Mary Carol woke up with an upset stomach. This did not fit with her plans for the day. She was going to have brunch with some friends. She took some antacids and continued getting ready. Eventually her stomach would settle down. When it was time to leave, not only had her stomach not settled down, she actually felt worse. The antacids had done nothing and now she felt slightly nauseous. Mentally, she changed her goals for the outing, going from enjoying food and friends, to enjoying friends. She got into her car and began her drive.
About 20 minutes into her 40-minute drive, Mary Carol realized that she was really feeling ill. And the mere idea of food made her stomach turn flip flops. She wondered if anyone would notice if she did not order anything more than a sparkling water or perhaps a 7-Up? She began to feel confident that if she ate anything, it would come right back up. And with that thought she exited the freeway, pulled over and called to advise the brunch coordinator that she was not going to make it. Then she began her commute back home. She made it through the door just in time to become really ill. She took off her festive brunch outfit and crawled under the blankets. Her stomach pain increased. She definitely had a fever, and eventually her system emptied itself of all its contents.
After she made the decision to return home and had climbed into bed, Mary Carol realized that what she was going to do that day was be sick. That was how it was going to be, and actually all she needed to do was to be with her illness. Her activity for the day was to be sick. And as her fever rose and the pain intensified, she practiced some deep meditative breathing. She worked on simply being with the discomfort, with an awareness that at some point it would stop. Food poisoning or a virus (whichever it was) was impermanent. That knowledge helped her. In fact, you can say that she was clinging to the idea that all the discomfort would subside.
After a few hours, Mary Carol woke up. She felt sore and a little bit warm, but the majority of the illness seemed to have passed. In this instance, her assumption that impermanence meant the discomfort would go away was correct. At any point during her illness her situation might have changed in a way that she would have perceived as much more difficult—perhaps the removal of her appendix, or some other surgery, or a lasting malady. Impermanence is not a promise of improvement.
More than one medieval Persian Sufi poet referenced the phrase, “And this, too, shall pass away.” In its original usage, the phrase was an elegant way of observing that both sorrows and joys would come and go. A description of the human condition, in good times and in bad. Today, a variation of this sentiment exists in multiple cultures. Mary Carol had heard her friends say it to one another during difficult times. They used it as a way to remind each other that hard times would give way to better times. Perhaps Mary Carol had even uttered this to herself as she curled up with her stomach pain. This is not the promise of impermanence.
Impermanence is not a reassurance that things will get better. It is not a simple reminder that change will come. Impermanence reminds us that form and consciousness will disintegrate. We come apart. Consider these passages from the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta (DN 16). In the first the Buddha is reminding his disciples that even he will fall.
“Has it not already been repeatedly said by me that there is separation, division, and parting from all that is dear and beloved? How could it be that what is born, come to being, formed and is liable to fall, should not fall? That is not possible.”
And when the Buddha had passed away, Sakka, the chief of the deities, uttered the following:
Impermanent are all component things,
They arise and cease, that is their nature:
They come into being and pass away,
Release from them is bliss supreme.
Our disintegration is not always obvious. We live in such a way that we see continuity. We go to sleep, we wake up, and most days everything seems to be the same. But the reality is inconstancy. Little by little we are changing. One of my teachers likes to remind us of this by suggesting that we look at our photos from a few years ago. For most of us, looking at those photos and then looking in the mirror are all we need to see the signs of our inconstancy.
It’s not wrong that Mary Carol believed her stomach pain would get better. Most of the time she is going to be right. Food poisoning or a virus will go away. In most cases, she will experience a change for the better. And being with her own suffering, noticing the feeling of discomfort and breathing through it, is a good practice. It is also to her benefit to remember that impermanence is not a promise that all difficulties pave the way for easier times. It is her practice that will help her find a way to embrace impermanence with more ease.