George Carlin once quipped that “God can’t be perfect; everything he makes dies.” There, in one irreverent nutshell, is a fundamental truth about life on earth: Everything changes, everything withers, everything eventually disappears. That applies not only to material objects such as trees and buildings, and to social trends and weather conditions, but also to our bodies, our thoughts and our feelings, and to all of our pleasures and pains, our losses and gains. The comforting phrase “This too shall pass” applies not only to tragedies but also to every fulfilled desire, every victory and every happy experience.
Bummer, huh? This observation about impermanence has caused a lot of existential despair. But it has also been the starting point for spiritual awakenings. When the Buddha said “Everything together falls apart, everything rising up collapses, every meeting ends in parting, every life ends in death,” it was not an expression of despair and hopelessness. It was a wakeup call, a setup for the perennial message of spiritual leaders throughout time: stop looking for happiness in all the wrong places; you will never find lasting fulfillment in money, sex, power or even love, because it all changes and everything that glitters eventually turns to dust.
Echoes of the same insight can be heard in the Sermon on the Mount: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” In other words, the satisfaction we derive from worldly pursuits is destined to decay, like moth-eaten cloth and rusty iron, or get snatched by the thief of time.
But the great spiritual masters did not just name the human condition; they pointed the way out.
An important first step is simply to accept the reality of impermanence. Doing so is not an act of resignation, like that of a convicted prisoner adjusting to a jail sentence. It is, in fact, a precondition for liberation. We are constantly building fortresses of stability in an attempt to protect ourselves from the uncertainty that comes with change. This is normal and necessary. But if we expect our relationships, careers, retirement accounts and the like to remain stable and predictable, we’re only setting ourselves up for major shocks. On the other hand, if we accept impermanence as a fact of life and expect things to change, we free ourselves to roll through surprises with dignity, and even a spirit of ongoing adventure.
But why stop at mere acceptance? Why not embrace change, rejoice in impermanence, celebrate uncertainty? In a sense, life on earth is like being in the audience at a magic show. We are witnesses to cosmic hocus-pocus, and we are not privy to the secrets of the master magician, the trickster gods, the celestial software program, or whatever your image of divine intelligence happens to be. We’re just not going to figure out how each rabbit gets back in the hat. But when we stop grasping for answers to the unanswerable we can truly enjoy the show.
Surrendering to the permanence of impermanence and the certainty of uncertainty is a pragmatic strategy. It pries us loose from entrenched ideas and baloney assumptions. And without stale concepts to weigh us down, we can stand before the unknown with an open, flexible mind. That spacious gap can then be filled with creative responses.
Another key to dealing with impermanence is to anchor ourselves in the universal spiritual principle of non-attachment. This can get tricky, since non-attachment is often misconstrued as indifference. On the contrary, non-attachment calls upon us to love, cherish and care about the people and things that matter to us—but without excessive clinging or grasping, and without fear of loss or change. It means pursuing worthy goals with vigor and skill—but without being dependent on things turning out exactly the way we want them to. Non-attachment not only offers emotional insurance against disappointment, it also allows us to focus on the miracle of the present moment while remaining open to whatever the changing universe offers up next.
The open acknowledgment of impermanence also compels us to monitor our desires carefully. The more we allow our well-being, happiness and peace of mind to hinge on the satisfaction of specific desires, the more vulnerable we are to the impact of change. If we feel desperate to get what we’re striving for, it could be a signal that we’re building our hopes of fulfillment on a foundation of shifting sand.
The message of every wisdom tradition is: you are not going to find lasting contentment in anything that is, by its nature, fleeting. Sure, you should enjoy the fruits of your labor and the pleasures of worldly existence, but don’t forget to turn within and direct your deepest longing to that which is eternal and infinite, whether you call it God, or Spirit or the Kingdom or nirvana or…well, the list is endless. Whatever you call it, if you conduct your search wisely and well, you will discover that inner peace is easier to locate, more enduring and far more satisfying than any of the brass rings we manage to grab on the frenzied carousel of life.