Accepting Impermanence

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” –Heraclitus

We humans are innately wired to seek out permanence. In our evolutionary past, it was useful to be able to generalize from patterns of past experience in order to predict future events. If this one plant has killed people that ate it while this other plant has had no ill effects, then we learn which types of plant are safe and which are not. We do this by assuming a certain permanence in the world – that things will continue to be as they are. A plant that was safe yesterday won’t be poisonous today.

This innate need to seek out permanence carries over into modern life as well though. When we have a good job, are in a good relationship with a friend or lover, or are otherwise pleased with a situation, we want it to last; sometimes we even expect it to last and are surprised when it does not.

In the end, this expectation of permanence, this desire that the good things stay how they are, can trap a person. It can lead to worrying about the possibility of things slipping away and ending. Pretty soon, we get so wrapped up in the possibility that this good thing might not last that we are unable to enjoy it.

Maybe it is better to just acknowledge the impermanence in life from the start. Even if something wonderful is not likely to last forever, that need not lessen its amazingness. By recognizing that it will eventually come to an end, you can let go of the thoughts that trap you into constantly worrying about losing it. Then you are free to truly live in the present and allow yourself to be absorbed in the moment.

Sometimes when you get to the end of a really good book series or a profound movie, you want it to go on, you want there to be more. But if it tried to continue indefinitely, eventually it would lose its magic. Part of some truly deep and moving experiences is a good ending – stopping things on a good note rather than trying to drag it out into a long, withering death.

It is hard to go against our inborn desires and expectations for the good things to stay how they are – what could be more natural? – but I wonder if maybe accepting impermenance would lead to a more fulfilling life? After all, it is our experiences and memories that make us who we are, and if we try to stick with the exact same ones forever, we may miss out on what else life has to offer us.

For that matter, change may mean giving up the exact, stable configuration that things are in now, but it need not mean giving up all the good things. Things can shift for the better, and we may be surprised as how wonderful the new situation is.

“There is nothing in a caterpiller that tells you it is going to be a butterfly.” –Buckminster Fuller

Change may be evolutionary rather than sudden, a gradual metamorphosis with imperceptible small steps. In the end, looking back with nostalgia, sure some things may have been lost, but things were gained as well, and all the good new stuff would never have been possible by futilely holding on to the old.

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