Shortly after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States I received an email with a quotation from the Dalai Lama about the wisdom of the perception of impermanence. I cannot find the exact quote. It’s possible I made it up. Was the Dalai Lama (or my unconscious) trying to calm me with the idea that “this, too, shall pass”? Not at all calmed, I started on a journey to explore anew what the perception of impermanence means when hatred and ignorance hold the reins of power. Shaken daily by awareness of a growing societal instability, I began writing and rewriting this blog trying to find some perspective to help myself, and my patients, find some place to stand in the midst of the daily shocks.
Is there hope for equanimity in chaos?
We all know that nothing is permanent. Sentient beings, including you and me, will not live forever. Our planet will die. Nothing on the planet, from the core of the earth itself to each individual atom, has the characteristic of permanence. Nor does any sensation or perception last forever. We know that intellectually. We may even have moments when we notice and reflect on clouds forming and dissolving, the flowers blooming and fading, the music flowing, a dearly loved one passing and gone. The Dalai Lama’s perceptual awareness of impermanence involves a deep sensual knowing of impermanence.
Among the insights of mindfulness meditation is how our fear of change causes us to grasp concepts and identifications, so obscuring moment-to-moment awareness of reality.
For a rather simple example, I often think of myself as someone who loves chocolate. But how often do I really taste it? If I do, I notice the changing textures, and changing flavors of bitter and sweet. I may go through a range of positive and negative feelings. Who remembers to love chocolate in that constantly changing perceptual array?
When I notice the lovely flower and call it “an azalea”— do I really look at that individual flower, or am I too wrapped up in knowing the name?
Let’s take a walk with mindful attention. We start walking. Where does a step start? Where does it end? What is a step?
How many times has verbalizing an insight to a patient closed exploration and the possibility of a deeper knowing the truth?
Reality can be quite disorienting when we dare to pay attention. Words can begin to lose their meaning as we get closer and closer to each moment, while awareness opens. Most of the time we avoid the inconstancy of living in the fullness and full awareness of the fluidity of perceptions, thoughts, feelings—even “self.”
Highly reactive to change, we may become excited, happy, irritated, even terrified. Buddhists have a simple way of describing our defenses against impermanence. Clinging and aversion keep us from becoming aware of the arising and passing of all phenomena. We cling to good feelings and things that make us feel like there is stability in the world, including our sense of self. Aversion pushes away anything that makes us uncomfortable, sad, fearful, or unclear about whom we are. We remain at an ignorant distance from truth, filling it in with our concepts and imaginings. These defenses leave us constantly struggling to reaffirm stability, searching for something we can hold on to, or fight against. There is no rest except for equanimity in the full awareness of uncertainty, inconstancy and impermanence. When we let go of clinging and aversion (as the practice of Mindfulness Meditation trains us to do moment-to-moment) we find that equanimity and we are open to the flux of reality. We become more human, more vulnerable, more loving and more able to see the truths of pain and pleasure, of love and loss, of suffering and cessation.
The Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor (2000) reminds us that: “Only when Buddha was able to experience the desires and fears that threatened to overwhelm him as nothing but impersonal and ephemeral conditions of mind and body, did they lose their power to mesmerize him” (p. 19). Many psychoanalysts agree. Joan and Neville Symington (1996, p. 6) maintain with Bion that the mind grows through exposure to the truth of, and acceptance of, suffering.
A full-blown experience of impermanence may feel like a space ship’s sudden jump into warp speed. Eventually the g-forces subside in adjustment to this new speed. The Buddhists call this the absolute insight of impermanence. James Grotstein, in his tellingly entitled Who is the Dreamer Who Dreams the Dream? (2000), similarly suggests that the absolute awareness of impermanence is vital:
… the task of psychoanalysis is not the attainment of insight, but rather the use of insight to attain transcendence over oneself, over one’s masks and disguises, to re-become one’s supra-ordinate subject. This task involves a transcendent reunion with one’s ineffable subject in a moment of alethia (unconcealment). (pp. xxvi-xxvii)
Here Grotstein uses the “insight” to mean the usual psychoanalytic insights, which would be considered “relative” awareness rather than the deeper one about impermanence, emptiness and the truth of suffering that Buddhists call “absolute.”
Like our space ship, we will often need to slow back down to regular speed and a relative awareness of impermanence. This, too, offers insights. There are degrees of impermanence, and the baffling hindrances of seemingly permanent walls. I may find myself mesmerized by the impenetrability of Trump, or medical fears, or worries about people I love. A patient comes mesmerized by the painful attraction of a conflictual love/hate relationship. We twist and turn the narrative over and over trying to find a way out. Should we run, move or divorce? Can we change the outcome? Can we impeach? Can we out-run the pain? Can we out-run the hatred? Can we hide, forget, dismiss, act as though it doesn’t matter?
The overarching wisdom remains “this too shall pass,” but our day-to-day task is to help this day’s dilemma to pass well, to find the equanimity and freedom in impermanence, increasing our capacity to see and think clearly in the midst of fear and anger.
* A guided Mindfulness Meditation can be found at the Contemplative Studies Project of NY website or at Dharma Seed. *
Sara L. Weber, Ph.D. is on the faculty and a consultant to clinical cases at the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis and for the Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy Training Program at William Alanson White. She is also founder and chair of The Contemplative Studies Project of New York, which is dedicated to the cross-fertilization of psychoanalytic and contemplative practices. She is in private practice in Brooklyn.
Batchelor, S., (2000) Verses from the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime. NY: Riverhead Books.
Grotstein, J. S., (2000). Who is the Dreamer Who Dreams the Dream? Hillsdale, N.J.: Analytic Press.
Symington, J. & N., (1996). The Clinical Thinking of Joan and Neville Symington., London and New York: Routledge.