What Is Impermanence?

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A (non) Nicca (permanent)

Impermanence Definition

Termed “anitya” in Sanskrit, or “anicca” in Pali, impermanence refers to the concept and/or doctrine of impermanence in spiritual traditions, most notably in Buddhism and Hinduism. In philosophy it is sometimes known as the problem of change, or becoming.

Anicca / anitya is a compound word consisting of:

A, meaning “non” and;

Nitya or nicca meaning “eternal,” “everlasting,” or “permanent.”

Impermanence Deep Dive

It’s a cliche, but in this world the only constant is change. Nothing stays the same.

Buddhist doctrine doesn’t see impermanence as a problem. It’s just the way it is. In fact, it claims that the three characteristics of phenomenal existence are:

Anicca – The impermanent and ever-changing nature of all things

Anatman – no-self/soul, no essence, and;

Dukka – suffering, dissatisfaction.

Therefore, it is precisely because things in this world are unstable and have no timeless essence that our attachments result in suffering. There’s nothing to cling onto. Not even your self.

Nevertheless, we are afraid of things coming to an end, because, as Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, “Thought wants you to think it goes on… it’s cunning that way.”

7 picked leaves at different stages of their life, representing the nature of impermanence

Moreover, impermanence is not something that you’ll experience in the future. It’s here and now. Imagine yourself, as Alan Watts said, as “a whirlpool in the tide of existence.” A whirlpool never really holds any water. Instead, water is always rushing through it. You aren’t the same as you were yesterday – or even a moment ago.

Similarly, theoretical physics is still trying to figure out if matter is made of mostly empty space, quantum fluctuations, or particles popping in and out of existence, etc. Scientifically speaking, even the existence of time, as we understand it, is up for debate. What is sure, is matter doesn’t seem to be a fixed thing. At all.

Thich Nhat Hanh explains:

“When I talk to the children about, ‘a cloud can never die,’ they understand. And they can see that a cloud can only be transformed into rain or into snow. And when you hold your glass and drink your tea, you can see that you are drinking clouds. And if you look into a river, you see nothing but cloud. And if you eat your ice cream in mindfulness, in wisdom, you see that you are eating cloud also.”

Or you could just as easily see the clouds as ice cream 🍦 .

So, how can something be real if doesn’t remain in the same state? It can’t be, Buddhists claim. Nothing is real but this moment – where anything is possible. This is why impermanence is vital to understand if the three primary afflictions, or kleshas,  (1. Delusion and confusion, 2. desire and greed, and 3. hatred and aversion) are to be overcome.

The notion of impermanence does seem to posit, in some sense, the unreality of reality.

Certain branches of Hinduism, meanwhile, argue that the impermanence of all things points the way to what is permanent. Atman. The pure, constant, seedless self. Impermanence is therefore part of the illusion, maya. And it can be overcome in a process of liberation that draws you closer to absolute reality – Brahman.

a sunset over the ocean

Impermanence In Your Life

Sunrise doesn’t last all morning

A cloudburst doesn’t last all day

Seems my love is up and has left you with no warning

It’s not always gonna be this grey

All things must pass

All things must pass away

George Harrison, All Things Must Pass

Understanding impermanency and living in its truth can be useful for giving you the sense of urgency you need to see that every moment is precious.

This can come across as a tad morbid, but it isn’t meant to be. Jiddu Krishnamurti urged his listeners to take their fear of death – that horrible thing far off in the future that we’d rather not face – and die to it now. Truly being in this moment is to die to your ego and emerge into presence.

Welcoming change, or as Alan Watts describes it, “digging change,” is a good place to start. This may require a level of surrender that makes you uncomfortable. Can you take your fear of all the things you can’t handle, and gently remind yourself:

There is perhaps only one thing you can handle: your capacity to be present, and to love.

If so, you will see clearly that your yoga journey is as wonderful as it is impermanent by nature.

More on profound concepts:

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Hailing from the Yukon, Canada, David (B.A, M.A.) is a yoga teacher (200-hour therapeutic YTT) and long-time student and practitioner of various spiritual disciplines including vedanta and Islam.

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