Death has a remarkable way of focusing our attention on that which matters most in life. In a certain sense, we are all the unwilling apprentices of our own disappearance. The impermanence of life conjures fear, denial, and avoidance. Our natural tendency is to turn away from sources of distress. Contemplating the fragile and finite nature of our life is uncomfortable, but perhaps our discomfort has something of value to offer. It may be that impermanence is also a source of clarity that offers guidance in how to live a life worth living.
Death and dying make me feel vulnerable. Whenever I explore impermanence I immediately begin reminiscing about people in my own circle of life that have died, and especially the experiences surrounding the death of my parents. But my feelings of vulnerability also generate a different kind of awareness, that is, a consciousness of belonging to forces of existence too large for my comprehension to grasp.
Vulnerability is a form of participation; it is not a form of weakness. The impermanence of my body clarifies the outrageous reality that my being is animated by a force that grants me the privilege of life coupled with the harsh reality of my own mortality. This collision causes my attention to shift away from the daily onslaught of tasks and routines toward a consciousness of belonging to a great mystery.
Once we begin to fully appreciate that our life here is brief and fleeting, we are met by a sense of urgency. We may begin to vigorously question the significance, purpose, and meaning of our life. This kind of conscious awareness weakness the routine distractions we tend to hide behind. We may begin to realize that important parts of our identity have been buried underneath the ruins of our busyness. Even though the discomfort of impermanence can foster desperation, the same discomfort may also broaden and expand our relationship with time.
Impermanence is the essence of time. Authentic time is a feeling, that is, the true expression of time is revealed as biology not technology. Chronological time is a mechanical abstraction. The felt-meaning of time originates in our body. The act of breathing is a profound and intimate connection with time. Our heart is the rhythm of life. Time is an extension of touch.
In a personal sense, impermanence means that old age is a privilege. We are here for an uncertain amount of time. There is no way to know how long we will live. Some of us reach old age, while others will not be as fortunate. This is a harsh reality that clarifies the wisdom of using our time meaningfully and intentionally.
In a collective sense, impermanence means that we will experience the loss people we care about. This form of loss is strongly felt inside the family. The death of a grandparent or parent is a painful experience that fundamentally redefines family dynamics. The premature death of a younger member of the family generates a profound sense of tragedy. Transience permeates the family experience. Impermanence reminds us that spending time with those we care about most is an essential priority in life.
We all wear the masks of a particular culture. All forms of culture are experiments in how to live, and in this sense we have all been assimilated by a hypothesis. Impermanence is not conjecture; it is a basic truth that invites each one of us to step outside our assumptions about how to live. In this sense, impermanence is an invitation to cultivate a sense of connection that rises above the convenient assumptions of our own culture.
In the end, perhaps impermanence can help us to clarify this larger sense of connection and belonging. Every human life is unified by the mysteries embedded in the larger realm of nature. Humility reminds us that we are really no different than any other form of life.
We are all pilgrims on the frontiers of impermanence.