Impermanence as Liberation

We might think of impermanence as something depressing, but change also liberates. There is freedom in the never-ending flow of new sensations. There is the potential for us to change and resolve or adapt to our problems.

An edited transcript of the talks appears below each video, and in downloadable workbooks.

Impermanence as Liberation

In this first unit, I want to look at what change means for us, and the different aspects of change. Through meditation we become aware that there are two types of change. I wanted to show this in the meditation you've just done. You have momentary change: things arise, and they pass away. It's a very quick change. But you also have another type of change, where you have the feeling that something continues but within itself it's changing. Because we often have the impression that things are just exactly the same. We feel that we're exactly the same, but we are not. We're actually changing constantly—our body, our mood—we are changing constantly. So there is this strange fact of not being aware of change.

In the meditations throughout this course, we want to see how understanding change really makes a difference. Let me give you just a simple example. You're sitting in meditation, and suddenly you have an itch. It feels so itchy, and it gives you the impression it will last forever. And then it stops. And you're suddenly like, "But it was so there, and now it's so gone." To me, this is liberation from itching. You were going to scratch a lot when, actually, you just needed to let it go. The same applies if you have some pain somewhere. I find that interesting. If I have a pain somewhere, I go to the pain, and then I notice that actually it's not fixed and solid—generally it changes within itself. It can be momentary or it can be continuously changing.

Change as liberation

Why do I see change as a liberating factor? We all have habits and patterns that can be painful for ourselves and others. We have mental patterns, and in meditation we notice how our thoughts are relatively repetitive. But we also have emotional patterns. You might say to yourself, "I'm always angry," "I'm always anxious," "I'm always jealous," "I'm always envious," or whatever it is. But we want to show you that, yes, you could have a tendency toward these things, but you're not experiencing them all the time to the same degree. This is what's so liberating about really knowing change.

Change in relationships

We also have relational patterns that influence the way we are with others. But if we know change then we can make a decision to do something different. This happened to me when the COVID-19 lockdown started in March 2020. Suddenly, I saw how the practice could help me, but also how I could choose to behave differently, especially in relationships. It was strange. I decided to do something different, but I didn't know precisely what it was. Later I realized what I'd decided: I was not going to nitpick. I was not going to nag. If somebody made a mistake, a little error, I was going to not say anything about it. Just let it be. Everybody can make mistakes.

I find it interesting when somebody makes a mistake and I see myself thinking, "Yeah, you could have gone and picked it up, but actually, what would be the point?" I have changed, I don't do it anymore, but I remember that I used to do it. When you recognize a pattern, you can actually see, "I really don't need to do this." When we change, it helps us to see that, "although I seem to have repetitive, automatic reactions, I am not like that all the time." Meditation gives us the courage to change, the courage to transform. It gives us that power of liberation to change. It helps us open to our creative potential. We can be liberated from our fixed habits, and we can play.

Using different levels of change

Through meditation you start to see types of change. And actually, we can be liberated in different ways. Understanding change is not freeing ourselves in a fixed way but it may help us to see there are different types of change and, according to the conditions, we can use change in different ways. I would say there is a light level, a repetitive level, and an intense level to using change.

Light triggers pass on their own

Light triggers happen a lot: somebody making a mistake, for example. The problem is if we grasp at it, if we think the person makes this mistake all the time and it's terrible. Then we make it intense. But with the help of the meditation, we can see, "Oh, this is light. I don't need to do anything about it." This is one of the questions I bring to any situation, feeling, thought, sensation. My first question is, how long is this going to last? And if it just lasts a few minutes, I don't need to do anything. The change happens by itself because things change. That's the way life goes. That's the way life continues. So notice, "Oh, this is light," and let it pass on its own.

Finding creative ways to change reactive patterns

Then we can notice our tendency to react in repetitive ways. I do not always react, but I have a tendency to react in a certain way within certain conditions. So of course, we may have a tendency to feel anger, anxiety, or be upset, but it's not 24/7. Here, meditation helps us look at the conditions around the change. When is it I am anxious and angry? When is it I am not? We can explore the factors that seem to make it worse: If I don't sleep well, if I am busy, if I am stressed, if I am ill. So how would change invite us to explore, recognize, and transform conditions, so that we are not so reactive? By understanding what triggers us, we can find a creative way to engage with it and change it.

Intense shocks take time to pass

The third type is intense change. One moment we're fine, and the next moment something happens that's really shocking. We might lose someone, we might have an accident, there might be a crisis at work. Something happens which is really shocking to the whole system. Then generally we hope that the change will be over quickly. But when it's intense, the recovery cannot happen quickly. So how can we be with intensity without amplifying it? Actually, the meditation practice we did can help.

Meditation helps us manage intensity

If you feel something really intense, you don't do the meditation to stop the intensity. You do the meditation to bring a little change to the intensity. It brings a little space with it. You come back to the breath, sound, or body as a means to experience a little space. Then the intensity comes back, and you accept that this is what's going on now. But even within that intensity there is change. We can come back to the breath, to the body, to the sound as a means to bring in a little space so that we don't amplify the intensity. Then, over time, it will pass.

This is the gift of change: to know that although it is difficult right now, this too shall pass. Sometimes it might take a day, sometimes it might take a few days, sometimes it might take months. In a later unit we will talk about grief and how it changes, how it passes.

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