“Change alone is unchanging” – Heraclitus
You go to your old hometown and can’t find your way around anymore because the streets have changed.
You go to the field where, as a kid, you used to play ball, and there is now a Wal – Mart there. You look through your address book and see the names of several friends who have died. You catch a glimpse of yourself in a store window and wonder who that older person is who looks so much like you. Singer/song writer Carly Simon once described such a glimpse of herself as “seeing a young woman looking older for the part”.
Fossils of seashells and marine animals are sometimes found high in the Himalayan rock, an indication that it was once the bottom of the sea. We are reminded of impermanence simply by looking at the night sky. Some of the stars we think we see actually no longer exist. All that is left of them is the light that bounced from them and is now traveling through space. In some ways, we could think of ourselves as leaving nothing much behind but the light that bounces from us. Sometimes, when we are very quiet, we might sense it lighting everything.
“Time is a jet plane; it moves too fast. Ah but what a shame that all we’ve shared can’t last.” Bob Dylan’s words sum up the poignancy inherent in our human predicament. We will be separated from all that we love, all that we hold dear. However, even in the sadness of loss, awakened awareness doesn’t clutch too tightly to what it loves because it knows that it is pointless to do so. While we honor and deeply feel the sadness, we need not compound it by resisting one of the most fundamental of truths; everything passes. My teacher once said, “The wise are attracted by the eternal, while the foolish pursue the transient and are thus bludgeoned by time.”
Recently I saw a billionaire business mogul interviewed on television. At the time of the interview the man was in his mid seventies, excitedly describing to the interviewer his accomplishments as well as his long-range plans for projects spanning the next quarter century. The interviewer, quite boldly I thought, asked him if he thought he might miss seeing some of those dreams come true, given his age. The man looked at the interviewer with incredulity. With some disdain he answered that he planned to oversee those projects and had no intention of dying anytime soon.
I couldn’t imagine how anyone of average intelligence could get to be his age and not have noticed the one – pointed trajectory of bodily disintegration, the proverbial ‘arrow of time’. It is a testament to the power of denial. Perhaps this denial had helped the billionaire in building his empire. Maybe he had never been distracted from the building task by self-reflections on mortality or who-am-I, what- is -this -thing -called -life -questions. Perhaps the urge to build an empire is in itself an attempt to challenge the law of impermanence. Hoping to leave something ‘permanent’ behind is a way to feel an extension of oneself in time, if only through name. But posthumously having one’s name on a few buildings, plazas, museums, street signs or books is hardly an experience of immortality. And our world is becoming more and more littered with the artifacts of humans wanting to leave their mark on it.
“Perfect activity leaves no trace”. I am reminded of these Taoist words when I think of my friend Helen Nearing whose husband Scott had just died when I met her in 1983. Helen and Scott were some of the original back- to – the – land pioneers in the U.S., moving first to Vermont in 1932 and, when Vermont became too developed for them, to Maine in 1952. Living entirely off the grid, hand-building their homes from stones found on their land, and growing their own food, they exemplified what it means to travel lightly on the earth.
Beginning in the 1950’s, the Nearings wrote a number of books, including their classic Living the Good Life. In the they described a commitment to self sufficiency, hard work, simplicity and a love of learning. They were also lifelong proponents of social and environmental causes. When, at the age of one hundred, Scott fell sick and could no longer work, he decided to fast to the end. Helen told me that Scott died as he had lived, full of consciousness and consideration of the earth, asking for the simplest of cremation arrangements and requesting that his ashes be scattered on their land. After more than fifty years together, Helen said that being present at his death was as gentle as watching a leaf fall from a tree.
Change is part of the natural rhythm of life, but our culture has begun to confuse change with speed. We overlook the deeper changes of life and are instead continually adjusting to ever increasing velocities of speed in nearly all activities. As we adjust to new speeds, we increase our expectations for the current speed, or for acceleration. If you are old enough, you will remember dialing rotary phones or getting up to change the channels on the television, neither of which seemed a hardship at the time. In today’s world, few would have the patience required for these simple activities. Even those of us who grew up with those technologies would find them almost unbearably slow and tedious because our brains now expect those functions to be much faster.
Many television programs in the fifties and sixties aired scenes that lasted up to fifteen minutes with no camera changes. Now we are used to images changing every few seconds, sometimes so fast that they are only subliminally recorded in our minds. Instant access to information, instant communication, instant ordering of products, instant transfer of funds; we value and expect speed, and we measure time in nanoseconds.
We have witnessed significant changes in the past century, more than in any other time in history. But much of what we experience as change in our lives as bee an adjustment to speed. We have lost touch with the natural and slower tempos of life, and consequently we have become more resistant to real life changes.
Nowhere is that resistance more pronounced than in our relationship to aging. It has seemingly become unfashionable to look or be old. Perhaps one of the reasons we resist aging is that our culture no longer values the wisdom that comes with age. We live in a youth obsessed society in part because we value speed, and the young are better at speed. We have ads showing children helping their grandparents learn to use computer programs with captions that say “It’s so easy, even an older person can learn it” Of course, the grandfather can learn it, but it takes longer. The grandfather may have a thing or two to teach as well – the hard – won lessons that come only with time. He may not have a lot of speed, but he is likely to know a great deal about change. Sadly, lots of older people often feel that no one is really interested in them because they are old. And so there is societal pressure to appear not to be aging, for fear of being seen as useless. Our attempts to appear younger are not necessarily for the pleasure of looking at ourselves in the mirror or dazzling new suitors, but to continue to be included in life.
While it makes sense to take the best care of ourselves as possible – to try to stay physically strong and mentally alert – in awakened awareness there is a graceful recognition of the aging process. I loved the sight of Helen Nearing, in her eighties when I last saw her, about seven years before she died. With her wizened, weathered face, intelligent eyes, and wiry strong body, she was an inspiration for growing old with dignity. In discerning awareness there is a great respect for the elders of our society and for the wisdom that comes with age. (I have always secretly thought that grandmothers, not middle – aged men, should rule the world.)
Awakened awareness is always mindful of the ever – present fact of impermanence and therefore treasures the tender beauties of life. Whether seeing a shower of shooting stars on a summer night or the veins in the hands of your parent, we are aware of the continual passing of all phenomena. Nearly thirty years ago, at the end of a client Buddhist retreat, a young man put a note on my mediation cushion that said, “Would you like to join me to watch a totally original sunset?” I realized in a flash that his question contained the bittersweet truth. A sunset is a one – time event, each one a first and last – just like each passing flicker of our lives.