The Only Constant is Impermanence

Each Friday, we share three topical longreads in our Weekend Reader newsletter. This week, Lion’s Roar magazine’s Hal Atwood looks at the gifts of impermanence.

Hal Atwood
6 November 2020
Photo by Simon Berger.

Impermanence is an inescapable, essential fact of life. As the Buddha said in his final teaching, “All compounded things are subject to vanish.” Whether it’s the last cookie in the jar, the first gray hair on your head, or the coral reefs bleaching in a warming ocean, all conditioned things — big or small, brief or long-lived — eventually pass away.

There is beauty in knowing that everything we hold dear will eventually slip through our fingers. When we acknowledge and embrace this, we can appreciate the interconnection inherent in impermanence.

There’s a phrase that has stayed with me since I first read it on a fridge magnet: “Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.” Even though it’s corny, it helps. When I find myself clinging to what feels familiar and safe, I think of that magnet. It helps me step back and recognize that impermanence is fundamental to existence. It also helps when I’m waiting and wishing for change with bated breath. Acknowledging impermanence is one way of accepting that “this too shall pass.” Change is not always loss — it can be renewing and refreshing.

While change constantly unravels what we know, it also ties us together.

Finally, this quote helps me bear witness to the changing world around me without flinching and turning away. Friends will move away, my eye prescription will get worse, and maybe most of the ocean’s coral will not survive the coming decades. In the midst of it all, the lessons of impermanence and interconnection keep me grounded in a state of cherishing what is here now and appreciating what rises to take its place.

While change constantly unravels what we know, it also ties us together. As Norman Fischer writes, “change is never lonely; it is always all-inclusive. We’re all always in this together.” There is comfort in knowing that while everything vanishes, impermanence goes on. Below are three teachings on the subject.

Seeing Ourselves Cleary

The Dalai Lama says that the suffering and happiness we all experience is a reflection of the distortion or clarity with which we view ourselves and the world. The key is knowing the true nature of self.

We have a sense that above and beyond the aggregates of body and mind, there is something we think of as “me,” and that the physical and mental aggregates are dependent on “me” while “I” am autonomous. Though natural, our sense of self is mistaken, and in our quest for freedom from the miseries caused by our self-grasping, we must change our perception of ourselves.”

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Real Happiness

Renowned Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg explores the myriad benefits of meditation.

We can’t control what thoughts and emotions arise within us, nor can we control the universal truth that everything changes. But we can learn to step back and rest in the awareness of what’s happening. That awareness can be our refuge.

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Impermanence is Buddha Nature

Change isn’t just a fact of life we have to accept and work with, says Norman Fischer. To feel the pain of impermanence and loss can be a profoundly beautiful reminder of what it means to exist.

Impermanence is not only to be overcome and conquered. It is also to be lived and appreciated.

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Hal Atwood

Hal Atwood

Hal is a communications and marketing strategist with a background in multimedia journalism. They have more than five years of experience in the corporate and nonprofit sectors assisting with media strategy, campaign activations, sustainability initiatives and employee engagement. By day, they develop research-based purpose strategies to help organizations achieve their growth objectives while serving the needs of their stakeholders. By night, they kickbox (occasionally and badly), enjoy the great outdoors, and brew (surprisingly okay) beer. Hal holds a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of King’s College, where they helped over-looked voices tell their stories across more than 10 publications. They recently moved from Nova Scotia to PEI with their beautiful partner and their very shy rescue pup.