The Great Message of Impermanence
Change and the law of impermanence — Life’s great wake-up call
One of the most powerful things about being alive is that we’re directly confronted with change. We’re confronted with the fact that we stand on a ground that is constantly shifting; we’re breathing air that is constantly changing. There’s nothing really solid that we can point to and say, “This is my home; I’ll always be here. This is where things are fixed and stable forever.”
We’d like to be able to think and say that because we like to feel secure; we like to feel that the world is working for us. And what would happen if that were the case? Well, we’d go to sleep. And the problem, actually, is that because we’re not alert to the changes that we’re part of and that we’re living in, there’s a tendency to go to sleep and waste our life. We fritter it away. And what, at the end, will we have to show for a life spent sleeping?
What do we need to do instead? We need to pay attention to the fact of change and the law of impermanence. And it requires so little effort to do that—we simply need to open our eyes just a little bit to what the world is and what we are. To live in denial of that, to pretend it’s not so, is a tragedy. Denial robs us of the great significance of being human in this magical, beautiful world.
One way to start is by thinking, “Let me begin by looking at the physical world around me. Where are the things that are permanent and fixed?” Even the great planets, the stars, the solar system, and the galaxies are constantly changing. The light we see from certain stars comes to us from stars that are already dead. So clearly the world itself—our world—is not stable.
When I try to look at things in a more subtle way, I also see change. I see it in the seasons—one season follows another; no season remains forever. I might look at the years—the years go past, the months go past, the days go past, the hours go past, the minutes go past. Where is the stability in that? I must have imagined it. The consequence of imagining that there’s some true stability in my life is the sense that I’ve got all the time in the world. It doesn’t really matter what I do because there’s always going to be time to catch up, there’s always going to be time to live fully—later.
But there isn’t. I’ve just got this moment.
How can I bring this home to myself? How can I awaken to the beauty and the power of life? I’ll need to contemplate the fact that life is short. It may seem scary, but in fact it’s not, because it’s a precious point, a precious teaching: this life is valuable right now and that’s all I can count on. Otherwise I might think, “Yes, things change. Inevitably I’ll die. The people around me will die. But let me just forget about that right now.” But how can I? No one is certain when death will come. There are no guarantees; nobody has a predetermined lifespan.
Besides, my hold on life is incredibly tenuous. Life is so fragile! There are so many things that could simply blow it away right this minute! Actually, my life is like a bubble on a stream—there’s nothing solid to it. I’ve got to acknowledge that this present moment is all I have.
That’s truly all we need to become fully alive. People talk about mindfulness and how important it is. And why is mindfulness so important? Because it’s about being alive right this minute instead of sleeping. Recognizing change, facing impermanence—this impermanence that stretches from the stars right down to every cell, every fiber of my being—and opening our hearts fully to it is recognizing the reality of life.
So don’t be frightened of impermanence, of change—embrace it so that life can course through your veins, through your thoughts, through your emotions, and you’ll naturally treat life with tenderness. You’ll treat every being you meet with tenderness because, after all, we meet and exchange friendship, confidence, love, and then we part. So let’s make this moment really count by acknowledging, accepting, and living within this appreciation of change. That’s the great message of impermanence: instead of robbing my life of significance, it teaches me to be open to this very moment—the only thing we can be certain of—and to live life to the fullest.