Perceiving Impermanence

Perception is the process through which we make sense of raw sensory data using our preexisting ideas and previous experience. Two people can perceive similar events in very different ways depending on their predispositions. Laura explains how understanding impermanence will have a big effect on how we relate to the world and people around us.

Perceiving Impermanence

I'm going to continue this contemplation on how we experience impermanence. I'll talk about how we perceive others and ourselves through a distorted lens of permanence. The Buddha described this perception of permanence—taking things to be permanent, fixed, and substantial that are actually changing and flowing—as a kind of distortion. The Pali word in the suttas is vipallasa. Vipallasa literally means to throw around or turn upside down. So it's like we're seeing experience upside down. We're taking something to be permanent that's actually changing.

The Buddha described four kinds of perceptions that we perceive experience through. We'll focus on the first one here and cover the others in the following units.

Misperceiving others as unchanging

How does this distortion of permanence show up in our relationships to others? I find it really interesting to contemplate what happens when I meet someone for the first time: the impressions I form of them, and how those impressions accumulate as I get to know them. If you think about it, what happens when you see someone you've never met before? Already very subtle signs are accumulating, certain perceptions about them. Maybe even as you look at me right now, maybe the way my hair is, the way my voice is, the way I express things. There are all sorts of subtle things around which you'll form impressions of me. And those impressions are largely based on social and cultural conditioning: conditioning around gender, ethnicity, age, accent. We form ideas of the other, and then those perceptions accumulate in our mind. Often, the way we form these impressions is very unconscious and quick.

These accumulated ideas and impressions have an associated emotional tone. We have the sense that we like this person, or we resonate with them. We're not sure about this person. We even feel a bit closed towards that person. Then, when we next meet this person, whoever they are, often what we actually experience is our own conditioning superimposed onto that person in the moment. The more we get to know that person, the more these filters distort how we comprehend them in the moment. How we meet them, receive them, relate to them.

I'll give you an example in my own experience. I have a teacher some of you will know, Ajahn Sucitto. He's a monk in the [Thai] Forest tradition. I used to be a nun in that tradition for many years, so I've known Ajahn Sucitto a long time. We first met in my early 20s. We've lived in the same monasteries and communities for many years. Then when I left those communities, I probably hadn't seen him for seven or eight years. I happened to go to a meeting, a gathering of the monks and friends on Dartmoor. I was giving a lift to one of the monks attending that meeting, and as I came into the meeting hall, I knew almost everybody in the room. We'd either lived in community together or they were friends of mine. Various people came up and said, "Hi," and greeted me. It was warm and friendly.

Then Ajahn Sucitto came down the stairs, and he'd been meditating. I could just notice, as he was coming towards me, it was as if he both knew me and was also meeting me for the first time. It's an interesting quality. It's like I felt both seen but also met afresh, anew. And so it was like the perception of Laura was arising in his mind, but it was also not something held on to. It was also passing. And there was something very spacious about this meeting. It was warm. It also had this quality of openness and spaciousness. I think this is a very beautiful image for how we might turn attention towards ourselves. Because we often have a crude, familiar sense of who we are, what we are. And a very fixed way of relating to ourselves, who we take ourselves to be.

Like a whirlpool in a river

Our meditation practice is another area of life that we misperceive as being fixed when, in fact, it's always changing. It's common to feel that a familiar distress, pain, or suffering seems to have come around again. We have this sense, "Here it is, again." We may have times in our meditation when it's like we drop beyond that suffering and have a moment of release. And then there's this sense, "Ah, it's come back." We can feel like we failed. As if we haven't made the right effort or got our practice right to make this distress go away and stay away. I think in that whole scenario, the key piece we miss—and it's very subtle—is that thought, "Here it is again." We take that perception to be the truth of what's happening, a true take on what is happening. But is it?

I like to use an image of a whirlpool to understand another perspective on this, how river currents can turn into an eddy. The water turns back on itself, and there's a whirlpool. That whirlpool seems like a substantial thing, but actually the water flowing into it and through it and out the other side is always changing. It seems substantial, it seems fixed, and then we take it to be something about me. But actually, it's something that's constantly in movement. As we let go of this thought, "Here it is again," we can invite a direct receptivity to this pain, this distress. Rather than "Here it is again," what would it be like to meet this experience as if you've never met it before? As if you're meeting it for the first time?

Being with the changing qualities of the mind is like standing in the river. Our awareness is like standing in the river and steadying our feet on the riverbed. We're feeling the changing currents in the river. We're not trying to stop them, and we're also not taken away with them. It's almost like we're touching the pulse of the river, receiving the experience with an openness and a curiosity: "What's this right now? What's this like right now?"

So we can contemplate how we take something to be fixed that's actually changing, moving. And what we're doing is bringing certain qualities of the dharma into the equation: simple attention, an attitude of openness, and inquiry. These qualities of the dharma allow us to learn anew what experience is, and they also change the equation. They change the dynamic with impermanence. They open up a space like I described in the interaction with Ajahn Sucitto: a space, a connection, and a flow.