Impermanence and Real Life

July 22, 2012 § 3 Comments

So there’s this bouquet of dried flowers my mother keeps on a wall in her house. It’s like a lot of other dried flowers that people keep — it’s from a bunch of roses that someone gave her a long time ago, and in an attempt to preserve that special moment, the beauty of the bouquet, or what have you, she dried it, and hung it up.

I remember doing that too, except that I wanted to keep the unusual color of the bloom for as long as I could, so following the advice of some friends, I lacquered the rose with lots of sticky hair spray and carefully dried it.

This is a good example of our very human attempts to hold on to a special moment — everything from replaying it in our minds, to preserving anything that we may connect with it, whether it be a ticket stub, flowers, airplane tickets or anything else. We hope in holding on to these things, that we can relive the joy of the moment, that excitement we felt as the bouquet was handed over, or of the camaraderie we felt with the group of friends with which we went on a trip.

Ever notice, though, that in recalling these moments, you get that twinge of ‘nostalgia,’ or regret, of sadness? That, that twinge, is ‘dukkha.’ For some, that twinge could be the ‘stab of sadness’ that send us over the edge and into tears, and depending on the situation and our disposition, into absolute sadness — the kind that makes us want to hide away from the world.

In Buddhism, part of helping us get rid of ‘duhkkha,’ or what in English gets roughly translated as ‘suffering,’ is accepting the idea of impermanence — that is to say, that nothing stays the same. Everything changes, grows, wilts, and dies. There is no ‘unchanging self,’ either — this central core of a person who never changes. On the surface, you might say “Well yeah, duh,” but what do YOU own in your home that is evidence of trying to preserve that which cannot be preserved? We all have them, and they are all causing us some form of dukkha, if you think about it hard enough.

My blog isn’t really about that today, it really addresses more of the issue that crops up on occasion with those who look at Buddhism from the outside. Part of what we do in Buddhism, is to reduce the amount of dukkha in our lives. In doing so, we do things like acknowledge impermanence, the absence of that Central Self that doesn’t change, we try not to cling, and let go as best we can of our attachments.

To those who are new to Buddhism, this may sound like Buddhists aren’t allowed to care about anything, aren’t allowed to have feelings, reactions, or recollections. It also might sound to some as though we couldn’t have the ability to have moral or values, either. It’s a difficult point to make to those who look at Buddhism and hear us say things like ‘no self,’ ‘no attachment,’ ‘no clinging’ and such. The reality is, that it is quite the contrary. We of course have our families, our spouses, our friends, and of course our possessions. The difference in how we view them and their place in life in generalĀ  — NOT how we love them, or whether or not we love them.

The point I’m trying to make can be found by going back to my mother’s house. On that particular weekend, my family and I had the pleasure of going up to visit her, and also see her sister (my namesake), her sister-in-law, and my cousin. I hadn’t seen any of these people in just about 30 years! Of course I had *some* anxieties over this meeting: Would I remember my Japanese? Would I understand what they were saying? How would my husband feel around them, not having ANY knowledge of the Japanese language? What about my kids? Would they be able to bond with their Japanese family in such a short time? Finally: When would my tears come? Because I knew they would.

Having walked the Buddhist path for about two year now, I don’t feel really experienced by any means, but I am helped when facing these kinds of situations. In the past, I would have been wracked with anxiety, losing sleep for days before hand and letting my stomach churn with nerves, hoping that people are just as I remembered them. Feeling sad at the idea that perhaps some people may look older than I remember them, and thinking how sad that would be. On a more visceral level, I would yearn for those days of childhood when I felt embraced by my Japanese family — especially my one aunt, my mother’s sister.

Now, however, I fully recognized the fact that they’d look nothing like the picture in my mind, which was formed when I was 8 years old. In those 30 years, they have lost family members, I have lost family members, we’ve gotten married, had children, been hired, fired, and changed jobs, gained and lost weight, wrinkles, gray hairs, and more. Years and distance have changed the dynamics of our relationship, as they should, but they would have even if I had stayed in touch with them or lived in Japan with them. Things change, that’s what life’s about. Again, sounds obvious, but if you look closely at that ‘twinge’ feeling you get when you think about your childhood, you’ll see that you’re holding on to that memory, and wishing for it to come back.

So, when approaching this situation now, instead of feeling really anxious, I was able to approach it with more curiosity than anything. I was also fairly excited — but in a good way. Not a nervous way. Knowing that people change in fundamental ways, because there is no unchanging self, I had no real expectations or hope, per se, as to how my ‘favorite’ aunt would be. My recollection of her was as a warm-hearted, soft, energetic, fun-loving woman. I had no real idea if she were the same at all, or of how my cousin would be, or how my second visiting aunt would be. I was able to let go of any expectations that I might otherwise have had, and was really able to enjoy seeing them this weekend.

We carved pumpkins (which was a new one on them), enjoyed some delicious Japanese comfort food (home made, yum!), strolled down memory lane and got to know each other all over again. I was able to do all that with no let-downs, and through simply enjoying the moment as it presented itself. I believe it’s called ‘equanimity.’ Perhaps I’m wrong in saying that’s what this was, but that’s what it felt like.


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