I was sitting in traffic this morning, feeling the familiar mild anxiety I do every morning when I’m quite sure I’ll be late for work. No cars were moving. As if the opening to a rom-com set in some West-coast metropolis had been paused. I switched stations to try to find a song to distract me from my frustration with myself for not getting up earlier, and powerlessness to do anything about it now. “Gangnam Style” was playing. Really? It’s 8:23am. There are only a couple times and places for that song, and 8:23am is not one of them. I changed stations again. Commercials. Next one. Commercials. The stations must plan this. Perhaps they all agree when the commercials will be–a sort of “truce” that says “let the best station win.” Or perhaps I know nothing about radio stations and should ask my friend who works at one. I felt a brief sense of regret for not getting XM after my free trial. But I actually like the morning show people. It’s like having friends in the car with you. I turned the volume down and decided to distract myself visually, instead (what a novel idea, looking through the windshield…).
What I noticed was that my movie scene was not, in fact, paused. A sunrise-illuminated team of clouds seemed to be soaring southward quite rapidly. Do clouds always move this quickly, and I’ve never noticed? Winter in Vancouver doesn’t generally produce a lot of blue sky, so perhaps their impressive pace is typically camouflaged by other packs of cloud. I made a mental note to later look up different types of clouds. Perhaps I will take up cloud-watching during the stand-stills of my commute. Seems like a mindful activity. It’s also probably good for my eyes, as it fits the “20 seconds every 20 minutes” rule my optometrist friend told me about once.
And then, as we humans do, I attached meaning to what I was witnessing. Transience. Impermanence. As I had been waiting, I was interpreting everything as paused, stuck, immobilized. But it wasn’t. Things were happening. Clouds were moving, commercials were ending, and somewhere ahead, cars were gently making their way through the construction-created bottleneck, which would eventually grant me permission to get out of neutral for more than 6 meters. The idea of transience can be a remarkably helpful coping strategy, at least in my opinion. Essentially, it is the notion that nothing is permanent; everything is in a state of flux or change. This knowledge opens up a couple opportunities for coping adaptively and leading a more present life:
1) The idea that “This too shall pass.”: There’s a reason why this concept is preached in multiple doctrines. It’s empowering. When we are in the midst of a negative experience over which we feel no control, being aware that all things are transient can help us through our struggle. Your cells die and regenerate, tectonic plates shift, water moves from the clouds to the ocean and back again. Heartbreak mends; anger diffuses; there’s a good chance you won’t be so certain you want to kill yourself tomorrow (so don’t…). Each moment passes; your thoughts and feelings come and go. You don’t have to make the pain stop. You don’t have to pretend you’re not suffering. All you have to do is breathe. Send yourself compassion, empathy, and patience; do what is within your control to mitigate the pain (e.g. cry, talk to someone, listen to music, exercise); impermanence will sort out the rest.
2) A reminder that this moment is really all we have: As I’ve mentioned before, humans love the 3 C’s–comfort, control, and certainty. And, as I’ve mentioned before, these are all really just illusions we create to help alleviate our anxiety that we pair with the unknown. We don’t know what’s coming next, we can’t predict the future, and our control is rather limited in shaping our fate. The only thing we can truly be sure of is our experience in this current moment. That is all we have. People die. Friendships fade. Relationships end. Accidents happen. Bodies change. Assets depreciate. Nothing is guaranteed. So, rather than focusing on the next accomplishment, material item, or relationship that will bring you that “everlasting happiness,” remember that nothing is eternal, nothing can bring you a static sense of joy, thought and feelings will come and go, and this moment is all you really have–so focus on it instead.
When the idea of Transience can cause anxiety
Particularly in this city, there’s a shared euphoria and anxiety that comes along with sunshine-filled days. “This is amazing! I live in the best city in the world! Only recluses will be inside today! But it can’t last…rain is inevitable…ohhh no when is that rain going to come? Tomorrow? Later today? Rain is the worst. This city is the worst.”
Sometimes, when things are going really well in my life, I feel skeptical. There’s that “When’s it going to rain” mentality that contaminates my ability to just enjoy the present, because I figure it can’t last, and something bad has to happen soon. I’m going to get my heart broken. Someone’s going to die. I’m going to get Cancer. Yes, this is transience in action in the sense that things ARE always changing and shifting, and sometimes those shifts and changes bring us great pain. But, similar to productive worry, productive perspective, or productive guilt, it doesn’t do us much good to be whisked away from a positive experience by “What if” thoughts or feelings of dread and anxiety. Actually, that’s not entirely true, I imagine it does serve the purpose of protecting us from being caught off guard by such negative events (similar to beating ourselves up first in order to protect us from someone else doing it, expecting failure in order to protect ourselves from being surprised by it, etc.). But for the most part, these thoughts simply prevent us from being able to experience this precious, blissful instance…or, organic source of Vitamin D. So acknowledge that yes, this positive experience is indeed impermanent, but let that knowledge remind you that you cannot “hang on” to the moment or experience or make it last forever–that the moments experienced during the “sunny” period will come and go, so try to embrace them fully and authentically, with gratitude and openness.
So the next time you wake up to clouds, are in pain or suffering, or find yourself dreading the “next bad thing,” think of this loquaciously-introduced topic, and know that your experience, and your existence, are impermanent. The pain will pass, the heart will heal, anything could happen at any moment, the clouds are, in fact, moving… This moment is all we have; so, savour and fully experience it if it’s tolerable. If it’s not, focus on your breath, self-compassion, what you can and can’t control, and its transient nature. You’ll find yourself tolerating it.
“Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible.” -Thich Nhat Hanh.