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December 3, 2009

“Summer days, summer nights are gone. But I know a place where there’s still something going on.” –Bob Dylan

I love the steam rising from laundry vents, the indoor smells of incense and firewood, the warmth of stew and meat, the embrace of a companion, in bed on a cold, bright day. And I love, sometimes, the alterations in my mood: more solitude, more loneliness, more melancholy. They go together, the winter outside and the winter of the mind. And while I have lived part of my life in a warm climate, where the seasonal variation is less perceptible, I still prefer – shovels notwithstanding – the variety of weather.

Now, should the heart be any different? Is it really more noble to prefer only the pleasant, like a favorite food one eats every day? Is this to honor the variation of the Divine unfolding, or the action of unfolding itself?

This is the ride. This is living. A few decades more, or perhaps a few days, and it will all be done. Whether you like it or not is irrelevant. But not to you.


When sadness, loneliness, or other ‘shadow emotions’ arise, they often carry with them an illusory weight of permanence. The transitory experience of loneliness is not, in itself, unpleasant – but the thought that it will never pass is. Consider, when we know that a separation is temporary, there may be longing – but the longing itself is often sweet, tinged as it is with love. But when a separation is, or is thought to be, permanent, then the timbre changes to one of bitterness, lamentation, or even despair.

Some partings are indeed permanent: those occasioned by death most obviously. Yet even in such cases, even when the beloved is not going to return, no matter how fervent our prayers, the experience of separation is impermanent. Impermanence, the Buddha taught, is a feature of every conditioned phenomenon, even mountains and stars – a fortiori the movements of the heart, which arise and pass very quickly when they are not propped up by efforts of thought. Likewise in the Jewish tradition, Kohelet, that most Buddhist of Biblical books, bewailed – or, perhaps, preached an acceptance of – the passing of all Earthly things. Everything crumbles, everything changes, even mountains and stars.

The physical impermanence of mountains, however, does not help us much. Yes, we now understand that, over the course of millions or even billions of years, the mountain will wash into the sea, or be riven in two by earthquake, or collide with other ranges in a geological display as awesome as it is invisible to our eyes. But you and I will disintegrate long before the mountain will. What is the relevance of its impermanence to us?

Then again, even if the mountain remains, your experience of it changes constantly, from one fraction of a second to another. The perception of seeing the mountain is interrupted by sounds, the weight of the body, the sensation of movement in the legs. The emotional tone associated with it shifts constantly, from interest to boredom to awe to delight.

Indeed, not only may the emotional experience of a mountain (or a person, or a situation in which we find ourselves) shift a hundred times over the span of just a few minutes, but, like the frames of a film, apparently continuous perceptions are in fact comprised of countless momentary particles. On meditation retreat, I have watched the mind glide effortlessly from ecstasy to apathy to loneliness to nervousness to peace to a sense of mystical unity to sadness to planning – all within a few minutes. Off of retreat, I have been astonished to see that similar changes in mood happen just as quickly, only beneath my regular notice. What is there to hold onto, for better or for worse, when the heart moves so quickly? These stories of solitude or sadness – and also dreams of eternal bliss – are undermined with just a few moments’ attention.

And this: no matter how strong the state of mind, whether positive or negative, it can be interrupted and interspersed with other perceptions. In fact, it already is being interrupted; the only question is whether we choose to pay attention to the reality of experience or construct a false solidity out of one or more elements of it. The life of the human mind is a manic channel-surfing of perceptions, feelings, thoughts, and mental formations. Try it right now; try to actually follow the chain of perception, rather than focus on any one thing. Reading, pressure in the sit-bones, interest, boredom, links, curiosity, thoughts of other people, breathing in, to-do list, breathing out, a smile, a sense of hunger or fullness. Life is not so continuous as it seems.


Despair is a phenomenon of burrowing into a single mental object, and staying there. It ignores the truth, which is that all objects, mental or physical, are constantly being interrupted by other ones. It chooses one idee fixe, one obsession, and digs into it, sinks into it. This is as unhelpful as it is inaccurate – not only when the mind burrows into a negative emotion, but even when it digs into a positive one. How many times have I felt some joy, with a lover or during spiritual practice or after achieving some goal, and thought, absurdly, that this joy would never pass, that the ecstasy would go on forever? Now I’ve got it! Now I’m enlightened! Now I don’t need anything! Now I am content! And yet, all things pass, states of mind faster than most; if only I’d’ve paid more attention to the word “now,” I might’ve hurt less when the conditions shifted.

For me, seeing how even the most exuberant or unhappy of moods are constantly being interrupted by other perceptions – those of the body most of all – maintains the balance. One need not remember “this is beautiful, and it will pass” or “this is painful, and it will pass,” because if attention is turned to experience itself, whatever “it” is is already arising and passing, arising and passing, in the present moment experience. How can I think that a mindstate will last forever, when it isn’t even enduring for a second?

Seasons pass, and seasons of the mind pass moment to moment, and every season has its poetry. All the best things, as Kohelet says, are empty of substance, transitory, and part of a cycle that moves on relentlessly.

I used to find these aspects of impermanence to be, themselves, causes for despair. Too Buddhist, too Eastern, too gloomy: ants at the picnic of joy. At some point over the last few years, however, my relationship to impermanence shifted – and now I experience it as love. I think what happened is that I got hurt too many times. Too many peak experiences followed by valleys of shadow. Too many “this is it” moments followed by unwelcome returns to the normal. And perhaps too much holding on to a love affair that lasted past its prime.

I still am blessed by, and enjoy, peak experiences: spiritual communions, ecstatic moments of self-transcendence, deep encounters with other people. But, I think because of years of meditation practice, I feel equally blessed by the voice that reminds me: “Love and let go, it’s going to pass, in fact it’s passing already.” This voice is one of love; it protects me; it gently holds my heart, protecting it from wounding itself in an excess of enthusiasm or hopelessness. The oscillations of the soul are part of its nature; they teach me the truth, and, I find, the truth sets me free.

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