Refuge Amidst Change

Tonight we will reflect upon how to find refuge amidst change. How do we find peace in a world that is constantly changing? Mark Coleman’s recent book addresses that question in a chapter called “Finding Refuge in Transience and Uncertainty.” He cites the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, who observed 2500 years ago that “Nothing endures but change,” and that “No person ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same person.” 

Those words remind me of John O’Donohue’s poem, Fluent:

I would love to live

Like a river flows,

Carried by the surprise

Of its own unfolding

According to the 3rd century Lalitavistara text, the Buddha taught,

All things conditioned are unstable, impermanent, 

Fragile in essence, as an unbaked pot, 

Like something borrowed, or a city founded on sand, 

They last a short while only.

They are inevitably destroyed, 

Like plaster washed off in the rains, 

Like the sandy bank of a river—

They are conditioned, and their true nature is frail.

They are like the flame of a lamp, 

Which rises suddenly and as soon goes out.

They have no power of endurance, like the wind

Or like foam, unsubstantial, essentially feeble.

Spirit Rock teacher Anna Douglas says that we barely notice the fact that we live in a sea of constant change and that every moment of our existence is disappearing even as it arises. She cites the poet Rilke: “The knowledge of impermanence that haunts our days is their very fragrance.” 

The ancient Pali word for impermanence is anicca, which the Buddha taught is one of the three key characteristics of life. Implicitly anicca means ephemeral, unreliable, unstable, ungraspable, dissolving, uncertain, imperfect, and transforming—all that threatens our desire to hold onto something dependable and sure. But Gandhi called the conditions we long for “blessed monotony”—a predictable life, undisturbed by sudden changes of fortune, or health or mood.

Anna likens impermanence to gravity—a natural law of existence. Just as living in harmony with gravity saves us from falling, embracing ceaseless change avoids mental suffering. If we think we are in control, and something unexpectedly changes, we tend to react like a victim: “This should not be happening.” “Who is to blame?” or “Why me?” 

Mark Coleman points out that although we have daily reminders of impermanence, we tend to resist that reality. Ignoring the evidence, we expect our routines to continue the way they are, and we are surprised or annoyed when our assumptions are disrupted. 

Even the simplest changes can upset us. I notice limp, fallen petals scattered around a vase of lilies that were blooming magnificently the previous day. Freshly groomed a short time ago, our dog Amanda is soon panting in her shaggy coat and leaving a trail of muddy paw-prints. I feel anxious when I read in the newspaper that Apple is releasing a new version of the software that powers Macintosh computers, so that my Mac apps that work just fine using 32-bit code will no longer function with the newer 64-bit code. 

Resisting daily disruptions can provoke anxiety, yet our resistance to big life changes causes greater suffering. Coleman asks us to consider the following questions: Do I resent signs of aging such as graying hair and deepening wrinkles?  Do I resist slowing down to accommodate an older, less flexible body? Do I protest when my body sickens or when my doctor gives me an unexpected medical diagnosis? Do I dread periods of economic instability? We can add other questions to this list: Do I avoid facing the prognosis of friends who have terminal illness? As my loved ones let go of life, do I hold on to them? 

Such natural responses to our human predicament reflect our vulnerability. Coleman reminds us, “We live in a changing world and an unreliable body; we live with uncertain relationships, a fluctuating economy, shifting social norms, and rapidly advancing technology…. No wonder we are anxious and restless. No wonder the brain, in an attempt to survive this turmoil, developed a negativity bias [and scans continuously] for perceived threats.”  

I have been reflecting upon changes that are affecting my circle of friends. This year, as Houstonians are still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, wildfires, mudslides and earthquakes have stuck California. When their home was badly damaged, Sagar and Audrey had a GoFundMe campaign so that they could afford to move. Along with thousands of others who have lost their homes, they deal with post-traumatic reactions and wonder when the next natural disaster might strike. Their situation heightens my awareness of increasingly frequent extreme weather conditions caused by climate change. 

Julie is highly allergic to mold and chemicals that permeate most households. Even brief encounters with mold dramatically affect her gait and balance. For the past three years, she has been sleeping in a sterilized van. 

Glenn suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has been unable to pursue his career as an artist because hand tremors prevent him from controlling a paintbrush. When I last spoke to him, Glenn was delighted that a change in medication had calmed his tremors enough to give him a day of liberation from the disease that has altered his life. With excitement, he reported that the owner of an art gallery has offered to exhibit Glenn’s paintings, which up until now have never been viewed publically. 

These are just a few instances of changes occurring in the lives of my friends. Take a moment to consider changes that have an impact on people you know… 

In meditation, we practice paying careful attention to minute instances of change, learning to flow with that ongoing reality. As we relate intimately to transient stimuli, we witness sounds coming and going. We observe physical sensations pulsing, vibrating, tingling, tensing, and relaxing. We bring awareness to thoughts arising and generating ideas, and to mental images creating inner movies. We sense the breath moving in waves—sometimes shallow, sometimes deep. Emotions ebb and flow, and moods arise and pass away like evaporating water. 

The Buddha recommended that we use the fact of impermanence as an object of contemplation. As Coleman says, reflecting on impermanence does not have to be depressing. Instead it can be a call to awaken and to be present for this fleeting moment. When we really understand how brief and uncertain life is, we attend to the beauty and richness of life as it unfolds. Philosopher George Santayana observed, “To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with the Spring.”

The more deeply we penetrate the truth that all is impermanent, the less tightly we hold onto experiences. We begin to release the controlling grip that can contract the body, strangle relationships, and stifle creativity in work or play. Gradually, we can learn to appreciate what we have, without taking it for granted. 

Again from John O’Donohue:

The mind of time is hard to read.

We can never predict what it will bring,

Not even from all that is already gone

Can we say what form it finally takes;

For time gathers its moments secretly.

Often we only know it’s time to change

When a force has built inside the heart

That leaves us uneasy as we are. (Benedictus, p. 157)

Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah used falling leaves as a metaphor for change. He described how, “Every day or two, the open grounds and walkways of the monastery must be swept clear of the leaves that fall in every Asian season. For the large open areas, the monks team up and, with long-handled bamboo brooms extended, sweep like a dust storm, clearing all the leaves in their path. [The monks find] sweeping so satisfying. 

“All the while, the forest continues to give its teachings. The leaves fall, the monks sweep, and yet, even while the sweeping continues and the near end of a long path is being cleared, the monks can look back to the far end they have already swept and see a new scattering of leaves already starting to cover their work.” 

Ajahn Chah concluded, “Our lives are like the breath, like the growing and falling leaves. When we can really understand about falling leaves, we can sweep the paths every day and have great happiness in our lives on this changing earth.”

In relation to the theme of change, Mark Coleman uses the mantra: “one less.” Whatever he is doing, he reflects that that he will experience it once less in his lifetime. Each breath is one less inhale or exhale. Each lunar cycle represents one less new or full moon to witness. Each spring is one season less to appreciate new blooms. Each visit with beloved friends or family is one less time to savor their company. This practice counteracts a tendency to be complacent, assuming that we have plenty of time to wake up to the preciousness of life. With all in flux, we never know how long we ourselves will be here. Let us learn to take refuge in the truth of impermanence, accepting ongoing changes as they unfold.