During a lecture, a student asked Shunryu Suzuki, the Buddhist priest who helped bring Zen to America, if he could sum up the Buddha’s teachings in a nutshell. To everyone’s surprise, Suzuki answered. “Everything changes,” he said. It was as simple as that.
On a rational level, we all know this. Seasons pass, the lush leaves of spring transform to the vibrant, dying foliage of autumn. People grow older, wither with time, and pass away. On my New York City block, a new building stretches up to the sky where an old one sat just a few years ago. All of it is a part of the flow of life. “Everything changes.” Life is impermanent.
In my psychotherapy practice, however, I find that my millennial patients in particular struggle with the concept of impermanence. Their anxiety is often high in part because they seek stability in the face of constant change. Who can blame them? The world feels as anxiety-inducing as ever. The planet is on fire, the climate in disarray. Wages are stagnant, but housing, medical, education, and food prices all continue to rise. In the last 20 years, my millennial patients have faced 9/11, two wars, a great recession, unprecedented political uncertainty, including the rise of Trumpism, and COVID-19. What will the world look like in five, ten, or twenty years? Is it responsible to have children when the world is burning? Should they focus on their career? Save for retirement? Does any of it matter if climate change is irreversible?
Most of my millennial patients have reacted to this uncertainty by doing more. That means more work, more exercise, more time with friends, more meditating, more pressure on themselves, more of anything to gain a sense of control over their lives. It may seem like a sound strategy. If we feel unsafe, what better way to handle it than to take control? After all, most people believe they are in control of their own destiny. But thinking they are fully in control leaves many of my millennial patients more susceptible to self-blame when things go wrong. This way of looking at their lives has left them exhausted, anxious, and burned out.
Instead of feeding into their need to “fix” their lives, I try to teach the concept of impermanence, and for those who are interested, I share mindfulness practices to help them understand and internalize the concept.
Many of them already have experience with meditation, but it is often a goal-orientated practice in line with fixing themselves. In fact, I find that a goalless practice is the best way to understand impermanence. A goalless practice is about being right here in each moment without any conceptual objective in mind. It means giving up conceptual thinking and concepts, putting the brakes on constantly doing, releasing the need to be in control, and starting to just be in the world as you are. It means sitting with the fact that nothing is permanent, that everything is changing, and that is OK. I think of it as watching the clouds float by on a sunny day. Or, as Soto Zen teacher “Homeless” Kodo Sawaki Roshi said long ago, “Zazen is good for nothing!”
For my patients who think that constantly doing something is the best way to heal, this idea is understandably hard to grasp. I explain to them, paraphrasing psychologist and mindfulness teacher Rick Hanson, our brains have not evolved to make us happy. Our brains have evolved to keep us alive. They’re really good at being anxious, seeing the negative, and what can go wrong, and really bad at seeing the present moment just as it is. Without a mindfulness practice, it is very easy to focus on all the stressful aspects of modern living. But reality is just reality, right in front of our faces, right now. There is no need to be anywhere besides here in the constant flow and change of life.
As Pema Chödrön says in her book When Things Fall Apart, “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land. To experience each moment as completely new and fresh.” For my millennial patients, I would add, to live fully doesn’t mean to solve the many crises of modern life—or to fix oneself. To live fully means to be in touch with the impermanence of living in the service of greater compassion and equanimity, like a steady bamboo reed on a windy day.
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