Friday, February 24, 2012

impermanence, questions

Whoever writes the Sincerely Lost blog has been kicking ass again in that way that makes me wonder why I bother. (It was "Shannon," who went so far as to comment on a couple of my posts under that name, but the blog author is now identified as "Eli", but is obviously the same person. I'm confused, but whatever, it's great writing.)
But then I thought some more: about neighbors who move, friendships that naturally fade, boyfriends you grow out of, even marriages that end. And then I remembered impermanence, and the fact that all relationships are temporary- in the same way that people are temporary. It isn't the commitment that makes a relationship permanent, there isn't anything that makes a relationship permanent, it could end (or begin) at any second.
I've had so many relationships disappear or change, from an early age, that I can't say as I ever much thought of them as permanent. I once spent three years in a very healthy, affectionate dating relationship that worked well for us both, but we acknowledged from the beginning was not going to be a permanent thing: we are both marvelous human beings, but we'd both experienced that certain spark that we knew was missing between us, and we knew we wanted it eventually. We did what Shannon describes:
It's a scary proposition to make and I think it's going to require really being present when I'm with the person and then just letting that be all it is.
It was a very pure relationship, in a way, because we were in it only for that transient time, however long it was. It was explicit that (a) we were seeing each other for only as long as it worked for both of us, and (b) that time would end in the kind-of-forseeable future. Whatever it lacked that we wanted, it also lacked complacency, and we did a pretty good job of paying attention to and appreciating everything we did together. It would end when it ended, and we were there to enjoy each other's company right then, without planning for the future, and knowing that while we'd probably get some warning that the relationship had stopped working for us (and we did, eventually), it could end more or less any time.

Even marriages dissolve, as I've seen with roughly 50% of my friends who have married. Not long ago, J.D. and Hope's marriage ended, with his death.

This brings up a larger point for me, though, which is the hinky stuff about impermanence and our response to it.

Someone once asked Suzuki Roshi what the essence of Buddhism was, and he said, "Everything changes." Buddhist teaching is so multi-faceted that it sometimes feels like many concepts could serve as the "essence," but impermanence might be the best, because it's the beginning of the following chain (Pali terms included, if you want to read more about it):
  1. Everything is impermanent (anicca). Anything that seems permanent, like our family, society, and especially our sense of self, is actually transient and subject to change.
  2. Even though everything is impermanent, we insist on the truth of our perception that it's permanent, thus creating anguish/angst/suffering (dukkha).
  3. Because everything is impermanent, everything is devoid of an independent essence (anatman), because what would happen to that essence as the thing changes?
To illustrate that last point, Buddha used a chariot, but since most of us don't recognize the parts of a chariot, we often use a ball-point pen:
  • If I take the cap off, okay, it's still a pen, right?
  • If I unscrew the top part and leave the bottom, is that still a pen?
  • If I take out the ink cartridge, is that still a pen? Most of us would call it a "cartridge" or "refill," but why isn't it a pen? I can write with it just like I do a pen. But we don't call it a pen. Did something about its essence change?
Buddhist practice is really the process of asking these kinds of questions, but about our experience: our sense of self and our actions and reactions to events and feelings.
  • What am I experiencing right now?
  • What other times have I felt this way?
  • Am I responding to what's happening right now, or am I reacting from my emotional history?
What arises in response to those questions is...often not what we expect.

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