I have been thinking quite a bit lately about change and uncertainty. As I look forward to the next steps I hope to take with my career, and the decision my fiancé and I will soon make about where we want to live, I find myself longing for stability. I want to know what my career will look like, what city we will settle in. But of course, life is ever changing and fighting uncertainty only causes anxiety.
I recently read this article by Norman Fischer in the Shambhala Sun about Buddhist conceptions of impermanence. Many Buddhists and meditation practitioners view impermanence as, “a problem to be overcome with diligent effort on the path,” Fischer says. By contrast, he explains that the twelfth-century Japanese Zen master Dogen views the path – or practice – not as a way to cope with impermanence, but as a way of living that allows us to fully appreciate the constant change inherent in existence.
Similarly, Fischer points out that, for most of us, impermanence is not something we deal with in the present moment. The painful parts of impermanence – the passing of loved ones, the loss of one’s health, and ultimately our own deaths – are all things that (we imagine) will happen in the future. So we tend to see impermanence as something that will cause us pain down the road. Of course, the “future” will come, and in that moment, we will experience the pain of impermanence. But for the majority of the time we spend on Earth, we are not experiencing those moments. So for the most part, we imagine the pain caused by impermanence as something that will happen later.
On the other hand, Dogen views impermanence not just as loss, but as change. We are always changing. We are not static, whether we are presently experiencing pain and loss or not. Impermanence is not just the future loss of something we want to hold onto – it is the condition of our being. Therefore, practitioners should seek not to transcend the pain of change and loss but to appreciate impermanence – both its agonizing and its joyful elements – as the nature of existence.
This idea is fascinating to me. When I think about impermanence – or my fear of uncertainty – I tend to think about all of the things that could go wrong in the future. All of the things I could lose. But approaching impermanence as more of a neutral force, as the condition of our being, somehow seems to make the uncertainty of it seem less daunting. Realizing that every moment is characterized by impermanence and that, consequently, the future will be no more impermanent than the present, is surprisingly reassuring.