The Wisdom of Impermanence: Treating the Glass as if it’s Already Broken
Once in a while, you hear a quote that splits you wide open. Recently I was listening to Joseph Goldstein –the distinguished meditation teacher – give a talk from 1984. He was speaking about impermanence and attachment. If we realize things are constantly dissolving, he noted, we stop clinging to them. Then Goldstein dropped the bomb.
(Imagine him holding a glass aloft.) “The best way to relate to this cup,” said Goldstein*, “is as if it’s already broken. Because when we relate to it as if it’s already broken - we use it, we care for it, we wash it - we do all the things in proper relationship to it. But there’s no attachment, because we see that it’s already gone.”
Because we see that it’s already gone. This fragment got my nerves tingling. I surveyed the old wooden deck beneath my feet. Good as gone. My mind raced through my past relationships. They didn’t last. In a flash, the insight expanded to my most personal things: my thoughts, my body, my mind. They were all impermanent. I wasn’t used to feeling this way.
Our minds play a clever trick on us. We are deceived into thinking ourselves permanent fixtures in a changing Universe. The facts don’t seem to matter. Not one atom, for instance, exists from our “selves” of 5 years prior. And the particles that now compose our bodies spin at speeds that make an eye blink seem like an eternity. What’s more, our tiny building blocks don’t appear to have fixed locations in space. (Just probabilities of being in one place or another.) At the smallest level – according to the science – we simply cannot be pinned down.
The objects and people we see each day are perpetually changing. It’s our concepts – and our attachment to them – that creates fixity from fluid. “We take this world to be so real,” said Goldstein. “We create that sense of solidity through our wanting… through our desiring… through our reaching… through our holding.”
What do we hold on to? Often some pretty trivial things. I remember the day some years ago when I noticed a new feature on the door of my parked Hyundai: a cavernous impression the size and shape of Madagascar. I guess the hit-and-run driver didn’t have a pen and paper handy – there was no note. For weeks, the mere sight of the dent would make me angry. It took me over a month to realize that parking on city streets just accelerates an inevitable fate: my car in the junkyard.
It’s easy to see that material dependence causes suffering. It’s harder to grok that clinging to people also brings pain. “This belonging to another, being psychologically nourished by another, depending on another,” wrote Krishnamurti, “in all this there must always be anxiety, fear, jealousy, guilt, and so long is there is fear there is no love.” Struggling for security in relationships does not bring us closer together. It’s like trying to grasp a handful of water – it just slips through our fingers.
But our very deepest attachment – our identification with an internal self - is also the subtlest. Reality is, at base, impersonal. From moment to moment, thoughts, feelings, and sensations arise in consciousness. Then we tack on the self. A strong itch might develop on your left ear. My itch. You grow irritated that your neighbor has decided to chain saw at 8AM. I’m pissed. When everything is linked to “I”, we blow our problems out of proportion.
And thoughts, if unnoticed, simply take over. We identify with this ceaseless internal dialogue as “me.” But the inner yammering, if we pay attention, is not really that interesting. On a typical hike, I might review what I’m having for dinner 10-15 times and decide on 5-6 alternate wordings for a text I need to send. It’s like I’m trapped with an incredibly boring salesman who is always pitching my next move.
So how do we un-stick ourselves from all these attachments? We relate to the cup – (remember Goldstein’s cup?) - as if it’s already broken. If we view all things as impermanent, insubstantial, transient, and fleeting… it doesn’t mean we will spin off this planet. We don’t vanish. But when the car gets dinged up, we can shrug it off. When a relationship ends, we can move on. When we feel sad or lonely, we realize these feelings are just ephemeral appearances and will pass.
Goldstein’s quote gave me a glimpse at the truth: that there is nothing in life to cling to. Although it sounds grim, the insight had quite the opposite effect on me. I felt suffused with energy – alive and connected with the world around me – caught in the cosmic dance of changing conditions. Then, like everything does, the feeling passed.
*Goldstein is relating the teachings of Ajahn Cha, the great Thai adept
Goldstein, Joseph. “The Power of Restraint.” Dharma Talk. Nov 23 1984. http://www.dharmaseed.org/teacher/96/