In Buddhism we often talk about impermanence; ‘anicca’ in Pali. We sometimes joke that it’s both the good news and the bad news.
There’s a story that really encapsulates this sentiment for me. It’s an old Zen story, I believe, and it goes a little something like this:
A student went to his meditation teacher and said, “My meditation is horrible! I feel so distracted, or my legs ache, or I’m constantly falling asleep. It’s just horrible!”
“It will pass,” the teacher said matter-of-factly.
A week later, the student came back to his teacher, and said, “My meditation is wonderful! I feel so aware, so peaceful, so alive! It’s just wonderful!”
“It will pass,” the teacher replied matter-of-factly.
It’s a funny little story, but the Teacher is absolutely correct, and not just about meditation.
Impermanence – the bad news:
Everything you love and hold dear will be gone eventually, and the only things we truly own are our deeds (kamma).
We don’t like to think about losing the people and objects we love, but to think we will have them forever is folly and will lead to greater shock and suffering when the loss comes.
In my experience, remembering impermanence helps loosen our grip on our attachments. This is the silver lining around the bad news – we can learn ways to accept this truth, and this can be a step towards happiness. It can also lead us to avoid taking the people and things we love for granted, and love them for them not for us – to nurture them and not stifle them.
Impermanence – the good news:
The good news is that the same applies to the things you dislike. A lot of stress comes from aversion to things we do not like – feeling ill, going for a job interview. But those things pass.
Equally, states of mind that come from craving are just temporary, but subtly the mind can think these things are permanent. It sounds silly, but if you watch the mind you can see it works this way sometimes – like an infant.
For example you want a second slice of cake, but you know you shouldn’t have more cake. The craving for the cake is subtle suffering but it will pass. So if it will pass what’s the big deal? Wait it out. But the mind doesn’t operate this way without mindful intervention. It’s in turmoil about the cake and as far as it is concerned the turmoil will never end unless it gets the cake!
Remembering impermanence helps us to accept that the negative states of mind will pass, and we don’t have to act unskilfully in order feel at ease again. Do it enough times and the mind realises this too. That, in turn, helps to keep the mind from the habit of holding onto aversion and turning it into attachment. At least, that’s what I’ve found over the years!
So it’s a quaint little story at first glance, but it’s pointing out a deep truth. Accepting that things change, sometimes not in the way we want, is an important part of operating a mature state of mind and helping the ‘infant’ grow up.
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