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The Impermanence of Life

Updated: Jan 17

The other day, I was listening to this talk about Buddhism and its core philosophy. In Buddha’s world, everything is empty, impermanent, fickle and therefore life is nothing but sorrow. Sounds like it is all doom and gloom and a pessimistic way of looking at things and approach life. If we were to follow this way of thinking, it doesn't seem to offer much hope or a way forward for us to conduct our life in the transactional/real world and either renunciate or give up on life. But is this what Buddha really meant? Is this what we are supposed to take away from this?

If everything is impermanent/transient, fickle and empty, which leads to sorrow; then how do we orient our self to life? How do we set forth on any task or activity, find the motivation and determination to do anything , knowing it’s a futile exercise, because end of the day, nothing really lasts anyway right? Does this mean we withdraw, pack it up and retreat to some woods or caves?

Evolution and life works on the progression principle and for us as a specie to progress, we need to work towards an objective. An objective to survive, an objective to seek happiness, an objective to procreate so life carries on once we are gone. From survival out of necessity to pleasure in comfort. From engaging in an activity to finding meaning in life. For pretty much everything in life, we need to have an objective/purpose and work towards it.

If we wanna accomplish anything in life, then we need to have a dogged determination and an unwavering resolve. So be it as a scientist who is trying to discover or prove an idea, A businessman to generate wealth, a politician/leader looking for power, a celebrity looking for fame or even a monk/priest wanting to bring about a change in the society. How can any of these people set forth on their task and work on their objective, knowing it ain’t gonna last and what is waiting for us all is just emptiness and sorrow?

कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन | मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि || 47 ||
karmaṇy-evādhikāras te mā phaleṣhu kadāchana mā karma-phala-hetur bhūr mā te saṅgo ’stvakarmaṇi

In Bhagvad Gita, Krishna talks about focusing on the action and not results of that action and at the same time not to take pride in those actions, which can lead to desire, then expectation and finally attachment. But most importantly he also says not to get attached to 'Inaction' either. So, clearly renunciation is not the way to go, if one wants to engage in the real world. So, even here we are faced with the same conundrum. How can we perform an action without drawing up the necessary will and motivation, if the results are not important? Where is the incentive for one to go ahead with the action? How do we distance our self from the result and at the same time go through with an action?

The first noble truth of Buddhism, says 'life is suffering'. That doesn't mean life has to be suffering, it means life is naturally suffering. What it means is, that left to our devices, we're gonna suffer. And the word for suffering in that first noble truth of Buddhism is mistranslated. The word in Sanskrit is dukha and dukha actually means dissatisfaction. The first noble truth of Buddhism is saying, life is unsatisfying because of the constant pursuit of pleasure.

If we look at it from a different perspective and pay closer attention to the intent, context and the message being conveyed here rather than the literal meaning of the words, it helps us reorient our thought process and how we approach life in general. Its not about resigning to the fact that life is fickle and impermanent nor is it about not having goals and ambition but rather having this recognition and awareness about impermanence will help us with the kind/type (quality) of goals and ambition we set forth for our self. So, having this awareness at the back of our mind, we are constantly reminded to reorient our goals and what and why we are trying to accomplish.

When we combine this awareness with being engaged in certain yogic/philosophical practices like constant introspection and mindfulness, we will have a better clarity as to what kind of goals we need to set for ourselves and what is really not worth stressing or wasting our time over considering the fickle nature of life and at the same time not get bogged down by the end result of our actions, and practising detachment, will lead to contentment and in doing so we overcome suffering/dissatisfaction.

Its like having only $100 to live on for an entire month as opposed to having $1000 or an unlimited supply of money. How we approach that month will depend on which choice of money resource we have at our disposal right. So, having the awareness that nothing lasts forever, will help us re-evaluate our life, reorient the tasks we set forth for our self and realign our goals and ambitions.

Be attached to the cause and detached to the result!!!

If we develop this insight and embrace it as a living reality, then would we really care about accumulating and hoarding material things? Get obsessed about becoming the richest man or the most powerful man on the planet? Would we strive to be the smartest or most knowledgeable person out there? Would we get stuck on the superficial, vagaries of life like, status in the society or limited identifications? Clearly none of these really matter if we accept the reality of life for what it is right. We would rather focus on what matters the most to us. Like focusing on ‘Contentment’ rather than ‘Pleasure’. Do things which gives us a ‘Meaning’ rather than simply ’Engagement’. We would ‘Share’ rather than ‘Accumulate’. We would ‘Let go’ rather than ‘Hold on’. Strive to be ‘Better’ at what we do rather than be the ‘Best’.

This reminds me of the origins of the theory of evolution. We often attribute this to Charles Darwin, whose idea of the nature of evolution is the ‘Survival of the Fittest’. However In reality, a lot of the credit should really go to another British biologist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who developed his own distinct evolutionary views which diverged from Darwin’s. According to Wallace, the nature of evolution is not really the survival of the fittest but rather, ‘Elimination of the Weakest’ and herein lies the difference as to how one approaches life. I will leave it here for you to ponder over this, which ties in very well with what was discussed so far.


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