Here we sit, the mountain and I, until only the mountain remains. – Li Po
As I write this I look out my window and see the mountain. Just yesterday at this time it was hidden by fog. The weather is one of the most changeable aspects of our lives. And for some of us that changeability is a source of anxiety. Our mood may hang on whether the weather suits us. It’s useful to notice our relationship with the weather, because it’s a good indicator of how we are in relationship with change in general. To what degree does our happiness hang on external causes and conditions?
I remember strolling in the garden with my one-year-old granddaughter in my arms. We paused to look more closely at the flowers. There was one pale pink rose that earned her full wide-eyed attention. Then, all of a sudden, as she watched, a petal fell to the ground. She gasped, turned away, and wept on my shoulder. For her in that moment a lovely thing had broken. It was ruined. She didn’t know it was a naturally occurring phenomenon, a part of the cycle of life, the way of things. At six she knows that now and isn’t phased by petals falling off flowers.
We all have moments where we suffer for lack of a more expansive understanding of the way of things. We cling to a belief that life is ordered in a certain way, and when that order is shaken up, we get upset. One of the greatest challenges to our sense of order is if a loved one younger than ourselves dies. This goes beyond natural mourning of a great loss in our lives. It disrupts our sense of order, how life should be. I know when my nephew died at the age of 46, it just felt wrong. How could it not? I remember I was staring out the window on a rainy morning and began to watch how the raindrops seem to chase each other down the window pane. There was no order there. Some clung longer, some raced straight to the bottom. Somehow that helped me. Not with my grief. Grief is a process that runs its own course. But it did help with my railing against the injustice of nature felling a life ‘out of order.’
As we mature, most of us recognize that change is a naturally occurring part of life. This is wisdom, or one aspect of it anyway. Understanding the inevitable nature of change or impermanence is one of the three central characteristics of awakening. In Pali it is called Anicca (pronounced ‘a-knee-cha’).
We can each look at our own relationship to change. To what degree do we fight it? To what degree do we chase it, trying to get away from the way things are in this moment? To what degree are we deluded that change is the cause of our unhappiness or the answer to our prayers?
In our class discussion we looked at how in our culture we try to hide from impermanence. While our ancestors lived closely with birth and death, over the last century we have somehow made both separate and sanitized — off to the hospital or off to the undertakers where everything’s handled under wraps — et voila, a swaddled tidy infant or a beautifully appointed closed coffin or a little box or urn of ashes. All the gritty grunt and groan of life’s natural transitions have been carefully hidden from view.
As women, impermanence can feel especially threatening because we are so often made to feel we are objects. Our culture tells us that our looks are the currency that secure our fates. Every magazine ad and every commercial reminds us of our duty to maintain the dewy glow of youth — to be always lovely, and therefore lovable. No matter how wise or intelligent we are, to some degree we succumb to the lure of products or procedures that promise to wipe away all signs of aging. We paw at our faces in mirrors wondering how others see us. A friend recently said that she only sees her own wrinkles, not her friends’. I think that’s true for most of us. It is a rare woman that isn’t harsh on herself in the mirror and doesn’t fear what time will reveal.
As one student pointed out, thanks to advances in the field of medicine, we now feel we have some control over impermanence. Our ancestors had to accept that many babies would die before reaching a year old, that many women would die in childbirth, that a cut or a broken bone could get lethally infected, and that various scourges could wipe out large portions of the population. Today we live in a world of everyday miracles. (So much so that people forget what vaccines were invented to save us from and choose not to vaccinate their children, and others overuse wonder drugs so that drug-resistant bacteria develop.) Cancers that used to be death sentences are now being cured on a regular basis. So when doctors’ procedures and drugs can’t save us or our loved ones, unlike our ancestors, we’re shocked. What went wrong?
When we think we have control over things and it turns out we don’t, we feel a sense of failure. That is how we are in relationship with impermanence at this point in time in our culture. We succeed at fending off aging and illness through diet, exercise, hygiene, medical checkups, beauty products and treatments. But ultimately we ‘fail’, because no matter how we delude ourselves to think otherwise, nature calls the shots. The deck is stacked against us. The house always wins.
Depressing? In Buddhism the very things we try to avoid — illness, aging, death — are, when faced and greeted as friends, the greatest messengers. So while we can have gratitude for modern miracles, we can still have the wisdom to see impermanence as the way of all life.
We have opportunities aplenty to practice being in a more joyful relationship with it. In most places the weather is constantly changing. We can notice if we are allowing the weather to dictate our moods. Are we only happy at the perfect temperature, or if the wind’s not blowing or if the sky is clear? Or can we enjoy the vital variations? Can we embrace each season for its particular offerings? Can we look more closely at what’s happening in this moment, registering it with all our senses, before offering up a blanket condemnation?
Take a walk in nature, always the best dharma teacher, and discover the nature of impermanence all around you. See how on the forest floor the disintegration of what was once green and vibrant is now dull and desiccated, but in that process is breaking down and fertilizing the soil to nourish new life in the ongoing cycle of being. This too is our nature. These human bodies are not separate from the flow of all life. Going to battle with impermanence is futile, and at a certain point, like a botched facelift, really really creepy.
So embrace life in all its facets. Take care of this gift of a human body. But don’t be fooled into thinking it can be sustained in its present shape forever. And that’s not your fault!