• Caroline Penfield

Impermanence: A Resolution

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

So, here we are, at the start of 2020. A new year, a new decade. There is a lot of pressure associated with every new year. And to be honest, while I am usually eager to jump into making lists and thinking of ways to improve myself, I am meeting the start of this year with a lack of motivation. I see continents burning, troops being deployed into meaningless military conflict, innocent people being bombed in their homes, planes crashing, and my heart breaks. It does not feel right to see this and then sit in my college dorm room and try to outline how I’m going to clear up my acne.

I know that every day, every hour, or any undefined point in time can serve as a new beginning. However, I’ve got just enough anxiety in me to fear missing out on this structured, fresh start. So, I am choosing to make a resolution that I think will serve me well and also allow me to better serve the world. I am drawing on the best lesson I think I learned last year: the Buddhist practices of compassion, patience, and impermanence.

Last fall, when Geshe Sang-Po visited Elon to spend several days constructing a beautiful sand mandala, I had the chance to talk to him and other members of the Kadampa Center about Buddhism and their practices.

What I knew of Buddhism before was mainly the focus of compassion in the tradition. When my cohort of interns visited the Kadampa center in Durham, North Carolina in September we learned that compassion is a central tenant to practicing Buddhism. The Sanskrit word “maitrī” is translated as “loving kindness.” I recognize this language from the Christian Bible, in the book of Micah, where it is said that the Lord requires people to “love kindness,” sometimes translated as “love mercy.” Buddhism teaches compassion for others in order to liberate them from the suffering of the cycle of birth and death. Part of practicing Buddhism through meditation is stretching, growing, and deepening compassion, like a muscle. True compassion is rooted in cherishing others simply because they are other living things. It is not selfish.

Patience is something I’ve been trying to work on for years. I recently read that patience is a form of self-compassion. I also see patience as compassion for others, because through practicing it, one is able to interact in a more peaceful way with the world. Buddhism teaches three main components of patience: gentle forbearance, calm endurance of hardship, and acceptance of truth. Impatience is essentially wanting life to be different than it is. While I do strongly believe that there are times when urgent action is necessary, approaching with as much patience as possible invokes peace over a situation. And more often than not, if the time to act has arrived, someone or something has already endured hardship calmly. Patience is not passive, it is motivated by compassion for suffering, instead of a desire to eradicate it.

I saw patience in abundance while watching Geshe Sang-Po slowly but surely construct the mandala. He stood on his feet for days while placing each grain of sand into place with his tools. His patience brought peace into the space that consumed me each time I came to see the progress.

Creating the mandala

It was observing the mandala where I learned that valuable lesson, the one I am most trying to bring into 2020: impermanence. I had watched Geshe Sangpo meticulously create this beautiful piece for two and a half days. We were preparing for the closing ceremony, where the mandala would be deconstructed and the sand would be given to the attendees or returned to water. I was sitting with the geshe, and after he complimented my Birkenstocks for how comfortable they looked, which is never a conversation I thought I would have with a Tibeten Monk, I shared something that had been worrying me all week. I watched people come in and hold their phones or cameras directly above the mandala to take pictures, and every time someone did, I could see how easy it would be for them to drop it into the sand and destroy the mandala. I asked him what he would do if something like that happened, if he were to sneeze on it while he was working, etc. Essentially, what if it got messed up?

His response was that, to him, it wouldn’t matter. He would repair it, but he knows that the mandala is not meant to last forever anyway. It is impermanent. It is supposed to be that way. He answered with such a nonchalant attitude. He spends days making these intricate designs in meditation, and the thought that it could be messed up and that that would be a problem did not seem to worry him at all.

Geshe Sang-Po and I at the Closing Ceremony

This was so far from how I think about things. I cannot count the number of things I worry about in a day that don’t matter by the next morning. My outfit, my lunch, how I worded a text message. All of these things have such fleeting consequences. They are impermanent.

Buddhism acknowledges that impermanence, the passing of a loved one, the changing of a season, can be painful, but that it is inescapable. By trying to hold onto impermanent things, we are not showing ourselves compassion.

My resolution this year is to embrace impermanence. To use my wider understanding of it to discern what truly matters, and to use my newly found free time to show compassion rather than to worry.

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