Most of us think the impermanence of all things is an unpleasant fact we’d rather ignore. We look at the world around us, and most of it seems solid and fixed. We tend to stay in places we find comfortable and safe, and we don’t want them to change. We also think we are permanent, the same person continuing from birth to death, and maybe beyond that.
In other words, we may know, intellectually, that things are impermanent, but we don’t perceive things that way. And that’s a problem.
Impermanence and Attachment
“Attachment” is a word one hears a lot in Buddhism. Attachment in this context doesn’t mean what you may think it means.
The act of attaching requires two things — an attacher, and an object of attachment. “Attachment,” then, is a natural by-product of ignorance. Because we see ourselves as a permanent thing separate from everything else, we grasp and cling to “other” things. Attachment in this sense might be defined as any mental habit that perpetuates the illusion of a permanent, separate self.
The most damaging attachment is ego attachment. Whatever we think we need to “be ourselves,” whether a job title, a lifestyle, or a belief system, is an attachment. We cling to these things are are devastated when we lose them.
On top of that, we go through life wearing emotional armor to protect our egos, and that emotional armor closes us off from each other. So, in this sense, attachment comes from the illusion of a permanent, separate self, and non-attachment comes from the realization that nothing is separate.
Impermanence and Change
The seemingly fixed and solid world you see around you actually is in a state of flux. Our senses may not be able to detect moment-t0-moment change, but everything is always changing. When we fully appreciate this, we can fully appreciate our experiences without clinging to them. We can also learn to let go of old fears, disappointments, regrets. Nothing is real but this moment.
Because nothing is permanent, everything is possible. Liberation is possible. Enlightenment is possible.
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote,
“We have to nourish our insight into impermanence every day. If we do, we will live more deeply, suffer less, and enjoy life much more. Living deeply, we will touch the foundation of reality, nirvana, the world of no-birth and no-death. Touching impermanence deeply, we touch the world beyond permanence and impermanence. We touch the ground of being and see that which we have called being and nonbeing are just notions. Nothing is ever lost. Nothing is ever gained.“ [The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax Press 1998), p. 124]