Chapters, the End of a Road and Impermanence

Earl R. Smith II. PhD

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Over the years, I’ve noticed two rather different perspectives on life when it comes to dealing with change. In the first case, life is seen either as one long chapter or a series of long chapters. It might be divided into childhood, puberty, adolescence and early adulthood, adulthood and old age. The dominant characteristic of this view is that the changes are driven by either time or hormonal function.

A second view of life is that it is a series of relatively shorter chapters. And these chapters tend to overlap. There may be a series of relationship chapters. Another series of geographic location chapters. And even an occasional “I’m on vacation” chapter. For people who hold this view, life is relatively more chaotic and unpredictable. There is also a somewhat greater presumption of having control over which chapter to start and which to end. Decisions are made rather than being forced by circumstances.

People who hold the first few react somewhat defensively when the end of a road comes in sight. Maybe they have come to realize that a relationship is just not going to work out. Or perhaps, they are beginning to think that the career that they have been pursuing has taken them as far as they want to go. In any case, there emerges the anticipation of the need to make a change.

The dynamics of this resistance tends to be restrictive. There is an avoidance of any thoughts that would lead far from familiar ground. The self-image which underpins thinking about change is strongly rooted in the past and the context that has surrounded it. As the end of the road nears, tensions can mount and something akin to panic can set in. The core fear is that all that was may dissolve and that the person may no longer know who they are.

On the other side of the coin, change tends to be relatively more eagerly anticipated. There may be a number of underlying reasons why this is the case. A lack of ability to maintain a consistent effort in a given direction over extended time. A relatively shorter attention span which leads to boredom and irritation. When the first kind of person may suffer from separation anxiety; this type suffers from an aversion to extended commitment.

The results of this kind of embracing of change tends to produce a relatively unstable and poorly defined life track. That seems to move from one focus to another. Sometimes in search of the “life they should be leading”. Sometimes searching for an escape from current experience. No matter what the drivers, such a response to change can generate a noncumulative life.

So, what’s the point? It seems that both approaches to change are flawed – that they result in unsatisfactoriness.

The point is that human suffering, particularly of the self-inflicted kind, is caused by grasping. That is the second of the Four Noble Truths which the Buddha gave us. The rub is that both attitudes towards change involve grasping and therefore produce unsatisfactoriness.

A core concept of Buddhism is something called impermanence. A simple way of explaining it is that nothing stays the same and everything is in the process of change. The Zen concept of time is that, rather than being a river flowing from the past through the present to the future, it is a series of moments that continually arise and ceased to exist. That means our lives are continually arising and being cut off by impermanence.

So how do you respond to change when all of existence, including yours, is impermanent? The answer to that question, sure to be unsatisfactory, is that it doesn’t make any difference as long as you continue grasping. Impermanence is completely uninterested in your attitude towards it. Sure, you have to decide whether to buy the red car the blue car. You may have to decide whether to live in Los Angeles or Paris. But, in terms of your life force, such decisions deal with surface manifestations. What lies at the center of your life force is the face change and impermanence in an entirely different way.

To come to terms with impermanence and face time squarely is a very difficult thing to do. It requires extended effort and a fair amount of personal courage. To be able to hold these two visions of change simultaneously in comprehending focus is to begin to understand the true nature of being-time and the source of self-inflicted suffering. The foundation of the chapters of your life is a staccato cascade of moments defined by impermanence.

© Earl R. Smith II, PhD

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