Quantum mechanics and laws of physics alone show that nothing stays the same, from the smallest to the biggest thing. Subatomic particles are whizzing about in your body and even the seemingly solid walls around you. The blood never stops rushing through your veins. The earth never stops journeying. Our galaxy is flying away from other galaxies at an inconceivable speed. Mentally, no moment of mind has the power to linger. Buddha explained this very clearly in his teachings on subtle impermanence. Blink and it’s a new world.
Everything is momentarily impermanent, infinitely complex and interdependent. We may feel permanent, solid and independent, but that is one hell of an illusion. Especially if we go on assuming that we are not going to die anytime soon, including today.
Normally we try to hold tightly onto the infrastructure of our lives – our relationships, our money, our car, our pets, our children, our house, our job, our career, our status, our power, our control. Much of our current self-image is based on these very concrete, solid, pretty much permanent things that seem to define us. The more strongly we grasp at this chunky restrictive sense of self, the more attachment we will need to generate for all these things in order to keep the illusion alive, and the more fear we will have of losing them. Like trying to hang onto the deck furniture on the Titanic, or a sandcastle by the rising tide, our desires and efforts are doomed to failure. Every small loss of, say, a turret on our castle is disillusioning for us because we wanted it to be permanent and fixed, and it ended up being the opposite. Then when the whole lot gets swept away at death…
Does the idea of change frighten you? Losing everything you know? How can we learn not to be frightened of the inevitable?
I find this the most helpful consideration: we can understand that the pain and fear is not actually coming from what we must lose but from our mind that holds on.
Can you remember a time long ago when you were so in love (or attachment) that the very thought of losing that person struck you with terror? But then the years passed and you both went your separate ways and now when you see that person they are middle-aged, like you, with a pot belly and no hair? And you wonder at the love (lust) you felt for them because it has now gone, all gone. But there is no pain in that. It doesn’t matter that it has all gone, because the attachment has also gone. It is only while we had attachment that we needed this person to try and fulfill attachment’s desires. There is, in fact, no loss at all. The mind is peaceful with respect to that person. The tension of holding on has all gone.
Meditation on death is like the elephant’s deepest footprint in terms of the impression it makes on our mind as we can finally see how futile it is to try and hold onto all this stuff that is right now, and constantly, slipping between our fingers. The other day in the shower I was trying to hold onto a bar of hard slippery soap, but it kept slipping through my fingers, and it reminded me that the more tightly I hold onto stuff, the more quickly it seems to slip from my grasp. If we want to enjoy our life while we still have it, it makes sense to stop grasping with attachment and just go with the flow of reality, like gently letting the soap rest in our hands. Take it or leave it, it is all good.
The fact is, if we relinquish our attachment, it doesn’t mean we are going to suffer loss. The opposite is true. It is only if we keep our attachment that we will experience the pain of loss. And we don’t need it.
Getting rid of attachment is not the same as relinquishing desire. We need desires – to be authentically happy, to love others, to attain liberation and enlightenment, even to put on our socks, etc. We don’t become a detached automaton without attachment. In fact, attachment deadens and dulls us as it is always hankering after an idealized image of something that we feel we must have if we are to be happy, causing us to miss out on what is actually going on under our nose. Without attachment, quite the opposite of becoming detached or hopeless, we can become connected and fully alive to each present moment.
So we don’t need to fear or resist the meditation on impermanence and death because we have nothing to lose but our attachment, and it is attachment that has given rise to all the agony of loss we have experienced since beginningless time.
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