How a Long Winter in Boston Helped Me Embrace Impermanence
I waited outside for the bus this morning for ten minutes. In the rain. Another bad weather day in Boston at the tail end of one of the worst winters I’ve ever endured (and that’s saying a lot for someone who grew up in Buffalo, NY). Everywhere I went this winter, the first thing people would say to me was, “God, can you believe how awful the weather has been?” The topic of how and when to escape all this torture came up often in conversation. Now that spring is taking its sweet time to arrive, Bostonians are still grappling with, “Why do I live in place that always has such terrible weather?”
It was only a couple months ago while unearthing my car enveloped by a mountain of snow that I developed my own way of coping with the meteorological circumstances: I kept reminding myself, “Snow will melt. Everything is impermanent.”
When we’re stuck in a negative state of mind, and we look around thinking how terrible the world around us is, it’s easy to fall into a trap. It’s easy to lose hope that things will ever improve, but that only happens when we react to an impermanent feeling as if it’s going to last forever. It’s when we remember that everything in this world changes that we’re able to move on and regain our balanced perspective.
Thich Nhat Hanh describes thoughts as “impermanent formations” that come and go or “paper buildings that crumble and fall.” I like to borrow a visualization from Jimi Hendrix and imagine my thoughts, positive or negative, “Just like castles made of sand that melt into the sea, eventually.” Through the practice of meditation, I’ve learned to gain some distance from the flow of my inner monologue, to sit back and observe the ebb and flow like waves crashing on a beach. It’s only when I remember how frequently my mindset will change that I can achieve that level of observance and mindfulness.
I find the idea that everything in life is impermanent, including life itself, to be an incredibly comforting thought. Everything, from our bodies to our thoughts, come and go. When we cling to things or expect them be around forever, we set ourselves up for disappointment and suffering. Having a bad hair day? Tomorrow’s only a day away. Don’t like the weather? Wait long enough and it will change. In a negative state of mind? Try and let go, let that negativity drift away, and it will eventually pass. Just like everything in life, nothing lasts forever.
Now, you might be thinking, “If everything is going to go away, what’s the point of living?” To that Thich Nhat Hanh would say:
If you look deeply into impermanence, you will do your best to be happy right now.
Aware of impermanence, you become positive, loving and wise.
Impermanence is good news.
Without impermanence, nothing would be possible.
With impermanence, every door is open for change.
Impermanence is an instrument for our liberation.
As someone who’s been abruptly reminded of my own mortality, I can testify to the fact that remembering this life is a temporary existence changes everything. Every moment is all the more precious and filled with joy when you remember it’s not going to last forever. It’s only when we stay conscious of the fact that one day, all of this will go away that we spend every waking moment fully awake, realizing our potential to live and grow. The way we spend our time is comparable to the way we spend our money—in abundance we can afford to waste it, but in scarcity every dollar becomes precious.
I’m halfway through Loving Kindness by Sharon Salzberg, a great book about self-love. In one of the chapters where she discusses obstacles to loving kindness, she uses a profound analogy of salt in water. Imagine a glass of water and teaspoon of salt. If you were to drink that water it would taste very salty. Now imagine a teaspoon of salt in 10 gallons of water. If you were to take a drink from the 10 gallons, you’d barely taste the salt at all. Life is full of salt. We’ll never be able to change that. What we can do is enlarge our container of water.
Zooming out and reorienting our perspective helps us remember what’s important and live every moment to the fullest. Nothing lasts forever, so appreciate every moment because it will be gone before you know it.