Impermanence means that life is a perpetual state of transience. It reminds us of the inherent fragility of life. Impermanence is a primordial condition that conjures fear, dread, and distress. When we attempt to deny and avoid it, we become the source of our own suffering. However, impermanence and the fragility of life is also a source of clarity that can offer critical guidance in our quest to live a life worth living.
Impermanence is a principle of harmony. When we don’t struggle against it, we are in harmony with reality… Our suffering is based so much on our fear of impermanence. Our pain is rooted in our one-sided, lopsided view of reality.
– Pema Chodron in When Things Fall Apart
I find it difficult to bring myself into equilibrium with impermanence. It generates uncomfortable feelings of liminality that cannot be fully alleviated. The experiences surrounding the the loss of my parents brings the fragility of life into vivid focus. I find it impossible to shield my curiosity from impermanence. It is an allurement that haunts the human condition.
Our Fear of Impermamence
Impermanence is worthy of our fear. Our task is not to struggle against our fear of impermanence; it is to inhabit our fear and learn from it. In other words, our fear of impermanence is a vital learning environment.
To become sentimental about the nature of impermanence is detrimental to our wellbeing. To dismiss it as being too sad is to hide behind a dilapidated shield of superficiality. To frame as something that is too morbid to investigate is to cower behind denial. All we can do is make an honest and humble attempt to grapple with a phenomenon we can never fully understand.
The experience of aging in the second half of life brings each one of us into closer proximity with the biological realm of impermanence. Functional decline is the physiological essence of our transience. We are born into impermanence, and it eventually turns each one of us into a ghost.
Our fear of impermanence is justifiable and genuine, but that does not mean we should attempt to hide from it. Courage is not the elimination of fear; it is the acceptance of fear. Our tendency is to try and struggle against an uncomfortable reality when our real task is to move deeper into it.
The Fragile Nature of Life
The word fragile comes from Latin fragilis, which means “to break.” Life is something that is breakable. Our expectations exist in a state of relentless fragility. Our course in life is vulnerable to the unexpected. Our sense of identity is in a state of constant flux. And our purpose in life is subject to complete transformation.
Of course, the elephant in the room is death. Aging means that our physical embodiment is a child of impermanence. However, death is not something that is fragile or vulnerable to human intervention. It makes our presence here brief and fleeting. Death is the end of impermanence.
Our state of mind is embedded inside a constant state of flux. Thoughts, memories, emotions, feelings, sensations, and intuitions are always momentary. Even a single memory is never recalled in exactly in the same way because we always revisit it from a different location in time.
The experience of our everyday lives is a confluence of situations and circumstances that we cannot fully predict or control. Sometimes our assumptions and beliefs about how to live are threatened by the emergence of the unexpected.
Adapting to Loss
Life has jagged edges. There is no way to avoid the experience of loss. The familiar always morphs into the unknown without our permission. The amount of loss we are required to encounter along the way is staggering.
Still, the experience of loss is natural, normal, and unavoidable. It informs us that we are in far less control than we imagine. And it advises us to broaden and expand our sense of gratitude for what we can enjoy in the here and now.
We live in a constant state of flux. Loved ones and friends disappear from our lives, and we encounter the primal meaning of absence. A disease or accident may threaten our life expectancy or fundamentally change our ability to interact with the world around us. The vagaries of old age may begin to impact our independence and mobility. Everything we experience is in a constant state of motion.
As we become older, the cumulative effects of loss begin to infiltrate the feeling of being alive. Some people become wooden; they mire themselves in a struggle for constancy. Their thinking becomes rigid and predictable. They maintain patterns of living that create the illusion of uniformity. They obsess in rituals of busyness and distraction that are exhausting, superficial, and often mindless.
It is wrong to say that becoming older means becoming increasingly inflexible. Aging has nothing to do with this. Inflexibility is a choice we make, consciously or otherwise. Senescence means that our body must endure functional decline; it does not mean that our personality must deteriorate as well. A person that becomes wooden in later life has repressed their creative spirit.
Impermamence is Essential
Impermanence has a remarkable way of imbuing our life with a renewed sense of urgency. However, I do not mean urgency in the sense of hurry up and live while there is still time; I mean a sense of urgency that helps to clarify what is essential in life, and what can be released.
The Way of the Essentialist… [is] about regaining control of our own choices about where to spend our time and energies instead of giving others implicit permission to choose for us.
– Greg McKeown
Essentialism is an environment to clarify the significance, purpose, and meaning of our life. It helps us to understand that all forms of work are secondary to the sense of vocation that inspires us to live a life of our very own. A vocation is not an expression of rampant individualism; a vocation is an innate quest to do something good for self and others at the same time.
To clarify that which matters most in our life can place us into direct conflict with the norms, expectations, and requirements of society. To some extent, society means that we all must endure various forms of economic servitude that reduce work to financial survival. In this sense, society is the space in which we become entranced, wounded, and misdirected.
To seek out that which is essential in life is to reclaim life as our own. Of course, we still must find a way to participate in our home society, but the nature of our contribution comes from the space of clarity of identity, purpose, and motivation. Pursuing essentialism rather than just business is perhaps the ideal purpose of entrepreneurship.
Impermamence is a Privilege
It is difficult to transform the harsh reality of impermanence into something that feels like a privilege.
An initial step is to acknowledge that impermanence the natural medium of the human condition. It is a source of change that is beyond our capacity to fully understand or control. To grapple with impermanence is to come into contact the impenetrable mystery of our existence.
From here we have a choice to make. We can retreat behind a fear of our own conjuring, or we can accept our fear and try to make ourselves large enough to move toward it. More than an act of courage, this is an act of humility because we are moving toward something that will never fully reveal itself.
In the end, impermanence helps us to perceive a larger sense of connection and belonging. We are all embedded in nature and the mysterious forces of life that animate our planet.
Impermanence retrieves the wisdom of humility and reminds us that we have been given the privilege of life by forces of nature that provide the underlying ground for all life.