Practice: Irrelevance and Impermanence

The universe is very big. We are very small. The universe exists for an immeasurably long time. Our lives are very short. These are simple facts that we often forget. An omission which easily leads us to overestimate the importance of our life, actions and feelings in the greater context of existence.

Western culture is built around the idea that  there lies tremendous value in each and every individual. The following two quotations from the Declaration of Independence and the German Basic law illustrate the Western focus on the individual and their protection from the area of Enlightenment and modernity respectively:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Declaration of Independence

Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority. […] Every person shall have the right to free development of his personality insofar as he does not violate the rights of others or offend against the constitutional order or the moral law. […] Every person shall have the right to life and physical integrity. Freedom of the person shall be inviolable. 

Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany

I believe that this understanding of basic human rights is the foundation of the peace and prosperity my generation enjoys. These documents provide a very robust legal framework for creating a peaceful and functioning society. However, they are a poor spiritual guide in that they omit some fundamental truths about our existence – that there is little factual grounds for imbuing our puny lives with such outsize importance (the original justification for this was found in Christianity – as God endowing the ‘unalienable rights’.)

We cannot find true enlightenment if we do not face what is fact to the best of our knowledge. Thus we need to overcome the basic assumption that each and every life, and especially our own life, is inherently immeasurably valuable. This thought at first might not sound very comforting; but it can be a source of tremendous strength. You don’t need to be special; there is no point. You can focus on what has been given to you, your simple, small and short life and embrace all that is good within it, without having to believe in some false higher purpose.

One of the key concepts in Buddhist philosophy is the understanding that life is suffering, and that the impermanence of everything – people, thoughts, objects – is one of the key drivers of this suffering. It is a truly inalienable fact of life and, to find peace and wisdom, we need to understand and acknowledge it:

The world is afflicted by death and decay. But the wise do not grieve, having realised the nature of the world. 

Salla Sutta: The Arrow

Impermanence and suffering are two of the ‘three marks of existence’ in Buddhism with the third one being the concept of non-self. Non-self in essence asserts that there is no permanent self or soul in any living beings. For me, it is one of the more esoteric theories in Buddhism and I tend to classify it into the category of deliberations which easily leads us around in circles while being of little use. What I like to take away from it is the insight that what we perceive as our ‘self’ is mostly an illusion and believing that we have an immortal, immeasurable valuable soul is a belief held easily only with a good helping of self-aggrandisement.

The following practice is based on two basic understandings: Firstly, that we are impermanent and, secondly, that we are irrelevant in the sense that there is no magic to our lives which make them meaningful beyond the observable. 

  1. Become aware of the place where you currently are.
  2. Grasp in your mind the people who are in your building, then your suburb, then your city, then your country and finally the whole earth; each one so very similar to you and you being such a small part of them all.
  3. Become aware of the moment in time that currently is. Realise that in a hundred years you will have ceased to exist and your moment and struggles will mean little to those succeeding you. (If you happen to think you are rich and famous or have the opportunity to become so, add one hundred thousand years to the time-frame in this exercise.)
  4. Understand that by realising this you are acknowledging a fundamental truth of who you are and your place in the world. Your impermanence and irrelevance notwithstanding embrace the miracle of your existence, the ability to think and feel; the miracle that you may behold the beauty of the world, and to cherish the opportunity to add your microscopic ripple to the ocean of time and matter surrounding your life.

This practice and its theoretical justification is similar to the practice of embracing interbeing discussed earlier. The practice for embracing interbeing is only different in that it focuses on the connectedness of things while this practice is more inward bound, in asserting our place and identity in what we know existence to be.

In contrast to the practices of love, forgiveness and gratitude this practice is not immediately comforting. In fact it can be quite disturbing. It might be easier to live our lives if indeed there was any form of evidence that there is something magical which makes each of our lives worthwhile and valuable. Alas there is not. Given this, we need to face the facts as we are able to comprehend them. True enlightenment requires to be truthful to ourselves and finding wisdom within the constraints brought to us by the observable world:

Better it is to live one day seeing the rise and fall of things than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the rise and fall of things.

Sahassavagga: The Thousands

Image credit: Earthrise by Bill Anders

Practices for Enlightenment

I believe we all have moments in which we become the best versions of ourselves; moments in which we are ever so slightly closer to true and deep enlightenment.

Unfortunately, these moments are rare and we digress from whatever insights we have gained easily. For instance, we might realise that binge watching television brings little happiness into our lives but comes with significant costs such as less time to spent with family and friends or for our health. We might then decide to spent less time watching television and more time on more meaningful endeavours.

This decision alone, however, is not sufficient for the outcome we decide upon to manifest. Often, we will try for a few days but then the hustle and bustle of life engulfs us and we quickly forget what we have set out to do.

I believe that to attain wisdom and foster goodness in our lives, we need to constantly remind ourselves of what is most important to us. So that, once we have decided to be good and happy, we can stand a chance against the demands of everyday life. One of the ways to do that is by following a set of practices: sequences of steps we do regularly and with a spiritual purpose.

This has motivated me to design the following simple practices, which may help in achieving a more balanced, meaningful and enlightened life:

I believe these practices can enable us to be stronger and wiser. Of course, we need to find a way to embed them into our lives in a regular manner, for instance every morning or every evening; since a practice can only unfold its power when practised repeatedly.

Featured Image: Source

Practice: Forgiveness

I think it is human nature that we are constantly disappointed with ourselves and others. One fundamental driver for this is our struggle between altruism and selfishness. We are programmed to be supportive and helpful to those around us but we are also programmed to look out for our own interests. Which ones of these directions we follow is a constant source of uncertainty for us and, if we inevitably choose the path of selfishness occasionally, we are bound to be disappointed with ourselves. Likewise, we are disappointed with others if we observe them doing the same.

Given this constant struggle and disappointment, I believe it is critical for us to embrace forgiveness in order to keep a balanced and happy mind. Thus I have developed the following very simple practice that may aid us in being more forgiving.

  1. Breathe in slowly and deeply until your lungs are filled with air. Hold your breath for three seconds and then slowly exhale. Repeat for three times.
  2. Forgive yourself for all the things you have done wrong, said wrong or thought wrong today or in the past. Remember that you are worthy of love, even if you make mistakes or are misguided.
  3. Forgive others who you feel have wronged you. Like you, they are worthy of love, even if they make mistakes or are misguided.
  4. Forgive existence for providing us with little guidance as to what our purpose is. You have been given this life; treasure what has been given to you.

Forgiveness for me is powerful since it is not only something we do through our thoughts but experience as a deep and revealing emotion. If I was angry with myself or others and I allow myself to forgive, I feel the relieving emotion of forgiveness washing over me. Maybe you do not experience this in the same way but I believe that we are all able to feel forgiveness as something special. For instance, think about how fundamental forgiveness is to Christianity: Yes, we may have sinned but God and Jesus will forgive us (the latter possibly more so than the former). If we truly believe this, this is bound to be a powerful emotion.

The practice above however does not assume that we will be granted forgiveness by a higher power. We ourselves forgive. And this matters. To be full of forgiveness is critical for journeying on the path of enlightenment, and we must not only forgive others but also ourselves. We are bound to be disappointed again and again, but the more disappointed we get, the more we need to forgive.

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matt. 18:15–22)

Image credit: Wikimedia

Struggle and Ease

I think the tension between the difficult and the easy, between that which we can do only with struggle, and that we we can do with ease, is an important dimension to consider for how we design our lives.

We have a natural tendency to seek out the easiest path to accomplish what we need to. If we do an exercise, our body will naturally find a way to do it with the least amount of energy. Our brain has been shown to use shortcuts and approximations to conserve energy. This works well in many situations but, unfortunately, this strategy is often not in our best interest.

The easy way to do an exercise is often the wrong way; following an incorrect form which might diminish the effectiveness of the exercise or even injure us. Our energy-conserving (and thus lazy to think) brain entices us to uncountable bad decisions.

Every athlete knows that in order to make real progress one needs to feel real pain; not to go the path of least resistance but the path where most resistance can be expected. Weight machines are the ironclad embodiment of this principle; they are designed to make it difficult for us to push, pull, press and twist and allow us to gradually increase the difficulty as we progress; ensuring we are very unlikely to ever make the use of the machine in a comfortable way.

But our lives are not athletic competitions. Although I believe we should strive to become better versions of ourselves, we cannot struggle indefinitely. To reach wisdom and enlightenment, we need to achieve balance within us as well as balance between us and the world. Struggle can help us achieve balance but it is a poor instrument to sustain it.

In ease is where arguably our greatest strength lies. If we struggle through a competition, we are probably not doing as well as we could. True champions train with struggle but win with ease.

The same we should aspire to achieve as well. We should seek out struggle in pursuits important to us; but seek this struggle as a way to attain ease, not as a purpose in itself.

Once we have attained ease, we can savour it and use it to find balance and wisdom. However, we shouldn’t expect that once we have attained ease and some moments of enlightenment that all our struggles have passed. It is only natural that struggle returns to us; and when it does we should not shy away from it but embrace it – since it will be the stepping stone towards finding new levels of ease and insight.

I don’t know if it is possible to attain permanent ease and enlightenment as Buddhist teachings suggest. I am doubtful since our inner world and the world around us are chaotic – which makes it difficult to sustain a particular state. If it is possible to reach constant ease, I think it is probably only possible after many cycles of struggle and ease.

Struggle and ease are not two alternatives from which we can choose one or the other. Struggle is the enabler of true ease and our lives can only be rich if we have both, struggle and ease; just like music is bland and boring to listen to if there is no disharmony, our life is bland if we do not struggle from time to time. Just like athletes need to push the limits of their comfort, we need to seek some degree of struggle to achieve true ease and balance in our lives.

We must not follow our natural instinct to strive for comfort and avoid struggle. If there is the potential for struggle in something which is important to us, we should see it as a blessing and engage it eagerly. That way it can be the path which brings us ever so slightly closer to enlightenment.

Featured Image: Perseus Digital Library

Further Reading

Adolescence: How to Help Teenagers Embrace Stress