I have been thinking a lot about impermanence, sparked by a conversation with members of my meditation community. The concept of impermanence makes sense intellectually, but the experience is so hard to just be with. As Thich Nath Hanh writes: “Concentration means you keep the insight alive for a long time. It’s not just a flash; that’s not enough to liberate you. So in your daily life, you keep that insight of nonself, of emptiness, of impermanence alive. When you see a person, a bird, a tree, or a rock, you see its nature of emptiness. Then it becomes an insight that will liberate you. It’s very different from speculating about the meaning of emptiness. You have to really see the nature of emptiness in yourself and others. Once that insight is there, you’re no longer afraid, no longer bound, no longer a victim of separation and discrimination, because you’ve seen the nature of interbeing” (Fear – Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm).
The past couple of weeks, I have noticed it over and over: from death to illness, broken bowls to cancelled plans to interrupted sleep and burnt toast. I got a call that a friend of my mother’s found out her 55 year old son died in his sleep. Not only the shock of this unexpected death but the ripple effects of imagining other possible deaths ricocheted across the phone lines. A couple weeks ago I found out that a friend, very close to my age, is suffering from Alzheimer’s. I have not seen her for two or three years, and I had imagined that she had chosen to stop being in touch. This belief brought pain, confusion, and sadness, even as I tried to find acceptance and equanimity. Turns out she may not even have remembered we were friends. I contemplate that on some level, even if she does not remember, that we are still lovingly connected – interbeings at one with each other.
I woke up this morning to find my very favorite bowl had been accidentally broken. Off and on, over the next two hours, I looked again and again at the cracked pieces. I practiced just noticing how I felt – the sadness at this loss, feelings of connection to my sister, who gave me the bowl for my birthday, desire – that the bowl not be broken or that a replacement should be purchased, disappointment – that the nightly ritual of sharing bowls of home-cooked food with my family will now be in a different bowl.
It sounds odd to put so much attention on a cracked bowl. But the process of noticing all these feelings helped me to name the process once again: that the unexpected pushes us up against the wall of our desire for things to stay the same, to be what we expect, to not disappoint. In my experience, I do not leap from the concept of impermanence to a graceful, enlightened experience of emptiness/impermanence. Rather, I stumble through the wanting, the grasping, the not wanting to feel the pain. And I commit, over and over, to notice the discomfort of the feelings – the wishing it weren’t so, the pushing away of the facts, the feelings of sadness or anger or unsettledness. It is in this sitting with, observing with neutral curiosity, the coming back to awareness of NOT WANTING THIS that there is, eventually, some sliver of peace, a moment of breath.
This can be a painstaking, often excruciating process, and it is a process for which I am grateful. As the noticing continues, there is a feeling like water or sand settling down, clearing the mind, being with what is true – that the broken bowl was both already broken and still whole, that my friend’s mind is shining and absent, that my mother’s friend’s son is eternal and has left this world…and that the burnt toast can either be eaten as is or composted.
This glimpse of another way of being is both comforting and challenging. Each time I choose not to complain or not to bemoan or not to exult but simply to be with what is true, I can feel the roots of peace going a tiny bit deeper. Wishing ease to each of us as we continue to practice.