Friday, September 2, 2011

Impermance, Balance, and Peace

DoOrDoNot recently asked about Impermance, and how it affects our lives.
We are not wired to accept impermanence, at least not as adults, which is ironic given the impermanence in which we are steeped. It's a constant challenge for me to rest easy in an awareness of impermanence. What about you? Are there areas where you embrace impermanence?
I responded:
I would think that embracing impermanence is the very essence of parenting - at least, that's been my experience so far. Every time I think I know how they'll react, or what they can do, they move on to something new. It seems like I have to find a new equilibrium every couple of weeks.

I visualize the process as something like surfing (which I've never tried) or Aikido (which I have): the goal is to keep your balance and move with the things that are trying to upset it.

...And having said that in the comments, I went on to other topics. Then, this past weekend, the Beautiful Wife and I were talking about our rash of recent difficulties. One of the thoughts that came up (I don't remember which of us introduced it) is that at moments like that, it's easy to understand the appeal of systems like Buddhism or Taoism. Both beliefs - or at least, some versions of both beliefs - teach that striving is vain and futile, that the only way to be at peace is to give up striving. I don't entirely agree with that, but recently it really has felt like the more we try to get things back in order - the more we strive, in other words - the harder we get slapped down.

I realize that isn't a terribly complete or nuanced view of Buddhism or Taoism, either one; so let me offer another memory to fill that in a little bit.

About five years ago, I went to Australia to attend a sword camp taught by a Tai Chi instructor named Scott Rodell. The person who was hosting this camp was someone I knew online, and I'd been partly responsible for her decision to study under Laoshi ("Teacher") Rodell - which was why I was down there. (Confused, yet? Don't worry, the background isn't critical.)

During the camp, while we were trying to catch our breath[1], someone asked Laoshi Rodell about Taoism and how it related to his Tai Chi. He explained that he'd been studying Taoism for several years. For him the two studies were intimately related. And he talked about this idea that striving was unnecessary and unhelpful, and about the stories you hear of great Taoists just sort of waiting and letting things happen for themselves. "It kind of makes the ancient masters sound like a bunch of lazy bastards," he explained[2], "but I don't think that's it, exactly. What I've learned from Taoism, and from doing Tai Chi, is this: the world has a grain." He motioned one of the students forward, and had him take a balanced stance. "Like this. I know, if I try to push against him this way..." and Laoshi Rodell leaned into the student's shoulder, "...he won't move." Sure enough, because of the angle at which the student was standing, he didn't move at all.

"But if I push against him here..." This time Laoshi Rodell placed a palm against the student's chest. "...he'll go right over." And he gave a very slight push, and the student had to step back to catch his balance.

So, back to the original question. How do you deal with impermanence in your life? For me, the immediate answer is "reflex." You learn how to approach things, and when to cut your losses and try something else. After a while, those responses become easier, more automatic. You cultivate those reflexes - the ones that work - and after a while they're almost effortless, and that feels like peace. It isn't - it's more a sense of balance that's well-trained enough to ignore everyday turbulence - but it feels like it is.

[1] Tai Chi is actually a martial art. Though it's frequently not taught that way, it can be a startlingly effective fighting system. Also, part of the purpose of weapons training is that swinging chunks of wood and steel around is really good exercise.

[2] I'm writing this from a five-year-old memory, so don't trust my accuracy too far.


  1. I like Rodell's comment that "the world has a grain".There is a sort of striving that is futile as he so adeptly demonstrated. I've begun studying Budhism and have been working to understand the concept of nonattachment, which is related to the idea of not striving. I've never studied Taoism, so I don't know how closely they're related.

  2. I don't know, either, but now I'm curious - when I get a second, I'll go look it up.


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