Six ways of reflecting on impermanence

Running out of timeIn the Google Plus Community that I’ve set up for people who have a connection with my work (my classes, my CDs, MP3s, books, Wildmind, etc.) we discuss our practice. It’s turned out to be a very supportive and inspiring community. My own practice has benefitted a lot, and as I put it this morning in a post there, “We’re all each other’s teachers.”

Someone in the community said they’d been reflecting on impermanence, and that led me to write a few words about the various ways that I reflect about impermanence in meditation. Here’s what I wrote:

I reflect on impermanence at different degrees of resolution. Here they are, roughly in order:

  • On the macro level we’re all going to die. I think about that sometimes, in order that I’ll live my life meaningfully.
  • We’re all changing and growing. When I reflect on this it’s easier to forgive others, and to feel compassion for them. This was one of the themes of my TEDx talk.
  • My body is constantly changing. In the Six Element practice I realize that what I take to be a separate and permanent object is in fact a constant flow of matter and energy.
  • Experiences come and go. I reflect on this both when life is pleasant and when it’s unpleasant, so that I cling less to the pleasant and don’t fret about the unpleasant. This too shall pass.
  • I notice that every breath has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Each in-breath has a beginning, an middle, and an end. And so does each out-breath. Observing this helps me to more fully appreciate each breath, and to stay focused on the present moment.
  • At the most refined level of resolution, the micro level, each moment is different. Each moment of every in-breath and every out-breath is a new moment. Our experience is a sequence of moments, each one tantalizingly brief and ungraspable. And this applies not only to the breathing, but to every experience that is arising in the body or mind. My entire sense of self can dissolve away into something like mist. The body becomes transparent, light. Even the mind that notices this change is itself changing in every moment. It expands and contracts, it flows, it dims and brightens, it coheres and disintegrates.

All of these levels of resolution are valuable experiences of impermanence for us to cultivate. And they’re all interrelated. I’ve found, though, that even a lot of experienced practitioners tend to focus more on the macro level and not to pay so much attention (or even don’t pay attention at all) to the micro level. And yet it’s at that level that, for me, at least, insight arose. I suspect that’s the case for many people — perhaps for everyone. And this micro level is not that hard to appreciate. It’s not as if impermanence is a secret — it’s there all the time, and we just need to train ourselves to stop ignoring it.

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