Understanding the Principle of Impermanence
My name is Kishore Chandiramani and I work as a consultant psychiatrist in Staffordshire, England.
I am going to talk about the experience of impermanence in this session. This session takes us further from what I’ve already discussed on this topic in the session one of the six-session stress management program.
The practice of impermanence is borrowed from the traditions of Vipassana meditation which was taught by Buddha more than 2500 years ago. It encourages us to live with the thought that everything in this world is temporary and, instead of seeing this nature-of-things as good or bad we must accept it, embrace it and work with it rather than being unaware of it, denying it or resisting it.
The experience of impermanence can be understood at three different levels – that’s thoughts, emotions and sensations level.
At the thought level – one can understand it as a philosophy or an abstract theoretical concept – that nothing stays forever and one can use this knowledge in organising one’s life better, but it doesn’t lead to any significant emotional shifts in us. This kind of understanding is not going to help us much with our stress, as our emotional reactions remain beyond the reach of this understanding.
The second level of understanding is at the emotional level, and it helps us control our emotions and stress. One learns to move from a point of experiencing strong unmanageable emotions to a place of equanimity. If one is experiencing a strong negative or a positive emotion, and one sees it as temporary or impermanent – then that experience is muted to some extent. I say muted here not in the sense that the original experience becomes less intense, but we stop reacting to it in a negative way, and no new experiences are added-on the existing ones in a blind manner. It breaks the chain reaction of our emotions. We see it happening quite often that patients who’re depressed become anxious because they are depressed, and those who are anxious get depressed because they’re anxious. Or we create a chain reaction of further emotions and this deepening of the emotions reaches a point where we are unable to handle them. A deeper understanding of the impermanent nature of our experiences makes the final experience less intense. It does not limit our ability to create more positive experiences if we want to, but enables us to deal with the negative ones more effectively.
When we say that a given positive experience is impermanent, we’re not shifting the original emotion at all, we can still enjoy that experience, but what is happening here is – that – a part of our consciousness detaches itself from its involvement with that emotion so that we can handle it better. We can still choose to enhance it or diminish its force, and we feel empowered as a result.
This second level of understanding at-the-emotion-level is generally beneficial in the sense that the person stops reacting more to the actual experience thereby reducing one’s suffering and one’s stress levels. This second level of understanding can be reached by reminding ourselves of the temporary nature of everything all the time. However, this emotional level of understanding is also at a superficial level and doesn’t touch the core of our Being.
The third and the deepest of all is the understanding at the level of one’s inner body sensations. One doesn’t get to this level during the normal everyday consciousness without practice, even psychotherapy doesn’t take us to the sensation level as psychotherapy happens mostly at the thought and emotion levels. The awareness of our inner body sensations requires solitude and a rigorous meditative practice as these sensations are not easily felt with our normal levels of consciousness. Understanding impermanence at the sensation level leads to a lasting change in our being – that is – who we are and how we react to things. It changes us completely and we learn new ways of Being in this world. We become partially immune to stress and unhappiness.
It is important that one applies this understanding of impermanence to both good and bad experiences.
One might question the wisdom in applying it to the good experiences but if we analyse deeply – we see that understanding an experience in terms of its impermanent nature doesn’t take away the actual enjoyment but frees us to deal with it the way we want.
For example, if you are eating a delicious pudding and you say to yourself this taste in my mouth is temporary – it doesn’t take away the taste of the pudding from your mouth but a part of your mind starts preparing itself for the eventually of it ending at some point, and you won’t not reach out for the second, third or the fourth helping blindly without making a conscious decision about it, and if we apply this understanding to a positive experience of having an object or a person in our life it won’t end the enjoyment of it, on the contrary we can enjoy it more if we’re aware of its temporary nature, by paying more attention to it and taking the experience seriously. When growing up we move away from our parents and grandparents and later in life our children move away from home – making our togetherness temporary – and if we are mindful of it all the time, it can help us be a better human being – by way of being more tolerant of each other, more kind, more generous, more understanding, more forgiving and we can experience a greater intimacy and connectedness with our loved once.
Another important benefit of the understanding of impermanence is that it breaks our denials and brings us closer to the reality, hence it can help us deal with the reality better. The reality is that – things are constantly changing and our relationship to those things and people are also constantly changing whether we like it or not. If we’re not mindful of this impermanence in the real world, we will be getting rude shocks every now and then, and will get swayed by our emotions, both-positive as well as negative, on a constant basis. It’s also likely that the whole of our mind will get sucked into these experiences and we won’t be in a position to handle them in a more mature way.
If we’ve thought about the temporary nature of things, then a part of our mind doesn’t react to the situation and doesn’t get involved in the emotion, and the resultant equanimity or neutrality of our mind can help us deal with the emotion and the situation in a better way.
Living our lives without the understanding of impermanence is like being in a dark place where we are not fully aware of the true colour and nature of things, whereas the understanding of impermanence brings light in the room and we are able to see things in their true colour and nature, and this helps us deal with them better. The experience of impermanence can also help us deal with our fear of change in a more mature way, by helping us to understand it and confront it.
We normally tend to associate the process of change and its impact on us in terms of something negative or unpleasant, whereas one who has understood the principle of impermanence can see all-the-change-that-is-happening in a more positive-light as well, and not just in a negative-way because that is the true nature of the universe – that things are constantly changing and the experience of impermanence prepares us for living in harmony with nature.
It’s important to also discuss the impact of this understanding of impermanence on our emotions. Our emotions have been understood differently in different schools of philosophy.
In the traditional philosophy emotions are seen as an obstacle in the way of knowledge because our emotions colour our judgements and don’t allow us to see the reality as it is. And if our mind is emotionally neutral it’s outside the influence of our emotions and can perceive the reality as it is. This point of view encourages us to work on our emotions so that they don’t colour the whole of our personality or consciousness.
Contrary to this position, there are other schools of philosophy such as existentialism where each and every emotion is considered vital and meaningful to our existence. Every emotion is a message for us and is telling us something important about ourselves and others, and should not be seen as something to work on. Being dismissive of these emotions would be tantamount to not living fully and missing out the richness of human experience.
The arguments from both these schools of philosophy seem to have merit in them.
The experience of impermanence is not contrary to experiencing emotions and it doesn’t encourage us to distance ourselves from them but to acquire a certain degree of independence or detachment from them, so that a part of our mind is experiencing the emotion and the other part of it is being independent of it and is equanimous, and understands its temporary nature. Living with the understanding of impermanence will not eliminate all our emotions and it doesn’t stop us from reacting to a situation but simply encourages us to reflect on it as we’re experiencing it in the light of its temporary nature.
It’s true that the understanding of impermanence will take away a bit of excitement and thrill if we are over the top in experiencing emotions, but this loss of excitement and thrill will be replaced by an experience of equanimity, inner peace, and groundedness which provides much more happiness than the happiness that the emotion can bring, so the overall losses will be much less than the overall gains from employing this strategy.
One doesn’t need to restrict the use of this understanding only to one’s emotions as it can apply to almost everything. Their illnesses, life stresses, job, relationships, failures, successes, future goals in life and so on.
Very rarely I have come across individuals who can’t bear any thoughts of impermanence, loss or separation and they have reported having a panic attack simply by having such thoughts. Perhaps they will need to use other coping strategies until they feel ready to try this coping mechanism, or alternatively, they can restrict its use only to the unbearable negative emotions that they can’t deal with.
Now let’s examine how we can apply this understanding of impermanence in clinical settings. I have found that this can be employed successfully in almost all form of psychiatric problems be it – anxiety, depression, phobias, obsessions, compulsions, eating disorder, addictive behaviour, relationship problems, anger management and even in psychotic symptoms of delusions and hallucinations. When I ask my clients, after they have completed the six-session stress management programme at my clinic, as to what had helped them most – and the answer that I invariably get is the understanding of impermanence.
Now looking at anxiety and depression, they are nothing but exaggerated versions of our normal everyday negative emotions. However, some have argued that the clinical depression and anxiety are qualitatively different from the low moods and the fears that we normally experience, which is also true to some extent. But in my opinion this difference in quality is also a feature of this exaggeration that starts from normal emotions and ends up with clinically significant mood changes.
Both in anxiety and depression one tends to have thoughts that exaggerate the negative aspect of one’s life and these thoughts result in exaggerated emotions which can become unbearable. Understanding these in the light of impermanence can be helpful. This understanding of impermanence can be applied to other aspects as well – having a low self-esteem, fear of failure and thoughts of not being good enough, fear of being addicted to prescription drugs or a fear of not being able to manage without prescription drugs, fear of the illness getting worse and symptoms getting out of control, fear of people judging us negatively or antagonising us and so on.
Applying this understanding to one’s phobias and obsessive thoughts can help one manage these thoughts better. This understanding can be applied to one’s thoughts, emotions as well as behaviours – to the thoughts that brought the emotions on, to the emotions that resulted from these thoughts, and the compulsions that were used to undo the emotions. When used with obsessive thoughts they would be less likely to result in the emotion of anxiety and when applied to their anxiety it will be less likely to lead to compulsive behaviour.
With addictive behaviours one can say to oneself that the cravings one is experiencing at a given moment is only temporary i.e. will last only for a few minutes at a time, though can recur at a later stage. And when not experiencing cravings – to say to oneself that this is also temporary – so that the mind starts preparing itself for the moment when the craving will come back. In a similar fashion they can apply it to their withdrawal symptoms from alcohol or drugs – and make these symptoms more tolerable.
This understanding – when applied to unpleasant hallucinatory experiences can help one cope better with them, and when applied to pleasurable hallucinatory experiences can make one become less reliant on them for happiness in life.
In a similar fashion this understanding can be seen as a double-edged sword when applied to bipolar disorder – it can cut through both hypomanic as well as depressive symptoms and bring them back to their normal mood states. I must say it should be seen only as an adjunct to medication for psychotic patients, as in a psychotic state the inner witness is not strong enough to make use of the understanding of impermanence to its full potential.
The understanding of impermanence can be applied to any emotion – fear of an anxious or phobic person, the low moods of a depressed individual, cravings of an alcohol dependent or drug addict, anger of a personality disorder client, grief of a bereaved one, loss of motivation of an underperforming student or an employee, impulsive behaviour of a gambler and so on. Its continued use can prevent relapses in future.
To conclude I must say that this coping mechanism helps not just people who suffer from clinical problems but also those who don’t suffer from any psychiatric problems but experience stress – such as students before their exams, employees with work-related stress, care givers, prisoner and individuals battling with physical illnesses, financial losses and social problems. This strategy will stop such individuals from developing clinical symptoms.
And finally – those who don’t suffer from any stress also find this understanding helpful in dealing with their normal life unhappiness, in building their immunity to stress, in experiencing a greater intimacy in relationships and in accessing inner peace and tranquillity.
So far we have discussed applying the principle of impermanence at the three levels that is – one’s thoughts, emotions and inner body sensations. However, there is a fourth level as well, which can be loosely described as transpersonal or superconscious level, where one’s awareness enlarges beyond their own life history and personal suffering. The mind starts drifting into thoughts, images, emotions, motifs, dreams connected with remote locations and distant past. They are able to start thinking about cosmic laws, the history and the future of civilisations, different cultures and tribes, how they live and work, etc.
Such experiences may include elements of the collective unconscious or universal mind, and may contain a mixture of impersonal sadness, loss, wonderment, joy, inner peace, bliss and ecstasies of various kind.
One’s personal sorrows and joys dissolve in the universal sorrows and joys, and one has to understand that also as impermanent.
I hope you found this discussion helpful Thank you
© Kishore Chandiramani, Consultant Psychiatrist
Emotions Clinic, Education and Training Centre Cic, Staffordshire, England