By Ross Cloney
A love letter to impermanence is an odd thing to dedicate a letter to, isn’t it?
The idea that everything will fade away, dust to dust and all that. Nothing lasts, and we suffer because we want to hold onto things forever despite it being as impractical as holding onto sunlight.
(Boom, there’s a noble truth for you).
I’ve been thinking a fair bit about impermanence lately. Thankfully putting the thoughts into words required me sitting down and typing it out instead of talking about it, because otherwise I’d be that guy at the party who kills the mood when you just want to talk about what’s on Netflix.
Why have I been meditating on this topic? Lots of reasons really. Partly because I’ve been watching a BBC science documentary about the planets, and when the narrator is talking about events that happened billions of years ago—or may happen billions of years hence—a small part of my brain stares into the endless void of the Deep Time and chuckles nervously.
Also, given the current state of politics around the world (the formal term is ‘dumpster fire’) I can’t deny that “This too will pass” is starting to border on being a mantra.
And I’m totally in a getting into a philosophical open relationship because in addition to my Zen-ish leanings, I’ve been seeing the Stoics every so often. The Stoics are great, talk a lot about impermanence and have a way with words:
“Bear in mind that everything that exists is already fraying at the edges, and in transition, subject to fragmentation and to rot. “ ~ Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)
Should we think about the transitory nature of things as rot? Rot is not inherently a bad thing, it’s the breaking down of what is to provide the source of what is to come. Maybe impermanence should not be viewed as things falling apart, but as the engine that drives change. You can see Aurelius coming close to the idea of emptiness with his remark that everything that exists is in transition. It’s here, in the emptiness of inherent existence that I find my love letter taking form.
Nothing is fixed in place or being.
Imagine if we could take this truth of the world, so subtle and pervasive that we fail to notice it, and apply it fully and open heartedly to everything. Imagine the radical freedom that it would represent to be unfixed from ideas of what we should be or of our place in the world, to be authentically whom and what we are in the present moment.
Maybe because it is Pride season, but I can’t help but remember the joy and relief that comes from letting go of the idea that you should be a certain way—that the world around you is telling you to be a certain way—and just being who you are. I sit in zazen and my heart aches for the suffering of countless beings caused by trying to rigidly fix ideas of how people should be instead of letting people just be.
I won’t deny that I’ve had flashes and struggles with the undercurrents of nihilism that can come from the idea of emptiness.
After all, if everything is in transition and rot then maybe we should sit back and let the world fall apart. What draws me back is that there is a goal to work towards—awakening, enlightenment, the liberation of all beings from suffering (that last one is a big one for me). This realisation about the briefness of all things can be used to for the goal of radical freedom for all things.
Buddhism has been described as medicine for a sick world but for me, it’s been a universal solvent.
The more I study and practice—infrequent and imperfect as my formal practice of sitting zazen is—the more it dissolves away preconceptions, ideas and beliefs that I’ve carried around for a long time. What’s left is of such straightforward simplicity that looks like common sense from one angle and from another; something of just transformative power I’m still trying to understand the implications.
I’m new-ish to being Zen-ish and I feel like I’m standing in the sea just deep enough that I begin to recognise the vastness of the ocean. It’s scary and vast and full of wonder and challenging and suggests that over the horizon, if you work hard enough and travel the way, a better type of life is possible.
How could anyone not love being given this feeling?
Oh and for anyone that might remember my first article on The Tattooed Buddha, where I admitted I lacked even a Buddha statue to mediate with? I got myself one. Progress.
Ross Cloney is where the Venn diagram of people who are interested in molecular biology, Buddhism, zombies and home brewing intersect. He sometimes thinks a sutra on how to be a 30-something gay man in London (from a Buddhist perspective) would be mega-useful, but acknowledges it is rather niche.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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