1180 words on impermanence – you may start reading…NOW!
MY FIRST TRUTH: everything in life is changing and nothing ever stays the same. Good and bad come and go. The greatest joy will never last for ever and the worst suffering will end one day.
Intellectually, this is an easy one to get to grips with. Sure, we think, everything is changing! Yah! I geddit! It’s kinda cute. Very eastern, man. Far out.
NO, SUCKA! EVERYTHING is changing. NOTHING stays the same. EVER! This isn’t as simple as the glib wisdom of Persian kings with their rings inscribed with Ancient Hallmark messages of This too shall pass. This, mes lecteurs, is frigging massive.
Realisations like this are the property of Human Diarmuid. He can see it. But Monkey Me can’t. Monkey needs to believe that things are the way they bloody well are. That’s how they’ve been for ever and that’s how they will go on being. Poor Monkey! He needs to believe that Friends Will Be Friends and that There’s No Telling Some People. It helps him believe that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a Bad Man and that Luis Suarez was Sent By The Gods Above To Bring Joy to Those Who Need It and Succour to Journalists Everywhere.
At work, Monkey believes that Students Are Like This and that Good Teachers Always Do This. Monkey thinks thoughts like Why they say this about Me; everyone know that Me a good chimp. When things go wrong, Monkey goes ape. This not supposed to happen! This bloody well No Good! Life not supposed to be like this! Monkey also swears a lot. A LOT! But Human Diarmuid will protect you from the worst that Monkey Me can throw at you.
These illusions that the world is any sort of a way and that deviations from this way are Wrong make Monkey mad. Mad Monkeys make me miserable. But misery can be relatively easy to spot. What about when things go well? Surely there’s nothing to fear now? It’s not about being fearful, honeychild. It’s about seeing the world as it is: streams of change and impermanence. Change is really just a nice way of saying decay – the world is decaying all the time. The good times don’t do anything other than to disguise the fact.
Imagine you’re teaching a class and your boss is watching you. Everything happens as if it had been scripted by the Venerable Jeremy Harmer. Students feed you lines and you rejoin with the wittiest, most insightful repartee that illuminates the air. Bees buzz and birds sing. Monkey burns with pleasure. Life is good, goddammit! …And then the lesson finishes. Is life really any better for that moment of pleasure? That moment of pleasure has come and gone. Now all that is left is the memory. And memories are not real. Memories are not accurate. Memories are also constantly changing (thank you, neuroscience). But you cling on to the memory as if it was real. You simply remember your favourite things, and then you don’t feel so bad (thank you, Julie Andrews). You are delusional, of course, but heck…who cares?
Hmm. All sounds pretty bleak, doesn’t it? But it isn’t bleak. Or stark. Or frosty. It’s just the way that life goes. Good comes along; bad comes along; good hangs around; bad hangs around; good fades away; bad fades away. Where I have written good and bad, we can just use the word Everything. This is a truth. The truth will set you free. The point is not to see the futility of what seems good. The point is to see that the nature of everything is to arise, abide and fall away. No false expectations, no catastrophising, no frustration, no fear that Things Will Never Be This Good Again.
No X! No Y! No Z! WHAT THEN? These are the shouts of a Simian, stirred-up. The answer is to be found in the truth’s corresponding value. If everything comes and goes, we need to cultivate our acceptance of everything that comes and goes. No insistence that the world should be different; no irrational need for the “bad” to be expunged from the world; no obsessive pining for the way things were. Just recognition that things are happening; just recognition of their life cycle; just acceptance that they cannot stay for ever. Monkey is calm when he can see this as normal. It’s not a threat to him any more; he doesn’t need to cling to the good things in desperation any more. He can just enjoy it while it lasts.
It may not be fair when we lose loved ones; it may not be fair when all the good things seem to happen to the worst people; it may not be fair that we have to battle with depression while ekeing out a living as underpaid miserable teachers. But does that help you to overcome your suffering? Does that help you to feel better about having to get up in the morning? Does that help you to go through the day with smile in your step and a spring on your face? I’m guessing not.
It’s not fair that good things go. It’s not fair that bad things linger. But then again, it’s not helpful to yearn after a fair universe. Epictetus pointed out how it is not events that make us miserable, but the way we choose to think about them. When you look a little closer, what you may find is that bad things go, but your memory of the bad thing is what lingers and makes you sad, dissatisfied, angry, frustrated. Or that you end up feeling good about something that finished some time ago. That was certainly the case for me after my presentation. I was virtually stoned for the next 24 hours. God knows how anyone put up with me…
So, because everything in life is changing and nothing ever stays the same, I aspire to live my life informed by the value of acceptance. I remind myself that good and bad both will pass and I try to remember that the way things are is the only way that they could ever be. Anything else is illusory – good things happen because of the unique characteristics of any given situation: the students woke up refreshed; the coffee hit the sweet spot that morning; the light was just right; the chemistry was there. Similarly, bad things happen because of the unique characteristics of any given situation: I was ruminating over last night’s football; I was distracted by the idiot in the Renault Clio; my-parents-always-used-to-call-me-that-when-they-were-angry-with-me. It could never be any different than how it is right now…to change the reality, we have to change the backstory…which is the same as saying we’d have to change the world, history, everything. If you want to see what happens when you start fecking around with history, I suggest that you rent Back To The Future from Netflix (other streaming providers are available). The only REAL, OBJECTIVE, TANGIBLE time is right here and right now. And, wouldn’t you know it, it is changing from moment to moment…