How Do I Listen to others? As if everyone were my Master Speaking to me His Cherished Last Words.”
Change and impermanence are really the only certainties in our lives. Everything changes – day into night; summer into autumn; clouds into rain, and life into death… into life. Some things – like weather – change quickly and so we can easily recognize this changing nature. Other things, like our bodies, change more subtly, and so we only notice these changes as years pass by. Still other phenomena — like rocks or mountains, glaciers or galaxies — change so slowly that we do not generally notice these transformations from our relative human perspective.
We spend much of our lives separated from the truth of change and impermanence. We rush around in our busyness and responsibilities, taking our loved ones, our blessings, and our very life for granted, as if they will always be here. Living in this illusion, we sacrifice who and what is most important to us, delaying our joy, rest or meaning until retirement, ..until our vacation, ..or until another time we haven’t quite figured out yet…
In Buddhism, there is a practice called the Five Remembrances that keeps us in touch with this basic nature of all things. They are often translated as follows:
- I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
- I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health.
- I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
- All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
- My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
This practice reminds us that we can not escape old age, sickness, death, loss, and the consequences of our actions and words. They are rather part of the nature of being human. While we prefer not to think about these truths, we all quietly recognize that our own body, our loved ones, and everything we hold dear, will change and disappear from our relative perspective. And so we fill our lives with distraction, turning away from the fear and vulnerability that arises from this realization, without truly understanding the precious opportunity that impermanence offers. The invitation of these practices is not to throw us into a canyon of despair, but rather to allow the recognition of the preciousness of life. Try looking at a flower, a starry night, or your beloved, as if it was the last time you would see them. How would you treat them differently? How would you listen? What secret confessions, or hidden words, would you share? How would you hold them? Recognizing the ever-changing, precarious nature of life, can you more easily witness the blessings that abound all around you? Can you wonder at the preciousness of a sunset, the touch of a hand, or the suffering in your own heart, or in that of another?
As Sir Isaac Newton reminds us that, though everything changes, the energy of a system ever remains constant. The impermanence of an object, phenomenon, or lifeform is but a perceptual illusion of the relative condition of our humanity. At an absolute level, energy only transforms, but never truly disappears. Of course, when we look deeply, we see all of these changes not only as death, but as rebirth. Winter gives way to spring. The deepest, darkness of night will always give way to the light of morning, and the death of a cloud is no more that the raindrops that fall against your skin, and puddle by your feet, soaking into the earth and feeding the stream. Looking deeply we can touch, again, the nature of change, the truth of interconnectedness and the wholeness of life. As we mourn the loss of the cloud, can we also celebrate and welcome the birth of the stream? As we attend to our responsibilities and doings, can we also keep a perspective of gratitude and love informing all that we say and do? Can we recognize the unique, precious nature of this moment, whilst also accepting that it is the change and impermanence that allows it to be so?