Life is dizzyingly complex. It’s easy to feel lost, confused, and overwhelmed. So many conflicted voices clamoring for our attention—it seems impossible to cut through the clutter and find the essence. But in the end there are only three truths: impermanence, presence, and love.
On the surface, everything’s impermanent. Nothing lasts. All forms arise and fade. Not only does every wisdom tradition attest this truth, but more important, we see it confirmed in our own experience over and over again. There is a beautiful fluidity to the process of becoming and be-going that makes life achingly beautiful. But it’s also true that impermanence sparks continual suffering. Everything we touch slips away. For the first century Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius this unimpeachable fact was liberating—our impermanence frees us to more fully live in the moment and truly enjoy our lives. Even as Emperor he knew his fame and importance was illusory and fleeting. His writings are filled with the names of previous luminaries—Augustus, Caesar, Plato, and the question: where are they now? Reduced to dust. One day we will be lowered into our grave, and all the mourners standing around will one day be lowered into their graves as well, and their loved ones after that until many, many years from now no one will know any of our names. It will be as if we were never here. The whole world will come to an end. Far from lamenting this, Marcus Aurelius suggests we look with clear eyes at this truth so that we might live with authenticity, courage, and enjoyment. An awareness of impermanence drives us into the depths of the significance of this now moment. This is, after all, all there is.
When we fully acknowledge, accept, and even celebrate the transitory nature of all things, we are freed of our debilitating attachment to any of them. Coming out of the mind and its endless dissatisfactions, desires, and fears we show up disarmed and awake in the simple, uncluttered, and concept-free awareness of this present moment. No longer enamored with the thought-world, we fully enter the real world. Even our sense of self is amended—we experience ourselves not as a separate entity, cut off and alienated from the whole, but as an egoless aspect of the whole. This is a freedom the conceptual mind can only imagine.
Through practices such as meditation, contemplation, reverie, aesthetic rapture, and immersion in nature we begin to experience for ourselves a realm of being formerly hidden from us—the background beneath the surface of the fleeting surface of impermanence. This abiding presence was always with us; in fact, it is us. It has many names in the world’s wisdom traditions—Inner Christ, Buddha-Consciousness, Atman, Inner Witness, Holy Spirit—and yet no name can fully describe or contain this depth-reality. It eludes our conceptualization and defies any attempt to clothe it in language. All of our words and concepts merely point to it the way a trail sign points to the path ahead. The sign is not the destination, the menu is not the food, and the map is not the place—yet we rely on these referents to show us where we need to direct our active engagement, knowing that when you walk the trail you leave the signpost far behind.
One thing that all the sages and seers report, and a claim we can confirm in our own experience, is the idea that this nameless presence hidden just beneath the surface of the fleeting world of forms is silent, still, abiding, and changeless. Unlike the world of surface forms, it never wavers. It hovers beyond all qualities, categories, processes, and concepts. It just is. And in its stillness it seems apart from the impermanent realm. Calling it permanent is probably excessive and unnecessary; we should avoid calling it anything. Names and concepts distort more than they reveal. But what we’re left with is this: it feels like something. We may not be able to think it, but we sure experience it. There’s a deep, abiding stillness and peace in the presence. We experience an aliveness here, a sense of refuge, and a loving warmth. It’s easy to see why in many belief systems this sacred background, this abiding presence gets personified as a deity, and how teachings, doctrines, dogmas, rituals, and institutions spring up around this primarily experiential awareness. You can call it God if you want to. But you don’t have to. It is possible to remain in the presence of this abiding, underlying reality without clothing it in language, concepts, or religious ideologies.
If we had to name the feeling we have when we realize this presence, we’d probably just say “love.”
Love is the only word left standing after we’ve eliminated all the others. Of course it too is inadequate. But it’ll do.
The most immediate and acute way to experience this for yourselves is in the wake of the death of a loved one. Your beloved is gone. They took form, graced your life, and have now returned to the formless realm. And yet in their absence, you feel more keenly than ever before their presence and the absolute love that you shared. Love is unaffected by the passage of time and the transience of forms. Love is the name of the infinite field out of which forms arise and to which they return.
Armed with these three truths—impermanence, presence, and love—we return to the battlefield of our lives full of humility, yet brave enough to take a stand and do what needs to be done. Love is our power now, and love overcomes every fear, every foe, every lie, and every limitation. We see clearly the beauty and pathos of these lovely, fleeting forms around us. We accept the changes that we and everything else are going through. We no longer cling to the past or crave private happiness. We simply intend the best outcomes, and work diligently to bring them about, letting go of attachment and practicing deep-tissue acceptance of whatever comes our way.
We cultivate a practice of conscious intentionality. We live our lives on purpose. We leave time and space for reverie, joy, meditation, prayer, contemplation, and connection, knowing that these are the windows through which the sacred presence behind the veil of impermanence floods into our lives like sunlight after a storm. No matter what is happening in the outer world, we remain aware of the sacred background, the stillness and silence of our inner being.
Love and only love enables us to withstand the suffering brought on by impermanence. In our pain we reach inside to touch the presence within and are in an instant restored. Love is who we are, what we are, and what everything is. When we live and have our being in love, we are on the beam and held aloft from darkness, ignorance, and meaninglessness. In love we rise to our full stature as beings of infinite value. And we fall in love with the whole messy, beautiful world.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, spiritual teacher, singer-songwriter, and philosophy professor. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, or at www.peterbolland.com