Comments on 'change' after yesterday's post prompted me to search out Steve Hagen's excellent book Buddhism: Plain And Simple and see what he had to say on the matter (I've quoted before from this book here and here).
Pick up a flower - a beautiful, living, fresh rose. It smells wonderful. It reveals a lovely rhythm in the swirl of its petals, a rich yet dazzling color, a soft velvety texture. It moves and delights us. The problem with the rose is that it dies. Its petals fall; it shrivels up; it turns brown and returns to the earth.
One solution to this problem is to ignore the real rose and substitute a plastic one, one that never dies (and never lives). But is a plastic rose what we want? No, of course not. We want the real rose. We want the one that dies. We want it because it dies, because it's fleeting, because it fades. It's this very quality that makes it precious. This is what we want, what each of us is: a living thing that dies.
Your very own body and mind are also precious, because they're just as fleeting. They're changing - always, in every moment. In fact, you are nothing but change itself.
Let's examine this closely for a moment. It's easy to see that you don't have the body you had when you were a small child. Nor do you have the same mind. If you look carefully, you will notice that you don't even have the same body and mind you had when you turned to this page a few moments ago. In those few seconds, many cells in your body died and many others were created. Countless chemical changes took place in different organs. Your thoughts changed in response to the words on this page and the circumstances around you. Thousands of synapses in your brain fired thousands of times. In each and every moment, you changed.
Like the rose, our bodies and minds are fleeting. In fact, everything in our experience - our bodies, our minds, our thoughts, our wants and needs, our relationships - is fleeting. Changing. Subject to death. We die in each moment and again, in each moment, we are born. The process of birth and death goes on endlessly, moment after moment, right before our eyes. Everything we look at, including ourselves and every aspect of our lives, is nothing but change.
Vitality consists of this very birth and death. This impermanence, this constant arising and fading away, are the very things that make our lives vibrant, wonderful, and alive. Yet we usually want to keep things from changing. We want to preserve things, to hold onto them. As we shall see, this desire to hold on, to somehow stop change in its tracks, is the greatest source of woe and horror and trouble in our lives.
As Hagen says, change is a process which is happening to us continually; it's an inescapable feature of our own and of the world's chemistry and biology. I like this perception - it accords nicely with both Science and Buddhism. (After all, Buddhism is a philosophy - in essence not a religion, I think, like other world religions, which posit a God 'out there'; buddhas and boddhisattvas are human beings, albeit enlightened ones - yes, Buddhism is a philosophy which encourages and teaches one to comprehend Reality, to see things as they really are.)
Change is something over which we have little control. We are born. We live by the hazards of chance and destiny. We experience desire. We experience suffering. We die. Our loved ones die. As Anita Brookner says in her new novel Strangers, reviewed in today's Guardian, Fate is rarely kind, and nature never. So, if change is inevitable, we might as well welcome it. Embrace it even. Defiantly. Acceptingly. And I truly believe this attitude can be exhilarating. And liberating.