Moved by Impermanence — Letting Go in a Changing World

It has been hard to focus on gardening this Spring. Natural disasters have distracted me, and any losses my garden suffered this past Winter pale in comparison to those victims of earthquakes, tsunami’s, radiation, floods, tornadoes, drought, wildfires and the like. The suffering of people, animals and the landscape make my meager gardening concerns seem almost selfish. And yet there is a truth that yokes all our plights: change is a central feature of life.

As a gardener, I am always taking Nature into my hands and manipulating Her to meet my aesthetics: planting, pruning, moving, removing, shaping, vanquishing, cutting. Nature, however, seems to make decisions based upon indifference, not how conscientious an organic gardener I am, nor my ranking in society. My diligence at control and aesthetics, therefore, is matched by such natural forces as wind, rain, snow, drought, cold, insects and the like. My ability to accept change is always being tested, and I am reminded of the impermanence of life.

Change can be frightening, exhausting, exhilarating, or relieving. It can initiate sadness or happiness, resistance or grasping. Change tests our equanimity, faith, hope, and acceptance. It plows us under or uplifts our spirit. No matter the form, change always confronts us with impermanence and the degree to which we suffer when we hold on.

Most religions grapple with impermanence and suffering, often concluding that the solution to suffering is to transcend impermanence. The Buddhist view is different: suffering is not inherent in the world of impermanence, but arises when we cling or hold on.

On face value, this point of view seems without heart, for letting go is not so officious. Generations of livelihoods, special places, rituals and cultural legacies, including the precious lives of loved ones can be indifferently removed by Nature in a matter of minutes. Regarding the category-5 tornado that recently tore a mile-wide swath through Joplin, Missouri, one survivor said: “Think about taking the biggest lawnmower, and just mowing everything down. It truly makes you feel how insignificant life really is. You feel so small and helpless.”

As a four-season gardener and landowner, I know about that “small and helpless” feeling at the hands of Nature. I also know that my suffering is what I make it when I tenaciously hold onto something in an inherently transient world. Somehow, I must accept my garden’s impermanence, and everything else in my life. I must learn the grace of letting go as a way of healing and moving on.

Understanding Impermanence

It is possible to find ease and grace, not clinging, in a constantly changing world. A profound insight is to recognize the futility of trying to find lasting happiness in what appears to be constant or permanent, or more plainly, to examine deeply why we hold on.

An understanding and acceptance of impermanence reveals itself in three ways. First, is the obvious, ordinary understanding of impermanence. Second, is understanding from insight or direct seeing of the nature of things. Finally, there is the way in which seeing impermanence can lead to liberation and inner peace.

The ordinary understanding of impermanence is accessible to all — we notice that things change. We see aging and old age, sickness and death. Seasons, society, emotions, weather, health — all these change. Sometimes, when realizing that an experience is impermanent, we can relax with how it is, including its coming and going. Other times, seeing that change is inevitable helps us to let go of clinging to how things are, or our resistance to change. Deeper still, recognizing change all about us opens us to compassion.

When we stand amidst change and impermanence, there is an opportunity to look closely at our priorities and values. Wisdom can come as we age, not just from life experience or a catastrophe, but from an increasing awareness that our own life will end, just like a favorite bloom. This acknowledgment helps us to move beyond the ordinary experience of impermanence to a deeper intuitive one: insight into the moment-to-moment arising and passing of every perceivable experience. With mindfulness, we see everything as constantly in flux, even experiences that ordinarily seem persistent.

According to the teachings of the Buddha, life is comparable to a river. It is a progressive moment, a successive series of different moments joining together to give the impression of one continuous flow. Life’s river moves from cause to cause, effect to effect, one point to another, one state of existence to another, giving an outward impression that it is one continuous and unified movement, whereas in reality it is not. The river of yesterday is not the same as the river of today. The river of this moment is not going to be the same as the river of the next moment. So it is with life (and my garden) — changing continuously, becoming something or the other from moment to moment, sunrise to sunset.

Even from a scientific point of view this is true. We know cell divisions continuously take place in each living being. Old cells in our bodies die and yield to new ones that are forming, often within days. Similarly, like waves in a sea, many thousands of thoughts arise and die in each of us every day. Emotions wax and wane. Psychologically and physically we are never the same. No individual is ever composed of the same amount of energy because mental and cellular stuff materialize and pass away all the time. We are subject to change and this change is a continuous movement.

When life is seen as a constant flow of energy — when we intuitively feel the rightness of this point of view — we can bear witness at the most worldly or subtle levels. This observance leads us to the third understanding, and liberating value, of impermanence: There is nothing real that we can actually cling to. Our engrained tendency to hold onto is always challenged — we cannot hold back Mother Nature just as we cannot hold back tears of anguish in being human. There are seasons and events that touch the landscapes of our heart, homes, family and friendships. And after such experiences, like Nature, we must move on.

When we accept that reality is more fluid and mercurial than any of our ideas about it, we are then able to let go of impermanence and clinging at the deepest level of our psyche. At a profound level we are able to embrace Suzuki Roshi’s clarity about life: “Not always so.”

Let Go Completely

The venerable Buddhist, Ajahn Chah once said, “If you let go a little, you’ll have a little peace. If you let go a lot you’ll have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you’ll have complete peace.”

Troubles, happiness, torment, joy, anguish, fear, loss, faith and the like — these all go with life like wetness goes with ocean. To be alive at any time and any place is not without struggle. It is our attitude towards life that determines whether or not we regard the struggle as trouble or challenge. Do we hold on to the victimology of our view of life, or do we pick ourselves up, accept what has been put on our plate, and no matter how bitter it is, let it nourish us?

Often the closest we come to dealing with a problem is to make it seem less significant than someone else’s. We find comfort in cliches: “There but for the grace of God go I;” “I cried because I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet.” Fact is, the world is filled with people who have two feet but who enjoy nothing and complain about everything because they cannot find that seed of discovery inside a single problem. Their will is disabled at the hands of impermanence.

Years ago I worked with Viet Nam veterans who lost their legs and feet from landmines. When they played basketball in wheelchairs, they laughed, played hard, and bantered about no differently than if they hustled on defense or offense with two feet each. It is difficult to categorize the will and spirit of these men as “permanently disabled.” They had not stopped living.

It has been said that life is like going out to sea in a slowly leaking boat — our demise is inevitable. If we live in “tornado alley” in the Midwest, in the lowlands near a river, on an earthquake fault, at the base of a volcano; if we simply engage in ordinary activities — our lives are always affected by the potential for catastrophe. However, we must keep engaging life or be incapacitated by pity, grief, fear or anger.

As a gardener, I must be prepared for change and transformation before my eyes. I must try to befriend and cooperate with Nature, knowing that my efforts may far outlast me, or be lashed away in a flash. As a human with inherent intelligence, I cannot fool myself in believing that reality is never-changing.

Remember the Eighty-Fourth Problem

There is a story about a farmer who came to the Buddha with his problems. The Buddha stated that life challenges us with Eighty-Three problems that don’t seem to stay solved, reappearing in different ways, in different places, and sometimes with different people.

“Then, will I never be happy? Will these Eighty-Three problems hound me even to the grave?” The angry farmer replied. “What kind of teaching is this? What am I to do now?”

“Well,” said the Buddha, “You can solve the Eighty-Fourth problem.”

“Oh, wonderful!” said the man sarcastically. “Now I have Eighty-FOUR problems! And what might that problem be?”

“The Eighty-Fourth problem,” replied the Buddha, “is deciding not to have any problems.”

We all need to solve the Eighty-Fourth problem first. It is accepting life’s inevitabilities and all those other problems that arise. It is recognizing the joy in discovery, in creating something new and useful, in accepting a challenge or problem and involving ourselves constructively in a solution. It is being grateful to be alive in this present passing moment.

It is being moved by impermanence.

About C. Forrest McDowell, PhD

I am blessed to be a co-steward for over 30 years of the beautiful 22-acre Cortesia Sanctuary outside Eugene, Oregon, with my partner, Tricia Clark-McDowell. My lifelong interests in wellness care, psychology, nature, music composition & performance, writing, and meditation fuel my celebration for life. My form of service is founded upon the elemental practice of kindness and reverence for life. Of course, to understand the value of deep respect for life, we also have to accept irreverence as part of human nature and to know that it can be very disruptive and destructive to peace, safety, beauty, joy and love.
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