Is It Going to Be This Way Forever?
Using ‘This too shall pass’ as a spiritual tool
Some time ago a friend asked for advice on dealing with a negative feeling, and I mentioned the phrase, “This too shall pass.” This saying is interesting: at times it feels like the pinnacle of life-saving wisdom. At others it feels eye-rollingly over-simple, and doesn’t seem to touch on the matter at hand at all.
Because, someone may respond, I know this will go away eventually, but what I need is for this feeling to go away now! In other words, this saying doesn’t save us from the present moment, which isn’t always where we want to be. Sometimes the present moment is filled with unbearable anxiety and heartache — more than we can bear. What are we to do when life deals us a poor hand, and we must figure out how to play?
Fortunately, there are lots of wonderful resources for working through our personal problems and equipping ourselves more fully to deal with life as it comes. We can seek psychological resources in the form of books or therapy, or calling friends or help hotlines, or if possible take a break from life and have a day or two alone, or with someone we love. We must do what works for us at the moment, if we are lucky enough to find something that does work. A flexible approach is required because what works once might not work next time.
There are no strangers
In this spirit of flexibility, I want to talk a bit about the philosophy of “This too shall pass,” because we might find it helpful. There is a time for action, and there is also a time for introspection, and this article is aiming for the latter. Introspection happens when we look inward, using our intuition, to explore deeply, even beyond the limits of normal thoughts, the nature of life, our problems, and our selves.
First, we may say something about spirituality. The true role of spirituality in our lives is to offer us a great, inexplicable relief — the feeling of spontaneously letting go as our boundaries dissolve, for even just a moment, and we are revealed to be inseparable, connected at the root. Even as the old boundaries and identities re-establish themselves, they no longer feel so restrictive or “real.” The dissolution of boundaries at any moment reveals that they are not all-powerful, and we subsequently feel more capable of accepting them in moments of high stress.
Primarily, spirituality is about feeling a deep connection to others. Such an impulse caused monk and mystic Thomas Merton to exclaim in awe: “There are no strangers!”
Merton goes on, referring to a group of passersby on a street in Louisville (from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 1966):
…it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes.
Will it stay this way forever?
“This too shall pass” can help us from getting caught up experiences that feel too solid or disproportionately dramatic. In a moment of intense emotion, whether it be great joy, great sadness, or somewhere in between, sometimes we wonder: “will it stay this way forever?” We may feel like it will. Our thoughts intrude, insisting that our feelings will never change — that we’re stuck.
But what if we examine our past? Do we find that our prior emotions, even our worst ones, still persist? Now let’s turn our attention to the present. Do any mental states ever stand still, like objects in the world? Or are they always arising and falling, like waves on a beach?
So when our thoughts say, “You’re screwed — it’s going to be this way forever,” we can push back and ask, “Is that true?” Has anything ever stayed the same? Or is life like Heraclitus’s river, always flowing and changing, such that we never relive moments? In a flash of insight (or a gradual hunch), we see that despite our worst fears, life is unpredictable. Therefore we’re liberated from the belief that it will always be any particular way.
Applied to itself
“This too shall pass” can lead us even deeper, because we find it applies not only to certain unpleasant experiences but to everything. It even applies to itself, because our realization that the present experience will pass will itself pass, as we get involved or distracted by whatever we’re doing.
It may happen like this: we have an intensely negative feeling, and the thought occurs: “This too shall pass.” We meditate on this for a moment and feel some relief. Then this idea disappears when something else happens that requires our attention. Later, we think, “wow, even the idea ‘this too shall pass’ passed!” So we see that our helpful phrase is not a doctrine or belief, because we don’t have to cling to it. It is rather a tool for liberation from doctrines and beliefs. It makes us feel lighter, free from the weight of an objective idea that must always be true.
With this lightness in mind, we try not to take the tool too seriously. “This too shall pass” is useful in some contexts, and perhaps not in others. The phrase is a modifier of our experience; we use it as an experiment, and for the experiment to continue we must always consult our own experience. This is where the “results” happen — not in someone else’s description or account, but in our own emotional, intellectual core.
“This too shall pass” is not a cure, but rather a question. We should try to remember that our inner self directs the inquiry. If we listen to the voice within, or wait for it to speak, we realize that spirituality has no formulas. It is a self-guided journey toward intimate connection.
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