By popular request, I’m posting the sermon I delivered Sunday May 29th, 2011 at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Vancouver WA.
Making the Best of Impermanence © 2011 Joy Overstreet
You could say that impermanence is the elephant on the table of life –
the huge thing we would like to pretend isn’t there.
Impermanence is a topic so vast that entire religions have been built around it. Or, more precisely, entire religions have been built around our fears of impermanence, our fears of no longer existing.
Since the only way to eat an elephant is “one bite at a time”, we’ll start nibbling on its toes this morning and see how far we get.
We’ll look at two aspects of impermanence: “The Big Impermanence” — Death, and the “Little Impermanence”– Change. We’ll see how one informs the other, and how coping with the Little Impermanence can help us cope with the Big One.
The Big Impermanence has been on my mind a lot recently…
Prime example: the devastating tornadoes in the south and Midwest, where POUF! now you see Main Street, now you don’t.. It’s been shocking, inconceivable.
Just before that, the enormous earthquake and tsunami in Japan swept entire communities into the sea. Gone, just like that. Unbelievable! Shocking!
By comparison to these recent events, my mother’s death in late December seems inconsequential. After all, she was very old — 3 ½ years short of 100 in fact. Still, my sisters and I were shocked that she no longer existed. She had been a constant our entire existence — all the way back into the womb.
In our own unexamined ways, we had expected her to live forever.
Indeed, in our own unexamined ways (better known as denial), we all expect to live forever. We cannot imagine ourselves, or the people we love, no longer existing. Pouf! Gone.
My first husband was diagnosed with cancer when he was 29. His prognosis was bleak, and yet when he died two years later I thought (uncharitably): “Hey, you can’t just die. Nobody in my family dies. It’s it’s…just not done.” As if he’d broken some important social more!
The rational mind KNOWS that nothing is forever, that everything changes, that life is a continuous cycling. The Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron says: “Impermanence is the goodness of reality…it’s the essence of everything.”
But we are not altogether rational creatures. (That’s an understatement!) What WE want is things we LIKE to stay forever, things we DON’T like to go away. We want Bin Laden to die, and Mom to live; the job we hate to end, and the beach vacation to go on and on.
We don’t appreciate impermanence, and yet …can you imagine being stuck in Bill Murray’s shoes in the classic movie, Groundhog Day?
We are PARTICULARLY fond of being alive, and do not appreciate our own ephemerality – that we will die.
Now, if we were believing Christians or Muslims we could look forward to a care-free afterlife – St. Peter and the fluffy clouds like in the New Yorker cartoons, or, if you’re a Muslim man, 72 virgins (don’t you wonder what Muslim women get??).
In the afterlife it is said that those of us who are true believers will be happily reunited with all our departed loved ones.
In fact, it might be even better than that… Contrary to conventional wisdom that “you can’t take it with you”, the satirical country band, The Austin Lounge Lizards, believes you CAN! We’ll not only find our loved ones, we’ll also be reunited with our Stuff! Here is a verse from their mock gospel song “The Other Shore:”
On the other shore, on the other shore
We will reunite with all the things we ever owned before
Our single socks will all be to their rightful pairs restored
We’ll meet all our possessions on the other shore.
They also promise that
we’ll find baseball cards and army men and model planes galore
And every tiny plastic high heel Barbie ever wore…
We’ll have giant storage units free of charge for evermore
We’ll meet all our possessions on the other shore
(Too bad none of us got “raptured” last week and could report back from Heaven’s Lost and Found Department, huh?)
Who wouldn’t love to be restored to perfect health and happiness, in the company of our beloveds? As for me, I also hope to be greeted by my fuzzy slippers and my iPad, but I’m not holding my breath. Most Unitarian Universalists suspect that, at best. we’ll be excellent compost for next year’s tomato crop.
This rational view of life after death isn’t terribly comforting, though. Death is a scary unknown. If we don’t look forward to heaven, and we admit to ourselves that life is a fatal condition; how then shall we live?
I know from my friends who’ve had a fatal condition with the endpoint in sight, that the diagnosis often makes the time they have left ever so much sweeter and more meaningful. The irritations of daily living become either irrelevant or mildly endearing.
Ric Elias, a businessman who was on the plane that made the miraculous water landing in the Hudson River in 2009 spoke at the March TED conference about what he learned from his own near-death experience. When the engine conked out and Captain Sullenberger came on the speaker and announced: “BRACE FOR IMPACT,” Elias knew he might have only a couple more minutes to live.
In those two minutes he became aware of all his regrets – how many important things he had postponed, and how much time he had wasted on negative thinking and argument. He promised himself that if he lived, he would no longer put off those important things (like spending time with his family), he would give up trying to be right; and he would choose to be happy. He says his life and his relationships since the accident have been transformed by those promises –
The rest of us, who don’t have a crash landing or deadly condition looming, have to resort to other techniques to focus the mind on what is truly important, to become more creative with the gift of life. In a way, knowing that we will die gives us the power to live a more meaningful life – it’s like unleashing your inner genie – whose tremendous strength comes from living restricted in a bottle.
In his book, From Beginning to End; The Rituals of our Lives, Unitarian minister Robert Fulghum wrote about spending time at his own gravesite:
Once we agreed on the site, the cemetery workmen had to dig the grave before it could be sold to me. Because this is an old cemetery and records were not always well kept, they had to be sure the site had no unrecorded occupant.
I came to the cemetery the day the workmen were digging my grave.
Now [in line with my work as a minister] I had stood beside empty graves before. But never beside my own. I was stunned by the experience. For days I couldn’t get the image out of my mind. Not only was the [58-year-old] man in the mirror going to be buried there, I was.
So on New Year’s Day I took a folding chair up to the gravesite and sat down to think [about the rest of my life]…
[I go there often]. More than a grave, the site has become a workshop, a laboratory. I go there when the muddy springs of my mind need clearing. A ritual of reckoning.
Another way to deal with the Big Impermanence is to leave some kind of legacy, in hopes that future generations will know that we passed this way. We may leave behind kindnesses and funny stories that our children and grandchildren will cherish. Although we should never stop creating this kind of legacy, after a generation or two no one will remember.
Perhaps we will leave behind inventions, works of art, named buildings on a college campus, or bridges on a highway. But who was Glenn Jackson? Who was Mr. Gaiser? Does anyone remember these people?
Better to be appreciated for the results of your efforts, even if no one remembers your name… Like my friend Florence Wager, who has spear-headed just about every improvement or addition to Clark County’s park and trail system you can think of in the past 20 years – the building of the Firstenberg Center, the renovation of Esther Short Park, the trail and bikeways master plan and much much more. In fifty years, Clark County residents probably won’t recognize her name, but every day they will still be using and appreciating what she left behind.
But what if we’re not quite ready to sit on our grave, or donate the big bucks for a named stadium, or deal with endless bureaucracies to create a memorable park system?
We can choose instead to chew, a nibble at a time, on the Little Impermanences – the changes, losses and disruptions we encounter every day. In learning to welcome these minor challenges we build courage and strength for dealing with the larger losses that are sure to come.
Fortunately many coping strategies are available to us today – I’m arbitrarily placing them in two intertwined categories:
– Learning to let go, and
– Learning to live more in the present moment.
Learning to let go is about the practice of detachment. That is, not being so wedded to specific outcomes, not being so attached to our things, not identifying so fiercely with our loved ones, not clinging so tightly to the past. Detachment.
Learning to live more in the present moment is the antidote to our fear about the future, and it’s the antidote to dragging along the heavy weight of the past. As the 1st Century Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote in his pithy book, The Shortness of Life,
The greatest hindrance to living fully is expectancy, which depends upon the morrow but wastes to-day. When you dwell on that which lies in the hands of Fortune, you let go that which lies in your own hands right now.
Meditation (or prayer) is religion’s prescription to help us become more present and less attached. Yoga, QiGong, Tai Chi and the martial arts use the body as a tool to reach those ends.
But really, if you bring attention and intention to your daily life, you will find hundreds of opportunities to practice these skills – what my yoga teacher calls, “yoga off the mat”.
When we celebrate impermanence we are in harmony with reality, aligned with the nature of things – and we don’t have to look far for occasions:
- When your pen runs out of ink
- When a flower arrangement wilts
- When you swallow the last bite of a tasty meal
- When your car gets stolen… and when the thief is caught
- When you fall in love, the recognition of impermanence intensifies the preciousness.
This is a twenty-four-hour-a-day practice.
One of the things I do in my present work at Joyful Spaces is to help people declutter and/or downsize their homes. Because most of us identify strongly with our Stuff, this is deep and powerful work. As if these things were dear life itself, we cling to books from a career we left twenty years ago, tchotckes we collected at Disneyland in the ’80s, projects we abandoned half-done, photos of relatives we didn’t even like…
This is the kind of stuff around which stale energy coagulates. Although we may be unaware of it, it’s talking to us and weighing us down.
When we put our home in Berkeley on the market, back in 1992, I learned this first-hand. Our realtor bluntly told us: “I’m not listing it till you get rid of half your stuff.” She said, “Store it, sell it, give it away… I don’t care, but half of it must go.”
Although we were not clutterers, we had lived in the house for 17 years with three kids and you know how that is… I couldn’t imagine how we could get rid of that much, or how we could function in what would surely be zen monk conditions till the house sold.
But we did it. And here was the miracle. Not only did the house look great and work just fine, but I felt so much lighter and freer. Until it was gone I hadn’t realized how burdened I’d felt. I was ready to take on the world.
Don’t get me wrong – the sorting and divesting process is difficult and emotionally challenging, but since then I’ve downsized myself twice more and every time it’s better.
You too can do this, and thrive! To prove it, let’s try a thought experiment:
Close your eyes for a minute… and recall a recent vacation or trip you took. You may have been a little crazed as you got ready to go – so much needing to be done – but then you got on the airplane, or hit the open road, or you arrived at the campsite and set up your tent.
You take a nice deep breath….Do you feel delightfully free and ready to enjoy the moment before you?
Or are you missing your collection of ceramic frogs? Your econ textbooks from college? The lamp from Aunt Mabel that needs a new cord…
Open your eyes… Isn’t it amazing?? Once you’re away from home and out from under the voodoo spell of your Stuff you realize you could live quite happily without 90% of it.
In fact, losing all your stuff can be the beginning of a whole new life. A friend of mine in the Berkeley hills lost everything in the firestorm of 1991. She and her husband were both therapists with a lovely home and a couple of grown kids. After the initial shock and grief wore off, she recognized that she had the opportunity to rethink everything – not just where she lived and what new stuff she’d get – everything. She decided she was done with being a therapist, done with being married, done with living in Berkeley. She also decided she had ignored her spiritual side too long and that she wanted to study for her bat mitzvah, something that had been unavailable to girls when she was young. She says her bat mitzvah was one of the high points of her life. She moved away and started a very different career, which she loves.
So enough about letting go of stuff.
You can also practice letting go of thoughts and feelings. Being centered in the present moment means that you’re not constantly being hooked by your emotions and your storyline.
Many meditation techniques are about sitting quietly, allowing thoughts to drift past your attention like fluffy clouds. You simply notice them and let them go, notice and let them go. It’s all about detaching yourself from those stories, thoughts and feelings that keep you from being truly present. If you’d like to learn more, we have a Buddhist meditation group right here. It meets in the RE building the 1st and 3rd Mondays of the month from 7 to 8:30, where beginners are always welcome.
We’ll conclude today’s exploration with two stories, one from my past, and one from my mom.
Years ago when I was teaching Thin Within, which was a weight loss workshop based on mindfulness techniques, we did a guided meditation called “I Love my Body” in which we went from toetips to head, getting into communication with and appreciating each part of the body. For many people this was extremely emotional and difficult, because they viewed their bodies as the enemy. I can’t tell you how many people later shared that they’d hated their bodies since they were teenagers, but now, retrospectively, they recognized how fabulous they looked then… This gave them a new appreciation for their current body, which might never be better.
The lesson here is that it’s never too late to appreciate what you have in this moment! Because, as you know… this moment is all we’ve got.
My mother was a master at appreciating this moment. It wasn’t so much her enlightened state as it was that in her last few years she had the memory of a gnat. Every day when she was out on a stroll with my sister or brother-in-law she’d look up in wonder and say, “LOOK at those trees!! So green! So tall!”
My brother-in-law is a patient man, but after a couple hundred times hearing this he asked her: “Jeanne, just for today, could we not talk about how green the trees are??”
Mom took this in, and was quiet for a couple of minutes, then she burst forth, “Barry, just LOOK at that grass!!! So green!”
And at dinner, even if the dish was a tired old standby from my sister’s repertoire, she would ask, “Who cooked this chicken?” We’d tell her, “Holly made it.” and she’d say, “Holly, this is the BEST chicken I’ve ever eaten!”
Because for her, it always was.
What a great way to spend the last of your days – in the present moment and totally appreciative of it.
May it be so for each of us.