[This piece was originally published in my "A to Zen" column in the May/June 2014 issue of Unity Magazine under the title "The Wisdom of Embracing Change," and is reproduced here with permission.]
The ancient Chinese Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu lived alone in the mountains. Legend has it that when his wife died, his Confucian friend Hui Tzu made the difficult journey up the mountain to pay his respects. When Hui Tzu reached Chuang Tzu’s hut three days later he found his old friend singing, banging on a kettle, and dancing naked around the fire. Hui Tzu was mortified. This was certainly not proper decorum in the aftermath of such a grievous event, and not befitting a philosopher of such renown.
Hui Tzu stepped into the clearing and chastised the old man.
“Chuang Tzu, how can you behave so outrageously? Proper etiquette demands that with the loss of a spouse one wears black and behaves solemnly for one year. And here you are dancing naked around a fire banging on a kettle and singing at the top of your lungs.”
Chuang Tzu looked at his old friend.
“Three days ago, when my wife died,” he said, “I fell apart. I sank to the ground, curled up into a fetal position and didn’t move for three days. I wept and gasped for air like a fish out of water. Then I realized that it was time to get up. My wife was not my possession, therefore she could not be “lost.” Each of us arises out of the field of pure potentiality and takes form for a while. Then we return to the great field of formlessness. Why mourn? I did not mourn before she was born, why should I mourn now? Instead, I celebrate the time we had together. Now when my eyes fill with tears they are not tears of sorrow but tears of gratitude for the depth and beauty she brought into my life.”
Behind this apocryphal story lay a very important theme – things change. And wisdom is acceptance of change. Maybe it’s just that simple.
The Buddha taught that impermanence (anitya) was one of the fundamental qualities of reality. Not only does everything change, but everything changes into everything else. Each composite thing is built from bits and pieces of formerly composite things. Therefore everything is part of one, vast, interconnected web of being. Nothing is self-caused. Everything is dependent on everything else. Thich Nhat Hahn calls it “inter-being.” This boundless interdependency links each of us into the whole whether we’re aware of it or not. Forms may come and go, but the whole is intact. Learning to love the whole as much as the parts is the engine of our awakening.
A year ago I had the honor of performing a memorial service for a friend whose son had died of a drug overdose. All funerals are hard, but this one was particularly painful. The deceased was a vibrant, outgoing, talented young man, as well as a recovering opiate addict. He was doing well. Then he slipped and made a dosage error. His mother found him dead in his bed three days before Christmas. I recently spoke to her and asked her how she was doing now that it’s been over a year. She said it was hard. The first six months she could hardly breathe. Then slowly and for no particular reason the suffocating grip of grief began to lift. Nothing would ever be the same, but the strange clarity of peace began to penetrate and illuminate the sorrow. She misses him every day, and it will never be right that he died so young, but in her dawning wisdom she knew – everyone dies, it’s only a matter of when, and we do not measure the value of a life by its length but by its depth.
A cloud casts a shadow that passes swiftly over the surface of the earth, here and then gone. A cloud is just a coalescence of ice crystals and water vapor high in the atmosphere. It isn’t really a thing, but a collection of elements taking momentary form, sometimes even a recognizable form – a feather, a flower, the face of a loved one. Then high winds rend it apart, its form dissolving in the light of the sun. And the shadow vanishes.
As he lay dying the Buddha told his monks, “Remember this, all forms are impermanent.” Suffering, he taught, was the natural result of a cognitive error – the mistaken notion that we own any of this. Everything we have is borrowed, and we must give it all back, sometimes suddenly and without warning. Living in the wisdom of impermanence enables us to be fully present in this now moment, the only moment there ever is. By coming out of the fog of the delusion of permanence, we awaken into reality – a place of love and interconnectedness that the mind and its ego attachments can never access. By saying yes to transition, we say yes to the unambiguous beauty of being alive.