Nothing Lasts, But Suffering Makes It Worse
The Buddha spoke of impermanence, that nothing lasts, and that failing to understand the real nature of impermanence means suffering. Most of us would agree that impermanence, or change, is a fact of life. If I ask if the weather, a river, or a mountain will always be the same, most will say no. If I ask if we as individuals will never change, again most will say no. But here is the rub. Our sensitivity to impermanence shows up in our attachments to wishing for the world to be other than it is, unchanging. We exist in a conflicted state where intellectually we understand that everything changes, and all things good or bad pass away, but emotionally we hold onto the things we like and push away the things we do not like. This creates suffering as we are buffeted back and forth by the winds of change, experiencing emotional turmoil as we try mightily to hold onto this and get rid of that, all to no avail.
Sadly, the more effort we apply to making the world unchanging, the more suffering we experience because the world goes on its merry way whether we like it or not. In our strong need to escape the change, we are like an animal caught in a net. The animal thrashes with increasing desperation in an effort to escape, only making the net tighter. Or think about going to get a shot at the doctor’s. Resistance, or tightening one’s muscles in anticipation of pain, causes the pain of the shot to be worse. We can resist what is, but there is a cost to us and to others. We generously export our inner troubles (the need for the world to be different than it is) to others, causing them to suffer.
Change upsets us on a number of levels, one of which is the Buddha’s profound existential challenge that we and all things are transient. Another is the pace and magnitude of societal change. And a third is the one that often gives us the most difficulty because of its frequency, our everyday bumps against reality. When we get attached to expectations about how the world should work and it does not conform to those expectations, we upset ourselves and we suffer. We try to resist what is. Common everyday dislocations include things like a condescending waiter, a person who nearly knocks us off the sidewalk, a letter from our credit card company asking what happened to our payment, or coming home from a trip to a swimming pool filled with algae (a personal “favorite” of mine which disturbs my equilibrium if I am not very careful).
Perhaps the most common activator of resistance to reality is the actions (or non actions) of other people. We want people to act as we desire them to, not as they often do. We may see the actions of others as obstructions to our wellbeing, and just as often seek to control them. But people do not like being controlled, and they will activate their own resistance, making everything considerably worse. Sadly, controlling others often takes unpleasant and disrespectful forms. Consider anger, sarcasm, dismissal, sulking, victim-hood, or guilt, which represent only a few of the many ways we may try to manipulate others into doing what we want. Suffering for us and for them.
Those of us looking for greater inner peace (most of us) must accept change, and one of the keys to this is being in the present moment. Being in the present moment allows us to stay with problematic thoughts, emotions and even actions, and not try to push them away. Being in the present moment allows us to understand fully what we are experiencing, and to “control” unhelpful reactions, particularly resistance. As with all problematic reactions, we can settle into equanimity more easily by acknowledging the reactions and not becoming attached to ridding ourselves of them. Simply “being” with those reactions helps us on the path to inner peace because we give them no power to affect us, no hold on us. Simply observing and making no judgments about the reactions becomes the same as saying, “Ah, the wind is up.” We have observed the wind and then we easily move our thoughts elsewhere. Observing but not hanging onto the reaction we have to, say, an irate client exactly the way we observe the wind is what inner peace is about. If we can do it for the wind, we can do it for the irate client. Everything depends on acceptance of change and practice, endless practice.
Most of us know at least intuitively that not all change is created equal. The following quote from Irene Peter, an American epigrammatist, makes a wonderful connection with subtle paradox: “Just because everything is different doesn’t mean that anything has changed.” Can something have changed and not changed? It depends on the level at which we examine the issue.
I once did consulting work for a large non-profit organization. I was hired to assist top management in reorganizing much of upper management so that operations would be more efficient. I developed a suggested structure, with managers changing positions, reporting requirements, and acquiring new titles. Top management implemented my ideas. I was called back about 6 months later and told that my idea had not worked at all and to figure out why. Managers I interviewed told me that changes had been made at one level, the superficial one of who reported to whom and who had what title. But the changes needed at a deeper level, the ones that would produce greater efficiency, had not happened. Things looked different, but the way business was done had not changed. I misunderstood the level at which I should have been helping the organization. The superficial change had masked a deeper set of behavioral problems, and changing the former did nothing to address the latter. I fell into the trap of not being aware of the level of real change the organization was looking for.
We can fall into a similar trap in our self-generated change, particularly that connected to inner peace. We may pursue inner peace by reading books, meditating, attending seminars, or listening to wise masters, which is one level of looking for inner change. But if these efforts are not accompanied by hard work and discipline, the more demanding level of the search for inner peace, we will not move forward. The trap occurs when we mistake the level at which we need to be working, seeing one thing, the inputs, and actually looking for another, the outcome of real inner peace. We may think we are making progress toward inner peace, but mostly our efforts will result in the appearance of change and not the real thing. This illusion has its own cost.
Accepting the inevitability of change is part of the path to inner peace. But perhaps even more important in moving to inner peace is accepting that change is also unavoidable. Nothing lasts, not good and not bad, and there is nothing we can do about that impermanence. Our resistance efforts to retain the good and push away the bad are futile. They provide us with only the momentary illusion of success, of keeping the change at bay. Our inability to have much of an impact on the change usually means we are beset with frustration and fear. Sadly, we not only share our negative emotions with others, we also share the suffering that accompanies that. Acceptance in the Buddha’s sense is the only healthy way to “deal” with change. Where possible, action is fine. We simply cannot be attached to the action or to the outcome, no matter how much energy we put into our effort. Trying hard is not a problem until it becomes a “must have” outcome.
Photo by h.koppdelaney