Impermanence & Suffering
Some five hundred years before Christ, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus noticed a strange paradox:
‘The world appears to be filled with things. Yet all these things change in time, even if we don’t perceive the change directly. Winds blow, rivers flow, and children grow.’
But how, Heraclitus wondered, can a thing change yet remain the same thing?
This problem of change led Heraclitus to propose that, in truth, there are no things but, rather, only a single continuous process.
‘The world is on fire,’ he claimed. ‘Those who look but do not think believe only the fuel burns, while the bowl in which it burns remains unchanged. Yet the bowl burns. It is eaten up by the fire that holds it. Fire is all that is.’
A thing, then, is like a flame — though it may appear to have a shape, it’s actually just a part of the Everlasting Fire.
“No one steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same person…. Nothing endures but change…. All that is, ever was, and ever will be is the everlasting fire.”
It’s no secret that everything changes. We all know this, at least conceptually. In our regular walks of life, we watch the sun rise and set. We feel the seasons turn. Friends come and go. Our experience this morning isn’t the one here now. We understand that species, civilizations, stars and even galaxies form and fade. And that not even the very fabric of space and time is stable.
But how many of us really understand the implications of this obvious truth? I meditate on this every morning and somehow still forget it repeatedly throughout the day: even though I know that everything is always in flux, that nothing lasts, that nothing’s permanent, I still catch my ‘self’ suffering, becoming discontent, when I get lost in stories of ‘me’ relating to things; either desiring or resisting ideas, feelings, relationships, pains, etc.
The Buddha, who lived around the same time as Heraclitus and who had the same realization about the illusory nature of things, argued that suffering can arise only when our awareness gets lost in the conceptual world, in the world of the appearance of things; when we lose sight of the truth of impermanence and cling to or push away from concepts which we mistake as our own, as “I” or “mine”.
His solution to suffering, then, is simply to let go and float seamlessly through the stream of nibbana (Sanskrit: nirvana); to recognize that no thing can be reliably identified as ‘self’ or ‘I’ in a world of constant change; to know directly the open, selfless, center-less, groundless, ever-changing space of awareness.
“One abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world…. When in the seen, only what is seen; when in the heard, only what is heard; when in the sensed, only what is sensed; when in the known, only what is known. When it is understood that there is not both a knower and what is known, but only knowing, then it is impossible for ‘you’ to be bound to or even influenced by that which is arising, since ‘you’ will be neither here in the sense bases nor there in the sense object nor anywhere between. This is the end of suffering.”
You don’t have to take the Buddha at his word here. In fact, he encourages you not to take any of his teachings on faith but, instead, invites you to investigate them for yourself.
Go ahead, then, take a look. What do you see? Anything stable? Any unchanging, permanent thing? Anything you can reliably call ‘I’?
Your understanding of reality propels and shapes your entire experience.
The Buddha argued that the wrong view or understanding of self is the single greatest factor responsible for the suffering of beings. The wrong view he’s referring to is the understanding that there’s a self at the center of experience, that there’s a subject who relates to, who identifies with, the contents of consciousness — I’m angry, I’m hurt, my body, my lover, I’m stupid, I’m ugly…me, me, me…I…I…I.
The Buddha realized that as long as you identify with these things, you will suffer. That’s because no thing, in a world of change, can provide a place of security, a place of peace, of refuge.
Everything changes. Let go, then, or be dragged.
And plus, all this stress and energy for what? To gratify, to hold onto, to protect, to defend some thing that isn’t really there when you actually look for it? John Burdett described this delusion with color in his detective novel Bangkok Tattoo:
“You see, dear reader (speaking frankly, without any intention to offend), you are a ramshackle collection of coincidences held together by a desperate and irrational clinging, there is no center at all, everything depends on everything else, your body depends on the environment, your thoughts depend on whatever junk floats in from the media, your emotions are largely from the reptilian end of your DNA, your intellect is a chemical computer that can’t add up a zillionth as fast as a pocket calculator, and even your best side is a superficial piece of social programming that will fall apart just as soon as your spouse leaves with the kids and the money in the joint account, or the economy starts to fail and you get the sack, or you get conscripted into some idiot’s war, or they give you the news about your brain tumor.
To name this amorphous morass of self-pity, vanity, and despair self is not only the height of hubris, it is also proof (if any were needed) that we are above all a delusional species. (We are in a trance from birth to death.) Prick the balloon, and what do you get? Emptiness.
…take two steps in the divine art of Buddhist meditation, and you will find yourself on a planet you no longer recognize. Those needs and fears you thought where the very bones of your being turn out to be no more than bugs in your software.“
Or in the Buddha’s words:
“Suppose a dog tied on a leash was bound to a strong post or pillar; it would just keep on running and revolving around that same post or pillar. So too the uninstructed worldling regards form as self…feeling as self…perception as self…volitional formations as self…consciousness as self…. He just keeps running and revolving around form, around feeling, around perception, around volitional formations, around consciousness. As he keeps running and revolving around them, he is not freed from form, not freed from feeling, not freed from perception, not freed from volitional formations, not freed from consciousness. He is not freed from birth, aging, and death; not freed from sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair; not freed from suffering.”
I’m not saying you need to go join a monastery and renunciate all desires in life, not entertain a single thought again if you wanna be happy. I’m saying you have a choice to identify with the next thing to arise in awareness or not. You can experience directly the fleeting character of experience and be released from its enchantment.
But if you love and must have desires, then as Kahlil Gibran suggests, let these be your desires:
“To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully…”
When you experience the impermanence of the contents of consciousness directly, when you see that there’s nothing there for you to grasp onto or push away from, notice what happens to your mind. Does it soften, relax, open? In this state of mind, are you better situated to engage more wisely with experience?
Make it a practice to contemplate impermanence — not only of every year, of every month, of every day, but of every moment — and see what happens. I bet you’ll discover a profound shift in the way you experience the world.
“Let go or be dragged.”
“All things are impermanent. When one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.”