“Nothing endures but change.” ― Heraclitus
One of the marks (or basic facts) of existence in Buddhism is impermanence. This is the observation that everything compounded or conditioned that comes into being is subject to transformation and decay – everything worldly changes or ends. Unawareness of impermanence is considered a type of ignorance in yoga philiosophy.
Ignorance is of four types: 1) regarding that which is transient as eternal, 2) mistaking the impure for pure, 3) thinking that which brings misery to bring happiness, and 4) taking that which is not-self to be self. – Yoga Sutra 2.5
Compounded phenomena are made up of parts. Can you think of anything in this world that isn’t made up of parts? We used to think the atom was the fundamental building block of matter until we discovered subatomic particles and then eventually quantum scale particles. We keep thinking we’ve found the smallest building blocks and then when find something even smaller.
Conditioned phenomena are dependent upon something else for coming into being. For example, language is a conditioned phenomenon because it needs a human being to think and speak it. Can you come up with anything in this world that isn’t caused by something else – anything that just is, in and of itself, arising entirely independently?
What we view as discrete things might be more accurately conceptualized as interdependent and dynamic processes continually changing and evolving. A common image that helps illustrate this concept is that of waves in the ocean. Waves are not separate from the larger body of water. Spawned through contact with wind and water, they continually arise, transform, and dissolve back into the ocean.
The decisively characteristic thing about this world is its transience. In this sense, centuries have no advantage over the present moment. Thus the continuity of transience cannot give any consolation; the fact that life blossoms among ruins proves not so much the tenacity of life as that of death. — Franz Kafka
Since most everything we experience in this world is impermanent, even our own bodies, thoughts, feelings and perceptions, nothing worldly can bring us lasting happiness. Our suffering increases the more we try to hold onto the things we desire. Believing that we can keep anything forever sets us up for false hopes and unreasonable expectations, because everything we hold dear runs like sand through our fingers eventually.
If all phenomena are impermanent, does anything we think, do, or experience really matter? My understanding is that these things do matter, just not in the way we usually think about it. We tend to think about experience personally in terms of “I”, “me” and “mine”. We ask ourselves, “How does this affect me?” or “What does this have to do with me?” or “What does this mean about me?” This is how we measure value, but we fail to realize that nothing is personal.
In this case, returning to the ocean analogy can be helpful. Just as it is not particularly useful to try to isolate each drop of water within the ocean, we can view our thoughts and actions as part of a greater whole – part of the stream of causes and conditions. Understanding impermanence helps us to let go and let be when it makes sense to do so. If we can learn to be present in the moment without grasping and clinging, we can appreciate what is here now and respond more skillfully, minimizing our part in the perpetuation of suffering.
Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it. ― W. Somerset Maugham