Reflections on Time and Impermanence

Still life painting of photos arranged on a tabletop
Neoma, 2005.

“We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.” -Confucius

My second life began when I was twenty-six. I at once became keenly aware of how short life is, how it can end suddenly, how none of us is promised tomorrow. This realization was not triggered by a near-death experience or the loss of someone close to me. It came about in the aftermath of divorce, while struggling to build a life for myself and to sculpt an identity. It arose during months of counseling sessions, self-reflection, trying to lift myself out of the hole of depression. I read the words of Eckhart Tolle, echoing the sentiments of the Buddha and other wise people over the millennia: “the present moment is all you have.”

The concept was both unsettling and oddly comforting. Nothing is permanent, not even our struggles. Once I internalized this understanding of life’s brevity and impermanence, there was no going back. It became the lens through which I viewed the world. If something is important to me, I do it now, or I make plans to do it as soon as possible. If something is unimportant to me, if it does not add meaning or joy, if it does not better my life or the life of someone else in some way, then I question whether I ought to do it at all.

One challenge I face is balancing what can feel like a race against time with living in the present. There is so much I want to do and experience that I am loathe to waste time, but are my goals and to-do lists keeping me from fully appreciating life as it is right now? Among the many other delicate balances in life, achieving equipoise between striving and being can be particularly difficult for me.

Last year, one of my good friends said goodbye to her grandmother, who passed away at the age of 94. My friend brought her grandmother’s high school yearbook with her when she came to visit me a few months later. As we looked through the pages of smiling young faces captioned with activities and post-graduation plans, as we read in faded ink the messages those seventeen-year-olds had written, I was struck by a sense of time being compressed. It was as if my friend’s grandmother was both young and old, and everything in between, all at once. Her entire life appeared as a snapshot, in one sense long, but in another sense here and gone in the blink of an eye.

Dani Shapiro’s memoir Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage captures that sense of compression beautifully, from the viewpoint of mid-life. Shapiro reflects on who she was at different moments and conveys a feeling of being all of those people in one. Addressing her younger self, she writes:

Oh, child! Somewhere inside you, your future has already unfurled like one of those coiled-up party streamers, once shiny, shaken loose, floating gracefully for a brief moment, now trampled underfoot after the party is over. The future you’re capable of imagining is already a thing of the past. Who did you think you would grow up to become? You could never have dreamt yourself up. Sit down. Let me tell you everything that’s happened. You can stop running now. You are alive in the woman who watches you as you vanish.

At the end of a recent meditation class, I expressed to the teacher a hesitation to give up my ambition for the sake of living in the present.  “My teachers are some of the most ambitious people I know,” he said. But if you fully accept your current circumstances, leaning into all of life’s experiences and finding the joy in every moment, can you also be working to achieve things in the future?  Isn’t future-oriented thinking the opposite of living for now?  “You just can’t be attached to the outcome,” the teacher explained.  “You want to find equanimity, to be content with whatever happens.”

I imagine one day I will look back on blog posts like this one the way Shapiro looks through her old journals. There is so much I would say now to my younger self; what would my future, wiser self say to present-day me? Perhaps, as Shapiro suggests, I am all of those people in one, right now.

I sometimes find myself clinging to the way things are, not wanting to lose the life I have today or the people close to me. But we cannot prevent change.  We cannot beat time. We cannot slow it down or make it stop. The best we can do is to pay attention, to appreciate this moment, to love it for everything it offers, and to hope that one day, if given the opportunity to look back, we will remember it fondly.

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