How activists can be challenged by, and take comfort from, the impermanence of things

“We had better accept that life as we know it is pretty much about impermanence,” says Melissa Viney

No 1037 Posted by fw, April 21, 2014

An essential aspect of activism is what the Transition Network refers to as the “inner transition”, the “heart and soul” work that runs parallel with the external hands-on work of transition, of “just doing stuff”. That is, in order to achieve goals, we need to nurture relations with our selves, with each other and with the natural world.

I was reminded of our need for heart and soul work while listening to a BBC Radio 4, April 19, 2014 episode of “Something Understood”. Melissa Viney, a freelance journalist who contributes to the Guardian as well as being a program maker and presenter for Radio 4, considered how we can be challenged by – as well as take comfort from – the impermanence of things.

What follows is a selection of text, music, and a movie clip excerpted in large part from Viney’s 30-minute radio program, titled Impermanence. Incidentally, the program is still available for listening until April 26, 2014. To access, click on the above linked title; alternatively, it will continue to be available for months here on the Something Understood episode page.

Unless otherwise noted, all of the text in the following 6 excerpts is by Melissa Viney.

Excerpts from Melissa Viney’s BBC Radio 4 program, Impermanence

Excerpt 1 – Life is only ever in the present moment

As a Buddhist the teaching on impermanence isn’t about being morbid or about being depressed. It’s actually just to waken us to the preciousness of the present moment and the idea that life is only ever in the present moment, and that now is the only time that we ever have. And so by being very aware of the fact that it will ultimately come to an end, and it isn’t certain what time that might be, that really is about being awake. It really wakens you up to the joy and the opportunity, the potential of the present moment.

I’ve always liked the idea that life is fluid and changeable. The musician and Buddhist Emily Maguire suggests this gives it [life] potential. But it also means nothing is fixed or easily pinned down. That goes for the good and the bad. None of it lasts for ever. The phrase “This, too, shall pass” can be some comfort if things are going badly. Of course, if things are going well we’re more likely to try to cling on to them. But life tends to have other plans. And we’d probably do well to accept and even celebrate this. As William Blake wrote in his poem Eternity –

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

This all sounds good until something happens to us. We have a family perhaps and we just need some stability as we grow older. If we’re lucky our home provides some security. But for many this remains a luxury beyond reach. Modern life with short-term leases and zero-hours contracts contributes to a feeling of instability. Riding the crest of a wave can be fun if you’re footloose, but it’s less appealing if, for example, your rented house becomes unstable and your child’s schooling vulnerable, as strangely happened to me just as I sat down to think and write about impermanence.

Much as I like the idea that life is fluid, the reality, rather predictably, is I need permanence, like most of us, I think.

We tend to set much store by a sense of permanence. Faith, if we have it, is based on some kind of stability and devotion. Romantic love tends to rely on loyalty and fidelity; or at least we try to make it so. And some of us do everything we can to outwit impermanence, even going as far as buying ruinously expensive creams to keep our skins looking youthful….The rest of us had better accept that life as we know it is pretty much about impermanence.

Excerpt 2 – In the Blade Runner, android Roy Batty faces his own predetermined death

We ourselves are impermanent – at least in our present form. And over time the memory of everything and everyone we know will fade. This is a stark thought. In the film Blade Runner, it’s left to an android, Roy Batty, facing the predetermined moment of his own death, to best express this very human angst –

“I´ve seen things you people wouldn´t believe. (…) All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. Time to die.”

Excerpt 3 – Our human instinct is to hold on to what we want—and this is the root cause of our suffering

Before this all gets too nihilistic, at least for those who do not have a strong faith, we might like to comfort ourselves with the knowledge that in physics, nothing is created and nothing is destroyed. All matter simply changes form. Apparently we ourselves are composed of matter that was created billions of years ago in stars.

We do tend to remain doggedly resistant to change. Like civilizations building on the foothills of a volcano, we cling to the illusion of permanence. I keep thinking of the words of TS Eliot – “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

One rather bitter reality is that only a few of us will be remembered 200 years or so after our deaths throughout, perhaps, or through infamy. Although not all art of course is about longevity and making your mark, Tibetan Buddhists richly create and destroy beautiful sand mandalas to symbolize the impermanence of life. Impermanence is a central tenet of Buddhist thought. It’s our human instinct to hold on to what we want – youth, health, success, relationships, sunny days. From a Buddhist perspective this is the root cause of our suffering – that we’re always wanting things to be different from how they are.

Excerpt 4 — “Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible” – Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh in The Practice of Looking Deeply

We’re often sad and suffer a lot when things change. But change and impermanence have a positive side. Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible. Life itself is possible. If a grain of corn is not impermanent it can never be transformed into a stalk of corn. If the stalk were not impermanent it could never provide us with the ear of corn we eat. If your daughter is not impermanent she cannot grow up to become a woman. Then your grandchildren would never manifest. So instead of complaining about impermanence we should say “Warm welcome and long live impermanence.” We should be happy. When we can see the miracle of impermanence our sadness and suffering will pass.

Excerpt 5 – Back Home, words and music by Emily Maguire

My cousin Emily Maguire is a Buddhist and a song writer. She is also bipolar. So the idea of impermanence is comforting to her. That the highs and lows and the extreme turmoil these states create will pass, will move on and become something different is sometimes what keeps her going.

[Emily, in her own words] — In my own life, impermanence has actually become a positive because I suffer from bipolar disorder, which means that I go in and out of episodes of great highs and great lows. And it’s a source of great comfort to me that the lows won’t last just like the highs don’t. So I can tell myself when I go into a depressive episode that things will change, that they will get better. All I need to do is just persevere and keep going.

I wrote a song called Back Home where I was actually thinking about the rain cycle when I was writing it, and how that is a kind of good metaphor in a way life in the way that everything in life is recycled and regenerates, but also, obviously comes to an end as well. So to me the idea of water moving from the sea to the cloud to the rain to the river is a very beautiful way of kind of thinking about the way that life changes and the way that we ultimately become recycled.

Back Home performed by Emily Maguire, followed by her lyrics

BACK HOME
[E. Maguire]

I’m one drop in a sunlit sky where seagulls fly, they rise and fall
I can’t stop now a cloud is flying, the sky is crying and the seagulls call
And now I go with the river, I go where the river goes
I flow with the river, I know what the river knows

I sit still in the sound of silence and feel the fire in my eyes and ears
And I know there’s no point in violence cos fear and fighting only ends in tears
So I go with the river, I go where the river goes
And I flow with the river, I know what the river knows

That I will rise up with the sun and I will fall down with the rain
And I will flow like a river goes back from where I came
Back home, back home

Time moves me on, I keep moving on
Life moves me on

High tide and the moon is rising and clouds are dancing for the dying day
In a blue sky where the birds are flying, the clouds are crying, I can hear them say
Go with the river, go where the river goes
Flow with the river and know what the river knows

Cos you will rise up with the sun and you will fall down with the rain
And you will flow like a river goes back from where you came
Back home, back home

Time moves me on, I keep moving on
Life moves me on

And I will rise up with the sun and I will fall down with the rain
And I will flow like a river goes back from where I came
Back home, back home…reprise

Excerpt 6 – Closing thoughts from the Dali Lama on his Twitter page

Many who consider themselves spiritual but not religious still believe the human spirit is indestructible and others do not. But whatever you believe, awareness of impermanence can make us less angry, indecisive, greedy and resentful. If we thought we had months, or days even to live, who among us would waste time arguing. And anyway, do we really want permanence? Do we want the world clogged up and billions more people and all their stuff – endless amounts of everything? Impermanence, as I reflected, mulling it over in a corner of a quiet tearoom greedily savouring the space I had to myself, isn’t everything.

As the Dali Lama says on his Twitter page: “Awareness of impermanence and appreciation of our human potential will give us a sense of urgency that we must use every precious moment.”

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