I hear some talk lately about when things will go back to the way they were … as if they ever do that. On the other hand, I hear some talk about how things will never go back to the way things were … as if that weren’t always the case. I get it: in the current environment, some people are seeing fundamental impermanence more clearly than they have ever seen it before. And the stakes seem higher. But from a spiritual perspective, nothing really has changed in this regard.
All things change continuously. The entire phenomenal universe is a phantasmagoria of change. Nothing ever goes back to the way things were, if they were even that to begin with. Widen your gaze enough, and you will see that mountains rise up and crumble to dust as swiftly as storm clouds blowing overhead. The stars ignite and go out as quickly as match heads. Each moment is always this moment — ever present — and yet things always change. The things cannot be grasped because they are always changing, and the moment cannot be grasped because you cannot be apart from it. So there really is nothing to hold on to.
Usually, we hide this truth from ourselves, principally to stave off terror. We imagine an independent self, and project a past and future, with some sense of stability and permanence. But this is only the imagination at work. That separate self, that stability, that permanence, has always been a kind of illusion. In times of great upheaval, many people may glimpse the real depth of impermanence for the first time. But it has always been thus.
If we are shocked or disturbed by the nature of change, it is simply disillusionment at work. There is fundamentally nothing to fear. Our fears can spur practical action, but we are bound to them only by and precisely to the extent that we cling to our illusions. From the spiritual perspective, disillusionment at work is an opportunity for insight and awakening. Without insight, disillusionment may be experienced as a kind of trauma or an assault against one’s way of life. With insight, it is a catalyst for awakening. So to the degree that our eyes are open to insight — open and accepting — all change can fuel our spiritual growth.
Zen-master Dogen wrote:
“Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the ash is future and the firewood past. You should understand that firewood abides in the phenomenal expression of firewood, which fully includes past and future and is independent of past and future. Ash abides in the phenomenal expression of ash, which fully includes future and past. Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it is ash, you do not return to birth after death.”
Firewood and ash — birth and death — are only ideas. As are the mountains and stars and your self. Insight into impermanence can encompass everything. This can seem terrifying, overwhelming, as if you are falling into an abyss, which offers no purchase, no hold, and no bottom. But if we can go all in, giving up everything, including ourselves … then our insight may pass beyond the impermanence of all things, and into the absolute, into the divine, into the unchangeable, diamond-like perfection of transcendent wisdom.
From a spiritual perspective, the stakes are no different now than they have always been. And my advice in the current situation is the same advice I would give for any situation. Prepare yourself for transformative change. Seek the truth in yourself and the world. Try to accept the fundamental uncertainty and ever-changing nature of all phenomena. Surrender yourself to the will of God, to the flow of nature and the ungraspable, groundlessness of being. Realize the truth that has always been with you — through every state and every situation — and you will find a love, a joy, and a peace that will endure anything.