Uncertainty and change
How the Buddhist concept of anicca can help us in times of uncertainty
“Everything is always keep changing.” These are the words penned by the acclaimed American writer and teacher George Saunders in a letter of comfort to his students in April this year, as chaos began to envelope the world. Saunders was telling the story of a Guatemalan man he once knew who uttered the sentence as a sort of catch phrase. Everything is always keep changing.
These simple words reveal something that has always been true, and will always be true: That for all of eternity, the world has lurched and shifted and continued to unfold in often-unpredictable ways. That change is the only certainty, and that lasting stability is an illusion.
Over 2,500 years ago, the Buddha referred to this pearl of wisdom as anicca, meaning impermanence. He demonstrated aniccaby pointing out that you can never step in the same river twice: while we may call the river by the same name, the water is forever moving and changing. Anicca is one of the Buddha’s three facts (or marks) of existence. In some ways, it’s the most obvious thing in the world. We only need to look to nature to recognise the truth of it.
"In the process of acceptance, we learn how to be flexible and adaptable. In other words, we build resilience."
There is the life cycle of the caterpillar in the cocoon, for example. The bear in hibernation. The way the waves roll in and out. The changing of the seasons. The waxing and waning of the moon. The sun rising and setting each day (but never in quite the same way).
There is the lotus flower, which begins its life as a seed in the mud of the lotus pond. Slowly, slowly, it grows and begins to extend itself towards the light, eventually reaching through the water’s surface, where it finally blossoms into the beautiful, iconic pink flower. But it only remains in that blooming state for a couple of days. Then, the pod at its centre begins to dry out and expand until the whole plant, appearing dead, falls back over into the pond, releasing its seeds into the mud. Life begins again.
Nature, in other words, is testament to the Buddha’s teachings. And yet, realising and accepting this truth seems to be one of the biggest struggles of human life. Alongside anicca, the Buddha’s other two facts of existence are suffering (dukkha) and the absence of independent existence (anatta). Anicca and dukkha are connected: the Buddha taught that the reason we suffer is because we resist the natural tendency of things to change, and instead try to cling and control. We hold on to the things we like, expecting that they’ll never leave us, and we resist changes that don’t match with our preferred plans.
But, like the law of gravity, resisting the universal law of anicca won’t render it untrue. Everything will always keep changing, and resistance is futile. If clinging and grasping creates suffering, then our only real option is to learn to ride the waves and move with the changes. In Buddhism: A concise introduction, Huston Smith and Philip Novak write that the Buddha believed “we are freed from the pain of clutching for permanence only if the acceptance of continual change is driven into our very marrow.” In the process of acceptance, we learn how to be flexible and adaptable. In other words, we build resilience.
"If we appreciate that no moment will ever be repeated, we’re better able to find gratitude and presence in the now."
While change may be disconcerting, the Buddha taught that awareness and acceptance of anicca opens us up to true freedom and joy. If we appreciate that no moment will ever be repeated, we’re better able to find gratitude and presence in the now. Plus, we understand that undesirable circumstances won’t last forever.
And once we make peace with this truth, we become motivated to locate a kind of stillness within ourselves. You could call this stillness ‘awareness’, or ‘witness consciousness’, or ‘equanimity’, and it’s what we cultivate through meditation.
On a microcosmic, everyday level, we can observe the truth of anicca simply by sitting and watching our thoughts and feelings and sensations. Do these things remain the same, or do they fluctuate with each passing breath? If our internal world and external environment are constantly in flux, how could we expect the circumstances of our lives to stay the same? This is how we recognise that it’s not only okay for things to change, but natural. Life is much more circular than linear. It happens in patterns, phases and rhythms. As Frida Kahlo once said, “Nothing is absolute. Everything changes, everything moves, everything revolves, everything flies and goes away.”
The lotus flower shows us that we can’t be basking in the sun all the time, and neither should we necessarily want to. The impermanence of life is what gives it meaning. Likewise, we were never meant to know how the next chapter begins, even though our controlling minds tell us otherwise. But this shouldn’t be cause for suffering. Storms, whether internal or external, always pass, and in this fact there is solace.
"Nothing is absolute. Everything changes, everything moves, everything revolves, everything flies and goes away."