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The Extraordinary Gift of Impermanence

Each January I choose a word. I use this word as a lodestone for the coming year—to inspire me, to comfort me, to encourage me, and to change me. Last year my word was “enough.” And I have indeed become better at appreciating the time, money, and energy I have. This year my word is “impermanence.”

I chose this word because I want to become better at remembering the reality of impermanence, with all the attendant advantages that this confers. Remembering impermanence helps me gently detach from the things to which I cling, and allows them instead to slip through my hands, trusting that there will be more where they came from. The word will comfort me in hard times, as I can trust that all difficulties will pass. It will also remind me to appreciate what I receive—each yellow spring flower in the temple garden, every bowl of soup, each kiss from my partner—knowing that I will eventually move away from everything and everyone.

Over the past week, I have been feeling stabs of climate grief. I have been reading news of the oil companies’ investment plans, with so much more money going into oil and gas than into renewables. I have been walking around the temple garden, in ridiculously warm weather for this time of year, and feeling my own impotence. I’ve been asking myself a familiar question: what more can I do? What I’m already doing just doesn’t seem like enough.

I wonder how it would be to apply my word of the year to these feelings of grief and powerlessness. What about the impermanence of our planet? I think for a while about how the entire planet is subject to this immutable law, just as I am. This globe weighs 5.972 × 10^24 kilograms—that’s 5,970,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilograms—but it’s not staying still. It is spinning at 1,000 miles an hour. It has had an extraordinary life of its own, coming into existence 4.54 billion years ago and moving through so many stages of heating and cooling. The first appearance of life was around 3.7 billion years ago, and mammals came along a mere 178 million years ago. It has teemed with life for all that time.

I am a speck of this life, supported by the Earth. Here I stand, on this huge globe with solid metal at its core, surrounded by swirling liquids, a thick rocky mantle, and the thin crust beneath my feet. Here I am, one mammal who happens to be alive during this time of the Anthropocene. What is my relationship with this amazing being? What should it be?

As my brain tries to comprehend the enormity of those figures, a whoosh of emotion breaks through. It is awe. How amazing that I am alive at all! How amazing that I am sitting here at my computer, pulling these figures from the internet as I ride this enormous beast through space!

I think that the Buddha appreciated this feeling. I wonder if it’s similar to the feeling he had when he saw the morning star after a long night under the Bodhi tree, and touched the earth beneath him. I wonder if it’s the feeling he wanted to convey with his kalpas of time, with his turtle just happening to thread her head through a tiny ring placed on the vast oceans, with his rubbing away of mountains. We are so small! We are so contingent! We are so blessed!

As I allow the awe to sweep through me, I can feel my perspective subtly shifting. I am moving away from being a bearer of shame. Instead, I am feeling contrition—wholly appropriate contrition—for my personal contribution to the mess we are in. I am feeling sad about the foolishness of mankind as a whole, and for the harm we have caused and are causing. I am grieving in a way that feels cleaner and clearer.   

I am also moving away from feeling solely responsible for resolving the climate crisis. I am seeing my relationship with the planet more clearly: I’m just a little speck of life with my own burdensome karma and my own particular brand of foolishness. I am seeing that I do have important and precious power—to make small changes inside me, and to make small changes in the world—but it feels lighter. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, I am “right-sized” again.

What can I do with this power? I can write this article. I can pause in the corridor and listen carefully to my fellow community member as they describe their difficult Christmas. I can tend the temple garden. I can lead people in walking meditation on the Malvern Hills. I can take my dogs to the groomer. I can be kind to myself as often as I can, which will help me to be kind to others. I can forgive myself and, when that isn’t possible, I can know that the Buddha forgives me.

I can’t single-handedly change where the oil companies invest their money. I can talk about it here, and sign a petition, and join a march, and maybe they will change sooner or maybe later. Whatever happens, it will keep shifting and changing. We’ll invent new ways to hurt our planet, and new ways to heal it. We’ll evolve and thrive as a species, or maybe we’ll just about manage to survive, or maybe we won’t. If we don’t make it, that will be okay for the Earth. All things come to an end. Without endings, there are no beginnings.   

Right now, I’m simply feeling grateful to be here. The mist is smudging the distant hills, and my mug of chicory is warm in my hands. Some upbeat soul music is drifting in from the radio in the living room. I take a long, slow breath in, receiving my gift of oxygen from the Earth. One day—who knows when—I will take in my last lungful.

Right now, I am so lucky to be alive.

Related features from BDG

On Receiving the Gifts of Impermanence, Clinging, and Aversion
Buddhistdoor View: Aging Is Impermanence’s Greatest Lesson  
Impermanence, Suffering, and Non-Self
Young Voices: What to Do with Impermanence
The Promise of Impermanence
Lessons in Impermanence: A Conversation with Choje Lama Wangchuk of the Thrangu Monasteries
Facing Impermanence: Palyul Center Bulgaria During the Time of Pandemic
Samurai and Monks: Lessons in Impermanence
Anam Thubten Rinpoche On Non-attachment, Being a Buddhist Gypsy, and Impermanence

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