As I walked across the mottled clay tiles of the Alvord Desert, I was struck by the impermanence of everything. Thousands of years ago, the ground beneath me was submerged in two hundred feet of water. Geological change caused the then-lake to burst forth from its confines and fill rivers to the south. Today, the 140 square mile “playa” is dry half the year. During the season of my visit – when most of the five inches of average annual precipitation falls on the desert – water crept across the landscape like a mirage from the northeast. I stood alongside it and watched as it bubbled closer and closer to my feet. Slowly. Surely.
In the words of the Buddha, Everything vanishes.
Lakes vanish. Land turns dry. Desert thunderstorms create oasis. Oasis vanishes… And so on.
Two weeks ago, I lost my job. As surprising as it had been in its inception (I was hired by the president of an electrical supply distributor to bring my writing and teaching skills to his company; my path to his imagined role for me navigated through the warehouse then supply counter, which was at turns rigorous, disparaging, infuriating, and enlightening), so too was it utterly staggering when the president’s leaving resulted in the dissolution of my role. It’s taken me some time to come through the denial stage of my grieving the loss of what I believed would be the career of a lifetime – one created by matching my unique strengths to the needs of a company. I’d put in my time; I was ready for my next steps…and suddenly, I was stepping out the door into a great big unknown.
In the ten months since I was offered the job, my dad was diagnosed with cancer; I fell in love; my dad died; love left; I worked for and with bullies and struggled with my sense of self worth; I spoke up for myself and other women in a company operated by men; I found in another person a reflection of my best qualities and helped him to see his potential; I lost him.
In the words of the Buddha, Everything vanishes.
I am very aware of this fact of life. And yet, I still attach myself to circumstances and outcomes, to expectations. To conditions, people, places, and things. To feelings.
And it is this very attachment that causes me – and others – suffering.
The concept of impermanence (or anicca) lies at the heart of Buddhism. It is the idea (the truth) that everything changes; nothing stays the same. Death is evidence of impermanence. In and of itself, life is fleeting; the average lifespan of humans is negligible in the whole scheme of things. Yesterday I walked across a lake bed that existed generations upon generations before my time. The mountains that surrounded that lake bed preceded it still. Their existence and place in time have already far surpassed mine (and, yet, they too are impermanent, like the lake they once overlooked).
One of my favorite places to visit is the Neskowin Ghost Forest on Oregon’s coast. It’s a grove of hundreds of tree stumps visible at low tide, still rooted and upright after the earth quaked their forest into the ocean more than 300 years ago. Some of the stumps are 2000 years old (still firmly rooted in the sand)…and when I stand atop one and look out at the ocean, my impermanence feels very real. When I looked into my dad’s eyes as he took his final breaths, impermanence encompassed us both.
Geological shifts like those that produced the Ghost Forest and the Alvord Desert are grand examples of impermanence. The fact that the stars we see in the night sky have long since burned out literal light years away from the earth exemplifies impermanence on a galactic scale. Death exists somewhere between here and there on the continuum of impermanence. And the circumstances of my past year are evidence of what I might call everyday impermanence which, for me, is the most difficult with which to grapple.
According to Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun, things “come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again.” Getting my “ideal” job (however painstaking) in the most unusual of ways felt like a coming together. Falling in love feels like a coming together. Connecting with someone on a soul level represents coming together. Losing a job, losing love, disconnecting…these shifts represent the falling apart. Likewise, facing bullies in the workplace and life in general evokes discomfort and sometimes self-doubt; these feelings are temporary; they exist and then they don’t, as circumstances come and go. Similarly, confronting fears and standing up for what’s right is difficult…and yet, the difficulty passes. “Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it.”
As I move forward in my journey, I have no idea what to expect. It doesn’t feel like I’m at a crossroads because right now I can’t even envision a path forward. I certainly don’t see any road signs. And yet, I know these circumstances are temporary. The feelings I feel – disappointment, sadness, embarrassment, fear – they are like the water on that playa; they bubble up in me and will likewise evaporate away. My work is to sit with them, to accept them for what they are, and to recognize that they are impermanent. As I do this, I will revisit that desert in my mind’s eye, walking across its mottled floor and remembering that what came before is different than what is now, and what is now will never be exactly as it is again.