The Impermanence of Life: A Heuristic for Handling Loss

The moments of deepest contentment in my life have come in moments when I am forced to accept the impermanence of it.

Impermanence of life in sand

I knew it was coming. That text or that phone call would come, and I wouldn’t know how to handle it.

Then, at 2:00pm on Thursday, the dreaded text came through: my grandfather, Teodoro, had passed away peacefully at the age of 84.

I sat at my desk, looking through the window onto the thick green forest that surrounds my apartment building, wondering what I could have done to change things.

Could I have gone to see him earlier in the day before he passed away?

Did COVID isolation worsen his condition?

Could I have done anything?

Of course, I could have, but none of it would have altered such an inevitable outcome.

In times of unavoidable change, we think we have some role to play that can alter the inescapable outcome. Our “manager mind” kicks in, thinking up plans to fix and make things right. But on that day, in that moment, I realized there was nothing I, or anyone else, could do.

And so I sat there with my thoughts. And there was a word playing over and over again in my mind. It’s a word that has saved me many times from the unhealthy depths of sorrow and despair.

The only word repeating over and over again in my mind was… “impermanence.”

Impermanence is the only permanence

From afar, you would think that an awareness of our impermanence would stimulate feelings of anxiety and unease.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

When you experience loss or a traumatic experience, it suddenly dawns on you that there are things outside of our control. This forces you to focus only on the most important things, and of those, only the ones you can control.

We’ve all heard the saying “change is the only constant.” It’s a line that never really understand unless you step back and survey the time horizon of a generation or even an entire lifetime. But whether you zoom in to the moment or out to the big picture, there are examples all around us of how fleeting life can be.

I spent the first 19 years of my life in the same house. It’s a place that I never thought I would leave. And then one day, we left. That is impermanence.

There was a woman in southwest Louisiana who had spent her whole life in one house, running one business. Then Hurricane Laura came and in a matter of hours, destroyed everything the woman spent her entire life building. That is impermanence.

Dinner is a meal that we all love to sit down and share with the people we love. In many cases, it can take an hour or more to prepare. In only a matter of minutes it is consumed. That is impermanence.

A baby can grow into a toddler, into an adolescent, into an adult, and after nearly 85 years on this earth, he is gone in the blink of an eye. That is the painful nature of impermanence.

No matter where we focus our gaze, change is truly the only constant. Impermanence is truly the only permanence.

And somehow, these statements give me comfort and a sense of stability.

A masterclass on life

The year 2020 has been a masterclass on the impermanence of life. In just a few short days in March, our years and decades spent living life a certain way were fundamentally changed forever. With that change came sadness, which led to misery, depression, unhappiness, and any negative emotion you can imagine, flooding the world on levels never seen before.

Negative emotions are natural, but if we become too attached to a particular outcome, the further away we drift, the more magnified these emotions will be.

Let’s look at sadness, for instance. Sadness is a fundamental human emotion. It is useful to feel it and healthy to express it. It brings us together and can build closer bonds among us. But the pain of sadness becomes harmful when we become attached to our vision of happiness, attached to our beliefs of how the world should be, and attached to our resistance to impermanence.

Attachment to things we cannot control is the primary reason for most of our negative emotions. The goal is not to eliminate negative emotions altogether, but to be able to channel them into forces of good.

If there is one group of people on Earth who have been able to handle the emotions that so often accompany thoughts of impermanence better than any other, it’s Tibetan Buddhist monks. I’m no Buddhist, but I’ve always had the utmost admiration of their ability to detach themselves from expectation. Their mastery of this mindset is embodied in a ritual of creating a sand mandala.

Life is a sand mandala

A sand mandala is a fascinating form of art unlike anything else on earth. Tibetan monks spend several weeks creating a beautiful image of geometric patterns, sometimes as large as 12 square feet. At its completion, it is destroyed in a matter of minutes. That is impermanence.

I first learned about sand mandalas in an episode of House of Cards. Over the course of many days, the Underwoods would pass by a group of monks in the White House, painstakingly creating a sand mandala, only to be left speechless when it was cleaned up without a trace.

This episode (S3:E7 to be specific), more than any other episode on any TV series, hit me the hardest. The lesson? Nothing lasts. At the time, like Frank Underwood, I could not understand how these monks could create something so grand and so beautiful over such a long period of time, only to destroy it and remove any sign that it ever existed.

In the years since, I’ve realized that every building, every work of art, every belief, every human life, every single thing we think to be permanent…is nothing more than a sand mandala.

This heuristic has been immensely freeing for me. It reduces the harmful effects of pain and suffering and allows me to apply my negative emotions in positive ways: to mourn with appreciation, receive feedback with gratitude, avoid envy, reduce my exposure to harmful negativity.

Impermanence is inescapable

By accepting the impermanence of life, you are opening yourself to a fuller, more rewarding, more meaningful life.

It is the patience, the attention to detail, and the love that we give to our loved ones and to our work, that usually makes us want to hold onto them forever.

Living life through the lens of a sand mandala can help you give more of yourself, while simultaneously reducing the harmful attachment that comes with such giving.

If you approach life like a sand mandala, you begin to enjoy the journey of life much more. You’re less likely to spend your time angry at the world or miserable because you didn’t get what you wanted. You’re less likely to hold grudges or hold on to senseless disagreements.

You will embrace life to the fullest, and make the most of every minute you have, especially with your loved ones. You will become acutely aware and appreciative of the small things. You will let go of unhealthy expectation, because you know that one day, everything you cherish will, just like the colorful sands that make up a sand mandala, disappear.

So, as I mourn the loss of my grandfather, the sand mandala has played a large part in keeping me grounded. My acceptance of impermanence has allowed me to celebrate him and appreciate his life in ways that attachment doesn’t allow.

These last few days have reminded me why the moments of deepest contentment in my life have come in moments when I am forced to accept the impermanence of it.

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