We do not have retreat from appreciation of conditional or material things in order to live an enlightened life. However, we must diligently turn the lens of practice onto all of our relationships to things and to beings. Learning to see and accept the impermanence of all things and yet to “enjoy them incredibly” is a wonderful practice opportunity.
One of the earliest Buddhist teachings reminds us that happiness based on conditional things is the most ephemeral and fragile kinds of happiness. Even when things are going well, for many of us, in the back of our minds, at least occasionally, is a refrain: “What if I lost this – this person, thing, situation, opportunity, ability, etc.” Sometimes, the more fortunate we are, the more blessings we are surrounded by, the louder the refrain becomes.
Note: you may actually be more preoccupied with the refrain “I have already lost ____” or “I never had ____,” but that’s not what I am talking about today. And really, no matter how desperate your situation, you still have something, if just your life.
Health, life, love, security, physical comfort… these things are naturally of great concern to us. We may spend a fair amount of time and energy worrying about what we might lose, how we might lose it, and when. Alternatively, given such thinking may feel distressing, morbid, or pointless, we just try to keep our minds from even going there. Still, all we have to do is look around to be reminded that everything changes, and eventually we’ll lose everything.
Typical Neurotic Reactions to Impermanence
There are a number of characteristic ways of reacting to our realization of impermanence. These characteristic responses are based on the Vajrayana teaching of the Five Wisdom Energies,[i] which are associated with five different colors. Each of us contains all five Wisdom Energies, but one or two energies tend to predominate in our personality. Each energy can manifest in neurotic way, but can also be converted into a particular kind of wisdom. What I describe here are typical neurotic responses of each Wisdom Energy.
The neurotic yellow energy response to the reality of impermanence is to amass so much stuff we manage to feel substantial – like we can afford to lose some of our stuff but still not be threatened. We accumulate lots of possessions, and/or lots of money, lots of comfort, lots of friends, lots of experiences and fantastic memories, etc.
The green energy response to impermanence is to live in a pervasive paranoia, trying to protect what we have – making careful and conservative choices, taking out insurance, diligently watching for damage or threats.
The red energy response is to focus on momentary enjoyment of new experiences but then move on, so we never get attached to any particular person, place or thing – but of course we also need a steady supply of new people, places or things to keep us happy.
The blue energy response to impermanence is to build up our own sense of competence, control, strength and power so we can prevent or outwit most causes of loss. We diligently maintain our health, for example, or control others so they can’t leave us or make dangerous choices, or we build a philosophy that maintains that, somehow, we will be largely unaffected by loss.
Finally, the white energy response is to blot out the realization of impermanence by simply not thinking about it, or by using distractions or intoxicants to numb the natural concern. Alternatively, or perhaps in addition, we refrain from full engagement in life so we don’t risk getting attached and then losing anything. We may minimize what we own, or avoid committing to anyone or anything, because if we care about something deeply it is always a source of discomfort and unease because we will eventually lose it.
You may recognize one or more of these types of responses in your own life. My way is mostly a mix of green, blue and white energy. From a young age I was very conscious of the looming possibility of loss. I couldn’t help loving people and animals deeply, but at least I could try to avoid acquiring the “stuff” of an American life, which seemed to be such folly in the face of impermanence – home, hearth, children, comfort… When I encountered Zen, I was excited because I thought I had found a way to establish a transcendent view or state of mind where I would be unaffected by loss. I wasn’t conscious of this motivation until later in practice, when I found out – with some amount of disappointment – that hiding out in a transcendent view or state of mind was called “Zen sickness” and actively discouraged.
Appreciation Because of Impermanence
Still, Buddhist practice did offer way to relate to conditional sources of happiness without falling into neurotic reactions. This way is illustrated by a lovely quote by Theravadin monk Ajahn Chah (which I believe is actually something he said because the quote appears in a recent book by Mark Epstein, but it is one of those quotes that gets repeated over and over on the internet without any citations whatsoever):
“Ajahn Chah met with us after we shared the monastery lunch. We asked him to explain the Buddhist view. What he had learned… What could we bring back and share with the West?
“Before saying a word, he motioned to glass by his side. ‘Do you see this glass?’ he asked us. ‘I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, “Of course.” But when I understand this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.’”[ii]
The impermanence of the glass is inherent in its existence, just as our own deaths are inherent in our lives. When we can hold something with full realization and acceptance of its impermanence, it becomes extremely clear how precious it is. This preciousness, which can so easily recede from our consciousness, is obvious, simple and radiant. There is nothing desperate or even sad in us when we experience this. We may be aware that we will be sad in the future, but that seems a small price to pay for our current experience.
I am happy for my practice when I fall asleep with my arm around my husband with a very real sense of how we will be parted by death. Our time together is finite. It will go much quicker than we expect. And so, one more evening together is precious. Why ruin the blessing of this moment with worry about what will come?
Taking Self Out of the Picture
The most important thing is that this realization of impermanence is a real, personal, full-body experience. This is not an intellectual realization. An intellectual realization will not provide any comfort, only a place to hide out.
In his essay “Gakudo Yojin-shu” or “Guidelines for Studying the Way,” Zen Master Dogen quoted the ancient Indian Buddhist master and philosopher Nagarjuna,
“The mind that fully sees into the uncertain world of birth and death is called the thought of enlightenment.”[iii]
We cultivate the ability to see in this way through our zazen and many other aspects of our practice. We learn to be still, to see what is true beneath all the busyness in our minds. We also gradually cultivate a willingness to see. It’s important to remember the mind, heart, body are not separate; our practice is not just about the mind, we also have to reach deep inside and convert our hearts, and manifest and experience all of this through the body.
Now, hard-wired into our minds, hearts and bodies is the instinct to protect ourselves, build ourselves up and justify ourselves. This is okay. The instinct to survive has allowed our species to persist. However, when we’re confused about the nature of self, we identify our self with all kinds of things. Anything we can identify with is conditional, and therefore we can lose it – so anything conditional we attach to our sense of self presents us with a source of anxiety.
For example, a number of years ago my husband and I bought our first home after having spent decades as renters. Neither of us ever expected to be doing this in our lifetime. It was exciting. I found myself thinking about how to make our home comfortable, beautiful, and welcoming. I thought about what a joy and place of refuge it would be, how nice it would be to offer hospitality to others.
I also felt some trepidation and anxiety about home ownership. I thought about how I won’t want to leave our home, and how easily we could lose it (after all, it was a foreclosure). I thought about how much more the loss would hurt than having to leave an apartment.
But in addition to this basic contemplation of impermanence with respect to our home, I felt a pervasive uneasiness. I was going to be become a “homeowner” – what if I didn’t like it? What if I didn’t like that self? What was it going to mean for my priesthood, which is based in a tradition of “homelessness?” If I lost this home, would I be crushed by the grief, anxiety and shame? What’s going to happen to ME?
What I’m describing is not just the normal and natural apprehension we feel when making a decision or when things are changing. It is natural to wonder what is going to happen and to imagine possible scenarios. What I am describing is an additional layer of suffering added to the uncertainty – a fear and anxiety that may be subtle but is pervasive and very close to the heart. It is a fear for my self, and for my sense of self. Ironically, when we’re still caught up in what the Buddha called “I-making and my-making,” self-interest actually gets in the way of appreciation and enjoyment.
The most powerful instinct we have – self-preservation – will prevent us from seeing and accepting impermanence until we understand truly that all of these conditional things with which we have identified – these relationships, these objects – are not us. They are not self. Things and beings are just as they are. It is not their role in building our sense of self that makes them precious.
Appreciation with Open Hands
When we take the self out of the picture, things only look more precious, more interesting. We can relax and appreciate what is in front of us without worrying about what it means to the self, which then tends to make us react neurotically – trying to make something last, or pushing it away, or numbing ourselves in fear of future loss, etc.
We talk in Buddhism about non-attachment, or detachment. This can sound as if we try not care deeply or personally about anything. In English it might be better to talk about experiencing, and living in harmony with, the empty nature of things, particularly self. The goal of practice is not to remain over here, untouched by the loss of – detached from – that over there. We’re not trying to gain some state where our true self is ethereal and pure, and appreciation of a material possession like an iPad is beneath us. Rather, it is there is no inherently-existing, enduring, independent self here at all – no self to be threatened by loss, or defiled by appreciation of conditional things.
This is not at all to say that if we practice diligently, we’ll be unaffected by the loss of things. Rather, we are profoundly affected – we are, in fact, nothing more than a continuous unfolding of causes and effects. If something is a big part of our life and it changes or goes away, we change. The Zen ancestors have described the process of becoming more comfortable with impermanence as becoming intimate with birth and death. When something comes into our lives there is a “death” of an old self and the “birth” of a new one. This change can be subtle or it can be dramatic.
I became someone rather different as a homeowner. The relatively free-wheeling and unencumbered person I had been until then died to some extent, and a new self emerged. If I lose my home someday, a self will die and a very different self will emerge. This is much easier to face if I settle in for the ride rather than trying preserve the self I know.
I can’t remember where it is from, but I read in a Buddhist text once about a layperson who was an accomplished Buddhist practitioner even though he had great wealth, a wife, family, a business, etc. It was said that he related to all of these people and things as if they were trash (or something like that).
Now, this sounds terrible! But it doesn’t mean what you might think. When we relate with trash, we feel no attachment. Trash is something that is supposed to move along, out of our lives and into its next existence. We do not hold on to trash (once we have ID’d it as trash) or feel traumatized at its disappearance.
Now, the trash analogy is limited because we want to take good care of things and beings and appreciate and love them deeply. However, it’s helpful to do so without a sense that the world owes them to us, or that we are entitled to keep them.
The trash analogy also points out how our relationship to something or someone we believe is incredibly important to our sense of ourselves is entirely dependent on conditions, on our perspective and state of mind. When I mentioned this analogy recently to a friend of mine, he recalled how all kinds of issues in his life – which had seemed critical before – receded into the background as irrelevant as he nursed his dying dog through her last days. What before had seemed so important before now felt as irrelevant as trash.
So… the moral of the story is to cultivate the ability and willingness to see the impermanence inherent in all of the things and beings we have in our lives. And if contemplating that impermanence is frightening, depressing, or confusing, to look deeper. The reward is the ability to truly appreciate everything we encounter.
The moral of the story is also that we do not have retreat from appreciation of conditional or material things in order to live an enlightened life. However, we must diligently turn the lens of practice onto all of our relationships to things and to beings. Learning to see and accept the impermanence of all things and yet to “enjoy them incredibly” is a wonderful practice opportunity.
[i] Rockwell, Irini. The Five Wisdom Energies: A Buddhist Way of Understanding Personalities, Emotions, and Relationships. Shambala Publications, Boston MA: 2002.
[ii] Epstein, Mark. The Trauma of Everyday Life. Penguin Books: New York, New York, 2013.
[iii] Tanahashi, Kazuaki, trans., ed. Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen. New York, NY: North Point Press, 1985