We have a saying where I’m from: If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it’ll change. Perhaps you say it where you live too. Somehow it’s not difficult to see the impermanence of weather, but when it’s a difficult state of affairs, or an unwelcome emotion, it can feel like it’s here to stay.
As the pandemic rages on and people’s lives are turned upside down, it’s harder to see that this too will change. We talk about “the new normal,” as though our world were predictable, reliable, and permanent.
Buddhism, of course, reminds us that everything is impermanent. No matter how hard we try to hold on, there is nothing to grasp. But as Thich Nhat Hanh explains, impermanence also makes everything possible: “If a grain of corn were not impermanent, it could never provide us with the ear of corn we eat.” Without impermanence, there are no grandchildren, no new adventures, no changing seasons.
Sometimes we temporarily make our peace with impermanence while still deceiving ourselves with the thought that things will eventually return to the way they were. In an opinion piece for The Globe and Mail, “The life you thought you were going to have is gone,” Lori Fox names the truth: there is no going back — there never was. Fox says about this time of coronavirus: “We are allowed to be anxious and afraid right now. We have lost a world. You’ve got permission to grieve. But in doing that, we might ask if the world we have lost is really as good as we remember, if it was serving the life we hoped we would have.”
Each of us will have our own answer. Regardless, impermanence isn’t negotiable. Make no mistake, the Buddhist teachings aren’t telling us to give up or give in; rather they are inviting us to let go of grasping to a nonexistent solid self or world. As Ajahn Jayasaro points out, “It’s through the happiness of letting go that the mind becomes brave enough, and has the power, to penetrate the way things are.”
— Tynette Deveaux, editor, Buddhadharma
First published in the Lion’s Roar Weekend Reader, September 4, 2020. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.