A psychiatrist (Epstein) went to Thailand with some colleagues to meet a well-known Buddhist sage. As they were about to leave they asked if he had a final message for them.
He was drinking a glass of water at the time so he held it up and said, “You see this glass. I love this glass. It holds water so I can drink from it.”
He then held it up to the light and said, “When the sun shines through it you can see colors.”
“It also plays music.” He set it down and pinged it with his finger to make a noise.
“Then when I set it down, the wind blows through the window, knocks it over, and breaks it,” he said. “And because I know this possibility to be true, I love this glass even more.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about impermanence lately. It is the one concept that gives me hope when I am in severe pain, and an idea that grounds me when I lose track of what’s important.
All things change. Even those emotions and situations that you are 100 percent certain are permanent, such as treatment-resistant depression, or a chronic illness, or a hole in your heart left by the death of a loved one.
I didn’t know if things would ever change for my friend, Michelle. In November 2008, her husband went into the hospital for gallbladder surgery, contracted an infection, and died a few weeks later. Their marriage was unlike any other I’d observed.
She met him at age 43, just as she was accepting the fact that she may never fall in love and marry, and experience all those emotions Tony Bennett sings about. He swept her off her feet, and they experienced marital bliss for ten years until he died.
She was devastated by his death. Even five years later, I would try to make her laugh, but her heart was drunk with sorrow and her spirit lay underneath a dark blanket.
However, two years ago, she went on a mission to Haiti. A sense of purpose seemed to breathe new life into her. Six months after that, she met a friend for lunch in the small, quaint town of Ocean Grove, New Jersey. Michelle immediately fell in love with the place and within a few months moved there, to a condo less than a block from the ocean.
I just spent last weekend with her in this space of new beginnings, seeing for myself the remarkable change in my friend who I thought would be stuck in grief for the rest of her life. It took me back, once again, to the concept of impermanence, and to the wise words of St. Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth-century mystic and one of my favorite saints:
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away;
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Whoever has God lacks nothing.
God alone suffices.
Even if you’re not a believer, I think Teresa’s message of “all things changing” is poignant.
Before my breakdown of 2013, when feelings of sadness or emptiness or discomfort would surface, I would panic, afraid that I was relapsing. I would start to say things like, “Uh oh, I am depressed again!” with the belief that I was, once again, heading into 18 months of medication changes and therapy and goggles filled with tears.
However, now when a painful emotion or feeling arises — and especially when I don’t know why or can’t even articulate what it is or where it’s coming from — I remember that it isn’t solid or permanent. It’s fleeting, and I need not get overly concerned. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s writing has been very helpful for me in this regard: teasing apart the various dimensions of emotional pain so that I don’t get fooled into thinking there are only two mental states: depressed and not depressed. In Full Catastrophe Living, he writes:
When you look deeply into emotional pain at the time you are feeling it, it is hard not to notice that your thoughts and emotions are in a state of extreme turbulence, coming and going, appearing and disappearing, changing with great rapidity. In times of great stress, you may notice certain thoughts and feelings recurring with unrelenting frequency … But if you can be mindful at such times, if you are watching carefully, you will also notice that even these recurring images, thoughts, and feelings have a beginning and an end, that they are like waves that rise up in the mind and then subside … In seeing these changes in your emotional state, you may come to realize that none of what you are experiencing is permanent. You can actually see for yourself that the intensity of the pain is not constant.
Often when I am swimming or running, a painful thought or feeling will surface (because, unlike when I’m working, my mind is more open to what is there). Instead of shooing the thought away, I try to be calm and say, “It’s okay if it hurts, because it’s not going to stay forever.” I try to treat the sensation as I did labor pains — “here it comes again, breathe through it, now enjoy this moment without it.”
There is no other concept that gives me so much peace when I am incapacitated by emotional pain as the reminder of impermanence … that the glass of water we take for granted may be knocked over by the wind tomorrow, and that the grief and depression that swallow us like quicksand will also be swept away.
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Art by the talented Anya Getter.
Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.