I would like to pass on my thoughts about, what I see as the Ultimate Truth, impermanence. But don’t just take my word for it, spend some time in contemplation and come to your own conclusions.
During my spiritual journey there has been one concept that has had the most profound effect upon my life, and my philosophy, that is the concept of impermanence. Whether you see that as; the Pagan cycle of birth,death and rebirth as exemplified in the Wheel of the Year; the Buddhist concept of Samsara, the Hindu concept of Moksha, or the Scientific concept of the Cycle of life, it cannot be denied that everything changes and is impermanent. At the level of inanimate matter all things change, nothing is permanent, even Suns are born; illuminate the vacuum of Space, but eventually die, and are recycled into new stars or planets etc. In the realm of the biological all life; comes into existence, grows and experiences life on this planet, but eventually dies. This is the natursl law of the universe and nothing, and no-one, is exempt. Psychologically this has a profound effect upon the human psyche and; depending upon our particular psychological make-up, belief systems, and experiences, each individual will deal-with, or not deal-with, this fact of life.
How do I apply this concept to my life and what impact has it had on how I live and view my life? in particular how does it impact on my response to the fact of my own mortality?
Whether you belive in an existence prior to birth or after death does not really matter, and is ultimately unknowable whilst in this physical body. I personally have my own concept of what happens after death and what preceded my birth, but I want to keep this post focussed on how the realisation of impermanence can have a real impact on how we live our life in the here and now. As such, this discussion is focused on impermanence, which although universal to the whole of the Universe, I will take as its focus how it applies to the experience of being human.
As a newly conceived embryo, existence within the womb is pretty comfortable, all of our needs are catered for and we float around in a warm, supportive environment. It must truly feel like we are the centre of the universe. Suddenly all of that changes and we experience the trauma of birth, life will never be the same again, and the experience must be truly terrifying. We are presented with a completely new experience in an environment that we had no knowledge of, or expectation!
It is suggested that, as a new-born child, we have no understanding that we are separate from that which we experience in our environment, they still experience an awareness of the oneness of the universe. There is a process of learning required which will be shaped by our environment and experiences. This is one of the first examples that demonstrate the concept of Karma, originally a Hindu and Buddhist concept, but now widely accepted in many western thought and belief systems. Although I do have a belief in a form of reincarnation, Karma is not a concept that requires a belief in reincarnation, it’s simply the law of cause and effect and applies moment by moment throughout our lives. I’ll have a bit more to say about Karma later in this post.
As we begin to grow-up and become toddlers we begin to interact more with the environment, exploring relationships with both other living beings and our physical surroundings. All of these experiences will have a profound effect on how we develop, both physically and psychologically, and is another example of the process of Karma.
Entering childhood we expand the influences on our development as we enter the wider world of education and increasing social/environmental contact. We change through this journey and are no longer the person we were as a new-born child or a toddler. Already we have an example of impermanence, it is also quite clear how Karma has impacted on this process of change. We are no longer the same person that we were previously, although there is a stream of memory and consciousness that ties the changing persona together to help create our personality and fledgling Ego. Whether there is some deeper, higher, consciousness that is permanent I don’t know, but personally I have a subjective feeling that there is a deep part of me, almost pre-conscious that is permanent throughout my life, and will continue after death. Either way it is impossible to know, therefore, it may be an interesting metaphysical and philosophical question to ponder but has no real bearing on the truth of the impermanence of life on the physical plane.
Teenage years are a rollercoaster of change and impermanence, driven by the physical processes stimulated by the release of our various hormones; our physical bodies, psychological drives and desires, and personality are in a process of rapid change. Nothing is stagnant at this stage, and these physical processes are not under our conscious control, although our psychological and health development will be impacted by the personal choices we make, these being driven by our desires or aversions, attachments, and knowledge.
Moving into adulthood we have developed a mature Ego and personality based upon the Karmic effects inherited from our growth from birth to adulthood. Most people, through the influence of our culture and family ties, enter working life and begin the process of starting families or building careers. It’s very much a time of reactive activity based upon the pressure from our environment. But the way that we react to this pressure and influence from our environment, and the choices we then make, will have a profound impact upon our future development. Once again looking back we can see that the person we were as a teenager has gone, or at least been assimilated into the mature adult personality and ego. It’s clear by this stage that our Ego and Personality are impermanent and, therefore, change is inevitable!
Moving into old age we change physically, emotionally and psychologically; our bodies are no longer able to do physical activities as well as they used to, our mental processes may begin to decline, our vision deteriorates, and our health declines. This is the time that, for most people, thoughts begin to turn towards reviewing their past life and looking towards their impending death. This can be a very difficult time for some but, depending on how they view life and particularly if they have accepted that all is impermanent, it is possible to come to terms with this process.
So, being someone who at the age of 58 has been given a diagnosis on incurable stage 4 cancer, how have I processed that information, and how has my contemplation of impermanence helped me to come to terms with this?
I have always been conscious of my health and wellbeing; having watched my diet, kept my ear to the ground with the latest health research and advice, exercised regularly, and monitored my physical condition. it was, to say the least, initially a surprise and a shock. Someone asked me if I was upset that it had happened to me at this age as I was so health conscious, I answered “why not me? I’m no more special than anyone else” I think many of those around me are surprised at my reaction, but I think this stems from my many years of being a Pagan; an animist; and having an interest in studying a wide and varied number of other spiritual belief systems. Also, I work as a nurse and have cared for many patients as they go through the process of dying, I have sat with patients, their relatives, and their friends, as they try to come to terms with the dying process. This has led me to a deep understanding and acceptance of the impermanence of life, my own included. I have contemplated my own death over the years, and dealt with the death of my Father, Mother, and Mother-in-Law.
Through the process of Karma we are influenced by the past, our future is influenced by the Karma we develop in the Now. As the past no longer exists and we cannot change the Karma that we inherited from it. I do not focus on the past if I can help it and have little attachment to it or harbour any regret. The future has yet to be and is unknowable, therefore, there is little benefit to be gained from worrying about what may be. By all means make sensible contingency plans for possible future scenarios, it would be remiss of me, as someone with incurable cancer not to. But worry is a wasted emotion and achieves nothing but distress in the now.
The only thing that exists is the ‘Now’ the now has been influenced by my past, and future will be influenced by the; actions, intentions, and motivation that I choose to have in this moment.
The Now is the most important thing that I can focus on as the Karma I develop now is the Karma that will influence what future I experience. Even the quality of my death, and how it impacts on those around me, is intimately tied up with how I live in the Now.
Even the Now is impermanent and exists for only an instant, it cannot be grasped or held onto, you cannot have an attachment to it for it is fleeting. But the decisions you make, the attachments you create and the desires you act upon in the Now will carry forward into your future through the cause and effect process of Karma.
So, to conclude this post I will just say that I try, to the best of my ability, to live in the now. I pay particular attention to; the desires and impulses I act upon; the attachments I develop at each moment; the choices I make; the impact I have on others by my actions, speech and choices. I find that the Buddhist Nobel Eightfold Path is a useful guide to achieve this and accords pretty well with my Druidic beliefs.
I accept that I have a life limiting disease but I keep in mind that, if I allow this to cause me undue anxiety Regarding my ultimate death, I have allowed a future that does not yet exist to rob me of the joys and experiences of the present, this causing unnecessary suffering to myself and those around me.
I hope this has given you some food for thought, I reiterate my suggestion to not take my word for it, but to do your own contemplation on impermanence.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please comment if you have anything interesting and constructive to add.