Understanding Impermanence

Impermanence is easy to understand intellectually, but understanding it isn’t the point.

We can think about it, study it, and be mindful of it for a solid decade, but if we’re still suffering—if our minds are still belching out grief, anger, pride, loneliness, and so on—then we still don’t get it.

Because if we’re still suffering, that means we’re still clinging and craving. If we’re still clinging and craving, that means the facts of life haven’t fully sunk in yet. It means that there’s still some part of us that doesn’t truly believe or fully understand that all conditioned things are impermanent.

If we grokked impermanence fully, completely, and accepted it with every ounce of our being, then there’d be no suffering because there’d be no further clinging and craving.

Some behavioral psychologists don’t consider something to be truly learned unless it influences behavior. Insight into impermanence is like that. Clinging and craving are behaviors, and suffering is the result. So, if we’re still clinging and craving, that indicates that we haven’t really learned from the teachings or direct experience.

When we truly learn from impermanence, when anicca’s hammer shatters all traces of ignorance, our behavior changes. We cling and crave less, so we suffer less. Since we’re suffering less, we’re able to navigate the days easier and bring less suffering down on others.

We’re better able to handle and adapt to the curve balls that life pitches us. We’re no longer immobilized by fear, doubt, and regret. Instead, if we’re standing still, it’s because we’ve chosen to, because it’s appropriate. And we move when it’s appropriate to move.

Grokking emptiness is just like grokking impermanence. If we think we’ve got a handle on emptiness but we’re still experiencing hatred, then we don’t have a handle on it at all. Compassion is the natural result of grokking emptiness, just like equanimity naturally springs from grokking impermanence.

Discipline, concentration, and ethical conduct are the means to clear a space for understanding. If these three conditions are mature, then insight comes unasked for—and sometimes unwanted.

Odds are, you won’t understand impermanence while planted on the meditation cushion. It’s usually triggered by some kind of event. Maybe it’s something mundane like a leaf falling; maybe it’s something catastrophic like a family member dying or almost dying. Regardless, if you create the conditions for understanding to arise, it will arise.

Understanding is not a condition for suffering. So, whenever it’s present in the mind, suffering is not.

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