George Carlin once quipped that "God can't be perfect; everything he makes dies." There, in an irreverent nutshell, is one of the fundamental truths about life on earth: Everything changes, everything withers, everything eventually disappears. That applies not only to material objects such as trees and buildings and human bodies, but also to our thoughts and feelings, our pleasures and pains, our losses and gains. The comforting phrase "This too shall pass" applies not only to tragedies but also to the satisfaction of every fulfilled desire, the thrill of every victory and the joy of every happy experience. Bummer, huh? This observation about impermanence has caused a lot of existential despair. But it has also been the starting point for spiritual awakenings. "Everything together falls apart," said the Buddha. "Everything rising up collapses. Every meeting ends in parting. Every life ends in death." This was not an expression of hopelessness; it was a wakeup call. The message was, stop looking for happiness in all the wrong places. You won't find lasting fulfillment in money, sex, power or even love, because it all changes.
Echoes of the same insight can be heard in every religious tradition. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal." In other words, the satisfaction we derive from worldly pursuits is destined to decay, like moth-eaten cloth and rusty iron, or snatched by the thief of time. But the great spiritual masters did not leave it at that; they pointed the way out of the dilemma.
The first step is to accept the reality of impermanence. This can actually be liberating. We try to create fortresses of stability in our lives as protection from the uncertainty of change. But if we expect our relationships, careers, retirement accounts and the like to be predictable, we're setting ourselves up for major shocks. On the other hand, if we accept impermanence as a fact of life, we free ourselves to roll through changes with dignity and a spirit of ongoing growth and adventure.
We're in the audience at a magic show, witnessing cosmic hocus-pocus whose secrets we are not privy to. When we stop trying to figure out how the magician put the rabbit back in the hat, we not only enjoy the show more, we can also achieve what the poet John Keats called negative capability-"being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts and reason." This pries us loose from entrenched ideas, allowing us to stand before the uncertain future with an open, flexible mind. That spacious gap can then be filled with creative responses to life's surprises.
Another tool in the face of impermanence is a spirit of non attachment. This can get tricky, since non-attachment is often misconstrued as indifference. More accurately, it calls upon us to love, cherish and care for the people and things that matter most without clinging to them, or trying to keep them from changing, or being of afraid of losing them. It also means pursuing worthy goals without being overly dependent on things turning out exactly the way we want them to. A non attached attitude not only protects us against disappointment, it allows us to focus on the miracle of the present moment and remain open to whatever the changing universe has to offer.
Acknowledging impermanence also compels us to monitor our desires. Like the burners on a stove, the flame of desire has different settings, from hope to wish to need to gotta have to kill for. The higher the heat, the greater the emotional devastation if you don't get what you want. The more your well-being, happiness and peace of mind depend on the satisfaction of specific desires, the more vulnerable you are to the impact of impermanence. If you feel desperate about getting what you want, it could be a signal that you're looking outside yourself for what can only be found within.
Therein lies the ultimate answer to impermanence. Virtually every desire is rooted in a deeper yearning. What we're really after is an inner state, whether you call it peace, wholeness, fulfillment, or a spiritual term such as enlightenment, nirvana or grace. The message of every wisdom-based tradition is: you won't find lasting contentment in anything that is, by its nature, fleeting; instead, direct your longing to that which is eternal and infinite, whether you call it God, or Spirit or the Kingdom or...well, the list is endless. What you call it and how you choose to pursue it, is a personal choice. But if you conduct the search wisely, you will find inner peace with far less effort than you expend chasing after pleasures that are bound to be impermanent.
Spiritual counselor Philip Goldberg, Ph.D., is the author of Roadsigns: Navigating Your Path to Spiritual Happiness (Rodale Press; 2003). Website: www.philipgoldberg.com. He will teach a workshop on Real Life Spirituality at the Ross School's Center for Well-Being in East Hampton, October 15th, 7 pm. Information: 631-907-5555.