Impermanence and Who I Am


Sensei said something interesting a while back. He said when a judge evaluates a tai chi performance in a competition, if the person screws up badly in the beginning, the judge is not to think “this is going to be a poor performance!” A judge is supposed to put mistakes behind him, and evaluate each instant of the performance on its own merit. Therefore, the final score is based upon an objective evaluation of the entire performance.

Today I was listening to The Great Courses’ Buddhism lecture, as I have been for the past couple of days. Professor Eckel talked about impermanence, and it made me think. Who am I? Am I that child of long ago that my parents defined? Am I all of the acts of my life? Am I what I eat? Am I my body? Am I my thoughts? All of these definitions of myself constantly plague me. Because if I am <fill in the definition>, that means that I cannot change. Or that change will be a long and difficult process of…. what, psychoanalysis maybe? Many years of meditation in a cave? Giving up my possessions and going to Africa and helping the suffering?
When my mind goes down all of these paths trying to grasp on to who I am really, then I bury myself into a hole and find no way out.

Several years ago, when I was terribly sick, out of utter desperation I dug out my Bible. At some point in my life, the Bible had all of the answers, and I was starving to have answers handed to me. Starving. Well, I opened it up and read a couple of pages and found myself in utter shock on what I read. I guess I’d spent so many years studying Buddhism, I’d forgotten that in order to have the answers spoon fed to you, you need to be able to accept them as somebody else has defined them.

Impermanence means that nothing is ever the same from one instant to another. That means that the person who was sitting in my seat a second ago is not the same one who is sitting here now. That means that all of the definitions that I’ve imposed upon my self on who I am have been mere clinging to that which isn’t.

Watching the people on the street passing by, seemingly happy with themselves and not needing to know all of the answers, and mourning over the fact that I will never be like that… when I think about the concept of impermanence, I think that maybe I will not be like they will be. But I don’t know because all of that is the product of a fairy tale. The “truth” in the language of impermanence is that the real me is the person that I glimpse when I’m sitting quietly in meditation — the person that exists in the here and now and that has no past or future, but is content with just sitting.

It takes no work to have the answers handed to you through a book or a community that “knows” the answers. It takes work to stop and sit. But I want my life to be defined based upon this instantaneous moment in time and not the clinging concept of who someone thought I was in the past and not hopes of what I want to be in the future.

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Impermanence and Who I Am

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