Time, the Destroyer

Caspar David Friedrich, “The Temple of Juno in Agrigento” (1830)

The fundamental lesson of Zen (and Buddhism in general) is impermanence. Everything falls. Everything crumbles. The natural state of things is entropic. There’s really nothing we can do about it. The impetus behind this constant push towards dissolution is time. As we’re carried by time through the ever-changing present we slowly decay and change forms. This applies to everything, from cats and dogs to shit and diamonds. Time is to destruction what breath is to life.

To parlay the metaphor, part of what we make peace with during meditation is this onward journey towards death. As the song goes, ‘All things must pass.’ With each breath, we let time run its course a bit further. We dig our claws into the present and really feel its eternity. When we’re not attached to what time will inevitably take away from us, we can live a bit lighter. We can breathe a bit more freely. This is, of course, not just referencing the things we don’t like, but also the things we hold very dearly. All possessions lose ownership eventually. All bodies age and fall apart. All achievements are forgotten in no more than a few centuries, if not a few decades.

In a culture obsessed with acquiring and holding on at all costs, this all seems like a real shame. But time and impermanence are only enemies if we view them as such. Imagine making gravity your enemy, despite it being a much stronger force than you and an inevitability here on Earth. You’d live in constant frustration. “Why can’t I fight gravity?! Why isn’t my will strong enough?!” We must make peace with the things we can’t change. We already tacitly make peace with countless other immutable forces, why not do the same thing with time, death and impermanence?

The short answer is that it’s difficult. We must balance living in the world and taking risks with the potential hurt and attachment that results from those risks. Thankfully each of us has an intuitive gut that tends override all conscious or preconscious impulses and remind us how we really feel about things. This is what we become more attuned to in meditation. I like to call it the “true self”. You always know what to do; usually uncertainty is caused by letting the ego or irrational emotions get in the way of your true self.

The secret is that the true self is best friends with death. It knows impermanence and has made peace with it. It’s OK with loss and suffering, since they’re both seeds of growth and strength. When we follow this deep intuition, we find peace. When we fight it, like fighting gravity, we find nothing but hardship. If you “can’t fight city hall”, as they say, you most certainly can’t fight time.