Impermanence is also known as the philosophical problem of constant change. Reflect nothing remains the same and everything is in continuous flux, even your breath from moment to moment is different so much so that your next breath can be your last. The paradox with impermanence is that although we know change happens, we still cannot accurately describe and existentially, we struggle to make sense of it, especially when impermanence is a bringer of loss.
Because of this since ancient time, various religious and philosophical traditions have grappled with the concept of impermanence. Nowadays, even science has been trying to make sense of the problem of impermanence, especially since physicist discovered the contradictory nature of reality at the quantum level (Rosenbloom & Kuttner, 2011).
This points us to the philosophical argument that because of impermanence the objects we come into contact with cannot be accurately described as the same or different from what they were a moment ago. We see this exemplified in Heraclitus (540-480 B.C.) analogy of the river.
Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher, poses to us the following question. When you step in the river today that you stepped into yesterday, is it the same river? Heraclitus eloquent answer was, “it is impossible to step twice into the same river” (Waterfield, 2000, p. 41). Heraclitus meant that the moment you step into the river, it becomes something other than it was when you first stepped into it.
Heraclitus was right. Reflect, although it is the same river the water in the river that you will be stepping into today is entirely different from the water that you stepped in yesterday because the water in the river is continuously flowing. The paradox is that this is still the same river yet because of the fact of impermanence – “the water flowing” – a different one as well. Heraclitus is trying to explain that it is impossible to find something stable and reliable that would last forever and never pass away in our world. He argues that change and impermanence is the fundamental law that rules over our life and the universe.
“That is, the physical world is in a constant state of flux, and even if our sense receptors could accurately detect physical objects and events, we would be aware only of objects and events that change from moment to moment”(Hergenhahn & Henley, 2013, p. 31)
impermanence and suffering
In Buddhist philosophy and psychology, being in a state of search for some worldly stable and solid object or thing that would last forever and never pass is considered as being in a state of suffering – “dukkha”. A state characterised by a sense of incompleteness and an unsatisfactory feeling to life because of a mental aversion or wanting for situations to be different in relation to one’s physical sense of self (Teasdale & Chaskalson, 2011).
Because of impermanence at some point in time in our lives, nearly all of us experience a state of incompleteness or an unsatisfactory feeling with life. For example, Remember the last time your mobile phone stopped working, and this might have caused you stress and discomfort because of the pictures and contacts you might lose. Or the loss of a dear friend, family member or someone close to us. Or being in a state of sadness pain and anguish due to a breakup or losing your job. All of these happen because impermanence is one of the facts of life.
Making sense of impermanence
We cannot escape change and impermanence, but this does not stop us from trying to understand and make sense of it. Although In trying to understand impermanence, we are not trying to find another description of the reality we experience every day. It is the total opposite. We face the fact of impermanence which ultimately leads to our death head-on, not by trying to make sense of it but by trying to see it for what it is. In doing so, we might even realise that impermanence can be a tool for self-transformation and healing (Wallace & Shapiro, 2016).
The nature of impermanence
So where do you start in trying to see the nature of impermanence? Here is where a flower could be of help. Look at the flower it sprouts, grows, buds showing off its beauty, yet after a while, it withers and dies. Everything is in constant change impermanence is a fact of life. Yet within the death of the flower, there is a rebirth, as it’s only through the death of the flower that seeds are created and the possibility for other flowers to grow. A constant cycle of death and rebirth without which life would not be possible. Think about it! Is it not that from the death of flowers that we get our seeds, to grow our crops, from which we feed ourselves our children and livestock.
Reflect it is because of impermanence that creation, life and the possibility of transcending suffering are made possible. Why? Because even suffering is subject to the universal principle of life that of impermanence.
An insight into impermanence
The insight into impermanence is that embracing impermanence helps us to see beyond all concepts. It helps us to go beyond the opposing concepts of same and different and coming and going. Impermanence can help open your eyes to the realisation that the river is not the same river, but it is also not different either.
When it comes to impermanence, remember the following:
In a world where everyone dies, where every song ends, where every achievement is undone, where every treasure is lost, all of this is left behind. All of us are left behind. All of us leave. Death is inevitable.
Though death is inevitable, it is also the source of creation. As out of the death of every moment arises the rebirth of the next moment. A moment of creation an opportunity for change and renewal.
Impermanence is not to be feared; impermanence is a friend as impermanence allows us the necessary conditions to arise for transformative change to happen.
So that as Thich Nhat Hanh said:
Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible. Life itself is possible. If a grain of corn is not impermanent, it can never be transformed into a stalk of corn. If the stalk were not impermanent, it could never provide us with the ear of corn we eat. If your daughter is not impermanent, she cannot grow up to become a woman. Then your grandchildren would never manifest. So instead of complaining about impermanence, we should say, “Warm welcome and long live impermanence.” We should be happy. When we see the miracle of impermanence, our sadness and suffering will pass.(Hanh, 2003, p. 41)
Hanh, T. N. (2003). No death, no fear. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
Hergenhahn, B. R., & Henley, T. B. (2013). An introduction to the history of psychology (7th ed.). Cengage Learning, Inc, Belmont, CA.
Rosenbloom, B., & Kuttner, F. (2011). Quantum enigma: Physics encounters consciousness (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press Inc.
Teasdale, J. D., & Chaskalson, M. (2011). How does mindfulness transform suffering? I: The nature and origins of dukkha. Contemporary Buddhism, 12(1), 89-102. doi:10.1080/14639947.2011.564824
Wallace, B. A., & Shapiro, S. L. (2016). Mental balance and well-being: Building bridges between Buddhism and Western psychology. American Psychologist, 61(7), 690-701. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.61.7.690
Waterfield, R. (2000). The first philosophers: The presocratics and sophists . Oxford: Oxford University Press.