How to Embrace Change

According to the Buddha, everything is in a constant state of flux. We suffer when we ignore this fact and cling to things as if they are static and unchanging. The power of impermanence is that it can take our suffering and transform it into freedom. So how can we learn to embrace change rather than fight it?

In order to see how we can benefit from an acceptance of impermanence, we have to begin to notice all the ways that we fight it. The Buddha taught about the reality of suffering and the possibility of its cessation. Suffering, in a Buddhist sense, is distinguished from pain. Pain is not only unavoidable, but it is also useful. Without physical pain, how would we know we had accidentally touched our hand to a scalding-hot piece of metal? Similarly, emotional pain can show us an area of our life that needs our urgent attention. Suffering, as differentiated from pain, is the story we tell ourselves about the pain we feel. Maybe we want to angrily accuse someone of being stupid for leaving the grill on, causing us to burn our arm. Or maybe we begin berating ourselves for always being so careless. But let’s look at that sentiment. To say that we are “always” so careless is to imagine that we are static and unchanging. Not only have we always been so careless, but we always will be. Is this true? Is it even possible?

Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah describes a simple way we can make peace with and even begin to see the beauty in impermanence. In a parable described by Mark Esptein, Chah talks about his favorite glass. He describes the beauty of the glass, but tells Epstein “to me, the glass is already broken.” If we can see this glass, which by its very nature is fragile and breakable, as already broken, much of our attachment to the glass can relax away, leaving us with this very precious present moment. We can enjoy the time we have with this glass, knowing that it is and has always been temporary.

Seeing the glass as already broken is a way of cutting through our tendency to attach to things as permanent and unchanging. It is a way to acknowledge the uncertainty and unpredictability of all things. It is a way of understanding that hovering right outside the edges of our mental maps of reality is the possibility of something unexpected. This doesn’t have to make us anxious. Certainty is a way of shutting in our experience and of shrinking our world. Impermanence is what makes transformation possible. It is what allows us to change our relationship to its very nature. Everything changes. Through a cultivation of mindfulness, we might begin to uncover the multitude of ways we fight this very fact, thus creating our own suffering.

I try to be mindful of all the instances where I claim that something is “always” true, or that “everything” is a certain way. Reality does not tend to operate by these absolutes if I look more deeply. During a summer when I had lost a job I really liked, I would often wake up and think ‘everything is terrible.’ But then I would laugh as soon as I realized how meaningless this sentence actually is. If everything is terrible, then one could just as easily say that nothing is. Neither of these sentiments is really true, objectively, but I began to see the way that my thoughts about reality seemed to express themselves through assumptions of certainty and permanence. And I began to ask myself, ‘are you sure?’

A comedian friend of mine has a saying: “Horrible now, hilarious forever.” Time has a way of changing things that, in the present moment, are painful or uncomfortable. If we can let this wisdom sink into our bones, we can take charge of the story we tell ourselves about the difficult situations we are going through. “Someday this will make a great story,” can be an attitude we take, allowing us to zoom out and see that things are constantly in flux. In this way, it is almost as if we begin to work with the uncertainty and change instead of fighting tooth and nail against it. Taking this perspective doesn’t mean we have to make a joke out of everything we do, but it can subtly allow us to let go of our fixation on the permanence of a situation. Everything is constantly falling apart and coming back together in wildly new configurations. Life isn’t just endings, and it isn’t just beginnings either. It is a constant interweaving of the two, and the two depend on each other. All we have to do is slow down and notice.

Impermanence Meditation

1. First, come into an alert but gentle physical posture. Locate the physical sensation of the breath in your body, and begin to bring your awareness to this feeling.

2. Take the attitude that anything that comes up is not a problem or a distraction.

3. Sit with the breath for a few minutes. When thoughts or images arise, just notice what came up, and then return to the felt sensation of the breath in the body.

4. Become curious about what the breath feels like. Notice it’s texture. Notice the way it is constantly changing.

5. Contemplate the way we might think of ‘the breath’ as one static thing, with a definite beginning and end. Then shift attention to the actual sensation of breathing. Notice if there is any difference.

6.Continue this practice for ten minutes. Whenever your mind wanders, just gently guide yourself back to the breath. Conclude by thanking yourself for practicing.

Image by Alison Scarpulla

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