“If we are not empty, we become a block of matter. We cannot breathe, we cannot think. To be empty means to be alive, to breathe in and to breathe out. We cannot be alive if we are not empty. Emptiness is impermanence, it is change. We should not complain about impermanence, because without impermanence, nothing is possible.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Being alive means facing change. It can be gut wrenchingly painful to truly accept the inevitability of change and the impermanence of all things in life. Many of us cling to images of who we believe ourselves to be or to have been, vehemently denying the physical, mental, and emotional changes that naturally occur over time. We may also find ourselves entrenched in deep-seated denial that others around us are changing, too. Not only must we accept that all material things are subject to change, but also that they are impermanent.
Take a moment to look around you – notice the delicate temporary nature to all things in their material forms. Rather than allowing this recognition of impermanence to instill fear in your heart, consider the potential for increasing mindful awareness, deepening and cherishing relationships, and discovering yourself amidst change. As soon as it becomes clear that each passing moment is a gift that you can choose to connect with or not, your perspective on how you live your life may begin to shift.
Attachments & Human Suffering
Consider how it is through clinging that suffering occurs. The recognition and acceptance of impermanence does not require clinging to what we perceive ourselves to possess – be it intellect, good looks, money, material goods, or loving relationships. None of these things were ever truly “ours” to begin with… embracing impermanence means mindful awareness and acceptance of this simple truth. When we allow the vice-like grip we often wield over these attachments to loosen – fear may arise at first – but ultimately the process of letting go can free us from unnecessary suffering.
When we find ourselves particularly attached to people, things, or symbols that we have internalized as part of our true identity, it can be especially painful to let them go. Imagine the pain that someone might feel who built his or her entire life around building and loving their family, only to watch them all leave. Or perhaps reflect on the pain of spending years of one’s life pursuing a cherished goal or dream, only to fall short or have it taken away. The suffering is in the clinging, not in the loss itself.
This is not to imply that losses and changes cannot be devastating. Most of us have experienced the visceral emotional pain of losing some part of who we thought we were or wanted to be, losing a relationship we thought would last “forever,” or losing sight of a dream that we once held. It is possible to relate to the suffering that arises from such losses in a new way. Just as change is inevitable, so is pain… it is the suffering that is optional.
Change & Resistance
If we are all aware (whether we choose to consciously focus on it or not) of impermanence and the constancy of change, then why do we often direct such powerful physical, mental, and emotional resources toward resistance? For many people in our Western culture, identity is shaped and molded based on external criteria, which can lead to the development of and powerful attachment to the false ego. Perhaps it is no wonder that when changes occur, our tenacious attachments can result in an experience of emotionally falling apart or becoming unglued. It is as if powerful illusions that have been governing our lives have been exposed.
What now? What do we do when the false self becomes unmasked and illusions of who we thought we were are brought into the light? Adopting a mindset and attitude of acceptance and flexibility not only decreases suffering in the face of change, it can also lead to flourishing. It is during these times when we can choose to embrace impermanence and use the experience of change as an opportunity to discover the authentic self behind the illusory mask and build a life based on that discovery.
What might it be like for you to express gratitude for a recent painful loss/change in your life, rather than choose to depress or rage against it? Perhaps the change feels unwanted, inconvenient, or has resulted in painful emotions. While this may be the case, consider how different your internal experience would be if you were to direct radical acceptance toward the change and allow your heart to express gratitude for being presented with this newfound wealth of opportunities for self-discovery and growth.
Attachments & Illusions
The cyclical and infinite nature of change underlies the foundation of our lives. When we choose to embrace the impermanence of all things with an attitude of acceptance, wisdom, and compassion, a part of ourselves that may have been dormant for years becomes alive… awakened to the profound meaning of living fully in the present moment. There is no need for grasping or clinging to false attachments. Once the authentic self recognizes those attachments as illusory in nature, it becomes apparent that the false self has been clinging to the unreal.
Our minds have developed the ability to mix the “real” with the “unreal” to such a great extent, that it may feel impossible to even notice the difference. Development of a regular mindfulness meditation practice can be helpful in gaining clarity in this way. Our thoughts and emotions can become quickly activated by unpleasant events, leading to physiological changes that may take place immediately. We may remain attached to the painful mental or emotional state evoked by the unpleasant event for days, months, or even years – unwilling to engage in acceptance and the process of letting go.
3 Layers of Emotional Responding
“An Eastern Perspective on Change” explores the concept of three layers or levels of emotional responding: (1) emotions are dormant and unactivated, (2) emotions have been stirred up by an unpleasant thought/memory or event, and (3) emotions spill over into verbal and physical action(s). Dwivedi (2006) explains that between the second and third layers resides a “gear box,” wherein the relationship between the amount of emotions and amount of actions is dependent upon what “gear” we are in at the time. An example of being in “neutral” and essentially revving the engine occurs when emotions arise in dreams, yet little action occurs. Another example would be the experience of being in “reverse” – feeling one way, yet behaving in a quite different way. (Another way to think about aspects of this experience in CBT terms is cognitive dissonance.)
Buddhist teacher Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923) explained this idea of three layers or levels of emotional responding through the use of metaphor. Imagine three levels of fire in a box of matches. Generally, fire is manifested when a match is struck. Sayadaw likened this to “the second level of fire and is analogous to a mental object striking on the consciousness and stirring up feelings.” At the third level of fire, the burning match makes contact with flammable objects, similarly to “the emotionally charged person coming in contact with an external object and intense feelings spilling over into vocal and/or physical action.” It is the first level of fire that resembles our dormant or preconscious predispositions toward emotional responses.
Dwivedi (2006) states that these dormant or latent predispositions are the product of illusory processes that create a deep sense of “self.” It is in the presence of these illusory processes (when a mental object strikes consciousness), that emotions become stirred up as a result of a lack of mindfulness. He goes on to explain that “it is because of poor mindfulness that a mental object is not appreciated as only a mental object (ideation, memory, and so on) and is responded to as if it is a real object” (p. 209). At the second level, our emotions become activated and our minds begin responding to the mental object as if it were real. Finally, the third level of physical or verbal responding may occur as an interactive result of coming into contact with a physical representation of the mental object and poor volitional control.
How does one begin to apply these concepts of impermanence, change, illusions, releasing the false self, and emotional responding to build a more mindful, balanced, and authentic life? These are all complex and nuanced processes that involve a continual rededication to the ongoing journey of self-actualization and enlightenment. Dwivedi (2006) brings awareness back to the ways meditation can serve as an excellent first step toward regulating emotions, increasing mindfulness, and discovering yourself in the midst of change:
- Development of wisdom, piercing through the deep-seated illusion of the false self, and no longer taking things so “personally” as a result of this shift in awareness.
- Expanding consciousness, increasing awareness of subtle emotions/hidden feelings, and being able to manage mental operations and emotional responses more effectively as a result.
- Learning to detect emotional responses sooner, using them as “signals” to employ effective interpersonal skills, coping strategies, or distress tolerance skills.
- Learning how to harness the energy and power of emotions so that they may be used constructively and creatively.
Embracing impermanence enables you to mindfully recognize opportunities hidden within challenges, increase gratitude in the present moment, and release the unnecessary clinging to attachments. This process of discovery is much like meeting your authentic self for the first time, free from grasping at illusions. From this calm and centered place, you have the freedom to express true joy, love, and connectedness without being held back by doubt and fear. All we have is this moment – right now. How might your life change if you began to embrace impermanence without fear and allow your true self to respond to change with flexibility and acceptance?
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Dwivedi, K. N. (2006). An Eastern perspective on change. Clinical Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 11, 205-212.
LaBier, D. (2012, March 17). Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-new-resilience/201203/live-impermanenceand-discover-your-true-self
Featured image: Starburst Cluster Shows Celestial Fireworks by NASA Goddard Photo and Video / CC BY 2.0