Impermanence and Appreciation
I wish tulips bloomed all summer. Two weeks of glory is far too little. During their spring performance I find myself making excuses to sit among the tulips lining the walk leading to my front door. I can’t resist shooting tulip photos year after year, hoping to preserve them somehow but knowing that two-dimensional images can never do them justice.
I love everything about tulips—the simplicity of their form, their unabashed brightness. I love their tenacity, how their leaves lance the near-frozen ground in the gray days of February to begin their annual emergence. They appear reliably each year as if by grace, often having multiplied. Walking out my front door into their chaotic color reminds me of all there is to appreciate in this world.
Perhaps if tulips bloomed all summer their presence would become less special. Perhaps I could walk right past them without noticing, let alone marveling at their wide-open gullets singing to the sun. Perhaps I would no longer admire how their silken petals fold into themselves like a fine kimono each evening. Maybe they would become as pedestrian as the sight of grass or asphalt.
During the past year a good friend left this earth unexpectedly from a heart attack. A beloved feline companion of 18 years, Mama Kitty, passed away. A friend fell down a flight of stairs, hit his head, lost consciousness and never came back. None of my relatives in my parents’ generation are still Like the tulips, our glory days are fragile, our lives all the more precious in their brevity.
All Things are Impermanent
The understanding that all things are impermanent is central to Buddhist thought. Impermanence is listed as one of the three characteristics of all conditioned phenomena, along with the understanding that all things are ultimately unsatisfactory (because of their impermanence) and devoid of self. It is said that the Buddha’s last words to monks hovering around his deathbed were: “All things are impermanent. Work out your liberation with diligence.”
The late Zen master Suzuki Roshi, author of the spiritual classic, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind said: “Nothing exists but momentarily in its present form and color. One thing flows into another and cannot be grasped. Before the rain stops we hear a bird. Even under the heavy snow we see snowdrops and some new growth.” All things are in constant flux. As the tulips wither, the irises emerge.
It is a very human habit to grasp after what we find to be pleasant. When we hold on to the pleasant we experience disappointment when it goes away, which it always does. How many wonderful experiences have we had in our lives? Where are they now?
“Nothing is worth grasping because nothing lasts.” says author and meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein. “It is all empty, without self. Knowing that nothing is secure, that there is no solid place on which to stand, we can let go, let be, and come to rest.”
This does not mean we can’t enjoy the pleasant times in our lives. In fact our experiences are much more enjoyable if we are living them fully, appreciating their momentary presence.
Part 2 of this essay, on how impermanence generates appreciation, will appear on tomorrow’s blog. Be sure to tune in!