Impermanence: Why Do Buddhists Go On and On About It?
Charles T. Tart
I have been very interested in Buddhism for many years. Two reasons are its emphasis on psychology, what you do with your mind, and its emphasis on meditation, which I see as a way of developing what you might call a microscope to begin to see the finer details of how your mind works. Although I’m not that good at meditation, I have seen that many of the basic Buddhist ideas about the mind are indeed true for me, and understanding and gaining a little control over them is very helpful.
Impossible Mess or Cozy Office?
One of the things that has always puzzled me, though, is that the very frequent emphasis on the idea of impermanence as a basic foundation of Buddhism. Yes, of course, things change, and it’s clear that if you are too attached to something not changing, you set yourself up for more suffering than you would otherwise experience. It’s also true that we do frequently get overly attached to things and so suffer when they change, and it’s helpful to be occasionally reminded that just about everything is impermanent, it’s subject to change, it’s influenced by changing conditions.
Yet this seems fairly obvious, so why is impermanence mentioned over and over and over again in Buddhist teachings?
There are probably reasons for this that I don’t comprehend, but this morning I had an insight as to one possible and quite important reason for this emphasis.
In my studies of altered states of consciousness (ASC’s) throughout my career, I came to realize that any strong emotion could usefully be understood as an ASC. It changed the way you perceived yourself and the world, the way you thought about yourself and the world, and often the way you acted in response to your immediate situation. But something that struck me that I began to recognize about emotions some years ago is that, by and large, they lie.
Emotions lie in that besides the specific feeling and worldview of a particular emotion, they usually carry an additional message, namely that “This feeling and understanding is eternal truth! It will be this way forever!”
Once understood, this insight seems obvious. But many times over my years of teaching students about ASC’s, I’ve seen a look of wonder and relief on their faces when I talk about how emotions lie. They hadn’t realized it, and they glimpsed that they no longer have to take certain emotional feelings quite so seriously.
Since one of the functions of emotions is to get your attention focused on something that part of your mind or brain considers important, this “This is eternally true!” component probably helps. But it makes it easy for the emotion to prolong itself and continue biasing your perception of yourself and your world in line with the emotion.
To create an example, suppose I was feeling rather depressed right now. Emotions tend to alter and bias your perceptions, so I could look around my office, which I normally find a very pleasant place, and see how messy it is, how disorganized it is, how worn the furniture looks, how impossible it would be to even get started on straightening it up, the things that ought to be thrown out but I’m such a hoarder, etc., etc.
But if I remember impermanence, ah, okay, I feel this way at this moment, but it’s going to change. I could get stuck in this altered state of depression and perhaps it might last for hours or days, or the phone could ring, a friend could call, and I would forget all about these depressing thoughts and stop feeling depressed in just a few seconds. Oh, okay, I’m not denying how I feel at this moment, but I know it’s impermanent, so I can relax without worrying that I’m ignoring or suppressing my emotions and get on with what I need to do, or what I prefer to do.
I don’t know whether Gautama Buddha intended the emphasis on impermanence to be a support for not getting stuck in negative emotions or not, but it can certainly work that way. On the other hand, I suspect too much emphasis on impermanence can lead to a kind of psychological and emotional flattening or neutering, where you start automatically not letting yourself care about anything, with the rationalization that it’s impermanent, emotions are just going to create trouble anyway, so it’s best not to have them. I prefer Gurdjieff’s idea to the Buddhists’ here, that emotions are, at least in part, a way of analyzing the world, a way that has advantages as well as disadvantages, so what we need to do is develop our emotional intelligence, rather than suppressing emotions.