Impermanence

This week I have been contemplating the concept of impermanence.

To be honest it has been on my mental radar for a couple of years now.

I think it started when I commenced thinking and writing about self-improvement. The more I explored the topic, the more confident I got that we could improve upon ourselves – a growth mindset. We could, to a certain extent, consider our weaknesses impermanent. Who you are is not set in stone.

The problem was, that focus considered only one side of the impermanence coin. Yes, we could change for the better, but as we all experientially know, we can lose what is important to us as well.

Everything of value to us will come to an end. There is a final bite of the donut, a final kiss in a relationship, a final breath in a life. Nothing we hold dear can last.

Impermanence is therefore both the shining light guiding us to a better place as well as the terrifying force that comes to take away what we care about.

Right now, we’re reeling from discovering that things we took for granted like physical safety, human closeness, purpose and employment, economic and financial security can be taken away from us suddenly.

Our fragility, as individuals and as a global community, has been revealed (again).

If you are anything like me, you are possibly reflecting on things that once seemed fairly routine (e.g. my morning face-to-face meeting with colleagues) and missing them, a little angry with oneself for not being more grateful for them at the time.

Basically, impermanence is kicking our psychological butt at the moment and we are feeling the emotional impact.

But impermanence offers also the glimmer of hope for a way out.

When things changed, people didn’t just stop and give up. They started innovating and adjusting. They found new ways to do business, new ways to connect. They took hold of the forces of change and started wielding them to build a different world.

So yes, we might have lost a lot and we don’t know yet how much of that loss will stick. Thinking conservatively, it seems sensible to assume that the social and economic impacts of the Coronavirus will resonate for years to come. There will be grief and loss of many types.

But the landscape of human activity and connection and innovation and love and joy won’t disappear. It will just change. And in that change we will find things to celebrate.

Impermanence is a strange master, dishing out punishment and reward in a difficult to predict way.

And my default state always seems to be to want to fight back. I struggle to accept that the capacity to change has to come also with the capacity to lose.

But that is slowly changing.

Meditation was one of the first contexts in which I really started to accept that my experience is one of constantly appearing and disappearing senses, thoughts, feelings and memories. On the small scale (the machinations of my mind), impermanence is baked in.

And then you look out from your mind and discover that impermanence is baked into all time scales: an individual lifetime, a generation, the life of a planet, the life of a galaxy, the life of the universe.

So as we process the changes that have happened to us recently and grieve our losses, we should, even if just a little bit, try to open our minds to what comes next, how it will be different but maybe (in some respects) better than what we had before.

Impermanence is not a wholly negative deal. We just have to be a bit smarter in how we make the trade.

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