In my last blog, The Struggle Is Real, I promised I would share how I use meditation and mindfulness to have tea with my demons. And I will, but as life tends to ebb and flow, instead I’m drawn to share about the concept of impermanence.
Why am I drawn to this topic now? Well, about three years ago my dad came down with a horrible cough and started to feel weak in his legs. Since that time, his arm and leg muscles have significantly atrophied to the point where he can hardly lift anything or walk, let alone climb stairs or, more importantly for him, golf. He had back surgery when they thought it was a spinal issue and when he continued to lose muscle, he had a muscle biopsy, MRIs and tons of other tests – about 20 in total – to figure out what is causing this. And, as I write this, we still do not know what is happening, except that he continues to feel weaker with each passing day. His doctors now think it is a neuromuscular issue and we have an appointment with a Neurologist at UMass Medical in Worcester on November 6th.
For the past three years I’ve just been under the assumption that once we figure out what is going on, he’ll take a pill, build back up his strength and be back out on the golf course. It will be nothing but a blip when considering his whole life. He’s my dad after all, and he’ll always be around. Until my cousin, who is a nurse, said to me this past weekend, “there is a good chance this might not get better.”
It was in that moment that I realized my dad is going to die. Maybe from this, or maybe not, but it’s going to happen.
Us humans are funny. As a great yogi once said, “The greatest wonder of the world is that everyone dies, and the second greatest wonder of the world is that no one thinks they will.” We all think our current reality is permanent and that nothing is going to change.
According to Buddhist philosophy, there are three characteristics of reality:
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but to understand the nature of impermanence is to realize that this body we’re in is going to get sick, it’s going to get old, and it’s going to die. And everyone we love is also going to get sick, get old and die.
So what is impermanence?
As Pema Chodron says in her book When things fall apart – Heart Advice for Difficult Times:
“Impermanence is the goodness of reality. Just as the four seasons are in continual flux, winter changing to spring to summer to autumn; just a day becomes night, light becoming dark becoming light again – in the same way, everything is constantly evolving. Impermanence is the essence of everything. It is babies becoming children, then teenagers, then adults, then old people and somewhere along the way dropping dead. Impermanence is meeting and parting. It’s falling in love and falling out of love.”
Our society despises Impermanence. We think of most change as pain – as we resist and want to make things last forever. We deny that things are always changing and we forget that we’re part of the natural scheme of things. But all conditioned things are going to change and fall away. And our stress, anxiety and suffering tends to arise when we forget that. When we find ourselves defending this temporary sense of “I” and “mine” is when we struggle the most.
What we resist, persists.
The stress and suffering we feel is due to our resistance to change. So the second law of reality – relating to what’s changing – helps us realize that when we don’t struggle against change, we are in harmony with reality.
But what doesn’t change? Is there something within us that doesn’t change at all? Ever walk past a mirror, take a second look and think, “Who is that person?” Sometimes I see things that I don’t realize are there! Wrinkles around my eyes, laugh lines, my body is shifting, my hair has some greys … but that voice – the person seeing me in the mirror … that little voice is the same voice, that same awareness, I’ve had my entire life. Your true self is that voice that says “who is this person I’m looking at?” That doesn’t change, no matter how old and no matter how sick the body gets. That is the third law of reality: the nature of who you truly are.
So what’s the way through this?
It’s the practice of remembering.
It’s remembering, oh yes, the here and now.
It’s remembering, anything born out of causes and conditions is going to change.
It’s about remembering the basic laws of reality.
It’s remembering that it’s not actually what’s happening, it’s how I’m relating to it that’s going to affect the degree I’m going to feel stress and suffering.
It’s about remembering that who I am is both relative and absolute – my body, mind, and thoughts are relative and at the same time I have this sense of non-judging awareness and unconditioned presence that goes beyond my body and mind.
I hope this is helpful. For me, it’s comforting to remember that my dad is human and his “Portable Flesh Unit” – as my teacher Jonathan Foust calls our bodies – is getting sick and old. He won’t be around forever. Neither will I. It doesn’t make the sadness of the situation go away, but it does allow me to watch how I relate to these feelings, versus fighting them. And it helps me have a better relationship with him as we struggle to figure out next steps. Instead of being upset and anxious about the challenges in front of us, I can remember to love him with each moment I’m blessed to have with him.
If you are struggling right now with how you relate to anxiety, let’s talk. I would truly love to support you on your journey to feeling a bit more free. Schedule your free breakthrough call with me by going to thepathtoserenity.com/apply.