The Illusion Of Permanence

Follow on

My wife and son recently returned from a trip to Florida where they were visiting my in-laws.  They were gone for only six days, but when they returned, my son seemed somehow older (that is, by more than just six days).  I was once again reminded of the important Buddhist truth that everything—everything—is impermanent.  I was also reminded just how blind we all are to this truth.  And not just how blind we all are to it:  how even when we’re forced to confront it, we resist doing so.

Yet how much happier we all could be if we instead accepted it.  “Life is change,” I’ve been fond of saying for years, but I don’t know that I’m any better at really grasping this truth than anyone to whom I’ve said it.  Part of the problem is that if we were to unroll our lives on a long piece of paper and graph both its major and minor changes, we’d find the vast majority of the graph would be flat.  In other words, we spend most of our lives living the same way, doing the same things—even thinking the same thoughts—and only occasionally undergoing even minor shifts that lead to our doing and thinking new things  And then of course we do and think them until the next shift.

Thus, our lives appear to us to be mostly unchanging.  Which represents perhaps the biggest obstacle to our embracing change:  we spend so little time experiencing change that we notice.  Which means we get little practice preparing for it.

It’s no great secret we’re built to attach to things.  But at least part of the strength with which we form attachments is mediated by the mistaken belief that we’ll always have the things to which we’re attached just as they are, supported by the additional mistaken belief that our ability to keep them as they are is also within our control.

Our belief that life isn’t change isn’t so much a delusion, however, as it is a misconception.  For if we were to broaden our perspective and consider the frequency of change throughout humankind’s history—or better yet, throughout the history of the cosmos—it would quickly become clear that change is the rule, not the exception.

The point then is to take a lesson from history and cosmology:  change is common, not rare.  And inevitable.  The only thing we really get to influence about change is its direction.  But if we approach change reluctantly, refusing to acknowledge it as life’s basic rhythm, and instead foolishly devote our energies to trying to prevent change, we’ll miss the opportunity to influence the shape of things to come.

The key, I believe, is embracing change as exciting.  Sometimes this is easy (when the way things currently stand is bad).  Other times, however, we resist change because we like things the way they are and presume that changing them will inevitably lead to something worse.  But our vision is limited and we’re often surprised by just how much better already-good things can become.  Though sometimes we’re right and we end up longing for how good things once were, the solution to that conundrum lies in the making of a simple determination (simple in theory, at least):  to enjoy what there is to enjoy, and to surrender it when it’s over.

We may look at change with dread instead of anticipation, but the alternative to change would actually be worse:  stagnation and boredom.  Luckily, though change itself may be inevitable, how we look at it is entirely up to us.

Next WeekHow To Ask The Right Questions