Impermanence: What Does it Really Mean?

Nations rise and fall
and mountains crumble into the sea.
True, nothing lasts at all,
yet it seems permanent to me…

Buddhism stresses impermanence — the fact that things change.  Everything — no matter how permanent it seems — will change and cease.  Mountains, objects, and even our own bodies are subject to this ceaseless change.  Some Buddhist writers will hasten to remind us that every so many years, every cell in our body changes, so that physically we are not the same people.

No doubt this is meant to trigger an epiphany , but my response is less enthusiastic.  When confronted with this truth about impermanence, I do not deny it.  I simply ask: So what?

This information varies from being interesting and irrelevant to being about as surprising as hearing that water is wet.  Ok, things are impermanent — but they last to me.  My body keeps changing?  Well, it still feels like me.  That mountain in the distance is crumbling and won’t exist millions of years from now?  Well, I’ll be dead long before then, and while I’m alive, it remains fixed.  So really, how is any of this the least bit relevant to my life?

In short, it’s easy to see impermanence as an empty concept, especially when it’s handled this way. Yet the problem is not impermanence, but rather what it’s applied to.

The typical presentations of impermanence are irrelevant because they are not part of my experience.  Reality is what I experience, and anything I do not experience does not exist for me.  The same holds for everyone.  Distant galaxies did not exist for me until I read about them.  Math did not exist for me until I learned about it.  The possibility of life on other planets does not exist until I contemplate it.  Sure, this seems ego-centric, but it’s true.  All I can know must come through my experience.  Each of us is the universe, and even the possibility that we are not the center of the universe ONLY exists when we contemplate it.  This doesn’t mean there aren’t other people, just that reality for us is what we experience.

Since experience is the world, why not apply impermanence to experience itself rather than the objects said to cause experience?

Let’s say I visit the mountains. What do I experience?  A stream of sensations — auditory, visual, tactile.  My mind unifies these into the concept “mountain”, yet this unification is deceptive for it hides the dramatically different experiences I have.  In fact, this externalizes the sensations so that I discount the centrality of my experience and make central something out there.

I don’t see a mountain; I see colors and shapes.  I blink and the field vanishes.  I turn my head and see something different.  I walk a bit and see a dramatically different view.  The views vary, but I tell myself that this is the same mountain, it’s just a different angle.  I tell myself this is the same mountain, but now it’s dark.  This is the same mountain but… Yet underneath this mind desperately racing for some kind of stability is a flux of experience that won’t stay still.

Even the thoughts that “try” to unify are impermanent.  One minute I’m thinking about the mountain, then the next I’m thinking about work.  One minute, I’m thinking of how incredible it is, and the next minute I’m thinking about food.  My feelings fare no better.  I start off with awe, and after an hour, I’m bored.  Those too are part of my experiences, yet I discount them for an abstraction — “the mountain”. In truth, the reality is everything flowing into me.  That is the universe.  The boredom, the joy, the errant thoughts are every bit a part of the mountain-experience as the mountain itself.  There is no “mountain”, there is only my experience of a complex that I labeled mountain, and did so only by ignoring a huge range of stimuli.

Eventually I leave the mountain, and then what?  Many people would say they still have the memories, but is that so?  How often will I think of that mountain after I leave?  10% of my life? 1%? 0.00001%?  When I’m not thinking of the mountain, it does not exist.  When I do think of the mountain, it’s a present construction, a thought, and often an inaccurate one at that.  Just read some of the ways our memory messes with us.  So what is this thing I did?  One minute, I went on a vacation in the past because I’m recalling it.  The other minute, I’m making coffee and this vacation does not exist.

The memory itself is subject to change.  As time goes on, it becomes more dim.  As my attitude changes, so will the feelings associated with the memory.  After a hectic day, I may find thoughts of the mountain peaceful and idealize the visit in a way that was not at all representative of the experience.  If I hear about a horrible murder in the mountains, then my memories may be tinged with fear at how vulnerable I was in the mountains.  Yet the desire to get away and the fear were not part of the experience of the mountain.  They are present constructions, things I add to the memory now.   Memory is not the experience, it’s not reliving — it’s a present event.  Yet, I tell myself it was something that happened and thus unify the experience.

All life is experience, and experience is in flux: It rises, it changes, it ceases.  Whether I’m looking at a mountain, undergoing a traumatic experience, or simply being bored, there is a shifting flux of experience with my mind desperately trying to unify it into a “thing”.

And why is experience unified?  Because of the self.  The memory is fit into a narrative of something that happened, with the ultimate stability being “the person” to whom it happened.  A shifting flux of colors becomes a single object for then I can situate myself with respect to that object and explain my own stability by explaining the stability of the world around me which only seems to change because of lighting changes, angles, etc….   But what is this me that is demanding all this stability?

It is another set of experiences (thoughts, feelings, etc…).  Ask me who I am, and I may respond with my appearance, my role in life, or my values.  Yet my role in life is an experience or memory thereof.  My appearance is the experience of looking in the mirror.  My values are thoughts to which I experience certain emotions (like outrage or desire).  Yet they change and when I’m not thinking about them, they vanish.  They’re not “out there”, really existing things, but constructions.  But if they are me, did I vanish when I stopped thinking about them — when they ceased to exist for me?

Often I take myself to be my thoughts, yet these thoughts are the most transient thing.  They change far faster than my body or role in life.  Yet, I try to seek stability.  I cling to them, for how can I define myself unless this complex sits still?  Perhaps this is why there’s so much justification going on in my mind — it’s a way to unify disparate things into a stable framework.

Given that what I think I am will often affect how I interpret other experience, this is the fundamental experience that can transform all other experiences.  This is why Buddhism and many other philosophies focus on the self.  Change the self (the center from which the universe is created) and the universe changes.

The key is to see this in action by attending to my experience without clinging.  When I cling, I am trying to impose stability where there is none, and I hide the flux.  Yet to see things in action is to live moment to moment, to not even contemplate impermanence for to contemplate impermanence is to cling to an experience so I can focus on a “thing” that changes. Yes, how can something change unless the thing behind the change is itself stable at least in its identity?  Yet to live moment to moment is to essentially die to each moment, for there is not enough of me in that moment to even say “hey look, I’m enlightened”.  That too is the irony.  It seems I must construct and cling in order to gain, possibly to feel anything.

Enlightenment may not be something we feel, for to do so may mean to cling to an experience long enough to evaluate it.

This article owes a tremendous debt to Steven Hagen’s Buddhism is Not What you Think. I have not finished reading the book, but his take on impermanence shaped this blog, and I especially found his argument about how impermanence implies permanence to be … *ahem* enlightening.

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3 thoughts on “Impermanence: What Does it Really Mean?

  1. Hi there BR! Thank you for an interesting blogpost. 🙂
    I’ve read Steve Hagen’s book but I didn’t recognise it when I read your article. I did remember reading Derek Parfitt on the importance of memories in our idea of ‘self’ (as when he imagined having his memories gradually replaced by Napoleon’s) and I still think it’s weird that we rely on something as flimsy and changeable as our own memories for stability!

    1. Thank you!

      What I wrote was an expansion of a small part of Hagen’s book. I took a few concepts and ran with them, which may be why the ideas appear unrecognizable. Who knows, I might also have distorted Hagen’s point as well 🙂

      I agree with you on the memories. Parfitt is great. I’m still trying to come to terms with some of what he wrote on the self.

      Yes, the centrality of memory is sobering, especially given its unreliability. I wonder if our entire world and identity would fall apart if we really, really embraced the knowledge that memory is an edited present construction… Even “real-time” consciousness is a product of memory.

      BTW, have you read “Incognito” by David Eagleman? I’m currently working on that, and he touches on some related subjects. Interesting stuff…

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