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Taking Care of Impermanence

The fact that all conditioned things are impermanent forms a central tenet in all forms of Buddhism. It is difficult to listen to a dharma talk without coming across some reference to the transient nature of our existence. However, out of all the concepts that are central to Buddhist thought, a contemplation of impermanence is perhaps the practice that, if treated without care and attention, can actually lead to greater anxiety and fear rather than diminish it.

As a child, I was always scared of my own mortality. I remember lying awake at night thinking about how I would eventually die and feeling terrified by this realisation. It is quite common for children to go through such a phase, since when we are babies we cannot comprehend the finitude of life. The fact that we will die often comes as quite a shock to the young and it is quite difficult as a parent to help them navigate this developmental stage. Unless we are exceptional individuals, a fear of death is one of the most common obstacles we must face in our life.

The practice of contemplating impermanence, then, confronts and addresses this fear that is latent within us. As with any phobia, if we deal with it in the wrong way we can often make things worse and our good intentions can have bad consequences. There might be a tendency, upon hearing about the need to realise impermanence, to face our deepest fears too early and to actually reinforce our phobia of death and change. By forcing ourselves to confront a fear in this way, we can renew the connection between the stimulus, in this case the notion of change and death, and the state of anxiety.

Therefore, a certain amount of care is needed when approaching and studying the subject of impermanence. Often one of the mistakes that we make when contemplating impermanence is to dive straight into the perceived “negative” aspects of change. For a more balanced beginning, it is often useful to first explore some of the positive aspects of change and analyse the fact that the existence of everything we love and cherish in the world actually is based in its transiency. For instance, could we ever fall in love without the ability to change, could we see our children grow-up, could we ever develop spiritually? When we look at life closely, we can start to see how anything positive has causes and conditions and therefore can only arise due to the impermanence of life. It is important, not only to understand this intellectually, but to allow these positive aspects of change to sink into our hearts. Through this method, many of the automatic fears that used to arise at the thought of change begin to fade away and a more balanced view of impermanence can be gained.  

After we have built this foundation, it is then easier to move on to contemplating more neutral aspects of change. For instance, we might want to turn our attention to the change of seasons or something else that we are not emotionally

attached to. If at any point we feel anxious by this form of contemplation it is best to return to the positive aspects of change for a while. I have found it important not to rush this process as phobias are often deep rooted and can often return without warning. Finally, if we are able to contemplate the positive and neutral aspects of change without a problem then it is time to turn to some aspects of change we may find negative. However, it is important to note that at this point our judgements about “positive”, “neutral” and “negative” should have lessened and a more balanced approach to change as whole should have set in. The key point of this approach is to use a positive contemplation of impermanence to instil in us the courage to explore other areas of the topic. In this way, it is hoped that we can avoid some of the harm that can be caused by diving into some of the more difficult aspects of change straight away. In my article next week, I will complete this discussion by outlining how we might approach contemplating death and some of the other deep fears we may come across when studying impermanence.

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