Benefits of an Impermanent Mindset
Understanding impermanence is necessary if we are to lead fulfilling, productive lives. In our relationships, how often are friendships made in the LEGO aisle of a store? How often do alliances deteriorate because one of the people involved refuses to share his LEGO blueprints? How often does a significant other evolve from a NonLEGO spouse (NLS) into a LEGO enthusiast? And how often does an adult fan of LEGO (AFOL) become the parent of LEGO-loving kids?
Our relations with others are entirely marked by impermanence. When we fight this, we tend to put others in a box. We get locked into who someone is without allowing them room to grow and change over time. Then, when the change becomes too noticeable to ignore, we call them a fraud because they no longer match the person we antecedently decided they were always going to be. Their growth was always happening, yet we feel betrayed because we are fixed on their illusory permanent state. This is true when we write off our LEGO building buddies for only wanting to spend half of their free time on LEGO-related activities, and when we do not accept a newbie to the LEGO life because they haven’t enjoyed LEGO as long as we have. In both instances, we are not allowing change, thereby alienating ourselves from reality and more meaningful bonds. Here we can learn a lesson from Buddhism.
Even in death, Buddhist practices celebrate the ever-changing nature of the world. At funerals, flowers and lit oil lamps are ceremonially placed before the statue of Buddha. This is not intended to be a prayer to Buddha but to acknowledge that as the flowers wilt and the flames subside so does the state of all things. As the Buddha said:
Life is like a floating cloud which appears.
Death is like a floating cloud which disappears.
The floating cloud itself originally does not exist.5
Funeral attendees are then asked to “remember death” for this will discourage excessive desire and remind us of our own ultimate impermanence. From the moment of birth, we move inexorably toward death. It is easy (and understandable) to view this as bleak, but Buddhist philosophy does not emphasize death to depress us. Instead, the certainness of death is intended to motivate us to make the most of our time by not getting fixated on petty, unimportant items. LEGO is no different.
From the moment a new LEGO set goes on sale, it is one step closer to being discontinued. The set may still exist on eBay, but the opportunity to buy a new set will never be available again. Once you purchase it, the LEGO set progresses inescapably toward the land of misfit toys. You can do everything possible to preserve them, but the unventilated attic will not allow your LEGO to remain in “good as new” condition. Even if the LEGO bricks manage to retain their freshness, the pieces will quickly decay once you pass your LEGO collection on to your children.
Finally, impermanence is key to understanding the ultimate nature of life. With all things being perishable, we begin to see their lack of substantial existence. This is true for ourselves and for the world around us. In a sense, impermanence is the property of “not-self.” To explain, self is a convenient term for a collection of your physical and mental personal experiences. It is no different than using the name “LEGO Star Wars® Death Star” for a collection of LEGO pieces that when assembled, creates the iconic Star Wars structure. The grey, rectangular plates are not the LEGO Star Wars Death Star (set #10188). Neither is the hallway structure, the elevator pulley, or the Darth Vader figure.
The LEGO Star Wars Death Star illustrates the basis for the Buddhist rejection of the self. To disagree is to believe in the existence of something that does not exist, an independent, permanent entity. There is no core of personal experience apart from the ever-shifting, inter-reliant, transitory elements of our beliefs, and behaviors, and judgments, just as there is no LEGO Star Wars Death Star without its 3,803 pieces.
By denying self, we begin to recognize that personal experience is like our aforementioned LEGO Star Wars Death Star. When we dismantle it brick by brick, systematically examining each piece, we find that the self, like the Death Star, lacks any substantial permanent essence, that it is bereft of the sum of self. Then, once we remove the delusion of seeing things as permanent, wisdom to comprehend our true purpose, motivations, and needs occurs. And when this wisdom occurs, personal experiences can be fully experienced. So let’s dismantle our personal experiences.