Impermanence

Disclaimer: We are not commenting on the realm of faith here. Religious/Spiritual traditions often hold firm views on a life/person-hood after the physical one ends (corporeal death). This website and page offer numerous perspectives. We aim to NOT condone any particular faith, religion, or spirituality.
That said, all traditions would affirm that there: is an end to milk’s shelf life, are corporations that form and fold, and are relationships that begin and end. Impermanence visits us all.

This page is a short homage to impermanence. It is a brief look into the concept, what it means for our short time being alive, and how we deal with it. May it get you in the mood to consider life and its big questions.

We heard black holes collide. We’ll point to where the sound might have come from, to the best of our abilities, a swatch of space from an earlier epoch. Somewhere in the southern sky, pulling away from us with the expansion of the universe, the big black hole will roll along its own galaxy, dark and quiet until something wanders past, an interstellar dust cloud or an errant star. After a few billion years the host galaxy might collide with a neighbor, tossing the black hole around, maybe toward a supermassive black hole in a growing galactic center. Our star will die. The Milky Way will blend with Andromeda. The record of this discovery along with the wreckage of our solar system will eventually fall into black holes, as will everything else in the cosmos, the expanding space eventually silent, and all the black holes will evaporate into oblivion near the end of time. – Janna Levin, “Black Hole Blues

A Glimpse of Change

Max Shelf Life of Food Items:

< 1 Year
1-10 years
10-20 Years
30+ years (but not forever)
Most of what you eat
Flour: 5
Powdered Eggs: 15
Produce
Quinoa: 8
Whey Powder: 15
Sugar (250 million years)
“Perishables”
Granola: 5
Cocao Powder: 15
Salt (250 million years)
Seeds: 8
Spelt: 12

Major Companies that have gone bankrupt:

1980’s
1990’s
2000’s
2010’s
Texaco
Pan Am Airlines
Compaq
Kodak
Financial Corp. of America
Bank of New England
Enron
Blockbuster
Big K stores
Netscape
Lehman Brothers
Palm
Lionel Corp
Merry-Go-Round
General Motors
StumbleUpon

Changing Cultural Ideals:

Pre-modern
1800’s
1900-1950
1950-present
Deciding to grow food / agriculture
Hygiene is important (discovery of microbes)
Human Rights
Women are independent / strong / autonomous
Ownership of land
Evolution
Women voting in most of world
Gender fluidity
Formation of Religions / Faith
Slavery abolished in most of world
Free Access to Information
LGBTQ

Some would say that a thing can only be beautiful because of its ephemeral nature.
This echoes the notion that happiness can only exist because sadness does too.

In other words, concepts are what they are because of relating them to other concepts. Ideas, people, and even physical things don’t really take form until they are compared with what they aren’t. And in order for anything to be at all, mustn’t it not be as well?

Philosophically, impermanence is a playground. We could ponder forever (ok, not forever) on the implications of our changing world; what it means about identity, thought, the human experience, reality itself.
But one thing is undeniable: anything we know to exist (physical and in this universe) will someday not exist anymore.

Now, again about relating and comparison. How do we relate to that observation about existence?
In many ways, this page is a plea to never expect something to last forever.
That does not mean it is a plea to resign yourself to hopelessness, futility, or disappointment.

We are calling into question our inscrutable human tendency to project ideas into a physical eternity. We look at love, relationships, beauty, people, and attach these notions to a presumption of permanence.
And all the while, we rely on change to live, love, and be.

The changing nature of existence is a strength. At the very least, it simply IS. And living within it is a strength.
Because of change, life exists. Death allows it to evolve. Our bodies replace the vast majority of their cells completely every 7 to 10 years. At a point, are we still ‘us’? The famous philosophical thought experiment of Theseus’ Ship is relevant to anyone with a sense of individual identity.

As our ego relentlessly keeps us separate from the universe, we nevertheless change with it. We anxiously, subconsciously assure ourselves of our own permanence, even though the self is an ever-changing thing.

Everything we know, even space itself, will cease to exist as we know it, eventually.
Your parents, your children, your ideas and relationships — every time you sense pain, or happiness, or meaning itself for that matter — it all goes away. Everything is temporary.

Take a look at these graphics from Wait But Why (one of our favorite blogs on the internet):

You can read the post where these graphics originate HERE. We highly recommend it.
And, looking at these visuals of your family tree, the take-away we’re wanting to drive home is this:

You, as a known person in the world, are impermanent even to your closest folks…your kin! If your own family won’t know or remember you after a few generations, then what is the nature, impact, value, and meaning of your singular life?

We invite you to shift your relationship with death, transience, and flux, into one of gratitude and acceptance. As you’ll read below, this aspect of the human experience can be one of joy.

Impermanence in History

Along with being a central concept to Buddhism, the concept of impermanence has seen its fair share of air time in other religions, philosophy, and psychology.

In Hinduism,  ‘Anitya’ is the sense of impermanence we can have about things and life.  It is referenced in the Katha Upanishad, written some time in the first millenium BCE. Hindus believe that everything in the world is impermanent, but that the impermanent nature of things is an opportunity to obtain what IS permanent (‘Nitya’). In Hinduism, it is believe that humans possess a soul: ‘Atman’.

Similarly, many religions in the world assert that we have a permanent ‘soul’ of some sort. Christianity and Islam, the two most common religions in the world, are among them.

Many people believe, by the tenets of their faith, that permanence exists in some forms. And, this can be neither proven nor disproven. It is a faith-based belief, in which reason has little bearing.
As far as we know scientifically speaking, however, nothing is forever.
In the Western world, we see Impermanence as a subject in Greek Philosophy:
  • Heraclitus and his concept of of panta rhei (everything flows)
  • Parmenides “Whatever is, is, and what is not cannot be”
  • Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations contained much about impermanence
  • Plutarch: “And if the nature which is measured is subject to the same conditions as the time which measures it, this nature itself has no permanence, nor “being,” but is becoming and perishing according to its relation to time.”
And there is a Roman Latin saying that goes, “Tempora Mutantur”, translating to “Times are changed; we, too, are changed within them.”

In Buddhism

It could be said that Impermanence is the very foundation of Buddhism. 

Buddhism, either as a philosophy or a religion, carries from a world-view that the temporal nature of living and all things leads to a cycle of craving and aversion, and therefor suffering.

‘Annica'(Pali) or ‘Anitya’ (Sanskrit) is a core tenet of Buddhism, stating that ‘All temporal things, whether material or mental, are compounded objects in a continuous change of condition, subject to decline and destruction.” (from the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism).

The simplicity and digestibility of this view of life may be one reason why so many call Buddhism a philosophy first, before a religion.

A Source of Suffering

Buddhists would say that, as a result of the transience of all things, life is essentially suffering.
We want what cannot be had.
As we are satisfied, conditions change. What we coveted becomes something else. And now we face conditions that we don’t want. Craving, aversion, craving, aversion…

And, in a way, this seems undeniable.

So many of our ideas in life are founded on a notion of permanence. Even simple ideas like “I want to be happy”, or “I want my child to live” carry a certain presumption that an achieved idea is forever that: achieved. 

As we look around in the world, evidence of the denial of transience is everywhere.
Ernest Becker said in his famous book The Denial of Death “Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.” (We have a wonderful page summarizing this book HERE.)

Perspective

But what if we address our own assumptions? Why does something require permanence to be valuable?
In fact, we can OWN our own notions of value and meaning.

Even the very premise of Buddhism, that all is temporary and therefor life is suffering, carries a presumption: that without permanence, experience distills into suffering. That need not be the case.
Our perspective is ours, after all. It is within our power to relate to our experiences in a different way. We can do so more intentionally, and with less expectation of permanence.

For example, even without reflecting on the transience of our galaxy itself, we can put our own lives into perspective by scaling to the size and time of the earth.
When we are sharing a happy moment with a friend, or enjoying good food, we can remember that we are going to die. And we can remember that it is ok.
There is nothing to make that fact necessarily ‘wrong.’ 

More Fun Tributes to Impermanence

This story by pioneering scifi author Isaac Asimov was written in 1956, and is nevertheless timeless. It imaginatively echoes the changing nature of our universe on a massive scale.

An often-referenced, but often misunderstood scientific concept is the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.
It is a natural “law” because it is mathematical, empirical, and provable, as well as yet-to-be disproven.

This page will break it down for you, and present it as a tribute to Impermanence.

A Source of Joy

One of the basic premises of this website is that meaning CAN be created IN life. To be more specific, the notion of meaning, value are relative to each individual. Ultimately, we create our own terms and conditions for what is ‘meaningful.’ We therefore have the power to choose our own conditions for what brings us joy.

There is no rule saying that meaning and joy requires permanence.

In fact, cultivating an acceptance of impermanence can help our Well-Being. (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006).
It can be a helpful practice for combating rumination, which is a factor in depression and anxiety.

Fearing Hard Times

and

Wishing the Good Times Lasted

becomes

Coping Better with Trying Times

and

Cherishing the Good Times

In lieu of the transience of all things, it’s best not to grasp at happiness and fear the difficult experiences of life.

Rather, we can LET things be temporary. We can be mindful, foster gratitude and awe, and be present when we encounter suffering…knowing that it, too, is transient.

Books

Videos

The tear-jerking first two minutes of Up.

Time – the History and future of Everything. An excellent (as always) video from Kurzgesagt.

Impermanence – Everything will be Alright. From the Buddhist society of Western Australia.

Pema Chodron – Relaxing with Impermanence. A friendly talk from a widely respected monk, Pema Chodron.

Awakening Through Insecurity – Tar Brach

A calming meditation on Impermanence from Daily Calm. Put in those headphones and relax.

A Buddhist Lecture on Impermanence and other topics.

A lecture from the Dalai Lama on Truth, Reality, and Impermanence.

Our Greatest Illusion – Veritasium

Quotes

  • ‘All temporal things, whether material or mental, are compounded objects in a continuous change of condition, subject to decline and destruction.’ – from the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism
  • ‘If we knew that the blossom would last forever, it wouldn’t have the same poignant beauty, and we’d take it for granted.’ – Leo Babauta
  • ‘Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.’ – Steve Jobs
  • “Everything’s destiny is to change, to be transformed, to perish. So that new things can be born.” – Marcus Aurelius
  • “Awareness of impermanence and appreciation of our human potential will give us a sense of urgency that we must use every precious moment.” – Dalai Lama
  • “You only live once, but if you work it right, once is enough.” -Joe Lewis
  • “The only way to live is by accepting each minute as an unrepeatable miracle.” – Storm Jameson
  • “My hunch is that two things are true:
    • We have much less direct control over the future than we hope, and that it will always surprise us.
    • We have far more ability to make an impact than we expect. The only people who can change our culture (and thus our future) are us.

We can’t control the future, but we can bend it. And we can’t freeze the world as it is, but we can figure out how to be a part of it.

The work we do every day, the stories we tell, the paths we follow and the connections we make define our culture, and culture determines what’s next.

No guarantees, but yes, urgency.” -Seth Godin

  • “Craving for happiness necessarily causes us to fear or reject anything that causes unhappiness or pain. Attachment to possession and achievement invariably leads to disappointment and disillusionment, because everything is impermanent. Thus, the positive psychology of pursuing positive experiences and avoiding negative experiences is counterproductive, because the very focus on happiness contains the seed of unhappiness and suffering. Failure to embrace life’s experience in its entirety is at the root of suffering.” – Paul T.P. Wong