Geshe Kelsang has said that “arising, abiding, and ceasing are just three different ways of thinking about the same event.” Even arising and ceasing (or cessation) are two different ways of thinking about the same thing. When we realize this, we begin to let go of grasping; and it is really a question of allowing ourselves to float into that space. (Carrying on from this article on subtle impermanence.)
How can arising and ceasing happen simultaneously? Well one question in return is how could they not? If something is the nature of change, how could it remain the same, even for an instant?
What is the option if arising really precedes cessation? Is there is a little bit in the middle where it has arisen but not ceased? In which case that moment has a degree of permanence there, and so there is going to be grasping at it. And where do you draw the line? A fraction or two fractions? It is only when you say completely there is NO remaining that it starts to make sense.
I heard once that Native Americans call all objects “events” (though now I can’t find it on Google.) This I find helpful. Everything is fluid.
If arising and cessation are the same event that is distinguished differently just by thought, another helpful example I find is this. If someone is going through a doorway, are they entering or exiting? It depends on perspective, on mind. I think this is similar to arising and ceasing.
The only continuation is what we impute as continuation. For example, a rainbow arises and ceases newly moment by moment in dependence upon causes and conditions, and stringing its moments together is done entirely by our mind. It’s a bit like watching a movie of many stills.
By the way, why do things change?! Our mind changes, and different appearances arise due to karma, like waves arising from an ocean. We also impute all changes with our mind. For example, perhaps we fell in love with someone who was totally fantastic and then later, bewilderingly, they changed into someone who was a total (add your own description here). Where did the person we fell for go?! We feel deceived. But where did they go?! What actually changed? Did they change, did we change? A bit of both? I’ll leave you to answer that one for now.
The doorway to realizing emptiness
If we can wrap our minds around subtle impermanence, this will take us very close to Buddha’s teachings on the true nature of reality, emptiness. Understanding subtle impermanence is said to be the doorway to emptiness, and emptiness is said to be the doorway to liberation. Geshe Potowa said:
My main meditation on the middle way is meditation on subtle impermanence.
This indicated that, for him, meditating on subtle impermanence intuitively led him into emptiness.
What do the realizations of subtle impermanence and emptiness have in common? They both help us to stop grasping. Subtle impermanence weakens our tendency to grasp, and the wisdom realizing emptiness removes it completely.
Moment by moment things are gone. But they weren’t really there to begin with.
Everything is like a flash of lightning, and even that flash of lightning doesn’t exist from its own side.
I also think that even if we have a good understanding of emptiness, contemplating subtle impermanence has very practical benefit. Perhaps we already “get” the dream-like nature of reality. But perhaps there is still some part of us that is grasping at our dreams as lasting and as abiding – sort of like permanent dreams!
This is one of the greatest gifts that subtle impermanence can give us – at the beginning it improves all aspects of our life by helping us naturally drop our attachment and aversion etc.; and eventually it leads us to the realization of emptiness.
If something doesn’t remain for even a moment — if it is gone as soon as it arises — then what is there to hold onto??! (Carrying on from this article.) For example, we meet someone we like – but if they’re gone the moment we meet them, what is there to get attached to? If we go out for a meal with some friends, and each moment is gone as soon as it arises, what is there to grasp at? If someone unfriends you on Facebook, who is there to get upset with? They’re already gone. A new car or iPad — gone as soon as we’ve got it — what is there to get attached to? We can enjoy people and things moment by moment, but as nothing remains for the tiniest moment there is nothing to get stuck to with attachment. And however unfairly people behave, we can avoid the futility of holding hurt in our heart.
We don’t have to cover everyone and everything with the superglue of permanent grasping so that they cannot change and/or so that we cannot see them differently.
Key insight of Buddha
This is the heart of Buddha’s key insight into why there is suffering in the world. Suffering doesn’t come because we are bad, it is not inflicted on us by some creator, it doesn’t come randomly out of nowhere – it all comes because we grasp. We grasp at something being there when in reality it isn’t. Grasping at my friend/enemy being there is grasping at an illusion, a rainbow. He cannot be found. And this simple act of grasping is the cause of all our suffering because if we like the thing we are grasping, we develop craving because we think there is something there. If we don’t like it, we develop anger or the wish to destroy it.
What do babies do?
Gen Samten shared a tale of his school days learning about the instincts of new-born babies — sucking and grasping. It apparently has no control even over its eyes. It also has a third instinct, which is yelling! Yelling, sucking, and grasping. The baby grasps: if it likes it, it sucks; and if it doesn’t, it yells. This seems to indicate the existence of past lives — the moment we pop out we carry on from where we left off. Then we grow up. And what is the definition of growing up? Learning to pretend to be a rational, thinking human being while still grasping, sucking, and yelling?! And we wonder why we suffer!
Subtle impermanence cuts through all that because it teaches us there is nothing to grasp at. As soon as something has arisen, it has gone. We can ask ourselves, if we are attached to a person: “This person went the moment they arose. What am I getting attached to?”
Perhaps this makes us nervous, particularly if we really like someone, “I don’t like this!” As soon as we realize that we ourselves, for example, are gone the moment we arise, just gone, we want there to be something we can hold onto and say “me”; but there isn’t. Gone. Gone again. Gone again. As soon as I try to hold onto something it is not there anymore.
Pure states of mind instead of grasping
But when we can let go, we open up to experiencing pure states of mind such as love and compassion. Grasping always gets in the way of these. For example, if we grasp at someone, how can we love them? For if they are pleasant we develop attachment, if unpleasant, anger. The only way for our love to be pure is to love them without grasping at them as being there to love.
“But how can I love someone who’s not there?” we may protest.
One answer I think is that positive minds are always in the present moment. With love, we want that person to be happy now, wherever they are. With compassion we want them to be free from suffering. With patience we accept whole-heartedly whatever is arising in the present moment. With wisdom we go with the flow of fleeting appearances to mind. Delusions on the other hand always seem to be ranging over the past and future. This tells me something else about why it is a good idea to learn to live in the moment, and that it goes both ways — we are also able to live more in the moment when we cultivate these positive minds.
Also, inOcean of Nectar page 28 Geshe-la explains compassion observing phenomena, which observes living beings who are realized as impermanent and wishes to protect them from suffering:
Because living beings are impermanent they are transient like the moon reflected in rippling water.
This is a deeper compassion because we realize that one profound reason why living beings suffer is because they are transient, imputing themselves on a fleeting (and entropic) body and mind, but, not realizing this, they experience permanent grasping.
Also, most people enjoy rainbows. And we can’t find them – that is one of the loveliest things about them.
I would like to hear your examples in the comments section as to how understanding subtle impermanence has enabled you to let go of grasping and other delusions and been a catalyst for positive minds such as love.
Has anyone here ever gone surfing? Our ability to surf doesn’t depend upon grasping but upon letting go. We have to go with that wave — and if we grasp and want to find security by freezing time, it won’t work. We know everything is changing, not remaining even for a moment; so the only way to surf that is to move with it. And that is part of the joy of surfing.
Life is like a wave, it doesn’t stay put even for a moment. So surf it. The daily situations in our life are different waves — am I surfing this wave or trying to freeze it to find security?
Thanks to the kindness of some friends, my stuff recently arrived in a truck from Florida, including statues, clothes, and photos. When I look at these, especially the photos, although I recognize them, they now look subtly (and not so subtly) different — they are brand new old photos. Life events and relationships between now and when I last saw these photos a few years ago have totally changed, and so has their meaning, their existence.
“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.
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?
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?
I think life is too weird if we don’t accept momentary impermanence and go day by day with the flow. We keep getting surprised, shocked: “I can’t believe that happened; it is so weird!” And life feels full of losses.
Why do we have midlife crises? Why not an early or late life crisis? Why at 42?! Perhaps because it begins to finally sink in that we are not the same person we were 20 years ago, we can’t do the same things, we are running out of years, we have a paunch, our dating pool has shrunk. This can induce panic, discontentment, obsession with youth (our own or others), driving a motorbike, and eventually acceptance – but why did it take us so long for the penny to drop? We are confused trying to reconcile an old self-image with what we see now, having been ignoring that we have been changing not only week by week but moment to moment, and changing completely at that.
Midlife crises seem to occur when all the changes we’ve been through suddenly seem to hit us all at once and we can no longer hold so easily to our image of ourselves as youthful, virile, cool, etc.! So we go a bit crazy. But studies also show that if we find purpose in life, meaning, wisdom, apparently we are far less affected by mid-life crises.
Reducing the sufferings of ageing
We look in the mirror and we feel disappointed, “Oh no, the bags under my eyes are growing!” But if we weren’t holding onto what we looked like before, who cares?! If we were able to accept our momentary change, and let go of grasping at our previous body, it will be a lot quicker to accept and adapt to our body’s changes. And it’s the same for others, eg, ageing parents and partners, we can just let them be who they are now as opposed to freaking out at all the changes from what they were. As a hairdresser once told me, “We are all going in the same direction at the same speed.” And it’s ok! I had 2 good role models in my grandfather and Eileen, who never gave a monkeys about getting older (to the ages of 100 and 92 respectively) because they just loved every day as it arose.
We need to drive home to ourselves that not even an atom remains of us, others, or the world from one moment to the next. As long as we feel there is some trace of yesterday’s person, for example, we are still grasping at permanence — holding onto the idea that the same basic substance has just changed or been modified a little bit. Grasping at that same basic substance is called “permanent grasping”.
Healing the past
That painful relationship we had in the past — the person we had it with doesn’t exist anymore. The person we were doesn’t exist anymore, not even an atom, not even a trace. The issues don’t exist anymore — they existed in the past, not now. So why are we recreating it all?
Heraclitus famously said, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” Apparently he also said, “You can’t step in the same river once.” He’s right! Think about it!
When we start to think deeply about subtle impermanence we experience a sense of liberation, freedom, being able to put down all of that emotional baggage and just experience deep peace and happiness. What a relief!
I don’t have to go back in time to try and heal the past. How can we heal something that doesn’t exist? What happened in the past doesn’t exist.
We don’t need to heal the past, we just need to realize that it’s gone.
And through understanding subtle impermanence deeply, if we had a conflict with someone yesterday we can look at them today with new eyes, knowing the person we had the conflict with doesn’t exist. When we begin to understand subtle impermanence we can put down the grudges and move into an area of forgiveness. Forgiveness is all about letting go of the past and moving on. We can ask ourselves how many people there are in our life that we’d like to do this with — let go of the past and just move on. Subtle impermanence gives us the freedom to do this.
Dealing with regrets
This wisdom also helps us let go of regrets and nostalgia. For example, maybe we think I’ve wasted so much time on this good for nothing relationship, project, etc., and we hold onto it, thinking, “I have to salvage something!” So we can’t let go. I have a good friend who put a lot of money into a business that just didn’t work out; people weren’t ready for it or something. But it was hard to walk away from it because of all the investment of time, hope, and money, so there was the temptation there to throw good money after bad, as they say.
Yet the best way to let go of the past without regrets is to embrace the present. Since beginningless time we have done lots of things with everyone, and these are all like dreams now passed. Let it all go — distant dreams are already forgotten, and the latest dreams are no more substantial, we just haven’t forgotten them yet. We don’t need to wait to forget them before we let them go; we can simply realize that there is nothing there to hold onto, that it’s like trying to hold onto last night’s dream. We don’t have to wait for time to heal, ie, until enough things happen that our memories are crowded out so we can forget and move on, however many long agonizing months or years that may take. We can heal a lot faster if we use our wisdom and determination.
If the past was good, we want it to come back, or to continue. But it is still past, ie, over, so we need to enjoy today too, not be nostalgic or melancholic.
In this next article, how to back up our wisdom with determination so that Buddha’s advice has a stronger impact on our mind.