The Awe of Impermanence
When Change Happens To You, Look Up
Posted Feb 04, 2018
Can we talk about impermanence?
I know we don’t want to. We’d rather live like we are in control.
But lets get real for a moment. Just like in the physical universe, all in our human world tends towards entropy. It is a law of physics.
At 59, I am aware of impermanence all around me. Family members getting ill, dear friends passing, relationships splitting up, colleagues losing jobs, children moving on, bodies losing tone, heads losing hair, minds breaking down. Death, divorce, disillusionment and heartache, grief and shock: our worlds as we construct them are no longer the same.
Our natural inclination can be to berate the gods of change. Deny the deity of uncertainty. And rage against the mysterious slip of time.
But wait. Maybe there is another way?
Is it possible to find awe in impermanence? Think about it: Impermanence giving birth to awe?
The feeling of awe brings wonder to the quick passages of life. Sometimes at night I walk with my young son. He likes to lie on the grass and look up at the sky. We live in Queens, where airplanes often move across that sky. My son takes a guess: “I think that one’s going to France” and “Oh yeah baby, this one is heading to Disney World.”
Everybody is going somewhere.
And there is an occasional flickering star that I decide is my grandmother winking my way. A twinkle is a twinkle, sweet, brief and gone.
There is psychological research that the emotion of awe imbues us with a sense of being a part of something larger than ourselves. Psychologists and researchers of awe, Dacher Keltner, PhD and Jonathan Haidt, PhD suggest that awe invites connection. It takes us out of self-interest and promotes bonding. Awe, it seems, helps us adjust our mental schemas from smallness to mystery, from closed to open. Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg reports findings that the sense of awe calms our fight/flight response.
To gain an awe perspective, simply look up. Look up at the vastness of the universe. Consider the expanse of existence. In awe, it seems, nothing lasts and nothing ends.
I lie next to my son, look up in the sky and feel a transcendent high. Yet here I am, an aging woman lying atop an aging crusty earth, atop aging tectonic surfaces that sit atop a trembling hot liquidity beneath. I feel a part of something.
All of it is impermanent.
I take a breath and smell a pubescent cell sloughed just now from my son’s skin. No doubt, he is growing a new cell somewhere deep, deep in the evolving, changing core of his ancient Mayan being. I feel closeness and loss, all at once.
And just now this moment is gone by. I breathe a breath I have never breathed before.
Late at night I stare at my husband’s arm. It’s somehow changed and yet still familiar. But I wonder, have I really seen this mole before? It isn’t quite the same arm I used to touch. Touching him now, I sense another moment gone by.
When I turned 59 I told myself to brace for change. I can sense turbulence and transition in the changing air. I will lose more people that I love. I will see my son stumble and fall, triumph and gain. I will see my body change in ways I may not prefer. I will see loved ones despair and hurt, I will watch our country fracture and lose and then perhaps regain unity and mission. I will see nieces and nephews, grandchildren and friends fall in love, start careers, and break barriers that I haven’t yet imagined. I will witness all of this impermanence. If I am lucky, that is.
I want to infuse all the escaping moments with gratitude, love and presence.
Lets get up and revel in impermanence, and do it with awe. Come on. Take my hand and let’s give up the expectation that things stay the same.
Let it go. And… Look up and remember, most things get sweeter, oh so sweet, just as they are about to disappear.