“Time heals” because over time we forget. But why wait to forget?! Waiting passively for things to happen to us is not much fun, we don’t much like waiting in line for example. Some people take months or years to get over a broken heart, and it is agony. They are waiting to forget. They are waiting to think differently about things. They are waiting for the penny to drop, “It is all gone, it is really over”, so they can move on. But it has gone already, it was gone the moment it started; and by bringing that wisdom into our hearts we can move on far, far more quickly. (Carrying on from this article on subtle impermanence.)
The past is no more substantial than last night’s dream. How many dreams have we had in this life, let alone in countless previous lives? (And I refer here to dreams when we are sleeping and dreams while we are awake.) In samsara, all our dreams are broken in the end, as Geshe Kelsang says. We have forgotten the vast majority of them, and if we wait long enough we’ll forget whatever dreams we are holding onto now. But rather than just wait it out, why not cultivate an understanding of subtle impermanence and live by it? It will save us so much sorrow.
We can keep repeating that sentence to stop grasping:
I will stop grasping at past me, people, and situations because they do not exist.
Combining our wisdom with determination, our mind will begin to change and we will experience an enormous feeling of liberation and joy. We will let go of our emotional baggage. This is an amazing experience to have and it is possible for all of us, whatever our past. We don’t have to do anything unusual, we don’t have to change our external situation or our job or whatever; we just change the way we think, and remain natural while changing our aspiration, as the old Kadampa saying goes.
Here is a little meditation to help us do this.
We sit comfortably with our back straight and relaxed, our eyes closed, and imagine that deep in our heart we feel quiet and peaceful.
And from that quiet and peaceful place we simply focus our attention single-pointedly on the sensation of our breath within the nostrils — the cool air as we inhale and the warm air as we exhale.
And as our mind begins to settle, we enjoy the feeling of clarity and peace that arises in our heart.
Now we can spend a bit of time reflecting upon subtle impermanence in general. We can think about the things in our own life and try to cultivate some insight and wisdom realizing that the past no longer exists. We can start big and then make the chunks of time smaller and smaller, eg, we can think “The person I was when I was a child no longer exists, and then the person I was a year ago no longer exists, and then the person I was a week ago no longer exists. The person who had coffee this morning no longer exists. The person who started this meditation no longer exists, is completely different from the person who is meditating now.” By taking examples like this in meditation we begin to cultivate some insight into this subject. We just reflect on it.
We can now move on in our meditation to bring to mind a situation where we are recreating the past in the present. It could be one that is related to people, either ourself or others. It could be one that is related to a particular situation or event that happened in the past. It could be one that is related to certain possessions we had in the past. And we say to ourself strongly:
I will stop grasping at past people, situations, and possessions because they no longer exist.
Thinking of this situation, we keep repeating this statement strongly, and imagine that we gradually begin to let go. We just enjoy the feeling of being a completely new person and meditate on this.
Then we arise from our meditation, keeping this special feeling in our heart.
No room for the past in the present
In this way we can try to deepen our awareness of impermanence and the realization that the past, including the recent past, even just a few seconds ago, no longer exists; and then stop grasping at it because we can’t hold onto something that isn’t there. In this way we can stop recreating the past in the present moment. There is no room for both; one of them has to give.
We can lay down our heavy burdens. Stop feeling melancholy. I also find it helpful to ponder how we decide what to grasp at?! The past is endless! Which me, which person, which situation do we choose to have inappropriate attention about?! To grasp at the permanence of?! There is nothing and no one that we haven’t grasped at, and where has that got us since beginningless time?
The truth will set us free
In Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (page 20) Shantideva expresses this beautifully:
And yet my friends will become nothing
And others will also become nothing.
Even I shall become nothing;
Likewise, everything will become nothing.
Just like an experience in a dream,
Everything I now enjoy
Will become a mere recollection,
For what has passed cannot be seen again.
Yeah, you could read this when you are in the throes of attachment and find it a bit depressing or scary – but what is being said is not that we don’t enjoy ourselves and each other moment by moment, but that we stop clinging to things that no longer exist. We need in fact to stop clinging even right now to things that do not exist in the way that they appear to exist, outside our mind, or we will inevitably experience the suffering of separation and loss.
Living in accordance with the reality of impermanence, on the other hand, can bring us nothing but joy and freedom. The truth sets us free.
When he was on his deathbed, aged 100, having been hit by a car on one of his long walks, my grandpa said to my brother:
In the light of eternity I can see clearly now that there is no difference between one moment and one hundred years.
Not abandoning anyone
Someone wrote to me the other day to say that since the death a year ago of her young son she did not feel she had permission to move on as that would be traitorous to his memory; so she was still suffering a great deal. However, it is not very helpful to hold to a painful memory of someone who no longer exists. Embracing change does not mean we forget or abandon the people we loved who are now gone. In a way, it’s the opposite. This is because in fact they are not really gone, they are just somewhere else; so we love them strongly wherever they are, whoever they are, in the present.
I was in Cheesman Park the other day, along with some fellow park-goers, enjoying a show of gigantic soap bubbles. When each big beautiful bubble burst, I didn’t hear anyone groan, “Awww! I was enjoying that! The bubble’s gone!” I didn’t hear anyone speculate, “I wonder what bubble she will create in ten minutes time?”, completely missing out on the bubble she was creating now. I also didn’t overhear anyone distractedly saying, “Do you remember that bubble she made a little while back, that was cool/ugly.” No, we were all just enjoying the bubbles in the present as they arose and almost immediately evaporated. Why? Because we know the nature of bubbles, and their beauty is not divorced from their impermanence. This can be the same for everything if we familiarize ourself with the momentary nature of all things.
When a bubble is burst, what is left? Is it the same basic bubble that transforms? No, the bubble has gone completely. So we can spend our time dwelling on past bubbles we have blown, those lovely or traumatic soap bubbles I blew a couple of weeks ago; or worrying about the soap bubbles we might blow in the future — what if it is too small? what will my friends think of me? Or we can get with subtle impermanence and enjoy the bubble we are blowing now.
There’s a difference between me and a soap bubble, surely?!
However old we are, we are no more permanent than a soap bubble. We are just as fleeting. Some things seem to last longer than others — mountains and the sky for example — but they are still just as momentary, completely new. The 100,000 year-old rocks in the Science Museum may seem more permanent, but we are seeing them newly in each moment, and they are as fleeting/changing as anything else. It’s just that related to our life span they may seem to last longer. 100,000 year-old rocks can appear in dreams too, with a seemingly eternal past and rock solid future; but how long are dreams?
Over to you. Comments and feedback very welcome 🙂
Thanks again, particularly now it has helped me a lot to overcome a loss, in fact I realized that many losses I continue to carry and they become a problematic pattern. My childhood was very happy with my grandmother, which became
proportionally in terrible suffering for the nostalgia of never having it again. It feel very strange when we realize, even for a moment that past no longer exists and we stop to relate with it in a wrong way. Thank you so much.
In terms of thinking about the past, I am struck by what a challenge forgiveness is. Do you “let it go”, potentially enabling the same/a similar hurt to be repeated, or do you distance from a person who provided the conditions for you to experience profound pain? I guess it depends on a lot of things.
Yes, it depends, but we can remember the advice on solving inner and outer problems, as given here for example: https://kadampalife.org/2014/10/12/how-do-i-get-rid-of-problems-buddhas-advice/
Thank you for your wonderful text. On the topic of time: science does not really understand what it is, and how the experience of time arises. Does buddhism have an explanation of this? Where could I look? (I understand it is a bit of a big topic to fully address in a reaction to a post). Are there teachings about this in kadampa buddhism? My apologies if the question is a little bit too big. It is just that I am interested, and I have not been able to find it yet. I did find that kadam Morten apparently did some talk about it a few years ago, but I missed it.
Time is a characteristic of functioning things — it is generally the same as impermanence, which has no reality outside of the things that are impermanent. You can read about the three times in Ocean of Nectar. I touch briefly on it at the end of this article: http://kadampalife.org/2011/09/21/buddhist-advice-for-worrywarts/
I love bathing in your mind. I love the taste of it. Such a beautifully blissful experience. Man, I LOVE that which your grandpa said. Utterly mind blowing. It kinda reminded me of a Fight Club quote, “On a long enough timeline the survival rate of everyone drops to zero”. Or maybe William Blake’s “Eternity in an hour…”. I love that you’re joining up my heart’s experience of subtle impermanence. It’s so uber yummy! My mind feels so humbled, what a perfect example of Bliss and Emptiness you are. Is it appropriate to gush like this? Hahahaha. Ach well, I’m so digging you, you rock 😀
🙂 I don’t know, but i like that you like the stuff on subtle impermanence as it is pretty cool.
thank you I love reading your thoughts – your presentation is so clear and logical all seems to fit into place! :)x
“And yet my friends will become nothing…” Love that!
Shantideva, never minces his words.
I love these emails. Thank you so much.
I love that you give us a way of working towards the wisdom you offer.
I keep them unread until I am out having coffee. I then have time to really focus on what you are saying and practise the tips.
Keep them coming.
Thank you so much
Thank you 🙂
beautiful inspiring text! Sure I will do this meditation on subtle impermanence
Luna. Soo helpful. Thank you very much. Love John
Happy to hear 🙂
This is just another way to dissociate from pain. If it makes you feel better to separate yourself from the past, that is one way to survive. It itself is an illusion though. The past exists in us. Memory is essential and constant. That is how humans grow, create societies, build up to what they now are. But whatever floats your boat…..just be aware that your philosophy is also illusory.
Hi, Buddha’s teachings are not about losing memories, or mindfulness. There is nothing wrong with memories and in fact we need memory and mindfulness 🙂 This is about not grasping.