The turning of the year is a natural time to pause and reflect on our lives, be it for the lunar or the Gregorian calendar. Many people prepare by cleaning or making resolutions. Some are excited about a new job or a new child, while others are living without food or shelter. But one thing holds true for everyone: none of us knows what the New Year will actually bring. The Buddha’s teaching on impermanence may seem redundant here, but I think this is the perfect time to examine it it more closely.
No matter how many times I think I’ve understood the truth of impermanence, I find another corner of my mind that has attached to some sort of permanence, be it a certainty about someone’s character that I dislike, an opinion about politics, or a hidden belief about my own powerlessness. I know that the weather is always changing and I might remember that I, too, am always changing, but when it comes to what (and who) I like and dislike, it’s so easy to forget the impermanent nature of all phenomena. I also find myself caught in expectation-laden notions of impermanence, such as: “This headache is bound to change, I wish it would change now!” or “I know that this person standing before me is capable of change and has the same Buddha Nature as all beings, why doesn’t he start acting like it?” Wherever there is a confused notion of impermanence, suffering is bound to ensue.
Long live impermanence!
Teachings on impermanence bring us face to face with the mental habit of trying to control and shape our environment to match our preferences, and our assumption that these strategies will bring about a lasting happiness. If you’ve ever raised a child, faced a serious illness, or been with someone as they died, it becomes painfully clear that controlling other people or even our own lives is not actually possible. As my teacher, the Venerable Master Thich Nhat Hanh, has written in his commentary on the Heart Sutra:
If we use our intelligence and insight, we can see how crucial impermanence is to life. If things weren’t impermanent, your situation couldn’t change, a child couldn’t grow up, a grain of corn would never become an ear of corn to eat. It’s not a negative note of music, it’s rather positive, because thanks to impermanence, everything is possible. Your disease can be cured, a regime characterized by dictatorship can change, we can do something to reverse the course of global warming—otherwise global warming would be there forever. Because of impermanence, there is hope.
So instead of complaining about impermanence, we must say: “long live impermanence!” The insight of impermanence can liberate us from much of our fear, sorrow, anger, and our feelings of separation. Knowing that everything is impermanent, we’re less attached to it. Flowers are beautiful, but when a flower dies, we don’t cry a lot. We know that flowers are impermanent. When we practice that awareness, we suffer much less. And we enjoy being alive much more. Knowing that things are impermanent, we will cherish them in the present moment. (Nhat Hanh 2012, 299)
Try it now
Knowing that 2017 is impermanent, can we cherish each moment? Can we at least cherish more moments? Mindfulness practices are a direct and accessible way to cherish each moment more fully. There’s nothing to wait for. Try it now. Take a deep breath. Notice the sensation of breathing in the body. Relax your shoulders. When thoughts arise, notice them and then bring awareness back to the breath, with kindness.
Bring something to mind that you are naturally grateful for. Let this grow into a deeper joy and let that joy feed you. Then bring awareness back to the breath, with kindness.
Feel the parts that are in pain and allow them to be as they are. Make space for the emotional and physical pain that is part of life. I like to say a silent “okay” to myself. Do it now. And again. Then bring awareness back to the breath, with kindness. A mindful year is simply one that is lived fully.
Mindfulness is not an individual matter
While mindfulness can bring more joy into our lives, maintaining a practice does not prevent us from suffering. We don’t know what will happen in 2017, but there will be suffering and there will be joy. Wars will begin, and continue, and end. Some refugees will find safe shelter and others will not. Children will be born and some will die. People will get sick and some will be cured. People will marry and some will get divorced. People will commit suicide and some will help prevent suicide. The world is endlessly filled with joy and sorrow and more.
We cannot control it all and if this realization does not bring up fear at some point, you are either completely enlightened or else you are still fighting the fear. It is easy to avoid. Our minds are great masters at distraction and denial. The people who say they have no fear are most likely the ones who have been able to avoid it, whereas the most courageous people I know face fear all the time and are not controlled by it. This is a very big difference.
As David Loy writes in Money, Sex, War, Karma, “Believing that mindfulness means attentiveness only to my immediate surrounding, and placing such limits on our awareness, is really another version of the basic problem: our sense of separation from each other and the world we are “in.” (Loy 2008, 81) Avoid trying to draw lines between “your practice” and “the world.” There is no choice to make between caring for the world and caring for yourself—you are part of the world; the world is part of you. The challenge is learning to live and practice in a way that allows you to care for all beings at once. When you do this, the lines between “inside” and “outside” will become blurred and finally removed, dissolving all fear.
Are you sure?
One way to carry the contemplation of impermanence and uncertainty into daily life is to ask ourselves from time to time, “Are you sure?” This is especially important when we are suffering. This is not a question of negation but a tool to bring us into the present moment and out of endless thoughts of sorrow, anxiety, and doubt.
Looking to the New Year, what are you hoping for? Then ask yourself, “Are you sure?” Are you really sure that the thing you want will make you happy? It might, yet it might not. Both possibilities are okay. It is the asking that’s important.
Likewise, what are you dreading in 2017? And ask again, “Are you sure?” Are you sure the thing you really do not want to happen will prevent you from experiencing peace, joy, and true love in the next year? In seeing things as they are, much anxiety vanishes because our fears are usually worse than any possible reality. And when reality is worse than our fears, we need all the courage and compassion available to survive, to heal, and to thrive.
In the brilliant Radical Dharma, Reverend angel Kyoto williams asks, “What places are you not feeling? What part of you are you rejecting? What aspect of you are you not loving? What truth are you not willing to accept?” (williams, Owens, and Syedullah 2016, 96) Rather than looking at how to make our lives more comfortable or our paycheck bigger in 2017, we practitioners on the Buddhist path can take these questions to guide ourselves into moments of aliveness that eventually string together to become a year well-lived, present to enjoy what there is to be enjoyed, ready to respond to tragedy and suffering with the strength to be vulnerable and the courage to heal, remembering that all is subject to change.
Each moment is new and yet connected to every other moment, past and future. They cannot exist without each other. We cannot exist without each other. It is always a New Year, and we, too, are always new. Don’t wait for a specific day to begin living deeply, living fully. The New Year is our very life, always changing. The New Year is NOW.
Thich Nhat Hanh. 2012. Awakning of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries. Berkeley: Parallax Press.
Loy, David. 2008. Money, Sex, War, Karma. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
williams, Rev. angel Kyodo, Lama Rod Owens, Jasmine Syedullah, PhD. 2016. Radical Dharma. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.