Pema Chödrön, beloved author of more than 20 books, explores constant transition in her latest, How We Live Is How We Die.
During some of the retreats I lead, we recite this chant in the morning: “Like a shooting star, a visual fault, a candle flame, an illusion, a dewdrop, a water bubble, a dream, lightning, a cloud: regard conditioned dharmas like that.” This verse is meant to impress impermanence on our minds so we can get used to its presence in our lives—and so we can learn to become friends with it.
“Conditioned dharmas” means anything that has come into being: anything that has begun and is in the process of changing and at a certain point will end—in other words, all phenomena. Everything under the sun has the fleeting quality of a dewdrop or a flash of lightning. At the retreats, I recommend that people memorize this chant so they can say it to themselves and contemplate it as they walk around the land and when they return home.
Realizing the fleeting nature of everything and the freshness of every moment is equivalent to realizing that we’re always in a state of transition, an in-between state—what we call a “bardo.” A few years ago, I was having lunch with Anam Thubten Rinpoche, a Tibetan teacher I admire greatly. I brought with me a whole list of questions about the bardo and what The Tibetan Book of the Dead says about it. I was asking him my questions and at one point, he said to me, “You know, Ani Pema, we’re always in the bardo.” I had heard this notion expressed by Trungpa Rinpoche, but I wanted to hear Anam Thubten’s explanation, so I said, “Well, Rinpoche, you and I are sitting here having lunch. How is this the bardo?”
I’ve written about this elsewhere, but his response made such an impression on me that I think it bears repeating. “This morning,” he said, “I went to the art store with my friend to buy materials for doing calligraphy. We bought some ink and brushes and paper. Now that experience seems like a past lifetime, a whole lifetime of its own.
It had a beginning, which was like being born. Then it lasted for a while and went through different phases: looking around the store, picking out the supplies, paying for them. Then my friend and I parted and that lifetime came to an end. Now it’s all just a memory and here I am eating lunch with you, enjoying another lifetime. Soon this lifetime will come to an end and turn into another memory.
And this process of beginnings and endings, births and deaths, will never cease. It will go on and on and on, forever.”
We are always in a bardo because impermanence never takes a break. There is never a moment when we’re not in transition—and believe it or not this is good news. The elements that make up this unique moment of your life all came into being at some point; soon those elements will disperse and this experience will be over. Right now you may be sitting in your chair reading this book or driving in your car and listening to the audio version. Wherever you are, the light has its own particular quality. You are smelling particular smells and hearing particular sounds in the background. An hour ago, you were probably doing something completely different, something you can only partially remember. An hour from now, this current experience will also be a memory. We’re always in an intermediate state between the past and the future, between the memory of what happened before and the approaching experience that will soon become memory as well.
My lunch that day with Anam Thubten will never happen again. Even if I have another lunch with him in the same place and we have the same meal and talk about the same subjects, we will never be able to re-create what happened last time. That hour is gone forever.
Contemplating continual change is a poignant experience. It can feel sad or scary. Sometimes, when I’m in a long retreat and every day I do pretty much the same thing, I suddenly realize, “It’s Sunday again? How could that possibly be? It just was Sunday!” I want time to slow down. The speed at which it moves just takes my breath away. This feeling is especially strong in my old age. When I think back to my childhood, the summer was so long. Now it’s over in the blink of an eye. It’s good to let that feeling sink in. That vulnerable, tender feeling needs to be felt and allowed in.
Feeling sad or anxious is natural when we reflect on the passage of time and the fading of all our experiences.
In the evocative words of Trungpa Rinpoche, all our experiences are “passing memory.” It can be heart-breaking to notice how death and loss are occurring continually. It can make us feel shaky to realize we are always in a gap. But these feelings aren’t a sign of something being wrong. We don’t have to push them away. We don’t have to label them as negative or reject them in any way. Instead, we can develop open-heartedness to our painful emotions around impermanence. We can learn to sit with these feelings, to become curious about them, to see what vulnerability has to offer. In that very fear, in that very melancholy, is our compassionate heart, our immeasurable wisdom, our connection to all other living beings on this planet, each of whom are going through their own bardos. When we stay present with our transitory experience and all that its fleetingness evokes, we get in touch with our braver self, our deepest nature.
One of the students at the Gampo Abbey bardo retreat had a profound and courageous way of working with this kind of sadness and discomfort. “Being in the gap is uncomfortable,” she said. “It feels like it’s not where you want to be. But I think it’s precisely where you do want to be. You want to find a way to rest with that, and it requires a lot of bravery, intention, and commitment.”
What she said captures for me the spirit of training in embracing impermanence. Instead of seeing our sadness as a problem, we can look at it as a sign that we’re onto something. We’re beginning to get the mood or quality of why we don’t like to hang out in groundlessness. We’re directly tasting our resistance to the continual flow of life. If we keep accustoming ourselves to being present with this flow, we will gradually develop confidence that we’re big enough to hold the sadness. We will gradually learn to trust reality rather than hope for “success.” This is a matter of training, of building up a muscle day by day. Practicing this new approach to our existence will enable us to meet whatever happens—wanted or unwanted, health or sickness, life or death—with cheerfulness and grace.
From How We Live Is How We Die by Pema Chödrön © 2022 by the Pema Chödrön Foundation. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www. shambhala.com