The Illusion Of Permanence

Photo: adam*b

My wife and son recently returned from a trip to Florida where they were visiting my in-laws.  They were gone for only six days, but when they returned, my son seemed somehow older (that is, by more than just six days).  I was once again reminded of the important Buddhist truth that everything—everything—is impermanent.  I was also reminded just how blind we all are to this truth.  And not just how blind we all are to it:  how even when we’re forced to confront it, we resist doing so.

Yet how much happier we all could be if we instead accepted it.  “Life is change,” I’ve been fond of saying for years, but I don’t know that I’m any better at really grasping this truth than anyone to whom I’ve said it.  Part of the problem is that if we were to unroll our lives on a long piece of paper and graph both its major and minor changes, we’d find the vast majority of the graph would be flat.  In other words, we spend most of our lives living the same way, doing the same things—even thinking the same thoughts—and only occasionally undergoing even minor shifts that lead to our doing and thinking new things  And then of course we do and think them until the next shift.

Thus, our lives appear to us to be mostly unchanging.  Which represents perhaps the biggest obstacle to our embracing change:  we spend so little time experiencing change that we notice.  Which means we get little practice preparing for it.

It’s no great secret we’re built to attach to things.  But at least part of the strength with which we form attachments is mediated by the mistaken belief that we’ll always have the things to which we’re attached just as they are, supported by the additional mistaken belief that our ability to keep them as they are is also within our control.

Our belief that life isn’t change isn’t so much a delusion, however, as it is a misconception.  For if we were to broaden our perspective and consider the frequency of change throughout humankind’s history—or better yet, throughout the history of the cosmos—it would quickly become clear that change is the rule, not the exception.

The point then is to take a lesson from history and cosmology:  change is common, not rare.  And inevitable.  The only thing we really get to influence about change is its direction.  But if we approach change reluctantly, refusing to acknowledge it as life’s basic rhythm, and instead foolishly devote our energies to trying to prevent change, we’ll miss the opportunity to influence the shape of things to come.

The key, I believe, is embracing change as exciting.  Sometimes this is easy (when the way things currently stand is bad).  Other times, however, we resist change because we like things the way they are and presume that changing them will inevitably lead to something worse.  But our vision is limited and we’re often surprised by just how much better already-good things can become.  Though sometimes we’re right and we end up longing for how good things once were, the solution to that conundrum lies in the making of a simple determination (simple in theory, at least):  to enjoy what there is to enjoy, and to surrender it when it’s over.

We may look at change with dread instead of anticipation, but the alternative to change would actually be worse:  stagnation and boredom.  Luckily, though change itself may be inevitable, how we look at it is entirely up to us.

Next WeekHow To Ask The Right Questions

9 comments to The Illusion Of Permanence

  • The message was right on time, Alex. I like this:

    “But our vision is limited and we’re often surprised by just how much better already-good things can become.”

    Yes, vision (sight) is not our strong suit. But how do you make change an “exciting” project when you’d prefer your rut; at least you know its confines (*sigh*). Would you call it a “leap of faith”?

    Lisa: If a leap of faith, then one in ourselves—in our ability to change poison into medicine.

    Alex

  • Anne in KC

    The change which I know is coming to all eventually is that we die at some point. Knowing and accepting and even incorporating that reality into life is difficult for me. For as long as I can remember I have had I guess best described as separation anxiety. I have a hard time thinking about the time when someone is missing forever. Since I am older (who knew?) than both my children it is most logical/probable that I will someday be separated from them. We have depended on each other for emotional support, for a friendly ear when no one else is, and yes, a shoulder to cry on and know that the person attached to the shoulder cares about us. I have recently helped one of my children through a most difficult time and oddly enough he did the same for me. We both suffered seriously lapses of faith and hope that there might be a better tomorrow at the same time. Promising to help the other through helped us both and drew us closer. Which is and was a beautiful thing. I haven’t felt this close to him since he was just a young boy and it is a gift to me to have those feelings revisited. I can’t begin to describe how going through these terrible times together made us both aware what a beautiful thing it is to have family who cares, really. As beautiful as it is I KNOW that it will not last forever. I recently promised my son that he has my love and support FOREVER. But is that a lie? I can only love him for as long as I’m alive would be more accurate? I’m not sure what anyone else believes about eternity but that word has mostly been a frightening concept to me and I have hoped there is no such thing. But now I do not want to believe that anymore, I want to believe that all those we care about here on earth will be reunited some day in a better place, and that I can actually love my son forever just as I promised. I do not want to believe there will come a time when things/lives/relationships end forever.

    I’m curious what others believe about the existence or not of a life hereafter, of eternity. It seems sort of unlikely to me but if there can be life on this earth and love why is it so hard to believe that it could not also exist in another place and time, reunited with loved ones? I’m afraid my mind is stuck in some sort of endless loop here. We have varying OPINIONS about what lies beyond but does anyone have proof? I don’t know. Do I wish I did?

    Anne: I don’t know if you’ll find this comforting or not, but sometimes I think what really scares us about dying isn’t so much dying itself as it is the concept of eternity. My mind swims when I wrap it around either concept too tightly. I would add one thing, though: we don’t argue a movie isn’t enjoyable because it ends. Why should we then argue that about our lives?

    Alex

  • mitch chiger

    Love the movie analogy. Helps a lot.

  • Glenn

    Re: “what others believe about the existence or not of a life hereafter, of eternity”:

    Since you asked: don’t know; can’t know (this side of death and, perhaps, forever). Ergo, might as well get on livin’.

  • Laura

    Sometimes though, stagnation and boredom can seem like the better option. I don’t like this, but I know I’ve chosen it at times to avoid the unknown.

    I’m thinking about the issue that we don’t have an opportunity to practice change as much. I think that’s very true. People don’t die the way they use to (that sounded funny, you know what I mean—you can get to 30 or 40 and never known anyone who has died). I’m thinking that hunters and gatherers and nomadic people knew change and impermanence very well—every day was likely very different from the next. When we settled down after the agricultural revolution it seems that we made a choice on the side of stability/safety rather than change. And as a result, our mind-set changed in that we now believe things “should” last forever (i.e., marriage). The layers of denial are deep.

  • willy

    Sometime we make a habit out of something. This function can be automatic lower brain stem function that has not been used and then we consciously see a new behavior and revise our habit. A recent book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, illustrates the fact that 40% of what we do is habit and not conscious behavior. Maybe when we realize what part of the brain is conscious behavior and what part is subconscious we can modify our reasoning and improve our habit. With habit, we cannot see the change until we join a new group or see a disaster in our life and revise it with conscious revision.

  • Just catching up on your blogs after a busy couple of weeks! Just have to say that I enjoy the insightful responses of all the readers almost as much as your blog, Alex. What a gift to have so many intelligent followers! :)

    This posting made me think of the line from Daniel Kahneman’s book, “(We are happy if we) spend most of our time engaged in activities that we would rather continue than stop, little time in situations we with to escape, and—very important because life is short—not too much time in a neutral state in which we would not care either way.”

    Without change I think we spend too much time in that “neutral” state. Negative changes are unpleasant, but at least they often motivate us to swing change into the opposite direction, which spurs us to action.

  • Yes, I am transient. And this universe is transient. I am not worried about the latter, but I am concerned about the former. My concern is to see that I do not contribute actively to it. And whatever change I can conceive of which could help to make my life more pleasant and fruitful I embrace it with both hands. I used to think in the past that I had all the time in the world and to spare to do what ever I liked. Now I get more and more unsure of that. Hence I welcome change with open hands, the more and more I age. I used to burn. Now I smoulder. You can feel my warmth.

  • Wayne Diotte

    Exactly! My sentiments experienced when I first wrote in 1977 as a young man: “EVERY NOW IS PERFECT, LET IT CHANGE, LET IT CHANGE.”

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