The Buddha, The Dharma, The Sangha

"Spiritual powers and their wondrous functioning--hauling water and carrying firewood." --Layman Pang, upon his realization

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Thoughts On Impermanence

Last night at dinner, my husband and I ran into an old neighbor, who we hadn't seen for several year.
I almost didn't recognize Earl--he had aged dramatically in the years since he had moved out of the neighborhood. His hair had gone completely grey, all his teeth were missing and he had decided to go without his false teeth, if he owned them at all.
He simply looked frail and small.

We spent some time catching up, asking after his family, but almost every statement he made ended with something like, "well, we can't all live forever...." and "we're all headed for something different, there's no denying that."
Earl is only 74, but he looked at least 10 years older. It was clear that he had his mind focused on finishing his life and said, "I've never been too bright up here," tapping his head playfully, "but I've always been physically able to get places. Now my legs just don't have any strength."
Maybe a little too solemnly, we nodded and listened.
"One doctor says I had a stroke, another doctor says I didn't. I won't tell you their names unless you ask," he laughed. His eyes twinkled mischievously. One thing Earl hadn't lost was his sense of humor, and that was heartening.
"But we're all facing the big change," he said quietly. "All of us."

We said our good byes and left. I wondered how he had gotten down to the dinner from his elder-care house, too far to walk, so maybe he was still driving. And since he was alone, we wondered about his wife....we recalled his sister and the beautiful little grandchild she used to babysit for, when she had more mobility. Now his sister barely goes anywhere, her back is so bad.

I've been consciously focusing on impermanence lately as a practice.
After a few annual test results, I've been prescribed a medication that will strengthen my bones and keep them them from further dissolving. In another time and place, I wouldn't have reached the age of 56. Thirty years ago, there wouldn't have been viable options to arrest osteoporosis, or the medical knowledge to even recognize the complications of the disease.
I am fortunate to have choices, to have knowledge and the ability to act.

Unconsciously, my mind works overtime, like a mill wheel forever turning in the stream.
I ask myself, if it must turn, what is grist for the mill?

A dream wakes me, and I recall a young man with a black dog on a leash, following me, until I've reached a point where I can not avoid him any longer. He's attractive and calm, kind.
He asks "Are you aware that time can be used to vanquish stress and anxiety, as an artist creates?"
I answer, "Do you mean, as people die, there will be more opportunity for me?"
He gives me an odd look and say, "No, that's not what I mean. Use time like an artist. I'll show you how."

And then I'm in some other location, a completely empty, neutral.
The young man is gone and I am holding a small manual about trees.
I know he has given me the book, but it didn't arrive through the mail, he didn't hand it to me, he simply made it appear simultaneously with his offer.
"Oh," I think, holding the book, "This is how it's done."
The cover says Time Traveler's Guide--Throw This Book Away When You Find A Teacher
I realize that there is an entire sub-culture of people who understand time in a way that most of us simply don't, and never will, and I want to understand this concept. I feel extremely lucky, even though I don't understand anything, I know virtually nothing, but I'm going on a discovery mission.

What a job we all have before us!
Could it be any more dramatic, important, all encompassing?
To understand our living and dying, to take responsibility for this process of awakening is daunting, if not terrifying!
But it seems clear, when we begin to contemplate the choices, that there is only one choice, that of attempting to go beyond that which appears so permanent, so independent.
The reminders of impermanence and interconnectedness are all around us, yet they remain invisible to us because visibility implies the utter truth of our fleeting existence, and that's a shaky, shaky place to rest!

Around all of this is revolutionary compassion, a deep well spring of compassion, as evidenced by Earl's sweet humor and the ability to still poke fun at one self and the way the body simply stops "working as good as it used to".
When he was our neighbor, I remember Earl used to smile and laugh a lot, just about life in general, and it was always easy to be around him. He made me feel as if everything was okay, just the way it was.
That's a gift Earl is still offering and I thank him for it.


Mel Def said...

Love this one. It's so true. Just when we give up that we know anything we open up to learning and growing. I feel sad about Earl but maybe I shouldn't. Maybe his acceptance of impending end isn't a bad thing to him but only my perception based on how I would feel. That probably makes little sense but at any rate. I love your post.

brookie said...

Hey M D
thanks for the comment!
I know what you mean about feeling sad for Earl, but I also felt a lot of admiration, because he wasn't candy coating the situation, he wasn't bitter and unable to enjoy an evening out, he wasn't like, "why me?"
I admire him, and I hope I have that sort of outlook when I'm his age.
Incidently, my husband read in yesterday's local newspaper police blotter that Earl Jr. had been arrested (again) for simple assault.
Folks deal with all sorts of suffering....

Hedwig said...


I am deeply moved by this post. I've come back to read it twice. Indeed there are reminders of impermanence all around us, and sometimes I find that scary, and sometimes I find comfort in that. There are times, too, when I laugh my head off, because I am reminded in those moments when I recognize and acknowledge impermanence that I want to choose what my heart will be filled with. The only reality is now, I repeat to myself, and I see the beauty and joy in the "now," feeling so fortunate that I can be here to experience it.

brookie said...

And that beautiful daughter of yours is all about the "NOW", so you are really, really lucky!
I find comfort in impermanence too, I find comfort in the cyclical movement of nature, and in recognizing that I'm nothing more than a part of that...but humans suffer from self consciousness, along with supra consciousness, along with the potential to be enlightened beings!
Now there's a paradox for us.