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Impermanence and change

So, as 2021 ends I have been reflecting on beginnings and endings, birth and death and a quote attributed to the Buddha:

“Everything that has a beginning has an ending, make your peace with that and all will be well.”

Apt at this time of the year I think as many celebrate Christmas, the birth of Jesus and Christmas itself being celebrated at the time of the pagan winter solstice celebrations. You’ll find plenty of pagan customs in Christmas that were adopted during the early Christian spread around the Roman Empire. We can look back to both the Romans and the Celts for a whole lot of our modern-day Christmas traditions. In the depths of darkness covering the entire Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice has marked the shortest day of the year. It has always held significance in many cultures’ religious festivities and holidays. A great deal of religions have made the celestial moment a holy day. It is the darkest day of the whole year and for the ancients that meant a lot more to them than it does to us today and pagans have venerated this natural cycle for millennia.

Impermanence and change. The Buddha taught that the source of human suffering (discomfort, distress, discontent, sorrow, unhappiness) is that we crave and cling to the things of this world under the mistaken view that they will last forever but nothing does. Our bodies decline and decay. We become ill. Mental attitudes also change. Excitement and anger arise, then fade away. Our good health and happiness are only temporary; we will eventually sicken, age, and die, as will our friends, enemies, relatives, and strangers. Human life is brief. The world around us may appear solid and unchanging, but even rivers change course, mountains crumble, seas dry up, and stars burn out. We’re here on the earth for a few dozen cycles around the local star and then we die. The entire universe is in a process of constant flux, arising and falling away. Our brief lives give us the privilege of witnessing this grand procession for just a moment. Here I am drawn to another quote, this time from one of my favourite poets, Mary Oliver:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

This life is the only one you have; it isn’t a practice run for something different or better, this is it. It is as it should be – if it wasn’t it would be something else.

What has all of this got to do with therapy? Impermanence can be considered good news. If everything stayed the same, there would be no possibility for growth. Also, understanding that nothing stays the same can alleviate feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and overwhelm. We all struggle to hold on to what we perceive as ‘good’ things, and resist change. This leads to tremendous suffering because there will be an end to what we grasp, life has ups and downs, highs and lows. Expending energy on trying to hold onto the positive and avoid the negative is natural and yet mistaken. The struggle to resist impermanence and the belief that things don’t change are universal. It is only through letting go of the resistance to change and impermanence that true healing and growth is possible; accepting that “this too shall pass”.

Life ultimately involves physical and emotional distress and hardship. Just as light spirals into darkness and day cycles into the night, summer into winter, there is a natural duality present within all of life. And this duality involves joy, laughter, love, connection and bliss, as well as pain, suffering and despair. In Buddhism, acknowledgement and acceptance of a fundamental facet of life – suffering –  is a part of the path to freedom and awakening. In life, there are painful events that we have no choice but to cope with. This includes events like sickness, old age, and death. These are the ‘first arrows’ that cause us pain. What we have a propensity to do, however, is to add a ‘second arrow’ to the situation. We fight, defend, and try to wiggle our way out of the pain, or even blame ourselves for the pain which often makes things worse. We can avoid adding the second arrow by learning to reinterpret painful situations (the first arrows) in a more constructive way or developing a deeper understanding of it. Through the cultivation of mindfulness, we can find the courage to deal with the day-to-day currents of life. We no longer spend excessive energy in denying, repressing or suppressing. Instead of trying to fight things that we deem as ‘negative’, we begin to learn to live in accord with nature.

Paradoxically, by accepting things as they are we free ourselves from further suffering and we can begin to change. This is what Gestalt therapists call the ‘paradoxical theory of change’. Change happens when some becomes what they are and not when they try to become what they are not. Change does not happen when an individual forcibly attempts to change (or someone else tries to change the individual). Change happens if the individual takes the time and effort to be who they are, to fully accept themselves as they are in the moment, to be fully invested in who they are right now. In other words, before we can change, we must accept who and what we are in the present; from this we can move on to becoming something or someone else.

We must become our truth (ourselves) before we can move from it (change). This allows all the energy we have invested in the battle between trying to change and at the same time resisting change can be freed to enable us to “live our one wild and precious life”.