Recognizing the law of impermanence: Come back to this present moment
What meditation does, to put it very dramatically but, I think, correctly, is allow us to experience birth and death in every moment. Ordinarily, we cling so much to the idea of solidity that we don’t notice that we’re changing right now (whether we like it or not), from day to day and from moment to moment. So when we sit down and meditate, when we start to pay attention to the quality of the present moment, to our mind and our emotions, we find that they’re always moving. We are like a river of thoughts, emotions, ideas, plans, schemes, regrets, and joys. And the river keeps on flowing; it never stops.
But you know what? When we recognize this we don’t sink, we don’t drown. We’re still alive, but now we’re alive with greater fluidity. When we think of ourselves in terms of a fixed, static self; when we try to put ourselves in a box in a certain way, we have to defend our neuroses and the rigidity of clinging to a pre-packaged idea of ourselves and our world. But impermanence teaches us that we can be fluid and flexible. It begins with the very attentiveness to this present moment that meditation allows us to have. And you know what? This present moment is followed by another present moment, and by another present moment, and by yet another present moment. Things come and go. This is the law of impermanence.
At the beginning of a meditation session, for instance, there may be one set of thoughts that keeps occurring ─ maybe thoughts of resistance, or regret, or something else. Then, after a while, if we look closely, we see that the landscape has changed and different thoughts and emotions are now arising. And again, just a few minutes later, we’ll observe other thoughts, other emotions, some stillness, some gaps between the thoughts. By the end of the session, once again, the landscape will have changed.
In other words, we’re getting used to the fact that we are living in constant change, and that it’s workable. As I said, we don’t drown, we don’t sink. We are not grasping at regaining some sort of “real stability;” our attention is not fixed on an idea of stability that we need to acquire. It’s not fixed on clinging to something that goes against reality, like some sort of changeless permanence. It’s a much wider stability that’s born of being flexible, open, and fluid. And it comes from cultivating attentiveness to this moment, which really is the core of meditation.
At times you might have some difficulties during meditation practice, a kind of restlessness or regret for something you did or think about yourself, for instance. If this happens to you, simply don’t buy into it. This is exactly the kind of the thing we usually get wrong: we take our thoughts and emotions very seriously. “Oh how dreadful ─ this is really true, this is really “me,” this is really what I am.” But five minutes later, a different thought or emotion will have surfaced.
Or maybe while we’re practicing we’re thinking about the cup of tea we’re going to have later on, or, just occasionally, we may experience an extraordinary spiritual feeling of some sort. It might be devotional, like when we’re thinking of the Buddha or other spiritual figure, or it might be a moment of clarity, of real insight, of real stillness. And that is going to change as well. Nothing is static, nothing lasts forever.
This is what we learn from our practice: nothing is fixed. Nothing is stationary. There are no things that are permanent. Thoughts and emotions are constantly coming and going (and this is where humor is so important to meditation). We experience the impermanence of the body and the mind.
Once we’ve seen this, we begin to learn not to buy in to the emotions, dramas, and comedies that are running in our minds. We can distance ourselves from them because we know that they too shall pass. However fearful that boogieman you’re seeing, he’s also impermanent. And so is that lovely divine being you’ve glimpsed; she’s impermanent too. Acknowledging change and impermanence is, in a powerful way, the great deliverer from neurosis. All of it is impermanent. Impermanence is the great leveler.