This Too Shall Pass: A User’s Guide to Impermanence as a Tool For Self-Improvement
We encounter impermanence every day, but we seem to forget it when remembering it would do us the most good.
I have worked at a handful of companies (both non-profit and for-profit) for 20 years. I’ve had kids for nearly 5 years, but already, I am struck by the parallels between the two endeavors: working and parenting. One shared feature of both working and parenting is the abundance of surprises and frustrations.
Kids, colleagues, and clients are all great at taking a day that seems to be going as planned, and flushing it down the toilet (sometimes literally). ’m not complaining — actually, in a way I’m expressing gratitude for these frustrations and surprises. Because those things that seem so frustrating at the time can actually be the most beneficial things to happen to us. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still frustrating — but that frustration is fertile ground for some pretty great personal and professional growth.
Progress in life consists of reducing as much as possible the amount of things that can make you lose your composure.
An Unusual Measure of Progress
I once heard a saying — and if no one can find the source, I’ll assume I made it up: progress in life consists of reducing as much as possible the amount of things that can make you lose your composure. The better you are at taking things in stride — at staying calm under pressure and continuing onward — the better you’re doing. You can make all the money in the world, and have a great job, but if every little hiccup throws you into emotional turmoil — you can’t be doing well.
In fact, the folks who get to the top — who get the money and notoriety and all that — but who are known for losing their minds at the drop of a hat, it’s pretty clear what the cost of all that “success” was, right? The cost was their mental and emotional (and likely personal) stability. In that sense, the success is hollow; it’s “success” in name only. It is empty achievements gained by trading in any semblance of sustainable character.
As a metric, I like measuring the number of things that can throw you off your square, derail you, or whatever you want to call it. I like it because it’s a metric that — unlike how much money you make, or how many people bought your product — is entirely within your control. It may not seem like it, but whether or not you lose your s*#t is up to you. You may feel like you’re going to lose it when something doesn’t go as planned, but you control what that feeling turns into. So if it almost never turns into an outburst of you being a jackass to others, you’re doing well for yourself.
Mindfulness’s Overlooked Sibling
We hear plenty these days about mindfulness — about being aware of what’s going on in your mind, and being present and grateful, and all of that. And all of that is healthy and helpful. But what we hear less than we should is the corresponding message about impermanence: things — both physical and mental — don’t last; they fade away, so act accordingly.
For all of mindfulness’s benefits, it doesn’t quite get us to that point where we can acknowledge and use an awareness of impermanence. It allows us to experience impermanence at work — the arising and falling away of thoughts, sensations, and emotions — but that experience alone doesn’t force one to embrace impermanence as a pervasive feature of life. That realization takes experience and reflection — something that needs to be stacked on top of mindfulness in order for it to be fully benefit us.
In essence, mindfulness is good, but it’s not enough. In order to get the full benefit of what we experience during our various mindfulness practices, we need reflection. We need to reflect on what we experience as part of mindfulness, in order to help us realize just how often things simply pop up and then fizzle out. And that can be the source of a certain amount of joy and calm — especially in tough situations.
If you’ve observed and then reflected on your mind’s activity for long enough, you will learn firsthand just how short the lifespan of a particular feeling is. Even ones that seem to span days, weeks, or years really don’t continuously survive during that whole time. They pop in and out constantly — giving way to other things in the mean time that pop in and out of your mind.
So back to that frustration I was talking about earlier.
This Too DOES Pass
You’ve likely heard the saying “this too shall pass”. It’s supposed to help us deal with unpleasant things — and keep us from loosing our minds when we get frustrated, sad, disappointed, or whatever negative feeling takes hold. So we are often tempted to use this mantra in cases like frustrations with our kids or colleagues — repeating it in our head to calm us down. But our minds are no fools. If we don’t have evidence to support this mantra, we can’t trick our minds into believing it. If our mind has not experienced the rising and falling away of things over and over, we’ll never acquiesce to that simple truth. We’ll continue to ride the wave of anger right into destructive outbursts.
That’s where mindfulness and reflection come in.
The thing about having some kind of mindfulness practice coupled with reflection, is that it changes this saying ever-so-slightly, to one that works even better to calm us down: this too does pass. Accepting that old saw that this too shall pass may seem simple and easy, but until you’ve seen it in action through your own observation, you’ll be hard-pressed to actually believe it.
Once you’ve experienced this “passing” firsthand, the “shall” turns into a “does” — as in you’ve seen this feeling before, and it does pass. It becomes like watching a movie you’ve seen several times before. You no longer jump at the scene where the actor pops into the frame unexpectedly. You’re not on the edge of your seat, anxious to see how it ends. You say the lines before the actors do. You smile knowingly as the plot twists unfold. The original emotions give way to a knowing appreciation of the film as a whole. You’ve seen this movie before, and now that the initial emotions of mystery and novelty has given way, you can appreciate it in a much deeper way.
Mindful + Reflective = Equanimous
Like I said at the outset, a great metric for progress in life is how few things there are that can knock you off your square. The word for this is equanimity: the state of being consistently calm, cool, and collected — in various situations.
Note, equanimity isn’t the state of being unflinchingly positive and enthusiastic. It’s not the state of being numb and withdrawn due to a lack of caring about anything. Rather, equanimity is the state of having “seen the movie before” so many times that you are not taken by surprise when the inevitable plays out. It’s being intimately aware of how these feelings of frustration — just like they pop into your head — also pop out.
Being mindful, plus reflecting regularly on what you observe in your mind, yields equanimity. Watching the mind’s movie over and over helps you learn the lines, and anticipate all the things that used to be surprises. As a result, there isn’t much left that can really throw you into a tizzy. You’ll never stop feeling the feelings of frustration and everything else; never forget that. It’s just that eventually, you get to know the feelings well enough that they no longer have the power to overtake you. So rather than feelings pushing you quickly into negative actions, you sit for a minute while you remember that this too does pass — as everything does.