Three Stages Of Perceiving Impermanence

Shinzen Young


Awakin FeatureImpermanence is just appreciating the normal changing-ness of each experience at deeper levels of poignancy. One way to think about this is in terms of three aspects of impermanence: the trivial, the harsh, and the blissful.

At first, impermanence may present itself in a kind of trivial way. For example, you are meditating, and you start feeling an itch. You get preoccupied with it for a while. Then something distracts you, and when you come back, the itch is gone. You didn't actually feel it go, you are just aware that something previously present is now absent. Your attention was broken, but you still noticed that something changed. This level of understanding impermanence is based on a lack of continuous concentration. A deeper appreciation of impermanence comes about through continuous concentration. 

As your concentration skills grow, and you are able to focus on things more continuously without being distracted, you begin to appreciate how things continuously change. But continuous change does not necessarily imply smooth change. At this stage, your experience of change may be abrupt, jagged, perhaps even harsh. For example, you are watching a pain in your leg, and you notice that it is pounding, twisting, stabbing, shooting, crushing, or exploding. Now, these are very abrupt and uncomfortable modes of movement, but they are movement nonetheless. They are ways in which the pain sensation is changing. It seems like somebody has stuck a knife in your leg and is twisting it to the right, to the left, jabbing it in, pulling it out. It is harsh, it is abrupt, it is jagged, but it represents a continuous contact with changing-ness.  This doesn't happen only with painful experiences. The same can happen with intense pleasure. 

Eventually, your concentration and equanimity skills mature to the point where your experience of change is not only continuous, but smooth as well. A softening takes place. The impermanence becomes fluid, soothing, bubbly, more like an effortless breathing in and out. This is because your focus is like a high-resolution monitor or a high-definition TV screen, and you are able to perceive subtler movements with clarity. To make a techie metaphor, it's as if you have increased the sampling rate or bandwidth of your change detector. You can't force this to happen, but as you are paying attention and developing an acceptance of the harsher kinds of impermanence, they break up into gentler kinds of impermanence—stately undulations, effervescence, effortless spread, and collapse. When this happens, the impermanence starts to comfort you, it becomes like a massage. 

At this point, we are on the edge of an important transition, because now we can yield to the flow and let it "meditate us." The perception "I am meditating" fades into the background and is replaced by the perception that "impermanence is meditating me."

Shinzen Young is a meditation teacher, and excerpt above is taken from his book 'Science of Enlightenment.'

Seed questions for reflection: How do you relate to the perception "impermanence is meditating me?" Can you share an experience of a time you were able to accept harsher kinds of impermanence? What helps you develop an acceptance of the harsher kinds of impermanence?

Add Your Reflection:

3 Previous Reflections:

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    On Dec 8, 2018 david doane wrote:

    My reflection:  I am very aware that change is constant and nothing is permanent.  This life and every aspect of life is impermanent.  That's how life is.  We abide in impermanence, know it or not, and to a great degree I abide in awareness of the impermanence of life.  Awareness of impermanence makes acceptance of even harsher kinds of impermanence easier for me.  Harsher kinds of impermanence currently in the foreground of my life are my declinig abilities and to a greater degree serious illnesses and deaths of loved ones.  Awareness of and acceptance of impermanence are comforting for me, bring me peace, and in that sense are at least at times meditating me, eliminating unnecessary fretting, getting me to basic being.

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    On Dec 7, 2018 Jagdish P Dave wrote:

     Meditation to me is training the mind to cultivate skills of unwavering concentration and non-judgmental acceptance. It creates a state of witnessing consciousness in which things come and go, perceptions of all kinds of impermance. When I do not get attached to the changing scenario of impermanence, pleasant or unpleasant, I do not perceive the distinction between "me meditating impermanence" and "impermanance meditating me." The distinction between subject and object goes away in such unitary state of consciousness.

    For me the harsher kinds of impermanence are the passing aways of people close to me. Practicing mindfulness meditation has gradually helped me to accept such harsher kinds of impermanence. It has taken time for me to heal such deep wounds. Sharing my deep sadness with my family and freinds close to me along with doing the inner work mindfully have helped me to accept such harsher kinds of impermanence. It takes time to heal such wounds.

    1 reply: Amy | Post Your Reply

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