Change is inevitable and, yet, we may react to change in a variety of ways. For some, change can be frightening, scary or sad. For others, change can be exciting or joyous. Sometimes we welcome change, other times we may resist it.
Impermanence is a central theme in Buddhism. Buddhism teaches us equanimity in the midst of change and how to respond more wisely to impermanence. In the Buddha’s last words, “All conditioned things are impermanent. Strive on with diligence.”
Impermanence is a central theme in many religions, though it is often associated with suffering. In these cases, it is suggested that the end of suffering may be achieved by rising above the world of impermanence. The Buddha adapted a different approach to suffering, finding that suffering is not intrinsic to the world of impermanence but rather that suffering occurs when we cling. Once we stop clinging and trying to escape the transient world, suffering will end.
Indeed, it is possible to find beauty and comfort in a world of change, and to find our liberation within impermanence. We can minimize clinging by realizing just how impermanent those things to which we cling are. We may then begin to see just how futile it is to seek lasting happiness in those things that are impermanent, or we may more deeply examine the reasons for why we cling.
We can understand impermanence in one of three ways. First, there is the obvious way of seeing impermanence. We see that all things change. We see sickness, old age and death. We see the change of the seasons and of weather, of society and our own emotions. We may learn to relax in an experience by realizing that it is impermanent, or we may give up our resistance to change by realizing that it is inevitable. We may learn compassion by recognizing that all beings are subject to sickness, old age and death. Nevertheless, this understanding of the inevitably of impermanence does not necessarily lead to a belief in impermanence. While we may recognize that others die, we may not believe in our own end.
The second way of understanding impermanence is through insight, though the direct observation of the nature of things. Buddhism helps us to open ourselves to this less perceptible understanding of impermanence. By practicing deep, concentrated mindfulness, we gain insight into the moment-by-moment coming-and-going of all things. We begin to see that all things, even those things which may seem constant, are forever changing. With this view of impermanence comes the realization that it is futile to hold onto anything for all things come in and out of existence. Furthermore, we begin to see that we cling to ideas and concepts rather than actual things and experiences. For instance, we may think that we cling to money when we are actually clinging to our idea of what money will bring us or do for us.
Lastly, we may understand impermanence as a path toward liberation. Once we are able to view impermanence clearly, we begin to see that nothing really exists to which we can cling. With this realization, we begin to relax and see reality in a more fluid light. This, in turn, can liberate us. According to Ajahn Chah, “If you let go a little, you’ll have a little peace. If you let go a lot you’ll have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you’ll have complete peace.”