[This was originally published in my column "A to Zen" in the January/February 2016 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]
"You can't step in the same river twice." ~ Heraclitus
The only thing that doesn’t change is change.
The transient nature of life puts us in a precarious position. Lulled into complacency by the apparent solidity of the world, again and again we are shocked by life’s sudden transitions – the terrible phone call, the cancer diagnosis, the death of a friend. Like Charlie Brown we fervently believe that this time Lucy will hold the football in place. But every time we go to kick it, it isn’t there.
In Buddhism this fundamental fact is known as anitya or impermanence. The evidence is all around us. Sure, things change at different rates, but change they will. A mayfly lives 24 hours, a proton billions of years. Yet both are bound by the same inexorable law: change.
If one follows this reasonable premise to its logical conclusion, we arrive at another core Buddhist teaching, shunyata. Shunyata is usually translated as “emptiness” or “the void,” but what shunyata actually conveys is the fundamentally indefinable nature of reality. Whatever all of this is, it is beyond language and thought. Shunyata is the nameless field of pure potentiality out of which all forms arise and to which all forms return. Yet shunyata itself remains formless. So in that sense reality is empty of fixed forms. But look around – it is most definitely not nothing.
We think we live in a universe comprised of solid objects distinct from one another. But ancient wisdom traditions and modern physics confirm the illusory nature of our misperceptions. So-called solid reality is 99.9999% empty space. Turns out the Buddhists were right.
Shunyata is like a clear sky and things are like clouds. Clouds arise, appear to have form, last a while, and then disperse, sometimes slowly, sometimes suddenly. This is the nature of things. As he lay down to die, the Buddha left his friends with one final thought. “Remember this,” he said, “all forms arise and all forms fade.”
Embracing the fundamental transience of reality enables us to navigate the strange and beautiful arc of our lives with a modicum of dignity and joy. We realize we don’t own any of this. It is all borrowed and we must give it all back, sometimes suddenly and without warning. Yet in the face of impermanence it would be wrong to conclude that nothing matters – quite the contrary. Everything matters – more than you ever imagined.
Every fleeting moment has a magical quality, a sacred ordinariness that we mostly miss, caught as we are in dreams of yesterday and tomorrow. Only when we come into the presence of this now moment do we tap into the real.
We cannot change the past. It is forever out of reach. The future is equally elusive and beyond our grasp. What we call the past or the future is only a thought and thoughts by their nature exist only in this present moment. We are only and forever rooted in the now. This is where we think, act, feel, love, and have our being. Yet most of us spend very little time here, caught forever in thoughts of the past or the future.
Buddhist practice seeks to draw us out of our thought-world and back into an immediate awareness of our authentic nature. But what is it going to take to get us out of our head and back into our heart?
Meditation, devotion, prayer, service, mindfulness, loving-kindness, empathy, compassion – these are the core practices of all spiritual traditions. As the Tibetan saying goes, “Want to go to hell? Think of yourself. Want to go to heaven? Think of others.”
When things change, and they will – when those we love are taken from us, when we find ourselves alone in a field with nothing but the wind to hold onto – we are drawn into a powerful and liberating awareness. We see through our tears that no matter what, there is an unbroken light, a boundless consciousness, an unchanging love, and an immutable being that binds it all together, despite the apparent transience.