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Samsara & Selfhood: Everything Will Change. Even You.

It's perhaps the simplest and most obvious of all the Buddhist teachings: everything is impermanent; everything will change. Try as we might, its impossible to ignore it. Today’s heartbreaking reminder is the devastation in North Carolina. No life, no matter how fortified we think we’ve built it, will withstand the inevitability of impermanence. In an instant, everything can change. Indeed everything is always already changing, in every instant. It was when the Buddha saw the suffering so deeply entrenched in the impermanence of life (birth, old age, sickness, and death) that he began looking for another way of being.

Although we can’t escape, stop, or undo the impermanence of our lives, we can find a different way to relate to it (a.k.a the Four Noble Truths). Change may be inevitable, but suffering is optional. This, of course, is where the simple and obvious becomes so incredibly difficult. Even if we understand and agree with notion of impermanence, working through those moments of instability is far from easy. Although impermanence can often be a good thing, this is where (maybe all of) my suffering comes from. I know things change; I see impermanence all around me. Winter becomes spring becomes summer becomes fall becomes winter becomes spring, and today’s sunshine doesn’t preclude tomorrow’s rain. I’m even well aware of the precariousness of life, having died once already. Yet, I always find myself suck in my own suffering because this has changed, or that is gone. 

More specifically, and existentially, I struggle with nuanced impermanence of my own selfhood. Not only does the world change around us, we change within it. We too are impermanent, and not just in the “this body will become a corpse” kind of way. As hard as it is to accept that our bodies are impermanent (again with the birth, old age, sickness, and death course line) it’s even harder to accept that our selfhoods are impermanent. Who we are is always changing. I’m not the same person I was 5 years ago, or 5 months ago, or 5 minutes ago. But because 5 minutes ago doesn’t feel all that different from this minute, it’s easy to over look this perpetual, slow shifting of self.

In fact the words self and selfhood (as used in the title of these posts), as well as the idea of “who we are” are already ironic because in Buddhism there is no self, or anatta. There is no essential or stable self to begin with, which means our ideas of selfhood are nothing more than illusions we cling to in search for a sense of security that we’ll never be able to keep.  Samsara and selfhood are one in the same. There is “no-self” because there is always impermanence. We are always changing, always in flux, always becoming. This is the kind of impermanence I can’t seem to accept, no matter how much I agree with the reasoning. Although I might not always like it, with work I can accept the changing world, my changing relationships, and impermanence of everything I think I have. But oh how I cling so tightly to who I used to be.

Among many other things, my car accident insured that I could never again ignore the realness of impermanence. I call it the dharma of my death. It shattered my sense of self, and in a very real way changed everything about me. Neurologically speaking the traumatic brain injury and the posttraumatic stress from my accident literally rewired my brain. Not only do I think differently, my personality is quite different, and how I move through the world is incredibly different. I am not the same person - which would be fine, except its not, because I can’t seem to let go of my attachment to the who I was before, and so I suffer.

Though mine is an intensified example, I know I am not alone. In some small or large way, we must all face our own impermanence sooner or later. Before I began writing, I re-listened to the IDP Podcast “Impermanence is so Obvious” knowing that people smarter than me have talked a great deal about this topic. During the conversation Ethan said something great about how they should offer classes on death in college because “its everyone’s major.” As depressing as that might seem, I think it’s absolutely true, as impermanence has undoubtedly been the hardest concept I’ve ever tried to master. I struggle with it daily. And so have no real conclusion to offer with this post, except to say that I am sure meditation and compassion are in some way part of the answer. 

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