A friend recently brought some amazing Pixie oranges picked from her tree in Ojai. Ever the committed student, I thought of Thich Nhat Hanh's advice on how to mindfully eat a tangerine. Here I was carefully peeling the skin, savoring the fragrance, tasting the sweet explosion. So desirable was this state of enjoyment, that three bites in I noticed I was already planning ahead to the next orange I would eat. Not even halfway through this one, I knew it would soon be over and fixated on how to get more. So much for my mindfulness practice.
This is what we do! We spend our lives anticipating, and trying to protect against, loss and change. We're afraid of losing something we have or not getting something we want. Conversely, we fear getting what we don't want and not losing what we want to lose. We get wrapped up in worrying, "What is it gonna be like when he's gone" that we miss having him here now. We miss the present experience.
Recognizing impermanence, the concept that nothing is permanent, is about being present with what is. Everything is transient; it really is. Anything can happen at anytime. And nothing remains the same forever, it's always changing. It's not religious or spiritual, it's just the way it is.
At first, this can seem frightening, but really it means that you don't have to live in this protected shield trying to keep things from happening. You don't know what will happen, you can't possibly know, and it's not your place to know. So when things do happen, you accept it.
"The bad news is that you just jumped out of the plane with no parachute. The good news is that there's no ground." - Trungya Rimpoche
We need to let go of needing or wanting things to be a certain way. We suffer when we try to hold on. Everything changes and it's not because we did something wrong. That's a myth: that if it changes or ends, we failed. It's just the nature of how things are. Things change. There's pleasure, there's pain; there's praise, there's blame. Sometimes it seems to last forever, sometimes it goes away very quickly.
One of the simplest, most accessible, transformative avenues to freedom and the development of spiritual wisdom is this acceptance of impermanence. Someone once asked Zen master Suzuki Roshi, "Can you reduce Buddhism to one phrase?" His answer: "Everything changes."
We all know everything changes, so it's not an esoteric statement. We all know this, but on what level do we know this? We know it intellectually, conceptually. But we need to go from that level to the level of direct immediate experience of things changing as they're changing.
Tune into the ever-changing, flowing experience around you. Sounds, sensations, thoughts, feelings. No moment has ever been the same as any other moment. Even the earth beneath your feet is vibrational, energetic; we know it's not solid, not stable.
What feels so solid and fixed in our bodies and minds is really in constant change. Notice the flow of change as you go from sitting to standing. How many changes in the body are involved in that simple move? Feel the different sensations as you're walking. As you're moving, note the changing sights and sounds, the arising and passing of thoughts in the mind. And that none of these experiences last. It's so ordinary that we've basically stopped paying attention.
To take it deeper, think of a time you went to a good, absorbing movie and were caught up in the storyline or action. You get sucked into the feeling, the emotion, but is anyone actually getting chased or falling in love or dying? No. Really what's happening is just pixels of light on a screen. But our mind is not seeing it on that level. When we stop to look, we see that the apparent reality is really not what's going on at all. So we can bring that same kind of awareness by dropping down into the flow of the simplest things - movement, sound, breath, sensation. It's on that level that we begin to feel very clearly the impermanent, momentary nature.
When we're on the concept level - "This is an arm, this is a leg" - since the concept remains the same, we have this idea that the reality is unchanging: "I have an arm today, yesterday, probably tomorrow." But when we drop down to the experience level, we see that it's all a flow of constant change. This does not suggest that we shouldn't engage with the stories, dramas, movies of our lives, but it's an invitation to also see the deeper level. If we can experience what's underneath it, the changing nature of what's arising, then we don't fall so easily into reactivity or suffering.
The clearer we see the flow of change, the less we cling. The less we cling, the less we suffer.