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Jan '11

Identifying with Impermanence

If there is one lasting truth about life, it’s that nothing is permanent. Our experiences, our possessions, our relationships and even our own lives will all come to an end eventually.

With this knowledge its crucial for our own happiness that we don’t become too strongly identified with something impermanent, or else when it changes or leaves, it will feel to us as if a part of our selves has gone… a feeling which can leave someone feeling broken and defeated by the circumstances of life.

It’s all too easy in life to become identified with external things, and to believe they define who you are.

It’s hard to blame a successful doctor who has spent 8 years of his life working to become educated in his profession, then another 20 years diligently taking part in his practice, from identifying so strongly with his possession that it is directly linked in his mind with who he is. A doctor such as this will likely say “I am a doctor” in a way that suggests it defines their existence.

A model who has been told they were beautiful their whole lives, and who has never had a job which didn’t rely on their beauty may identify with the idea of being a ‘beautiful girl’ stronger than anything else… Just as an Olympic athlete who has working nearly their entire lives towards an athletic goal may feel as if their athletic qualities define who they are inside.

These people may have other things in their life, but they will likely pale in comparison to the mental energy and focus that have been placed on their primary feeling of who they are. The doctor may say “I’m a Doctor and a father” or the athlete may say “I’m an athlete who loves chess” but no matter how many different external things they identify with, these still aren’t who they really are.

Who would these people be if they crash landed on a deserted island and every external thing they identified with no longer mattered? Even this is not who they truly are, but it’s a much closer representation.

Like I said, the problem with identifying with the external things such as in the examples above is that nothing is permanent and everything changes. Eventually the doctor will retire, the women will age and loose her beauty, and the athlete will no longer be in his prime. Who will these people be if they had thought these things defined their existence?

The problem is even worse if the changes are not so gradual and we don’t have time to mentally prepare ourselves for them. What if, for some reason the doctor suddenly loses his medical license? What if the girl gets into an accident and her beautiful face becomes scarred? What if the athlete gets an injury that ends his career? The sudden loss of that which these people so strongly identify with will leave them feeling as if their lives are over. They will feel their purpose for existing has been taken from them. At the very least they will become deeply depressed and distraught about who they are.

The truth is however that these people haven’t lost that which defines them. What they lost was only an impermanent aspect of their lives. The true underlying aspects of who they are cannot be lost, but if they have lived their lives identifying with these things then it may feel that way.

While our own lives may not be as cut and dry as the examples above, it’s still helpful to look at which impermanent aspects of ourselves or our lives we strongly identify with and to ask ourselves if these things changed tomorrow, who would we still be?

These external things are not only limited to careers or our life situations, but can also be our personal characteristics that we identify with in which we feel are permanent.

A man who has always identified with being a tough strong leader may lose hope if he develops a physically limiting illness that makes him feel weak and helpless. Just as a man who has always been identified with his intelligence may curse himself if he begins to become senile as he ages.

Realizing that even the characteristic we hold are not who we truly are can free us from the mental pain caused when we feel we are losing that which makes us, us.

Instead realize who you really are, is something that lies beneath all of the impermanent external things. It’s something with more depth, something which cannot be touched. It’s the being within you that shines through any external things that get in the way. It’s the something that can be seen in a person’s eyes if you look deep enough.

If you’ve been around enough you might recall a time when you saw someone, perhaps a beggar on the street, or a poor person from another country, who has almost nothing in the whole world, but who’s eyes and smile glow with such passion for life that you can instantly feel who they truly are beyond any external thing at all. This is a glimpse at the true self which we can never lose.

Try your best not to identify too strongly with any external part of your life. And if you’ve lost something in life which makes you feel as if you’ve lost a part of yourself, realize that the only reason you feel this way is because you identified with that part of your life. Accept that the true you is something beyond all the external ever-changing aspects of the world, and realize thing that really make you who you are, are intact and well… then bring the spark of your true self back out into the world!

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