Friday, March 12, 2010

Anxiety and the Buddhist Concept of Impermanence


Ilya Prigogine made an assertion that uncertainty is inherent cosmic expression deeply embedded in the core of reality. For a human being this uncertainty can result in anxiety. This isn't a modern phenomenon. The Buddha discussed the matter and taught detachment.

In our fast-paced lives change seems to be the only tangible constant. Everything is changing, sometimes faster than we would wish to. We never know what may come next. We try to hold on to things, images, feelings, people... But nothing really lasts unchanged long enough and we are never certain how things will unfold. This uncertainty creates anxiety. Uncertainty is deeply embedded in the core of reality. We intuitively understand that we cannot hold on to things and yet, wish that they last at least a little longer if not forever. We want that they remain unchanged unless, of course, they are painful and "bad" for us. Then, they should go away quickly. The good things seem to never last long enough, the bad ones are interminable. But just as the desirable phenomena pass away, so do the undesirable ones. Holding on to any of them causes unnecessary pain and anxiety.
"One day some people came to the master and asked: How can you be happy in a world of such impermanence where you cannot protect your loved ones from harm, illness or death? The master held up a glass and said: Someone gave me this glass. It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight. I touch it and it rings! One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it - incredibly." The Venerable Achaan Chah Subato
Impermanence is one of the central Buddhist concepts, especially in early Buddhism. The world that we know is inherently impermanent. In fact, we experience ourselves as impermanent, ever changing, transient beings. We are not the same persons that we were in our childhood, in our teens, or even a year, day or a minute ago. Every instant of our existence changes us. The minute changes take place on cellular level and in our psyche. The very fact that we breath, eat, and drink constantly changes of our body chemistry. Cells die making space for new ones. Every event, every thought, every emotion leaves an imprint on our personality, on our belief system, on our physical body. We can see and feel the changes and yet, we are trying to create something permanent within us, something we can identify with, something precious we can hold on to.
"That nothing is static or fixed, that all is fleeting and impermanent, is the first mark of existence. It is the ordinary state of affairs. Everything is in process. Everything - every tree, every blade of grass, all the animals, insects, human beings, buildings, the animate and the inanimate - is always changing, moment to moment." Pema Chödrön, American Buddhist nun.
The very realization that we ourselves are transient causes pain and anxiety. We know that like everything we too will pass away, but have no knowledge or certainty on when and how this will happen. The older we become, the more fearful our existence, that is, unless we realize that our existence happens in the moment and we are a part of a bigger dimension called life.

Vietnamese Zen master Thich Naht Hanh offers a solution to our anxiety. He encourages us to think of ourselves as waves in the ocean. The simple characteristic of a wave is its transitory nature. It lasts only a moment just like we do. We live and die with every breath we take. Everything we ever do, we do it for the first and the last time in our lives. And one day we too will pass away and then, it will be as if we had never existed. So, why not accept the reality as it is and enjoy what we have right now? Incredibly!

We can learn to transform our anxiety and enjoy our lives to the full. The very understanding that we are just as transient as everything that surrounds us may open a new perspective. Instead of holding on to our castles in the air, we begin to live on a deeper level and consciously accept the fact that uncertainty and impermanence are inherent dimensions of reality.

By Dominique Allmon

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Anxiety and the Buddhist Concept of Impermanence by Dominique Allmon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.