Meditating With Monks: Insight 6 - Impermanence
Updated: Jan 22, 2019
This 12-post blog series is dedicated to 12 of the most valuable insights that I gleaned during my 10-Days of Silent Vipassana Meditation at Wat Suan Mokkh, a Buddhist monastery in Surat Thani, Thailand.
Having listened to monks speak for 10 days, I can confirm that most of them are closet comedians. In honour of their light-hearted approach to life, I’ve tried to write these 12 blog posts in an amusing and entertaining way.
The 12 insights are: 1) Silence. 2) Expectation. 3) Fatigue. 4) Adversity. 5) Cleaning Toilets. 6) Impermanence. 7) Attachment. 8) Authority Figures & Control. 9) Pace of Life. 10) The Present Moment. 11) The Pond. 12) The Tree.
I hope that these insights prove to be as valuable for you as they were for me.
Insight 6 - Impermanence
Impermanence is one of the key foundations of Buddhism. It describes the phenomenon that nothing lasts forever, that everything will end – whether that is sadness or happiness, suffering or joy. By recognising that everything is temporary, we liberate ourselves from our instinct to hold on to the things that we desire, as we understand that it will only cause us to suffer if we try to hold on to something that will inevitably end or pass.
Meanwhile, we also allow ourselves to gracefully accept the suffering and adversities we do face as we recognise that they are also transient, and that they too shall pass. We don’t need to enjoy them – we just need to accept their temporary presence, instead of resisting them and creating our own mental suffering as a result of the dissatisfaction that we’re experiencing in the present moment.
Having studied Buddhism for the last three years, I had been aware of the concept of ‘impermanence’ on an academic level. However, this Vipassana retreat gave me an opportunity to dig deeper into the concept. Vipassana means ‘deep insight’, and one of the focal points of our meditation practice was to contemplate the impermanence of all things.
For me, this started with using the notion of impermanence to make peace with the simple daily things that brought me dissatisfaction.
The pain from being bitten by ants? The pain will subside.
Being soaked by monsoon rains? The wetness will dry.
The lack of sleep on my concrete slab? Biology – if I’m that tired, I will sleep.
Then, I focused my attention on accepting the things that would bring me sustained displeasure – for example, falling ill. (Please note that I’m not referring to life-threatening diseases, chronic conditions or terminal illnesses here.)
Falling ill during this retreat was one of the most daunting scenarios that my mind created, especially compared to the normal daily annoyances. I could live with the itchiness of mosquito bites, for example – but I feared being infected with malaria, typhoid or Dengue fever from the bite. Not life-threatening, but very unpleasant.
I was facing enough challenges as it was – the last thing I wanted was to deal with the long-lasting unpleasantness of a sore throat, blocked or runny nose, fever, stomach ache, headache (etc.) on top of these obstacles!
During my meditations, I realised that I feared the thought of falling ill more than actually falling ill itself!
I recognised that this was unnecessary - after all, when you’re actually ill, you don’t fear it. You’re already experiencing it! It might be very unpleasant at the time, but you just rest patiently and do whatever you can to hasten your recovery.
As we would recite in our daily chants, “patient endurance burns up defilements supremely”. (Yeah, translations from Pali aren’t always grammatically accurate, but at least this sounds pretty badass!).
Whether external (e.g. illness) or internal (e.g. insecurities, fears), the ‘defilement’ will pass. ‘Endurance’ implies that discomfort is an inevitable part of the process, but ‘patient’ reminds us that accepting this need to endure reduces our suffering far more than if we were to resist it.
The illness is impermanent. It too will pass. Not in a day, maybe not in a week, or even a month – but eventually, with patient endurance, it will pass.
I let my mind replay this thought countless times, until I finally felt at ease with the idea of illness. All negative conditions are impermanent – but our mind makes them seem worse than they are by focusing on its fear of immediate pain and suffering, and not on the fact that the pain and suffering will pass.
One thing left to contemplate. My own impermanence. The inevitable truth that I will die.
To accept and become comfortable with the idea of our own impermanence is an integral part of Buddhism. So much so, that the monks at the retreat would repeat, “our lives are uncertain/ our deaths are most certain”, every single night as part of their evening chants.
We would repeat the same during our 10 days – daily chanting was the one exception to the silence we would otherwise uphold during the retreat.
Many expressed after the retreat that they found it difficult to utter those words, and that their mind found it difficult to contemplate and accept their own demise.
It wasn’t difficult for me...
I’ve had an open relationship with death for a long time. One of my favourite lyrics is from a song called Own Appeal by the rapper, Oddisee, in which he says:
“The afterlife is much farther in the pipeline/ I’m inclined to believe that, but the truth is/ That for death, any moment is the right time/ So I live every day like it’s my last/ Yet I plan for tomorrow as if I will never pass.”
A strange fact about me. I have been keeping a log about my ‘Lessons From Death’ from the age of 16. In it, I write down the lessons I’ve learned as a result of the passing of someone close to me. My grandfathers. My friend who took his own life at the age of 17, two days before our first A-Level exam. My friend who died in a car accident at age 20. My best friend’s girlfriend, hit by a drunk driver at age 21. My business mentor, who took his own life. There are others that I don’t need to mention.
It’s not a long list. But it’s enough for now. And it will inevitably be added to in the years to come.
I won’t discuss the lessons that each individual death taught me here.
But in general, I learned that the most difficult aspect of death is the impact it has on those still living - namely, the loved ones of the recently demised.
There is no right way to deal with death. Some grieve in solitude, others choose to celebrate life.
I cannot control how others will mourn me.
But while I’m here, death reminds me of the importance of showing my genuine love and gratitude to my loved ones as often as I can. I want my loved ones to know that they are loved and appreciated by me. That is the only true gift that I can leave for them in the event of my passing – a memory of someone who indisputably recognised their value, appreciated their contribution to his life, and loved them immeasurably for it.
I do all of this, because I don’t fear death...
In fact, I love death.
Death teaches me how to live.
It reminds me that tomorrow is never guaranteed, and that I need to honour and appreciate every day that I am fortunate enough to have the gift of breath. It asks me every single day whether I am honouring the privileges and opportunities that I have been blessed with, and the potential that I have as a result of these to make a positive contribution to this world.
A burning candle will inevitably extinguish, whether by reaching the end of its natural lifespan or by a freak gust of wind that ends its life prematurely. But while it still burns, it shines as brightly as it possibly can – just as we all should.
Death forces me to act. It makes me wake up, look in the mirror every morning and ask myself whether I would be content with my life if I were to pass today.
When the answer is 'yes', I smile. I make a vow to keep honouring my life, so that tomorrow the answer remains the same.
And when the answer is 'no', I ask myself what I need to do to change that answer to ‘yes’. It rarely changes overnight. But in asking myself every morning, I give myself the opportunity to devise the steps that I need to take to get to that ‘yes’.
And then I act on them.
Because life is too short not to.
During one of our meditation sessions, I wrote my name in the sand I was sitting on. As I inscribed it with my fingers, I began to notice small grains of sand dropping from the surface to fill in the hole left by my name…even as I wrote it! It is as if the sand recognises our impermanence before even we do. It is erasing us even as we write. Eventually, we will completely disappear from the sand, and there will be no record of us ever having been there.
But that should never stop us from trying to write our name in the sand anyway.
Live every day like it’s your last. Plan for tomorrow as if you will never pass. That is the ultimate balancing act of life – to be able to embrace today without neglecting tomorrow, to enjoy life as your ‘present self’ while honouring your ‘future self’.
Do not fear death. Do not fear your own impermanence. Accept it. Embrace it. Allow it to inspire you to lead a full and sincere life.
Kam Taj is a University of Cambridge graduate (Engineering Tripos, BA, MEng, 2011-15), ICF-Accredited performance coach, motivational speaker and author of 'The Ultimate Guide To Exam Success'. He runs training workshops at schools, universities and companies on personal & professional development, with a focus on performance improvement in their field of choice. When he's not running workshops or coaching private clients, you can find him playing tennis, hanging on gymnastic rings and making cheesy motivational Instagram posts.