The Illusion of Permanence

This is a guest blog post from Stan B. Martin and is taken from his latest book entitled ‘Illusions on the Path.’

It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live – Marcus Aurelius

Our inability to face the fundamental truth of our existence, the fact of our physical mortality, was identified by the Buddha as one of the greatest causes of unnecessary suffering in our lives. Of course, we all understand to some degree, at least intellectually, the fact that we will die. But this thought is something that we may wish to sweep under the carpet for fear it might hamper or depress our plans, our dreams, our aspirations, and above all our pleasures. This fear is so ingrained in us that talk of death is frowned upon by many as a taboo subject. To turn the conversation in the direction of our mortality is deemed morbid and ill-mannered. It is certainly not to be found on a list of appropriate topics of conversation to be had at adinner party in the company of polite society.

In light of this cultural bias, it is then interesting, that the Buddha recommended not only that the thought of our death should be cultivated and meditated upon, but that it should become one of the main motivating forces in our lives. It is not that we are dim witted and can’t accept our own mortality. That’s not the problem. The problem is a habitual and harmful belief that deceives us. It’s the idea that death will most certainly not come to us today. This has become our modus operandi. This tacit and unconscious belief plays out in our lives and paints a panorama of future plans and dreams ahead of us. It afflicts us with a sense of complacency and lethargy. We act as if we will be here forever.

It’s as if we are wearing blinkers that obscure this indisputable truth and allows us to mindlessly enjoy the pleasures life has to offer. Of course, the idea that we will all live long healthy lives is good for business. It’s so easy to assume that we will reach the average lifespan of eighty years or so.  When we are young we all think we are immortal, it’s only old people who die. It may seem clever to hedge our bets in this way, then we can just put death out of our minds. When I lived in London and was meditating on the uncertainty of the time of death, I used to walk around cemeteries to read the headstones and contemplate this idea. Seeing flowers next to a small grave of an infant was heart wrenching. Likewise, descriptions of young men or women dying leaving behind their grieving parents. No age group is immune from the possibility of death. As we get older and start to lose friends and family this becomes clearer. But what does not seem to weaken amongst most of us is the enduring belief that it won’t happen to us, certainly not today. Millions cling onto this belief right up to the moment of their death.  Perhaps this is a reflection of some evolutionary instinct, to ignore the most basic fact of life.

To fully accept and face the reality that at any moment our worldly activities and dreams can come to a final end is of course not good news that is easily digested. But the moment we are born, it is the only certainty that we can lay claim to. The experience we call life will one day come to an abrupt halt. We will lose everything and everyone we hold dear. The more you meditate on this reality you don’t discover some silver lining within this horrific realisation. We don’t find some consoling belief that perhaps we really will live forever, we can escape death. It’s more that through accepting this truth, by familiarising ourselves with it, by getting used to it, we gain a new perspective on our life. We don’t necessarily become morose, start wearing black clothes and telling everyone around us about our existential angst. Instead we slowly realise that the time we have left to live is precious. Like any commodity in the world that is not only scarce but is also decreasing moment by moment, the time we have left is extremely valuable. Every moment counts.

To practice living everyday as if it could be our last, widens our perspective and shifts our priorities. It’s not that we should stop planning for the future and instead go on a bender, but rather we become less attached to the plans we make. We become quick to forgive ourselves and those around us for the mistakes we all make. If these could be our last moments together, why argue over trivialities? Why not make this time we have together the best we can? Why don’t we try to be the best people we can, in the time we have left? I often think that people who are given news from their doctors that they have only months or weeks to live are so fortunate to receive this news. They at least have time to set their lives in order and avoid the shock, fear and regret that often comes with the sudden onset of death. Instead of waiting too late to act and put our own lives in order, why not start today? A life guided by the consciousness of death naturally leads to choices being made that enhance the time we have left and eliminates regret from our life. We can make the best of the precarious situation we find ourselves in.  A life lived without regret is a life fully lived.

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We seek security and comfort not only by conveniently ignoring our mortal nature but also by projecting permanence on the objects we attach ourselves to in the world of our everyday experience. The world we wake up to every morning takes on the appearance of being solid and familiar. It seems like it is the same sun that rises every morning and illuminates the familiar horizon and landscape that we inhabit. The people in our lives appear the same as those we said goodnight to the day before. We find satisfaction picking up our favourite mug and making our morning brew. Repeating our daily rituals gives consistency and shape to our lives that feels both intimate and comforting. This sense of solidity makes us feel safe.

The Buddha’s insight into the impermanent nature of the world we live in, a view that counters the solid appearance it often takes, is confirmed by modern science. We learn at school that the appearance of solidity in even seemingly dense objects like rocks is illusory. If we zoom into these objects, we discover a universe of atoms and electrons whizzing around space in a state of flux. Every object we perceive is not simply vulnerable to change but is in fact constantly undergoing change, moment by moment. Change is one of the only fixed attributes of the world we live in. Everything that comes together through various causes and conditions gradually wears down and breaks up.

Even the Himalayas, the world’s greatest mountain range, is subject to constant instability. If it is not the rumblings and earthquakes brought on by the advance of the Indian continental plate below, it is the constant climatic pressures of rain, snow, heat and cold that push down on the mountains from above. If the mighty Himalayas are susceptible to such forces of change, how much more so are the lives of comparably insignificant individuals like us? If change is such an essential quality of our life, it then begs the question, why are we often so resistant to it? What are those things or people in our lives that we are so invested in that the thought of change sends shivers of fear down our spines? How much of our time and effort is spent attempting to hold back the inevitable force of change running like an undercurrent throughout our lives?

If I wake up one summer’s day and am not greeted by a sunrise but instead by the sound of thunder emanating from dark forbidding skies I might feel unnerved. If I then turn towards my partner and find her missing and in her place I see a note recounting her decision to leave me for good to live with her secret lover of many years, I might start to feel shock. Despite this, the force of habit may take me to the kitchen where as I reach out for my coffee mug I notice my hands shaking. The next moment my trusty mug is on the floor in pieces. This is the last straw; my life is in tatters.

Change is inevitable, it might not always play out in such dramatic or tragic ways, but small disappointments and frustrations crop up and afflict us throughout our lives. My new car breaks down. I drop my cherished smartphone and crack the screen. My girlfriend stops loving me. My hair starts turning grey. OMG! We slowly wake up from the old Hollywood fantasy that we can live “happily ever after”. The Buddha’s bleak message of “old age, sickness, and death” may paint a more realistic story but probably wouldn’t sell out in movie theatres. Hollywood might counter this with “facelifts, health care, and cryonics”. Any takers out there?

We may have abandoned the comfort blankets and teddy bears from our infancy only to replace them with more adult surrogates later in our lives. We all share the instinct to crave safety and security in our lives. We want something to cling onto that we can trust and rely on. This instinct proliferates a full range of unskilful behaviours including anxiety in its many forms, fears, jealousy, possessiveness, manipulative and controlling behaviours, anger and violence to name a few. Despite our strategies to find comfort and security in external objects the Buddha pointed out the futility in such endeavours. Our life is inherently insecure. To become comfortable or familiar with this truth takes much thought and meditation, but it results in dispelling many of the unskilful and disturbing responses that afflict our minds. To take refuge in and familiarise ourselves with the impermanent nature of ourselves and the world we live in frees us from our attachments and brings us into more sane and compassionate relationships with those around us.

This is an extract from ‘Illusions on the Path’ by Stan B. Martin.

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