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The Experience of Impermanence


Paul R. Fleischman

This essay was first published in 1989. The excerpted version available here appears as it was presented in the Vipassana Research Institute's 1989 Seminar Journal, under the title "The Experience of Impermanence through Vipassana Meditation and the Maturation of Personality." The complete essay is now collected in the book Karma and Chaos: New & Collected Essays on Vipassana Meditation by Paul Fleischman.

In the Pali Language of ancient India, the word vipassana literally means, "to see things as they really are." Also called Insight Meditation, Vipassana is the primary technique taught by Gotama the Buddha twenty-five centuries ago.

This article explains how Vipassana meditation can be understood through Western psychology, and why it leads the meditator away from narcissism to mature, social love.

By walking down the path of Vipassana meditation, we arrive at experiences that season and mature our personalities. The personal transformation we each undergo becomes the catalyst for social change as we influence everything around us.

The great Vipassana meditation teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, wrote: "Impermanence (anicca) is, of course, the essential fact which must be first experienced and understood by practice." Anicca is a gateway, an opening. The complexity and multiplicity of the phenomena of the world can appear like a thicket, but as a person walks the path of Vipassana meditation, suddenly there is an emergence from the tangle. Anicca is the clearing. U Ba Khin wrote: "Anicca is the first essential factor—for progress in Vipassana meditation, a student must keep knowing anicca as continuously as possible."

The Pali word anicca is translated into English as impermanence or change. But anicca is not merely a concept. Far more, it is a sign, a marker like the stone cairns a pilgrim encounters on one of those cloud-hugging paths in the Himalayas, signposts to indicate the trail that other true pilgrims have blazed. Anicca is a word-indicator that points to a fact of reality beyond any concept: the ceaseless transformation of all material in the universe. Nothing is solid, permanent, and immutable. Every "thing" is really an "event." Even a stone is a form of river, and a mountain is only a slow wave. The Buddha said, sabbe sankhâra anicca — the entire universe is fluid. For the practitioner of Vipassana, anicca is a direct experience of the nature of one's own mind and body, a plunge into universal reality directly within oneself. "Just a look into oneself," U Ba Khin wrote, "and there it is—anicca."

For a twentieth-century scientist, anicca is an immersion into the factual reality of biology, chemistry, and physics —the atomic and molecular universe— as if, after years of reading cookbooks, one at last could acknowledge that one is the cookie in question.

If anicca is so pervasive, absolute, anciently known and scientifically factual, why do we have to work so hard to know it? Isn't it obvious, everywhere, to everyone, all day?

Our resistance to the experience of anicca is the great sorrow: sabbe sankhâra dukkha — all things are filled with suffering. Everyone likes the idea of being purified by a dip in the Ganges, but to anyone standing on its banks as it emerges from the mountains at Rishikesh or Hardwar, icy cold and with a dangerous current, there has to be a moment of hesitation, if not outright retreat, before the actual plunge. And so much more with a river that won't purify you unless it washes you away. A dip into anicca clarifies reality, but it pulls us away from the comfortable, known shore, and that tearing away is initially frightening and painful.

The great sorrow, dukkha, leads to the loss of comforting myth, familiar alliance, and secure identity—all the hooks by which we cling to the idea that we have an eternal, immutable, personal self that will never be washed away from us into the river of life. And so we realise, sabbe dhamma anattâ — all phenomena are insubstantial. The fantasy of our own greatness, the love we have for ourselves and everything we call ours, is the rock on which all of us build our lives. But every rock is a form of river. Even, or especially, the rock of the self is revealed to be liquid, essenceless, anattâ. How terribly, terribly sad it is to feel our lives slipping down the relentless, cold current of time. Not a scripture in the world is free of this outcry of sorrow and disbelief that the minds and hearts and homes and families we cherish will all be stripped away from us on our passage across this earth. The psalmist wrote:

"Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest,
Return ye children of men.
For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when
it is past, and as a watch in the night.
Thou carriest them away as with a flood..."
  —The Bible, Psalm 90

And in the great epiphany of the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter XI, we read of "all-powerful Time which destroys all things," which is portrayed as a world-consuming conflagration, a fiery finale to all hopes and dreams. The Koran, sura LVI, reminds us of a time, "When the Terror descends...when the earth shall be rocked and the mountains crumbled and become a dust scattered..." It is up to us to understand that that day is every day.

With his characteristic straightforwardness, courage, and clarity, Freud dared to shock his readers with his views on organized religion. He wrote that every member of humankind felt small and helpless against the forces of nature, pre-eminently death. The thought of death wounded the individual's sense of narcissism. Freud felt that every individual was to a greater or lesser extent like Narcissus, the Greek mythic figure who fell in love with his own reflection. To heal the wounds inflicted by awareness of time and death upon each of our own narcissistic feelings, Freud said, humans bond together in collective narcissistic excitement. Thus we see collectives like nation-states or organized religions join in self-proclaimed self-importance. This herd drama helps the individual to feel that even though his own beautiful self may fade and die, at least he is part of something enduring, important, and powerful. We need only remember when Freud was writing to realize how tragically keen his insight was: soon all of Europe was to explode into hordes of self-aggrandizing murderers who justified their actions on transcendental grounds: I am part of the fatherland, I am forging human history. Heinrich Himmler, who was in charge of the S.S., the special forces whose job was to kill innocent non-combatant Jews, told his men that he knew they sometimes suffered confusion and guilt over what they were doing, but they should not be deterred, for they were serving their Leader and Fatherland in "an unwritten and never-to-be forgotten glory".

Freud's psychoanalytical psychology clarifies the link that joins falling in love with an image of one's own idealized, beautiful self-narcissism with the narcissistic injury that no person can avoid when even a glimmer of death crosses their mind, and both to the final link in this small chain: the psychological defense against death provided by group narcissistic inflation. Grandiose, overweening self-importance, whether individualistic or collective, is one way that small people can experience themselves as safe and powerful. Grandiosity is a common security operation in a world of insecurity. As Freud so poignantly foresaw, the greater the insecurity of the times, the greater the likelihood that people will huddle into defensive, self-protective, self-trumpeting clusters. The power of these human whirlwinds is as great as the terror that underlies them. They are inaccessible to reason because they spring not from ideation or dogmas (which are secondarily used to justify and rationalize them), but from deeper psychological strata: the egoistic desire to transform the world into a stage for one's own, indelible self. From a desire for permanence to narcissism to grandiosity to social aggression: mob membership is a common reaction against the great sorrow that is immanent in human life. Intelligence and culture are no palliative: the greatest Western philosopher since Plato, Martin Heidegger, publicly espoused Nazism. Similarly, exhortation to abstract values like compassion and service can be used to fuel the fire of self-importance. When Nathuran Godse assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, he justified his behavior as an act of selfless courage in the service of his motherland. But his own words in his defense revealed his fear of being weak, "emasculated" and vulnerable.

Henry David Thoreau was probably the first American to have contact with and attempt to practice India's ancient pathways to wisdom. He wrote, "Most of what my neighbors consider to be good, I consider in my heart to be evil; and if I repent of anything at all, it is of my good behavior." It is in the name of the gods, and the groups, that most murders are done in the service of the chimera of greatness. From the crusades to the ongoing religions and ideological warfare on our planet today, we can see activation of the link between the human ability to imagine personal death, and the reactive, outraged denial of such frailty, with the result of power-seeking and violence. Rather than correcting this disease of the psyche, organized religions often provide a channel, similar to politics, through which the howl of incredulous despair can strike out.

Sabbe sankhâra anicca. The individualistic drive to transform the world in accordance with egoistic desires underlies social rage. Vipassana counters that drive at its root. So far I have been discussing the experience of anicca; now I want to stress the experience of anicca. One insight Freud shared with the Buddha is that by directly confronting the source of our suffering, we can be freed. To be human is to suffer; to be fully human is to suffer consciously.

Vipassana meditation enables the ordinary individual to see what is hidden, to confront the elusive, to envision the unimaginable. Change is invisible; reality is elusive; the evaporation of ourselves is unimaginable to most of us most of the time. Yet through a gradual, guided, time-tested process, we may grow in our human capacities. Vipassana provides a developmental ladder by which we can continue to climb upwards, just as we did as toddlers when we learned to walk, or as we did as schoolchildren when we learned to read and write. What is terrifying and impossible when viewed as a whole becomes challenging and possible when viewed step by step.

The rung of the developmental ladder where we now stand is the experience of what might be called anicca-in-spite-of-ourselves. Because there is a great resistance in our hearts to anicca, because of the great sorrow involved in the loss of our image of ourselves, with which we have narcissistically fallen in love, and which we want to preserve and defend by the exercise of willful power—because we each seek security and satisfaction in life through an aggrandized, projected sense of the idealized self as we imagine it to be forever, the experience of anicca comes with pain.

Is there a Vipassana student who never got up at the end of a determined sitting without at least two small channels of the river of life flowing down his or her face?

Anicca is what we run from; anicca is what we fear; anicca is what we join forces against and attempt to smash. Anicca is the destruction of our personal power, the loss of our world as we know it. Anicca is what drives the world mad. But the experience of anicca, a precious and fortunate opportunity into which one develops slowly —it is said, over lifetimes— the actual direct experience, as opposed to our images, bugaboos, and sideways glance—the experience of anicca is a simple, clear, fact, like the wind.

It is a release, like a dip in a healing, cool, fresh river. Now I am washed away in the river; after so much fussing, I am torn away and alone in the current. But I can swim, or rather, float. The self I held, I left with my towel on the shore, but I'm still alive; I haven't drowned or died. Pieces of what I imagined I had to grip to me come floating along beside me. The current of the world is unraveling in faces and forms. Without my will the universe unrolls, and fills my arms with muscles, my heart with human concerns. The scintillating milky way of my back is a winking and shimmering constellation; my body itself is a river, a continent of rivers, a flickering, vibrating, shoreless ocean of currents and channels, unfathomable, beginningless, endless. The living ride on life like the foam on the crest of a surge on the cosmic ocean.

The experience of anicca leaves one floating on the exfoliating, impersonal truth, the ocean of life. The flood of life need not drown us; it can instead buoy us up if we learn how to swim. The experience of anicca is the place to plunge in and be turned into a fish, a wave, a fleck of foam on the surging expanse of life-itself.

The experience of anicca is not the endpoint of the path of Vipassana. It is not nibbâna , the transcending of the transitory world of mind-and-matter. It is not the final goal of enlightenment. But it is itself a critical step on the path toward that goal, and liberating in important ways. The path of Vipassana, as taught by the Buddha, leads away from craving and aversion that derive from a rigid self-concept, away from negativities of greed, hate, and delusion that derive from defense of the false, ephemeral self. The path opens into the virtues and qualities produced by experienced insight. The realization of anicca is a deep insight into ourselves and the world around us. It exposes the absurdity of clinging to a passing life in a passing world. It relaxes the clenched, false hopes of narcissism, and enables the flow of spontaneous identification with all other transient lives. From the experiential realization that ALL things are anicca, that I am anicca, comes the deepest empathy possible: a feeling of kinship with all beings who suffer alike from the pain aroused by the illusion of separate self; a feeling of fellowship with all beings who yearn for liberation from the agony of separation, dissolution, death.

A dog without his dog tag is still a dog. I've thrown away the collar, but I've got the same old neighborhood to patrol. The practice of Vipassana meditation leads to activation of the experience of anicca, which in turn leads to a maturation, not an eradication, of personality. The life I thought I was living I now know is living me, and I've got work to do. Not my work, but work. Laid out in front of me and around me are the events with which I am ceaselessly, inevitably interacting. I can be called, but not by the tin drum of grandiosity. I do belong, but not to a mob. I walk, but don't march. When asked, I point out to others those buildings on a hill where I sit down to focus on the experience of anicca as it manifests on the field of my mind and body—those buildings that took so much time and energy to build, and which stand like a cairn on the otherwise trackless mountain of life—but which I know will blow down in one storm or another, only to sprout up again on other mountains, among other travelers. I point out that meditation centre on the hill as a good place to have a seasoning, sobering experience.

Vipassana leads to a slow, cumulative social change by organizing individual lives around new sources of well-being. It points to a sense of aliveness that is marked by a tenacious, steady investment in the personal and the real. It weakens the call of the trumpet, and evokes the music of the wind and rain. It makes pain more bearable than hate. It makes equanimity sweeter than excitement. It makes death more welcome than conquest. It makes service nobler than heroism. It makes sorrow and joy run back and forth into each other like twin rivulets intersecting, entwining, and separating again on the same hillside. It leads to an equipoise beyond the poles of pleasure and pain.

The experience of anicca leaves no way out but the path—for the entire phenomenal world is anicca. There can be no hope for the ambitions of the individual, despite all his narcissism and grandiosity. Yet there can be hope. As the raindrop descends, does it know its body will be absorbed by the roots of grass or trees, to be consumed by animals, to flow into milk, one day at last to dance in the blood of a singing child? All is anicca; mind and body helplessly flow in personal becoming. In spite of this current, a movement is possible towards liberation from ignorance and towards attainment of insight. Realization of anicca catalyses further bodily discipline and mental insight, so that both mind and body are accelerated towards their own transcendence. As the raindrop cycles through grass, animal, milk, and child, it moves from a state of inert physicality to participation in hopeful human possibility. The elements co-operate when orchestrated by the wisdom of the path. Striving to know anicca, meeting and immersing in anicca, people can turn the world toward liberation.

Generosity, compassion, simplicity are the spontaneous expressions of a world view in which nothing can be kept, suffering is a common bond, and materiality is only an obstacle to a finer trajectory of spirit. People who have vibrated deeply in anicca know that every pocket sooner or later gets a hole. Since nothing can be kept it might as well be shared.

The experience of anicca through the process of Vipassana meditation leads to the transformation of narcissism and grandiosity into mature participation, service, love. It reveals individualistic life to be a sieve. It breaks open a stone to reveal a star.

The kernel of the path is so simple it can be explained in one sentence: transcend the suffering involved in attachment to the self-mind, body, and the world associated with them—by observing objectively and peacefully the arising and vanishing of everything composing them, thereby cultivating insight into their essential transience. In my own experience, I find I wander away from and back to this core truth a million times. There are many lives I have to live, many fears I have to overcome, many growing hands I have to guide, many companions I have to meet, and many as yet undiscovered lakes that call to me from their hidden recesses in the wilderness to come and watch their animals and breathe their mists, before I will be able to sit down and fix unwaveringly and finally upon anicca. I have much to learn about this truth, but every moment of acquaintance with it grips me in an unalterable turning.

© 1989 Paul R. Fleischman

The excerpted version available here appears as it was published in the Vipassana Research Institute's 1989 Seminar Journal, and is also available HERE. The complete essay is now collected in the book Karma and Chaos: New & Collected Essays by Paul Fleischman (Pariyatti Press).

Karma & Chaos (book)


    Paul Fleischman: Why I Sit  |  "On Buddhism & Buddha's Teachings"  |  Buddha's summation of Meditation
An Excerpt from Who Dies?  |  The Mirror: Advice on the Presence of Awareness  |  Austin Pick: A Wider Rotation

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