How To Let Go Of Attachments By Contemplating Impermanence
One of the central concepts of Buddhist philosophy is the notion of attachment, or clinging.
Upadana is a word from ancient Pali and Sanskrit, which is usually translated as attachment, grasping, or clinging – but it’s literal meaning is “fuel.”
This relates to the metaphor of the mind as being like a fire: burning, consuming, constantly in need of new experiences and sense objects to feed upon in order to sustain itself. Our attachment to the fleeting pleasures of the senses is the fuel which feeds the fire of the ego-mind.
Whereas the state of enlightenment is called nirvana – which means “to blow out.” It is in extinguishing the fire of the mind, that we experience spiritual liberation.
And just as a fire will burn out if deprived of fuel, we can silence the mind by dissolving our cravings and attachments. One of the methods the Buddha prescribed for dissolving these attachments, was the contemplation of impermanence.
What Is Impermanence?
According to Buddhist teachings, impermanence (annica in Pali) is one of the three marks of existence, the fundamental qualities of life as we know it (the other two being dukkha, “suffering”; and anatta, “no-self”).
In simple terms in means that nothing lasts forever; everything is always changing.
In his famous discourse, the Upajjatthana Sutta (“Subjects for Contemplation”), the Buddha gave his disciples Five Remembrances, facts of life to be reflected upon often. They are:
- I am sure to grow old, I cannot avoid aging.
- I am sure to get sick, I cannot avoid illness.
- I am sure to die, I cannot avoid death.
- I must be parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.
- I am the owner and the heir of my actions. I will reap the rewards of my actions, for better or worse (the Law of Karma).
Everything is subject to dissolution and decay; our goods and possessions, all that we have and enjoy, even our physical bodies.
Each one of us will grow old, get sick and die. Along the way, experiences come and go – jobs, relationships, homes, possessions, joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain – and we cannot hold onto any of it. They slip through our hands like sand through an hourglass.
And in the end, at the moment of death, we have to say goodbye to everything, and let go of it all.
Why Contemplate Impermanence?
Pretty depressing stuff, right? So why should we dwell on such uncomfortable thoughts, which fill us sadness, fear and gloom?
The Buddha gave his followers the Five Remembrances as an “antidote,” to help them overcome pride, conceit, greed, lust, laziness, and other obstacles to our spiritual practice.
The first three Remembrances are designed to dissolve our youthful pride, the naïve assumption that bad things will never happen to us. When we fully realize that life is fleeting, that youth, health and vitality are short lived, we stop taking life for granted. We are more able to live in the present, to savor each moment as it unfolds.
The fourth Remembrance is designed to destroy our cravings for worldly pleasure and sensual experience. When we realize that “all things must pass,” then we stop wasting our time and energy pursuing material things – wealth, fame, status, comforts and luxuries, etc. – and instead we devote ourselves more fully to finding the lasting peace and joy of spiritual liberation.
The fifth Remembrance is designed to shake us out of our laziness and complacency. When we fully realize that each of our thoughts, words and actions bears karmic fruit, in this life and the next, then we’re no longer content to cruise through life on autopilot. We become more conscious of the consequences of our decisions, no matter how small.
Ultimately, contemplation of impermanence is meant to remove the cravings and attachments that keep us bound to Samsara (the wheel of death and rebirth). It is meant to help us to let go of ignorance and illusion, and awaken to the boundless freedom and bliss of our true nature.
Levels of Impermanence
There are several ways we can think about impermanence, each of which can be thought of as a practice in and of itself, with many levels of meaning and insight to be uncovered…
Here are 4 different ways in which you can engage this practice.
The first, and perhaps the most morbid, is the contemplation of death. Everyone that is born, is bound to die. We don’t know how, we don’t know when – but we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that our time will come.
Think about all the different ways that people die unexpectedly: car accidents, plane crashes, diseases, heart attack or stroke, a simple trip and fall, a stray bullet… Any of the tragic stories you hear on the nightly news, could happen to you or me, at any time.
None of us is guaranteed another day of life, or even another hour or minute.
This might be depressing – at first glance. But the more we meditate on this truth, the more our fear of death falls away — and we’re left with a greater appreciation of the present moment.
Ask yourself, “What if today were my last day? What would I do? Where would I go? Who would I call, or visit? What would I say?”
And the most important question of all: Why wait?
We can’t stop time. Good or bad, bitter or sweet, every moment, every experience, passes away. We can’t hold onto it, no matter how bad we want to.
Most of us have the feeling that there isn’t enough time. That the hours, the days, the weeks, the seasons pass too quickly. Here we are approaching the end of another year, and yet it seems like only yesterday this year began… Remember those New Year’s resolutions? What ever happened to them?
Meditating on the nature of time, and the transient quality of every experience, every mood and feeling, increases our ability to appreciate the present. It can help us to live in the now, to savor each moment, and make the most of life’s little joys.
Each one of us is constantly changing, growing and adapting. Time flows over us like water flows over the stones in a riverbed – shaping us, molding us, and changing us in ways big and small.
You are not the same person now as you were ten years ago. We think and feel quite differently at age 20 than we do at age 70. It’s easy to look back on our lives and see how much we have changed over the course of years, or decades. It’s harder to see all the ways we change from day to day, even moment to moment.
Think back over the course of your day. How did you feel when you woke up this morning? The ache in your back, tension in your legs, the foul taste of morning breath in your mouth… what happened to those sensations? How many thoughts, feelings, moods, ideas, insights and experiences have come and gone, just in the last 24 hours?
It’s more than our thoughts and moods that are changing. If we could look closer, we would see that the very cells of our body are constantly changing, dying and being replaced by new cells.
If we looked deeper still, down to the quantum level, we would see that infinitesimal particles are constantly emerging from – and dissolving back into – the field of potentiality. We would see that the atoms that make up the entire universe are composed mostly of empty space.
This level of contemplation helps us to see that nothing that we perceive is permanent. Everything is in a constant state of change and flux. What we think of as “solid” matter is really a kind of stabilized vibration, a flow of energy.
Realizing this, we can let go of our attachment to our physical bodies, to the world of form, and seek to tune into the inner dimension, beyond time and space, death and decay.
How To Practice
You don’t have to be in a formal, sitting meditation to contemplate impermanence. You can reflect on these things anytime, anywhere, while doing anything. But, like most practices, it helps to set aside time to focus on it exclusively.
To get the most out of this practice, follow these 8 steps:
1. Sit and Relax
Find a quiet place to sit, and assume your favorite meditation posture. Take a few minutes to simply relax and breathe deeply, releasing any tension or stress you feel in your body.
2. Watch Your Breath
Focus your attention on your breathing. Feel your chest rise and fall with each breath; feel the air as it flows in and out of your lungs; feel the brief pause between breaths, the moment of rest and stillness. Consider how each breath comes and goes, ebbs and flows like the tide.
Every breath is an exercise in impermanence.
3. Follow the Sensations
Now expand your awareness to take in all of your five senses. Notice each sight, sound, smell, taste and feeling. See how fleeting they are, how quickly they arise and pass away.
Such is the nature of all phenomena in the universe.
4. Watch Your Thoughts
If there’s anything more subtle and slippery than physical sensations, it’s the thoughts that pass through the mind like clouds through the sky.
Spend a few minutes watching as ideas, memories, moods and emotions come and go. See how they take shape, as if from nowhere; then see how they dissolve, and fade away like mist…
5. Contemplate All You Have Left Behind
Look back over the course of your life, at all the things you have seen and done, the places you have been, the people you’ve known. Where are they now?
Think back to your younger years – the things you thought you knew with such certainty, which have since been revealed as naïve and foolish. See how the years have changed you. What happened to the young dreamer you used to be?
6. Look Forward Into the Unknown
Now, cast your thoughts forward in time. Where might you be in one year, two years, ten years? What will your life be like? How many people will come and go? How many things, great and small, good and bad, will happen to you in the years to come?
How might those experiences change you? What convictions are you so sure of now, that tomorrow will be shattered?
The world will never look or feel the same to you again as it does right now. As sure as the sun will set, and night will fall, the person you are today will pass away, and you will become someone new and different.
7. Embrace Your Own Death
Now look ahead as far as you can, to the inevitable conclusion of your life’s journey. You know how this story ends. No one gets out of here alive.
Everyone you know, everything you love and cherish, eventually you will have to say goodbye. All the cares and concerns of the world, which occupy so much of your thoughts, your time and energy, one day it will all mean nothing. You’ll have to let it all go.
Imagine that. What does it feel like to let everything go? To sever all ties, to be freed and released even from this body that holds you, the name that identifies you, from all that you think of as you?
Sit with that feeling – scary, sad, lonely, liberating, depressing infuriating, whatever. Embrace it. Explore it at depth. Make peace with it, if you can.
8. Come Back to the Present
When you bring you awareness back to the present, to the here and now, how is your perspective changed? In the cold, clear light of impermanence, what in your life is most important? What doesn’t really matter at all?
Knowing that death is looming over your shoulder, an inevitable fact, what will you do with the time that you have? What if this moment were your last act, your big finale? How would you want to show up, if this moment was all that you had?
Guess what? It is.