(or, “Impermanence Sucks”)
February 25, 2011
Nearly Six Months After the Fire
Hello Dear Friends,
Tonight at dinner I saw my friend Sandy, who asked, “Hey, do you still want us to give you candles for your birthday?” I stared at her for a second and then burst out laughing. She smiled and said, “I’ve been waiting until you looked like you could laugh again to make that joke.”
I explained to the other people at the table that in my previous, pre-fire life, I used to light dozens of candles in the dark months of deep winter, to cheer me through the snowy evenings. By spring I would have burned my whole stash, and so for my birthday in July I would ask people to just give me candles, so I could stock up again for winter. When the house burned down, my beautiful collection of candles melted away, as they were intended to do, but of course, before their time. Such is the nature of impermanence. We are all candles, waiting to melt and burn away, but each day we say, “Not now, it’s too soon. Let’s wait until Winter, okay?”
I remember the moment when I decided not to become a Buddhist. I was in my early twenties, and (as many Twenty-Somethings do) searching for the Meaning of Life. One day I was reading about one of the classic Buddhist exercises on the nature of impermanence, “The Pot is Already Broken.” In this exercise, you pick one of your favorite things, and hold it in your mind. It might be a cup, a precious jewel, an heirloom…You imagine it first cracked, then broken, then turned to dust. The point is to realize that every precious thing in your life is already gone, that dissolution is just the nature of things, and that this is the true essence of life – impermanence. When I read this I tossed aside the book and thought, “God, that is the most depressing thing I’ve ever read!” And then, did not become a Buddhist.
Like most great truths, Impermanence is a pretty hard pill to swallow.
I did pursue a spiritual path, though, and at one point wanted to be a monk. I lived in an ashram for a year – put everything in storage and lived in a tiny room, and all my possessions for a year fit under the bed. It was incredibly liberating, living so simply. The days and nights were spacious and long, and filled with rich discussions about life, service, renunciation, and great spiritual texts. At the end of a year, I decided that monastic life wasn’t really for me, and when I returned home, I was overwhelmed with how huge my house seemed, and by what felt like mountains of “stuff.” I looked around my kitchen and thought, “Who on earth needs all these sets of dishes? Why do I have so damn many mugs? What is all this stuff FOR?” As I re-acclimated to life “in the world,” I realized that you need stuff to make a life. You need all those dishes for when you have a big dinner party, and you need all those mugs to serve coffee afterwards, and you need three big boxes of candles to light up your house during the long, dark, Colorado winter.
So when we started talking about the beauty of renunciation and other Great Truths at dinner tonight, at one point I said, “Sandy. I’ve lived in an ashram. I practice detachment all the time. I’ve been contemplating my own death as a spiritual practice for twenty years. But what I’d really like right now is just a BREAK FROM ALL THIS!” We all laughed, and Sandy said, “Well, my twenty-year old daughter turned to me a while back and said, ‘You know Mom, impermanence sucks.’” And then we all laughed again. Impermanence sucks – I think we’ve hit on another Great Truth here.
As I was driving home from dinner I thought about a story I heard on “This American Life” on NPR, where a guy thinks he only has a year to live, and so he gives away all his money and spends the year bicycling across the country with his brother. When he realizes he’s not going to die, he also realizes that in spite of the popular philosophy to “live every day as if it were your last,” human beings are just not built that way. We actually can’t live every day as if we were going to die tomorrow. Our brains are wired to hope for the future, to plan, to dream. Even though the pot is already broken, we love our stuff, we love our attachments, we love the things that keep us tethered to this earthly existence.
And yes, we all know we’re going to die some day, but some part of us has to pretend each day that we will just go on and on and on, doing our best at work, having long dinners with friends, driving home to our beloved dog on a snowy Colorado evening. And that is the best we can do.
Each day I remember something that I have lost, and have to let it go in my mind. The bowls that I hand-carried from Hong Kong. The teapots collected from around the world. My mother’s silver baby cup. Those things are broken, melted, gone. But I am not. I am learning to laugh again, at my friend’s odd jokes, at my dog, running around my cottage squeaking a toy while I write, at the thousand things a day that present themselves to me. The pot may already be broken, but I want to enjoy life and all its treasures in the here and now, to embrace, to let go; to embrace, to let go; and flow on in this strange and lovely Dance of Life.
May we all enjoy the Here and Now and all that surrounds us, today and every day.
Sending You Much Love, and Wishes for Sweet Dreams,