I’m sitting on the back patio of my hotel room in Phnom Penh, contemplating impermanence. My time sitting on this cushion will soon come to an end. My time in this beautiful hotel room (with a private dipping pool - what?!?!?) will come to an end; I will move to a new hotel room (will it be as good?). My time in Cambodia will come to an end and maybe I'll return home safely. My time with my beloved fiancé will come to an end. She’ll become my wife, but my time with my wife will some day come to an end (and it will definitely end in heartbreak), and my time on earth will surely come to an end.
This is a heavy contemplation before 7am, suffering jet lag and adjusting to the sweltering heat of Cambodia, but contemplating impermanence has been a rewarding practice. Through the contemplation of impermanence, I aspire to rest in the truth that all compounded[i] things are impermanent. By resting in this knowledge, I cultivate fearlessness in the face of change.
By facing some of the most difficult truths in life, you start to relax into the realization that everything is impermanent. At the end of this contemplation I stop and realize that my chest has tightened. My heart is beating a little faster (cool, I can feel my heart beat!). I recognize the fear of these truths and the discomfort it causes. I acknowledge this fear, drop the words, and hold onto this feeling. I let it sit and I experience the physical sensations. Then I drop the practice and return to my life.
I was listening to a podcast by Noah Levine of Dharma Punx the other day and he was talking about how he met this person who said, "I've been studying Buddhism lately, but man, what a bummer!" (My dad says the same thing once in a while). A student of the Dharma might argue that contemplating the truth of reality is important and that this philosophy attempts to cut right through the fear and bullshit, resting in all of the hard truths, even if it leaves us squirming sometimes. What was it that Nietzche said? "That which does not kill us only makes us stronger," or some Conan the Barbarian tidbit like that... But that would only be half of the story. The thing that people often fail to realize when hearing about the teachings on impermanence is that great joy and peace can come out of a contemplation like this. Once I realize that my time walking the earth is impermanent, and once this knowledge sinks deep into my bones, I will slowly learn to appreciate every moment, every movement, every shadow, every word and every rumble from the motor bikes outside my hotel window. I won’t be taking my fiancé or my mom or my dad or my friends for granted, at least not as often as I otherwise would. I won’t be taking myself and my health or the job I love for granted, because I know these things will end. My aspiration is to learn to appreciate every fleeting moment that passes. Those moments of awareness are like a bird swooping in overhead to see what is going on, before mysteriously disappearing back into the sky.
[i] Pretty much everything we deal with on the day to day level is a compounded thing, as the Buddha taught. Things come about as an aggregate of many factors. For example, this cup of tea I am drinking is the product of sunlight and fertile soil and water for growing the tea leaves. The cup contains water that had to be heated by a person for it to brew. Some stranger picked these tea leaves in India, and then a truck took it to an airport before someone flew it here. That required gasoline, someone to build the truck, roads, etc., etc. etc. There is a teaching on interdependence embedded in there too.