“You can’t step in the same river twice.”
This just in from the Department of the Painfully Obvious: everything changes.
The transient nature of life puts us in a precarious position. Lulled into complacency by the apparent solidity of the world, again and again we are shocked, shocked I say by life’s sudden transitions – the terrible phone call, the cancer diagnosis, the death of a friend. Like Charlie Brown we fervently believe that this time Lucy will hold the football in place. But every time we go to kick it, it isn’t there.
Intellectually we know that everything born dies, every day turns to night, and every song fades into silence. But like a sharp pain this awareness is dulled by the narcosis of forgetfulness. Like nodding drunkards we fall over and over into the unconscious illusion that all of this will last, that we have more time, that there is always tomorrow. Actually, there isn’t.
There is only now.
And when you reach out to grab it, even it is gone, replaced by another now moment. That’s why grasping is so futile. There is nothing to grasp.
In Buddhism this fundamental fact is known as anitya or impermanence. But don’t take Buddha’s word for it. Life itself provides us with an ever-growing mound of incontrovertible evidence.
If one follows this reasonable premise to its logical conclusion, we arrive at another core Buddhist teaching, shunyata. Shunyata is usually translated as “emptiness” or “the void,” but those approximations distort as much as they reveal.
What shunyata actually conveys is the fundamentally indefinable nature of reality. Whatever all of this is, it is beyond all concepts and cannot be turned into a thought, let alone a word. Shunyata is the field of pure potentiality out of which all forms arise and to which all forms return. Yet shunyata itself remains ever formless. So in that sense it is empty of fixed forms. But it is most definitely not nothing.
Shunyata is like a clear sky and things are like clouds. Clouds arise and take form, last a while, then disperse, sometimes slowly, sometimes suddenly. This is the nature of all things. As he lay down to die, the Buddha left his students with one last thought. It was something he had said many times before, but given the situation, he thought they ought to hear it one last time. “Remember this,” he said, “all forms arise and all forms fade.”
Knowing this enables us to navigate the strange and beautiful arcs of our lives with a modicum of dignity and joy, knowing that we don’t own any of it, it is all borrowed, and we must give it all back, sometimes suddenly and without warning. Even in the face of the transience of all things it would be wrong to conclude that nothing matters – quite the contrary. Everything matters and more than you ever thought possible.
Every fleeting moment has a magical quality, a sacred ordinariness that we mostly miss, caught as we often are in dreams of yesterday and tomorrow. Only when we come back to this now moment do we tap into the real.
There is no such thing as the past. What we call the past is just a thought, a memory of a previous event, captured and pinned like a dead butterfly on a corkboard. Time spent wallowing in the past is time stolen from the now.
The future is even less real than the past because it hasn’t even happened yet. It’s just speculation and fantasy. Dwelling in the future, whether in pleasant fantasy or torturous worry, is also time stolen from the now.
We cannot change the past. It is forever out of reach. The future is equally elusive and beyond our grasp. What we call the past or the future is only a thought and thoughts by their very nature exist only in the now. We are only and forever rooted in the now. Now is the only place we will ever be. This is where we think, act, feel, love, share, and have our being. And yet most of us spend very little time here, caught forever in thoughts of the past or the future.
Buddhist practice seeks to draw us out of our thought-world and back into an immediate awareness of our authentic nature. But what is it going to take to get us out of our head and back into our heart?
Meditation, devotion, prayer, service, loving-kindness, empathy, compassion – these are the core practices of all spiritual traditions. As the Tibetan saying goes, “Want to go to hell? Think of yourself. Want to go to heaven? Think of others.”
Before this kind of advanced practice can really take root – it takes great courage, stamina, and habituation to truly be compassionate – a good way to jumpstart your road to spiritual recovery is to get out in nature. It’s difficult to stay stuck in your head when you’re walking across fallow grassland in a cold winter wind under a deep blue sky with a murder of crows swirling around you in Van Gogh spirals, the smell of rain on distant mountains awakening ancient bonds nearly forgotten in the discordant isolation of city life. For one blessed moment you are pulled out of your precious thought-stream and suddenly find yourself standing still with both feet on the ground at the center of the universe and everything is turning into one endless web of interconnected being. There is no path, there are no crows, there is no you – there is only the achingly beautiful totality, all of it shimmering with infinite significance, all of it radiant with loving-kindness.
Another good way to begin awakening is through music. Of all the art forms music most plainly reminds us of the fundamental emptiness of reality. It’s invisible and ungraspable. It exists only in this now moment. We do not control it. We experience it fully only to the extent that we are able to come out of our thoughts and enter the present, allowing its myriad waves to wash over us and rock us gently into sweet surrender. Music, all music, is about seduction. It pursues us until we relent. And when we do, we are rewarded with reverence and communion – reverence for the sacred nature of all that is and communion with our own unity with the sacred. In the depths of music the secret of our infinite value is revealed, not as a thought, but as a direct, immediate experience that transcends thought. This is why we listen to our favorite music over and over again. We long for that union, that affirmation of our deep and abiding significance, our ultimate oneness with the source. The harmonies and rhythms of music wordlessly replicate the intricacies and nuances of reality itself, and in this reproduction we behold a mirror in which we can better see ourselves.
When things change, and they will – when those we love are taken from us, sometimes slowly, sometimes suddenly and without warning, when we find ourselves all alone in a field with nothing but the wind to hold onto, we are drawn into a powerful and liberating awareness. We see through our tears that no matter what there is an unbroken light, an unchanging love that binds it all together, despite the apparent transience.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, singer-songwriter, and professor at Southwestern College where he teaches comparative religion, Asian philosophy, ethics, and world mythology. You can find him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/peter.bolland.page), follow him on Twitter (www.twitter.com/peterbolland), or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org