beliefs, or ideologies, we are only setting ourselves up for pain since the object of our desire will one day be gone.  When we become attached to something that is transient and impermanent, the loss of that object brings about suffering.  Next, in the avoidance of things we don’t want (which are also impermanent and transient) we generate suffering because in a very real sense, we can never get far enough away from something we don’t want.  The relationship of impermanence to the last Klesha is undoubtedly obvious in that the very recognition of our own impermanent nature conjures up images of our death.  Fear of death is one of the greatest of all fears and in and of itself can create enormous suffering.

Now, let’s return to the first two Kleshas.  In reverse order, identification with a false sense of self is referring to ego-based consciousness.  Our personality or our sense of “I” makes up this center of awareness.  This leads to suffering because the ego is also impermanent and ever changing.  Your sense of I is undoubtedly different than it was when you were a child or teenager.  But going one step further, according to Vedanta, this ego state isn’t who we really are, and in identification with an illusory self, we become attached to the role we’re playing rather than the role-player.  We therefore take our roles and positions awfully seriously and when something violates the boundaries we have established for these roles, we suffer.

Finally, we come to the first Klesha; not knowing the true nature of reality.  This is the key to understanding all the other forms of suffering.  According to Vedanta, the world we have come to accept as ‘real’ is an illusion, a shadowy reflection of the ultimate level of reality which is pure consciousness or awareness.  We perceive our material reality though our senses, which paint only a small fraction of the whole picture.  In believing in the absolute nature of the physical level of reality, we fall prey to suffering through what is known as the mistake of the intellect.  We end up believing in the absolute dominance of the physical domain of existence filled with pain, violence, poverty, sickness, aging and death.

However, seeing through the false image of reality holds the key to our liberation from suffering.  Remember, impermanence is the arising and falling away of all forms and phenomenon.  But it is possible to go beyond impermanence altogether, to the level of pure consciousness or pure awareness.  This is the changeless state, the field or backdrop upon which all change takes place.  When we identify with this level of our being, we become established in who we really are, the field of non-change.  Once the illusion of not knowing the true nature of reality falls away the remaining Kleshas lose their hold over us and we can be free of suffering.

Thus, the impermanence of our existence can be a great teacher.  Rather than being something to be feared or dreaded, insight into the impermanent nature of our world can liberate us from needless suffering.   When we are firmly grounded in the infinite, unbounded and changeless field of pure potential, we can witness the impermanence of our lives with calm detachment.   When we can accept that everything on the material world is transient and ever changing, we are freed from our attachment and can be more aware and present in each moment.  Knowing that this experience, this relationship, this house, this job, this body, this life will someday end, we can more deeply appreciate life in all it’s amazing, subtle and complex beauty.