Impermanence and Non-Attachment
Why do we struggle for things that will pass away? Dream phantasms that melt away with the first breathe of dawn. We cannot gain anything forever, because we ourselves are not forever. Like all things we will pass away; but this is not a pessimistic outlook, it’s a pragmatic one.
If we deny our impermanence and struggle after material gain or power we waste our lives “thrashing about in selfishness, like fish in a stream with little water” as it says in one of my favorite discourses in the Atthakavagga. Selfishness is vain and gain is loss. This is not a paradox but truth. Struggling for gain we spend our short time on earth contending with others rather than enjoying their company and learning from them. Even gaining we fear to lose what we gained; but if it’s not ours to begin with what can we lose? The Atthakavagga again says:
Those who are greedy for possessions do not leave behind suffering because of the fear of loss; therefore the wise person lets go of greediness and finds security in Nirvana.
Accepting, no embracing, our impermanence opens us to the way of mindfulness in the present moment. We may never pass this way again so we need to grasp every experience - not thing - that life has to offer. Smell the grass - or the traffic. Stop to wonder at the beauty of the sunset, or the snow. Open your arms to the nurturing moisture of the rain. Neither they nor we will ever be in this situation again. The past is already dead - as the sutra says, “Just as a person awakening does not see those things they met in dreams; so a beloved person will no longer be seen when they have died.” And this refers not just to the final death but to the death of each moment.
We mourn when someone finally dies, yet we let ourselves be distracted from them when we’re sitting together at dinner - and that dinner will never come again. It is dead. We take pictures to remember a moment - and forget to actually experience it. We spend evenings out together looking at our phones and updating Facebook rather than embracing the moment, the food, the drink, the music, the person.
So do we follow the example of the forest monks and leave behind all our possessions for a hut in the woods; forgo all technology and live as our ancestors did? No! This way is vain as well because it still assumes that things can be yours to give away. The only thing we need to give away - the only thing we CAN give away - is the sense of “mine-ness”. This goes for money, things, people and even thoughts and feelings. Those things that come into my life through the money I earn - home, food, clothes - I accept while they are in my life. I hope that they have come through no greed on my part and through no hurt or harm to others; yet I know that they may go away as well and I don’t mourn for them when they go for they were never mine to begin with.
Technology can be a detriment as well. Technology is generally a wonderful thing; Facebook has allowed me to keep in touch with people I hadn’t seen in years; to share in their lives and their travels and to share my travels and joys with them. Instagram lets me see in an instant the beautiful sights my friends are experiencing - even though most of them seem to be focused around food for some reason. I don’t understand this affliction they’re talking about now - Facebook Depression - why would I be depressed that my friends are sharing beautiful things that they’re seeing and doing? I rejoice in their experiences as I hope they rejoice in mine - but the sharing is not the experience; and I think this is what we often forget. Don’t be so rushed to share your experiences that you forget to have them.
This living in the present moment has to walk a delicate line - neither veering into hedonism on the one hand nor nihilism on the other. We must be neither trapped in the sense pleasures of the moment nor should we stop planning for the future and working to increase human flourishing just because all things pass away. Dependent Origination tells us that even though we may pass away the things we do keep producing rippling effects throughout time. Even though the flourishing we engender passes away it will itself engender further - and greater - flourishing in the future.
This though isn’t an easy practice. Sometimes I think it might be easier to renounce the world and go meditate in a hermitage; but we can do it - or at least we can try to make progress. Take a first step and stop referring to anything as “mine”, even in your mind. The car you drive isn’t ‘my car’, it’s ‘the car I drive’. Money isn’t ‘my money’, but ‘the money I have for now’. Family isn’t ‘my wife, my husband, my children’, but ‘the people I love’. As you let go of “mineness” you’ll find that dukkha as well will no longer cling to you. Like the lotus you’ll rise from the muck of possession and give birth to the flower of compassion.