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Saturday, August 29, 2020

Recollecting Impermanence

Hello, Readers. Since last I wrote, the beloved pooch has died. This is terribly sad, and I notice his absence everywhere, for example when I wake up and no longer have to step over a large, sleeping dog. Or when I peel a carrot, and I realize he is not waiting patiently on the doormat for me to toss him the ends. It’s sad and we are all grieving, and yet it was inevitable that we would outlive him, barring unforseen circumstances.To avoid this situation, I would have had to adopt a tortoise, I suppose, but they’re not much good for midday walks. 



Impermanence has, therefore, been on my mind. The truth of impermanence is one of those truths to which we pay lip service. We know life is short, and that change is the only certainty in life, but we usually only know it theoretically, or intellectually, not in a bone-deep way. Yet knowing the deep truth of impermanence is key to appreciating what’s happening right now. Understanding impermanence is the doorway to wisdom, so they say. They, in this case, being Buddhist teachers. 

Buddhist philosophy feels impermanence is so important that everyone, layperson or monk, should contemplate it daily in the form of the five daily remembrances. They are as follows:

  1. Just like everybody, I am of the nature to experience illness. I cannot avoid sickness
  2. Just like everybody, I am of the nature to grow old. I cannot avoid aging. 
  3. Just like everybody, I am of the nature to die. I cannot escape death. 
  4. I am the owner of and heir to all my actions. 
  5. I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.
Those last two are listed in different order, depending on the translation.

—Upajjhatthana Sutta 


I’m not going to lie, these seem like a bummer. Number five is really hard to take, these days. I lost an earring down the bathroom sink the other day. I swear that thing committed harakiri, because otherwise there is no explanation. Unless it is that my ear holes have stretched and sagged along with everything else on my person? But I mean maybe the earring disappeared to get me to pay attention to the blog post I’ve delayed writing for days. Was this not karma showing me the truth of this contemplation? Really, it’s very sad, this truth. In the way I understand the practice, by facing this idea daily, I am to become less grasping after stasis and more accepting of the true nature of life, that it is transitory, from the briefest mental image or thought, from the strongest emotion to the longest life. Once I accept this, I suppose, I am free from a layer of sadness and anxiety about the inevitable changes, and this extra space allows me to appreciate what is before me more fully than I do when I am worried about something or someone slipping away. Earring. Dog. Daughters. Life. 

I may be a little tender on this reflection, considering the dog, considering that we’ve just dropped the younger daughter at college for the first time. The elder daughter will soon decamp from our comfortable pandemic bubble for a job in Boston. My sister the psychoanalyst is one year older today, which means I am, too. And none of your “she’s only one day older than she was yesterday” folderol. Sometimes the milestones hit you. 



Here’s a secret. I’ve found that when I contemplate these five remembrances, I feel a bit of relief. It’s just the teensiest bit of relief, more of a minute relaxation deep in my gut. I think it has to do with letting go of some of the struggle to collect and keep everyone and everything dear near. I think it has to do with releasing some shame around aging, illness, death, responsibility, and loss. I think there is shame around these things sometimes. We feel that if we experience them, it is our fault for not managing well enough in the world. We didn’t exercise enough, or eat the right food in the right amounts. We didn’t appreciate the gravity of our choices at the time and could have chosen better. Maybe you don’t feel that way, Readers. If so, I am glad for you. For me, I have found it so. Which means, that counterintuitive as it seems for me, these recollections do help me be more comfortable. 

I was informed that my earring, a thing I hold dear, was most likely retrievable from the trap under the bathroom sink. I marshaled my resources to figure that out—by which I mean I texted the husband, who said he would do it when he got home from work.

The husband did indeed find my earring. So what does that mean? It means that sometimes things from which we are separated come back to us. As Sting told us, back in the early 1980s, “If you love something, set it free, free, free.”

Sting’s lyric doesn’t exactly apply to losing an earring. It might apply, however, to letting your child leave for college, and your other no-longer-a-child child leave for a new phase of life as a college graduate working for peanuts and trying to make the world a bit better. By "letting your child" I don't suggest I have any choice in these things. The letting is internal.

However, because of the covid, the new college student will indeed be coming back to us. Her college is only allowing the first years one semester on campus. The rest of the academic year will be remote learning, so that the older students can have a semester there. Oy. Such is the ever-changing nature of things. 

Meanwhile, Readers, I started full time graduate school for social work this week. At the ripe old age of one thousand and ten, I am returning to school for a master’s degree, with a plan to become a therapist. I don’t know if this is wisdom or foolishness, embracing of life, or denial of time passing. Nevertheless, I go forward. I cannot escape illness, death, or aging. I cannot avoid responsibility for my choices or letting go of all I love. Okay. So be it. 

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