The power of Impermanence: how to live a more meaningful life

By Débora Tejera | Learn mindfulness

An hourglass

For me, Impermanence is one of those “big” words, like Acceptance, Emptiness or Silence. Words that connect you with something profound, with something that transcends you.

Impermanence is one of those concepts that you understand intellectually: “Life is continual change”, “Nothing stays the same, everything is in flux”, “We begin to die when we are born”...

These are truths that we know and repeat, but you don’t really understand them until you experience them. Until they touch your heart and you have no choice but to confront them head-on.

The death of a loved one. Discovering that you have a serious illness. The break-up of a relationship. Losing your job...

Knowing that at some point in our lives we will all experience the “Law of Impermanence” doesn’t solve the problem. Because it’s one thing to have the intellectual knowledge that things are like this – “everything passes”, “everything is ephemeral” – and quite another to try to move on with your life when your whole world is turned upside down.

When you’re in the midst of the process of loss, experiencing fear, anger, sadness and/or anxiety, what you need is to find a healthy and practical way to relate to the situation. To understand what’s happening to you and to choose a path that allows you to respect both yourself and your process.

You have to stop thinking and start feeling, and that can only be done through the pain that’s usually associated with loss.

A question of degree

There’s no question: everything is in continual flux. The seasons, technology, our bodies, the emotions we feel... Even fashion! Everything is changing all the time, whether we’re aware of it or not.

However, even when we know that that the only constant is change, it affects us in different ways.

When evolution is constant and gradual, it usually goes unnoticed. We realise the differences only if we have a point of reference in the past with which we can compare the present situation.

For example, try taking a photograph of yourself now and another one in a year’s time. When you have them, place them in front of you and observe them. If you look at them closely, you’ll realise that you have aged.

And if you want to be more conscious of the process, take one photograph each month over the same period of time.

Maybe a new wrinkle here, a couple of gray hairs there. Subtle and natural differences that we only appreciate when we pay conscious attention to them and measure them in some way. They’re there, but we don’t normally notice them because they’re so small.

However, these types of changes don’t disturb us as much as those that imply an abrupt transition from one state to another.

In this case, there’s no progression, no gradual evolution. The change happens suddenly and we simply don’t have time to adjust, to get used to the idea.

When these types of twists occur in your life, your sense of stability and security breaks like a glass in front of your eyes. Up until a moment ago there was something... someone... and now there isn’t. Or life has brought you something that previously didn’t exist for you, that you knew nothing about.

In this sense, the more sudden, unwanted and difficult the change, the more likely it is to shake our internal structures and our entire world.

Therefore, in circumstances such as these, it’s vital to have appropriate mechanisms to manage the situation in a constructive and healthy manner.

Starting to take the reins

As we saw at the beginning of this article, there’s a big difference between knowing something intellectually and having practical experience of it. Father Anthony de Mello expresses this in a very lucid way: “Nobody has ever got drunk by intellectually understanding the word WINE.”

Only when we integrate knowledge into our lives through experience can we really understand. And only then can it become part of the way we relate to the world.

We know that everything evolves or ceases to exist. This is a reality, whether you like it or not. You can choose to breathe, accept it and embrace it. Or you can choose to get angry, resist it and rebel against it. It’s up to you.

So, the question becomes: how do we obtain, integrate and develop the tools that allow us to sustain ourselves in an effective way and at the same time be respectful with ourselves and those who are around us?

After all, we don’t live in a bubble. Everything is interconnected, so what we do directly or indirectly affects our environment and has repercussions that we may not be able to understand.

At this point, it’s important to remember that we all have within us the means to choose one way or another: the path of resistance or the path of acceptance. Our brains are perfectly equipped to allow us to select the decision we want to make.

While it’s true that the nervous system allows us to address stressful situations with “fight or flight” reactions, we must also bear in mind that this isn’t the only coping mechanism we have. We can all consciously choose how we respond to a situation that confronts us, taking care of ourselves with lucid choices that promote our well-being and seeking the support of our family and friends.

“This too shall pass”: the two sides of the coin that you shouldn’t forget

As the ancient Sufi tale This too shall pass teaches us, Impermanence also has its positive side. If everything is constantly changing, then the pain and suffering that we may be experiencing is also transient. It will also pass.

Sometimes it’s hard to wake up to the reality that your life has turned 180 degrees, but these circumstances won’t last forever. Understanding that the intense emotional process associated with abrupt and sudden change will also pass can be of great help in times of transition.

So perhaps the key to reconciling ourselves with the idea of Impermanence is to keep in mind that what we consider good, what we consider bad – absolutely everything – has an expiration date.

When we realise this, our vision widens. We gain the clarity and perspective necessary to face what happens to us in a more compassionate, healthy and respectful way.

Becoming aware of this reality, then, is a powerful motivation to find meaning in our lives. If, in the end, everything passes... if at some point we’re going to die and leave behind all material things... perhaps we should seriously consider: what’s really valuable to me? How can I make sense of my life? How can I live a more meaningful life?

This helps us put into perspective what we’re doing with the time that has been given to us and what we really want to do. Perhaps the situation we’re going through, which is initially causing us so much conflict and discomfort, is the trigger we need to review our priorities. To wake up.

Understanding that this too shall pass makes us more present in our relationships. Most of us tend to take for granted what we have, without giving it the value it deserves.

When you become aware of all the love that surrounds you and how lucky you are, you begin to appreciate what others bring to your life. And, in return, you begin to give the best of you.

This is, without a doubt, the best way to create deep and meaningful relationships with others.

Likewise, when you begin to truly open yourself to the understanding that everything is ephemeral, a genuine appreciation for beauty, for nature, for all the LIFE that surrounds you, unfolds inside you. You become more conscious. You are more present. Savouring every moment.

Embrace Impermanence...

Remember: managing change is a process that varies not only from person to person, but also from one circumstance to another. Perhaps it’s easy for you to manage a difficult situation at one point in your life and yet, the next time you have to face it, you find it extremely difficult.

This is something natural; it happens to everyone. If we take into account the Law of Impermanence, no situation that is repeated will be lived in the same way, because neither the scenario nor the actors involved are the same. Heraclitus said this in his famous line (summarising, by the way, the perfection of Impermanence): “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

So, we return to the question we asked ourselves a moment ago: how do we obtain, integrate and develop the tools that allow us to sustain ourselves in an effective way and at the same time be respectful with ourselves and those who are around us? Where can we find an effective and practical mechanism? Not a mere theory but something implementable, something that we can use and that’s within our reach at times of instability and imbalance.

For me, the answer lies within me. In connecting with myself and listening to my own voice.

In keeping myself attentive and alert to everything that’s unfolding inside and outside me: what happens, how I interpret it, what I think, what I feel, what the other people involved in this situation are experiencing. With a compassionate and non-judgemental attitude. At the end of the day, I do the best I can, with the degree of consciousness that I have at each moment.

... pause...

When you’re in one of those situations where you feel that life is starting to turn upside down, or you’re simply saturated and feel that the burden you’re carrying is too much at that moment, allow yourself to pause.

Just stop. Give yourself a space to feel. Let the emotions flow, softly and gently, being conscious of your limits at all times, so you don’t cause yourself pain.

Inhale and exhale with awareness.

Again.

And once more.

Sometimes we need to stop. Switch off the computer. Disconnect the phone. Gather ourselves in silence. Be there for ourselves.

Give ourselves a moment and a space in which to be alone. And nothing more.

I’m sure that if a close relative or your best friend needed you to be there for them, you’d give your body and soul to help them, right? Well, do the same for yourself.

Frequently, we’re so afraid of our emotions overflowing, of losing control, that we don’t give them an opportunity to express themselves.

We need, then, to find a compassionate and respectful way to accept what is.

A way that doesn’t anaesthetise the pain, but that doesn’t make you wallow in it either.

That allows you to be alive and attentive, present in the face of anything that’s happening.

That lets you pause when you feel things are too much and reminds you with enthusiasm that you have to continue your journey.

Remember that what you pay attention to becomes a reality in your life.

Just breathe and become aware of your breathing. Over and over again.

Create for yourself the welcoming space you deserve.

If you allow it to happen, you’ll see that the answers you already have inside you will become clearer and clearer.

... and simply be

In the end, it’s about acceptance. Pain is part of life and we can experience great growth when we embrace it and accept its teaching.

Commit yourself, then, to a constructive way of facing what is. Being more present. Attentive. Alive. So that you can find comfort and relief in others. And so that you can also be there for them.

Always remember this: although sometimes you can’t change the reality of what you have to face, you can always consciously choose the attitude with which you experience it.

You always have a choice.

That is and will always be your ultimate freedom.

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