The Upside of Impermanence

May 03, 2022

A central teaching of Buddhism is impermanence. The idea that nothing lasts forever. Everything including our very existence will end.

And while we all know this intellectually, there is a tendency to push this reality to the back of our minds. After all, it’s human nature to want to hold onto positive experiences, to get attached to things, people and situations we love. If we like how things are going we want to lock in the status quo. But, our refusal to accept impermanence creates suffering.

In a Tibetan Buddhist ceremony, monks spend days painstakingly creating a beautiful mandala with different colored sand. A mandala is an intricate geometric design that represents the universe. After completing the mandala, the monks destroy it. Why spend days creating something so beautiful, only to destroy it, rather than frame it or keep it? The ritual is a profound reminder of the reality of impermanence and an opportunity to practice letting go.

We can think of the mandala ceremony as a metaphor for our lives. The sandcastles we spent hours building as children only to be washed away by the tide. The pets we’ve invested love and energy into knowing from the outset they wouldn’t outlive us. The homes we painstakingly decorated only to move on. The relationships and loves that have ended but are still meaningful. All the closed chapters of our lives that have taken us to this point. Just as the impermanence of the mandala does not negate its beauty, the ephemeral nature of our experiences does not erase their value and meaning. In fact, their fleeting nature makes them all the more precious.

It’s true that with impermanence there is loss, but there is also liberation. We are not static or locked into a particular way of existing. There is opportunity for us to change and evolve. If we are suffering, it won’t last forever. Just as positive experiences and emotions end, so do negative ones. Life circumstances are fluid. Endings contain beginnings even if can’t see what comes next.

So, the next time you find yourself mourning the loss of something, savor its meaning and remember it was never really yours to keep. On to building the next mandala.

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