Where Can Permanence be Found?
By John M. de Castro
“We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms. It is almost banal to say so, yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.” – Alan Watts
There is a prevalent delusion that there is permanence and stability in our existence. In fact, we so expect it that we are upset when things change. In truth, permanence is hard to find when one looks. Our immediate experience is constantly changing. As the Buddha taught, it’s impermanent. This is clear as sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and touches come and go constantly. They never stick around for long.
It’s a little harder to notice that our bodies are also constantly changing. It happens at a slower rate than immediate experience, but is constantly happening nonetheless. Over time every cell in our body degenerates and is replaced. We take in new molecules in the forms of air, water, and nutrients, using them to fuel the body and grow and replace tissues and excrete old and toxic molecules in the breath, sweat, and elimination processes. These ongoing processes mean that we are physically different than we were just a few minutes ago. This is most evident in the maturation process, growing, developing, maturing, and aging. Hence, not only our experience but also our physiology is impermanent and constantly changing.
The mind seems reasonably constant. But, with a little study and reflection, it can be seen that it too is constantly changing. We learn and change as we grow, acquiring language and mathematics, fundamentally changing the mind, from purely experiential to conceptual, from present moment to future planning, and as we acquire memories, from present to past. Increasingly the mind moves away from raw present moment experience to memories of the past and images of the future. From moment to moment our thoughts and images are changing. Hence, not only our experience and physiology but also our mind is impermanent and constantly changing.
But, surely there is permanence in our world. The ground we stand on is solid and unmoving. It is apparently unchanging and permanent. But, this is an illusion produced by the limited time spans that we directly experience. Every aspect of the earth itself is also changing and impermanent. We recently spent a week exploring the National Parks in Utah. The rock formations and canyons teach lessons that are written in a time frame that extends, not days or years or decades, or even millennia, but in billions of years. It’s recorded in geological time. To see the impermanence, it is necessary to view the parks from the perspective of this time frame. When one does, it becomes clear that everything about the earth is in motion, including the very ground under our feet.
We learned that the sand under our feet in Utah was formed from eroding sandstone that itself was formed from the erosion of the Appalachian Mountains, being washed westward by erosion into the rivers, forming a shoreline that millions of years ago was located in what is now Utah. As the Colorado Plateau raised up these sands formed into sandstone. This sandstone has been in turn eroding and washing toward the west coast. In fact, it has already formed sandstone in California. Hence, it has moved and reformed only to have it eroded moved and reformed again. It has, is, and will be in constant motion. But, not in human time rather in geologic time.
I spent reflective time looking over the Sulphur Creek Canyon in Capitol Reef National Park. It was carved 800 feet into the Colorado Plateau by erosion from the movement of water in Sulphur Creek. It took over 6 million years to carve the canyon. Here were 280 million years of geological changes right in front of my eyes. The lowest layers near the current creek bed were formed over 280 million years ago when this was the edge of the Pacific Ocean and the layer is composed of ancient sand dunes which as stated above originated in the sandstone of the Appalachian Mountains. Looking carefully and contemplatively at the canyon walls, I could see the aliveness of the earth, its impermanence. To put this in perspective, what I was looking at was actually only a small part of the 4.5 billion years of geological changes that we call the Earth. Hence, not only our experience, physiology, and mind but also the earth itself is impermanent and constantly changing.
Again, not apparent in the human life timeframe, but the entire universe itself is impermanent. Throughout its 13.8 billion-year history it has been constantly changing. Starting with the “Big Bang” itself to the present moment, stars have been created, matured, aged, and died, sometimes spectacularly in supernova, sometimes forming nebula, and sometimes collapsing into black holes. During their lives they’ve been moving further apart from each other as the universe continues expanding. Around the stars, planets, comets, etc. have formed each of which constantly changes and their fates determined by their constantly changing stars. Eventually, they all will cease existence in their current forms and their matter and energy will be redistributed into other forms.
This is disconcerting. There doesn’t appear to be any permanence whatsoever, anywhere. Everything is in constant motion. In fact, one might think that the only thing that appears to be permanent is impermanence itself. But, wait a second, what a revelation! This is actually a helpful mindset. If impermanence is embraced, then the effort to keep everything the same ceases. Instead, impermanence is accepted. Once it is embraced, the beauty and grandeur of the constantly changing internal and external landscape becomes evident. Change is beautiful and wonderful when one ceases to fight it. Knowing that we are constantly changing means that there are always opportunities to reinvent ourselves, to move in new and exciting directions, to grow and develop, and to be happy with life. Knowing that others are constantly changing means that we can discard our stereotypes and expectations about them. They will be different tomorrow than they are today. They can reinvent themselves, grow, develop and learn to enjoy the ever changing life they’ve been given. Seeing the impermanence can make our mortality more evident, focusing us more on the present moment and what is most important in our lives. In other words, accepting, indeed relishing, impermanence can transform our lives, making them happier, richer, fuller, and with deeper meaning than ever before.
Adopting this, we are now positioned to observe the one thing that does appear to be permanent in our existence; our awareness. Not what we are aware of, as that’s constantly changing, but, that which is aware of that content. It never seems to change. The content changes but the awareness itself does not. It’s been the same from our earliest memories of being aware, to the present moment, unchanging and ever present. Because it doesn’t change, we have a hard time becoming aware of it. Our minds have evolved to detect change as changes are the most significant events in the environment. They can contribute to or threaten our very survival. So, they stand out. But, in the background, mostly unnoticed, is this mysterious, magical, spiritual thing, awareness.
Grasp it, enjoy it, observe the wonder of it. It was seeing this that led the Buddha to his enlightenment. This has also been true for countless sages, mystics, saints, and yogis. Clearing away the delusion of permanence of everything else opens the eyes to the primacy of awareness in all of existence. This revelation is itself a spiritual revelation, opening a path to ultimate understanding of existence.
So, find permanence by seeing impermanence.
“Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”
― Robert Frost
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
This and other Contemplative Studies posts arealso available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch