Impermanence: Things Fall Apart


Photo by Nourdine Diouane

We tend to move through our daily lives as if the people we interact with and the institutions we operate within will always be there. Yet intellectually, we understand that all worldly things change. We observe the seasons passing, homes built where a field once existed, our own faces aging in the mirror. Impermanence is the observation that everything that comes into being is subject to transformation and decay.

Nothing endures but change. ― Heraclitus

Most things that we can perceive and interact with every day are made up of parts. Can you think of anything in this world that isn’t made up of parts? We used to think the atom was the fundamental building block of matter until we discovered subatomic particles and then eventually quantum scale particles. We keep thinking we’ve found the smallest building blocks and then when find something even smaller. Things that are made of parts eventually fall apart again.

Existence precedes essence. – Jean-Paul Sartre

Similarly, most of what we encounter is dependent upon something else for coming into being. For example, language needs a human being to think and speak it. Can you come up with anything in this world that isn’t caused by something else – anything that just is, in and of itself, arising entirely independently? This means that when one thing changes, other things that are dependent upon it also change.

What we view as discrete things might be more accurately conceptualized as interdependent and dynamic processes continually changing and evolving. A common image that helps illustrate this concept is that of waves in the ocean. Waves are not separate from the larger body of water. Spawned through contact with wind and water, they continually arise, transform, and dissolve back into the ocean.

The decisively characteristic thing about this world is its transience. — Franz Kafka

Since most everything we experience in this world is impermanent, even our own bodies, thoughts, feelings and perceptions, nothing material can bring us lasting happiness. Our suffering increases the more we try to hold onto the things we desire. Believing that we can keep anything forever sets us up for false hopes and unreasonable expectations, because everything we hold dear runs like sand through our fingers eventually.

If all phenomena are impermanent, does anything we think, do, or experience really matter? My understanding is that these things do matter, just not in the way we usually think about it. Everything makes its mark, even if its merely a ripple. But, we tend to think about experience personally in terms of “I”, “me” and “mine”. We ask ourselves, “How does this affect me?” or “What does this have to do with me?” or “What does this mean about me?” This is how we measure value – we fail to realize that nothing is personal and we miss the everyday miracles that are happening right in front of us.

Returning to the ocean analogy can be helpful. Just as it isn’t particularly useful to try to isolate each drop of water within the ocean, we can view our thoughts and actions as part of a greater whole – part of the stream of causes and conditions. Understanding impermanence helps us to let go and let be when it makes sense to do so. If we can learn to be present in the moment without grasping and clinging, we can appreciate what is here now and respond more skillfully, sending out beneficial ripples and minimizing our part in the perpetuation of suffering.

Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it.  ― W. Somerset Maugham

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