Saturday, July 9, 2011

Life, it is a changin'

I’m the oldest of 3 in my family of 5.  There are a few times in my childhood when, on what must have been a near perfect day, my mother would look at the three of us and say “I wish I could just freeze you all just like this”.  Everything was going so well, we were happy, and she wanted that moment to last forever.  Of course, it did not.

I think that this is a common desire within the American culture.  When something good comes along we want to hold onto it tightly because we fear that it might not last.  Though we all know that life changes (there is even a quote about it that I like: ‘the only thing constant is change’), I find that most people have a difficult time accepting change.  I get it.  Change can be scary, even if it’s perceived as a good change. The difficulty seems to lie in taking a step into the unknown.

Here are a few thoughts on my observation of Americans:
Most of us don’t welcome change.  We’d like to think that we do but, if we are being honest, most of us like to be comfortable and most Americans aren’t comfortable with change.  Why is this?  Change is growth, learning, experiencing, and living.  Aren’t those good things?  I believe most people would argue that they are.  So, why do we get so caught up on the process that gets us there: change? In my opinion, it revolves around fear and, more specifically, the fear of not being happy.  As Americans, we are quite obsessed with reaching pure happiness and we tend to look for happiness outside of ourselves.  We say things like “If I just had (fill in the blank), then I would be happy” or “If I just changed (fill in the blank), then I would be happy” or, even worse, “If (insert person) would just do this/give me that/fix or change something, then I would be happy”. 

We are scared to make changes because there is always that chance that things won’t work out the way we envision them working out and, with that, comes the possibility of ending up less happy than we currently are.  In other words, change involves risk.  We are giving up one thing for another.  It reminds me of this game that my family sometimes plays at Christmas.  I’m sure you’ve heard of it.  Everyone brings a wrapped gift and the gifts go into a pile. Everyone draws a number and when your number is called you can either pick a gift from the pile or take a gift from someone else that they’ve already chosen (and unwrapped).  There is always that moment of choice.  Do I go for the mug that someone has already unwrapped (it’s cute but it would just end up keeping the other 30 mugs in my cupboard company) or do I go for the nicely wrapped big box with the shiny bow that may hold a great present or a practical joke (there is always at least one of those)?  What if you do pick the box with the bow and it’s a great gift? Someone might take it from you! You are faced with some questions: Sure thing or risk? Known or unknown? In the game of (whatever this Christmas game is called) you might take the risk but, in the game of life, how often do we choose the box with the bow?

In Buddhism, this idea that everything is constantly changing is known as impermanence.  Impermanence is an undeniable and accepted fact of life here in Thailand. It’s been quite mind blowing for my American psyche.  I’ve chatted with quite a few Buddhist Monks since arriving here in Thailand and almost every Monk has brought up this concept of impermanence. 

Key to the concept of impermanence is the Buddhist concept of dukkah.  Dukkah is usually translated to suffering but in the Buddhist culture it has a much deeper and in depth meaning.  Dukkah is the idea that everything is temporary, limited, and imperfect.  Dukkah is such an intricate belief in Buddhism that “Life is dukkah” is the first of the four noble truths that the Buddha spoke of in his first sermon after his enlightenment.  So, anything that is temporary or impermanent is dukkah.  This includes both good things and bad things (and everything in between).  The Buddhist way of life teaches the acceptance of dukkah and impermanence and believes that, because life is dukkah, it is pointless to try to cling onto anyone or anything.  The clinging only leads to suffering.  So, if follows, that the only way to end suffering is to stop clinging onto people and things and to accept that life is dukkah.

This is extremely difficult, even for Buddhists and even for Monks.  But they believe that this is the only way to reach enlightenment (Nirvana) and, to Buddhists, that is the ultimate state of being.  So, they practice and practice living life from moment to moment, fully present.  It’s pointless to dwell on the past because it is the past and cannot be changed.  It is equally as pointless to dwell on (or live for) the future since the future is unknown and impermanent.  Instead, it is best to live in the present moment with good intentions.  This is not to say that you don't think about or plan for the future, you just don't cling to it and you accept that, not matter what you plan, things can and will change. Try to see situations and people for who they are in this moment, not how they were or how they might be in the future.  I’m sure many of you might be thinking what I initially was: easier said than done.  Above all, it is your life and your path so maybe just try it on for size and see if it fits.

I have found the concept of impermanence to be refreshingly honest and, at the same time, frightening. But I find that the Thai culture and mind set are based upon impermanence.  I’ve asked many students what they are going to do once they get their degree and most don’t have an answer (and that doesn’t worry them).  Likewise, I’ve asked the Monks at  Monk Chat if they plan on staying a Monk or disrobing after they finish college and the answer is always something like “who knows?”.  What matters to them is that at that moment, they are living a good life with good intentions and, where that leads them, well….where ever that is, they will be doing the same thing: living in the moment with good intentions.

Though impermanence and change isn’t always easy, it is what it is and the Thai people seem to accept that with a certain grace.  I am forever changed by this new insight and know that it will influence me even back in sunny California.  But, where it will take me and what I’ll be doing….who knows?


  1. This is a clever and insightful examination of "impermanence" and "dukkah," Bethany. I like the way you frame your article with examples from Christmas gift-giving, leading into the Buddhist idea of suffering and clinging.

    Clearly, you have been attentive and mindful during your Monk Chats!

    Ajarn Rob

  2. I agree with Rob overall. Describing the relevance of impermanence to Buddhist though is important, and interesting. You also are able to express the nature of this relationship clearly and concisely.

    And now for one suggestion, and one question. It would have helped if you had had a sentence or two lead in to the subject of Buddhism in the first or second paragraph. Buddhism though is not mentioned until the fifth paragraph--and this is the central point of your blog!


    As for the question. Do you think that other countries are as impatient as the United States? I know monks constantly bring up impermanence and openness to change, but how does this idea insert itself into every day Thai life (or not)?