Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday and impermanence

Whether it is your custom to observe this day or not, I think we can all agree that it is the one day within western culture and religion that the principle of impermanence is acknowledged and honored. "Remember that you are dust and to dust shall you return," are the words that are recited at the imposition of ashes. Here's something else about that principle:

Impermanence is the constant, basic universal truth of change. Impermanence is both a process of continual loss, in which things exist and then disappear, and it is also a process of continuous rebirth or creativity, in which things that do not exist suddenly appear. We can see this on a momentary level in meditation. For example, sounds, thoughts or sensations continually are disappearing and new ones arising. We can also see it very clearly in the ordinary circumstances of our lives. Where has our experience of breakfast gone by midmorning? Where is the conversation we had with a friend by the next afternoon? Sometimes we are more aware of new things arising, and sometimes we notice their passing away. But change is always obvious when we pay attention.

I find it a very powerful practice to pay attention moment-to-moment, to the experience of things changing. Rather than just getting lost in the content of what is happening, it is simultaneously possible to pay attention to the fact that experience keeps altering and flowing. This is not such a difficult thing to do, but it is difficult to remember to do it.

-- Joseph Goldstein

Yes, it is difficult to remember to do it. That's why a commitment to regular meditative practice is so important!


  1. Anonymous6:50 AM

    what is he referring to -- experience keeps altering and flowing? One's perception, one's wisdom, one's discernment? Or just events?

  2. Anonymous11:52 AM

    To me, he is referring to all of the things you mentioned and to all things to numerous to list. If nothing is permanent, it has to be changing. The analogy which made sense of "experience keeps altering and flowing" is the often quoted one of you never look at the same river twice.
    Carolyn L.

  3. Yes, I agree with you, Carolyn.

    Also, the teachings on impermanence really help me remember not to make my well being dependent on external events - because they are always changing.

    In traditional Christian language this is called "transitoriness". Same thing.


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