Introduction to Impermanence
All conditioned things are impermanent. Strive on with diligence.
– Buddha’s final words
The Pali word for impermanence is “Anicca”. It is the basis for all Buddhist thought and practice and is the foundation of Buddhist understanding of reality.
Buddha taught us how to become equanimous in the midst of change and wiser in how we respond to what comes and goes.
He stated that for us to become free from the constant round of rebirth (samsara) and suffering, we would need to realize the changing nature of things in its true perspective, so that we could free ourselves from the need for certain experiences, attachment to self and to the illusion of permanence.
Remove the Attachment
Suffering is not necessary in the world of impermanence; suffering arises when we have attachment. When attachment disappears, impermanence no longer gives rise to suffering. The solution to suffering, then, is to end attachment, not to try to escape from the transient world.
It is possible to find ease and grace in the world of change; it is possible to trust the mind of non-clinging and so find our liberation within the world of impermanence. One means of reducing clinging is to see the transient nature of what we cling to. This insight can either show us the futility of trying to find lasting happiness in what is impermanent, or it can encourage us to examine deeply why we cling.
Three Levels of Understanding
Impermanence can be understood in three ways. First, is the obvious, ordinary understanding of impermanence. Second, is understanding from insight, from the intuitive, direct seeing of the nature of things. Finally, there is the way in which seeing impermanence can lead to liberation.
The ordinary understanding of impermanence is accessible to all; we see old age, sickness and death. We notice that things change. The seasons change, society changes, our emotions change, and the weather changes. Sometimes, realizing that an experience is impermanent, we can relax with how it is, including its coming and going. Other times, seeing that change is inevitable helps us to let go of clinging to how things are or resistance to change. And sometimes recognizing that we are all equal in being subject to ageing, sickness, and death is the basis for compassion.
What is the greatest wonder in this world? People see death all around them, but do not believe they’re going to die themselves. This is the greatest wonder.
– Yudhisthira (The Mahabarata)
While we may intellectually understand the fact of impermanence, we may not really believe it.
Wisdom can come as people age, not just from life experience, but also from increasing awareness that our own lives will end. It gets harder and harder to avoid this realization when what remains of our expected lifetime gets shorter. This often encourages people to look closely at their priorities and values. Opening to the ordinary level of impermanence in a deep and profound way can bring tremendous wisdom.
Beyond the ordinary experience of impermanence, Buddhist practice helps us open to the less immediately perceptible realm of impermanence, i.e., insight (Vipassanā) into the moment-to-moment arising and passing of every perceivable experience. With deep concentrated mindfulness, we see everything as constantly in flux, even experiences that ordinarily seem persistent.
In this deeper experience of impermanence, we realize that it doesn’t make sense to hold onto anything, even temporarily. There’s nothing that we can hold onto because everything simply flashes in and out of existence. We also realize that our clinging and resistance have very little to do with the experience itself. We mostly cling to ideas and concepts, not things or experiences in and of themselves. For example, we don’t cling to money, but to the ideas of what money means for us. In the deeper experience of mindfulness, we see that the idea of self is a form of clinging to concepts; nothing in our direct experience can qualify as a self to hold onto.
We have to nourish our insight into impermanence every day. If we do, we will live more deeply, suffer less, and enjoy life much more. Living deeply, we will touch the foundation of reality, nirvana, the world of no-birth and no-death. Touching impermanence deeply, we touch the world beyond permanence and impermanence. We touch the ground of being and see that which we have called being and non-being are just notions. Nothing is ever lost. Nothing is ever gained.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
As we see impermanence clearly, we see that there is nothing real that we can actually be attached to. Our deep-seated tendency to grasp is challenged, and so may begin to relax. We see that our experiences don’t correspond to our fixed categories, ideas, or images. We realize that reality is more fluid than any of our ideas about it.
Just close your eyes and reflect on the nature of reality as it arises and passes away in each moment.
– Mike Yap
Confronting impermanence profoundly, in this meditative way, can open us to liberation. The final, liberative level of impermanence is the movement towards letting go at the deepest level of our psyche.