Impermanence creates potential


Last summer’s gardenia: Photo by Celia


“We are all practicing to become the person we will become next.”    ~ Andrew Olendzki


“Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“Impermanent are all component things,

They arise and cease, that is their nature:

They come into being and pass away,

Release from them is bliss supreme.”

Aniccaa vata sa”nkhaaraa — uppaada vaya dhammino

Uppajjitvaa nirujjhanti — tesa.m vuupasamo sukho.

~Mahaa-Parinibbaana Sutta (DN 16)

Dear Friends,

I hope you are well and enjoying the goodness of impermanence. We see this in the spring that is causing the daffodils to emerge and the birds making plans for new families. Witnessing change and the moment to moment shift of living is a central part of the meditative path. Impermanence (anicca) is one of the three marks of existence, the inescapable truths all beings encounter in life, from the smallest single-celled animal to the complexities of the human experience. Everything changes whether we like it or not. The things that bring us happiness do not last and holding onto the pleasure we encounter on this worldly plane will not give us liberation and freedom but ties us to a continued enmeshment in searching for lasting happiness where it doesn’t exist. And we are not permanent. This idea of self that we see as a separate and discreet is really the confluence of systems and cooperation that stretches wider than my mind can grasp. I am constantly in the process of cellular birth and death and will one day, “wake up dead,” and transition into a new and unknown form of being.

Impermanence is not personal and can sound like a tremendous bummer, but this understanding is also a way out of the suffering of attaching to what is a chimera. The last instructions of the Buddha to his sangha stressed the importance of minding the change in what appears unchangeable. He told his sangha ‘”I exhort you, monks: All fabrications are subject to decay. Bring about completion by being heedful.’ Those were the Tathagata’s last words”’ (SN 6.5, Thanissaro trans). Given the weight of timing, we could argue that contemplating impermanence is where we should spend our time.

In the Sutta, The Eight Realizations of Great Beings, translated from the Pali to Chinese, then to English by Thich Nhat Hanh, “The First Realization is the awareness that the world is impermanent. Political regimes are subject to fall. Things composed of the four elements are empty, containing within them the seeds of suffering. Human beings are composed of Five Aggregates and are without a separate self. They are always in the process of change – constantly being born and constantly dying. They are empty of self and without a separate existence. The mind is the source of all confusion, and the body the forest of all unwholesome actions. Meditating on this, you can be released from the round of birth and death ” ( 2006, Taisho Revised Tripitaka, No. 779). This teaching illustrates the hope and reward associated with contemplating impermanence.

Indeed, beings comprised of the five aggregates, form, feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness are not independently arising and subject to birth and death. When we see this truth we can stand apart from our identification with political ideologies and our quest for becoming somebody. When we see that the government—even ones as powerful as the US, Russia, or China are impermanent and we have witnessed or know about turnovers in these regimes before, yet it seems unthinkable that there could be a paradigm shift in something so solid as the US Constitution or the House of Lords.

When we look with our dharma eyes we see that we aren’t the Democrats or Republicans we think we are; we are transient phenomenon inhabiting a temporary construct, this society, and even this earth. The Buddha recognized that his teachings here on earth are subject to change and dissolution. There is nothing that will not change. Socially engaged spirituality teacher Donald Rothberg told about his own practice of contemplating impermanence for five minutes every day. We can do this through noticing the shifts in our body, mind, and emotions and also noting the beginning, middle and ending of sounds around us. He did this daily exercise for years and recommends it as a way to free us from delusion.

Reflecting on impermanence in my day, I see that the morning is now a sunset. Grey clouds are gathering on the horizon. My body is different than it was. I am not hungry the way I was around 4:00 today. I’m a bit sleepy and I need to turn on a light because it’s now dark in this room where I’m writing. I hear the refrigerator make a noise, then stop. There’s an engine, now it’s gone. My spouse just came in through the garage door. I hear footsteps, now I don’t. Even as I write this I see changes in my surroundings and in myself. My mind is returning to an earlier email that caused some concern and moving ahead to the two tasks I need to do before bed.

Looking into the past, I can imagine myself as two cells, then four, eight, and a developing fetus. I know there was a time I was pre-verbal (there are photos to prove it!) and now I can speak English and poor Spanish. With impermanence, maybe I can speak better Spanish, or if I don’t practice, it will be worse Spanish. Impermanence makes learning possible. My dog’s leg can heal in an impermanent world, babies grow and buds become leaves to feed the trees.  With impermanence, we can affect change, but we are not owned by the conditions of this embodied existence. We are free to become what we choose. When we get comfortable with impermanence we can see the preciousness of this time in this body, on this earth, in all the pleasant and unpleasantness. This lifetime is our classroom for waking up from the so serious ideas of ownership, and identity. When we see through the veil of permanent we lose identification to the I, me, and mine and recognize that we are all just visiting here—let us take good care of these borrowed bodies, this lovely home—our planet, and our beloved ones we get to appreciate right now.

May we all trust our light,


A cloud never dies



Generosity is giving to ourselves


Snowdrops: photo by Celia


Therefore the wise give gifts. Seeking bliss,

they would subdue the stain of miserliness.

Established in the three-fold heavenly world,

they enjoy themselves long in fellowship with the devas.

Having made the opportunity for themselves,

having done what is skillful, then when they fall from here

they fare on, self-radiant, in Nandana.

There they delight, enjoy, are joyful,

replete with the five sensuality strands.

Having followed the words of the sage who is Such,

                                 they enjoy themselves in heaven —

          disciples of the One Well-gone.

Siha Sutta: To General Siha (On Generosity), AN 5.34

translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu © 1997


Dear Friends,

Here in New England, it doesn’t feel much like spring with three Nor’easters in the past three weeks and the possibility of more snow this week. Despite the bitter wind, the Earth knows that spring is coming. There are daffodil stalks pushing through into the sunshine and I saw my first cluster of snowdrops blooming on the south side of an old Maple tree. This is the truth of living, there is always change—some we enjoy more than others. Spring is an especially joyful time after a long and draining winter. This celebration of the return to warmer and brighter days is the gift of impermanence.

In Buddhism and life, we often think of impermanence as loss or the painful change of separation from what we love. Spring is a reminder that impermanence is also possibility and opportunity. Impermanence is present in us as neuroplasticity, or the ability to shape our thoughts, our brains, and manifest change in our lives. If we cling to the notion of permanent selves and relationships, we may unwittingly shortchange our capability to grow our care and compassion. This is one of the reasons that intentional actions and reflection are so profound.

We are alive in a time where we know more about the human biological phenomenon than any other time in the history of the world. We are also alive in an era where we can access the wisdom teachings of millennia from our laptops while lying on the sofa. We have more access to the Pali canon and great teachers than any other generation—yea, impermanence again. We have the teaching and trainings to make our minds a safe place. I can actively create a mind where I want to spend time, a resilient, loving, and kind refuge for myself and all I encounter. We are the artists and authors of our mind states.

The first paramita-Sanskrit [parami-Pali], or perfection that leads to liberation is dana or generosity. The Buddha knew that giving and generosity were essential for creating a peaceful society that valued all living beings. Neuroscientists found another reason to practice generosity—it feels good. In a generosity study, subjects who practiced giving showed activation in the medial forebrain pleasure circuit. This cluster of neurons in the brain is responsible for the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine which produces the experience of pleasure and is also activated when using narcotics, alcohol, or through sex. Even contemplating generosity, regardless of the magnitude of the act, created a response in the pleasure center of the brain.

To enhance a state, we bring intentionality to the act and pause to take in how it feels in the body. Contemplating the act before we do it. Staying present with the experience afterward we imprint this is our explicit memory and create more neural connections to support happiness through generosity.

Recently, I was in New York to attend a Buddhist meeting. I told my friend who lives in Manhattan that I often felt conflicted about generosity and giving to people on the street since I didn’t know if I was contributing to addictions and enabling their illness. This is called “stupid compassion,” trying to please everyone without discernment. I asked her how she practiced generosity.

My friend said to practice the gift of attention. This involves speaking to the person who is asking for money and regardless of how much you give–it could be a nickel, look into their eyes and find out something about them. I put her advice into practice on the next block and spoke to a woman sitting against a building wrapped in a blanket on a frigid February morning. I asked how she was doing and she told me that she needed money to pay a legal bill so she could move and be free from an abusive partner. I listened to her talk about the fragility of position and with the wreck of a hurricane or getting fired, anyone could be where she was. No one was immune. She reminded me of impermanence.

I asked her directions and as I walked to the bus stop, I was full of appreciation and wonder. The exchange was far from what I thought I’d find. This woman understood suffering. She understood the delusion of judgment and she helped me find my way. It didn’t matter if her story was true or not. I gave her a dollar and she gave me an experience of loosening my judgment, and the beautiful gift of recognizing shared humanity with someone who is overlooked and often despised.

This week is an opportunity to practice creating and noting the loveliness in our intention of generosity, staying present with our gratitude for giving the gift of a smile, the phone call to listen to a friend, or making eye contact with someone who is ignored. As we linger in the pleasure of our own generosity we create the foundation of habit. Noticing our goodness and good feelings leads to more willingness to practice this open-hearted risk that gives so much in return. When we see our own goodness, we are unafraid.

May we all trust our light,


th (4)

The hard Work of Being Lazy

Alloway Kirk, stone

Gravestone from Alloway Kirk, Scotland. Photo by Barbara Richardson

“Don’t just do something, sit there.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

“Be Yourself. Life is precious as it is. All the elements for your happiness are already here. There is no need to run, strive, search, or struggle. Just Be.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh

“May all beings be happy in themselves.” The Buddha, from the Metta Sutta


Dear Friends,

When was the last time you observed sabbath? Traditionally, the Sabbath is a day set apart to practice the art of enjoying family, life and caring for our human spiritual nature. Exodus 20:8, states, “Remember the Sabbath, keep it holy.” On the Sabbath, the most rigorous Hebraic observance excludes discussion of everyday matters and day to day work. Rabbi’s advise congregants to slow down and walk slower reflecting the quality of leisure. There is no rushing on the Sabbath. Observant Orthodox Jews do not engage in reading or writing and are forbidden to make future plans. The emphasis is on stopping and resting instead of doing.  For Christians, the Sabbath was set aside to give time for worship and reverence, without the distraction of work.

In the Plum Village tradition, there is Lazy Day. This is a day to practice non-doing. Thich Nhat Hahn says, “this isn’t a day when you can just do what you like” (Happiness, 2009, p. 104). To truly practice laziness is very difficult for most of us. In non-doing, we must stop and confront ourselves. We have an opportunity to see the directions we are pulled in and how we are with others and see the quality of our dedication to practice. For some, this is an opportunity to release some of the tension and tightness around the practice, for others, a day of deep looking can give more energy and commitment to continuing practice.

Lazy day is counter-culture to our societal pull that tells us we need to be busy to be valued. This constant engagement hides feelings of boredom and loneliness, “When we do not have something to do we get bored and seek for something to do, or for entertainment. We are very afraid of being there and doing nothing. The Lazy Day had been prescribed for us not to be afraid of doing nothing. Otherwise, we have no means to confront our stress and our depression” (Hanh, 2009, p. 103). When we stop doing, we stop running and we discover that our difficult feelings cannot hide in activity. Without distractions, we encounter ourselves in a more stark, honest way. Renouncing doing offers the opportunity to meet our suffering with care and compassion and to turn towards ourselves.

Trying to not do, we may find that we encounter the societally rampant belief that we are not worthwhile when we are not busy. There is an implicit attachment to our status as busy, in demand, and someone who is sought after. We unconsciously place our worth in our achievements and the conditional love and success of our career highs or latest good deed.

For many people, this unexamined construct of worthiness comes crashing down when there is illness, or we retire and are no longer capable of meeting our expectations. We have lost touch with who we are by ourselves and may feel worthless without our title or profession to give us meaning. This version of the self is an illusion of value based on how well we comply with societal demands. We fall into the mistaken belief that we must be good and productive citizens instead of attending to the moment to moment unfolding truth of living in a sensitive embodied form.

When we do the very difficult job of not doing, we may see the habits of desiring praise and achievement clearly. We can offer ourselves a different way to be that is rooted in who we really are, a precious human life with the unique opportunity of waking up to the possibility of befriending ourselves at each moment. When we stop doing we can become still enough to hear what our heart is longing for and begin to care for the one who is so close, and so often overlooked.

May we all trust our light,


I have Arrived, I am Home

Escape From Time Prison

Eagle leaving nest

Eagle Leaving Nest. Photo by Jerome


“I wanted to figure out why I was so busy, but I couldn’t find the time to do it.”

~Todd Stocker

“People say time is money, but time is life.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“If you take time to enjoy dishwashing, then dishwashing can become meditation. If you think of the time of washing as the time that you lose… then you lose yourself. It means you continue to lose your life.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

Every day I hear someone say, “There isn’t enough time,” or “I’d like to do mindfulness, but I don’t have the time.” I know. There is never enough time to do everything. But somehow, we manage to have enough time to do what we value. Thich Nhat Hanh notes that we organize our lives around what is most important to us. This past week was super action-packed for me and I started to feel stretched thin. All this doing has led me to two ways of thinking about time and busyness. They are not new or complex, but they are both a radical departure from our culture of rapidity and stress.

The first thing I realized was the more I looked into the future and saw the big list of all the things to do, the less capable and trustworthy I became. This is the first realization of taking hold of your time—keeping our view small. Buddhist peace activist and organizer, Bernie Glassman writes, “Just because things are overwhelming doesn’t mean they have to overwhelm you. If you realize that things are not under your control, you can go step by step. You simply stop long enough to ask yourself, ‘What do I do with my time for the next hour’” (Instructions to the Cook, p. 77). When we break our time into small moments and focus what we commit to doing, we shift the lens and suddenly we are capable and competent. An hour is a different prospect than a day or a week.

Shrinking our window of planning is good and there’s that expression we all know, but few practice doing one thing at a time. Ahh, the essence of Zen, attending to just this moment. Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, that our very connection and presence depends upon our ability to drop into this moment of experience, otherwise, we lose our connection with life. Thay reminds us that “while drinking the cup of tea we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked into the future—and we are incapable of actually living one moment of life” (The Miracle of Mindfulness, p. 8). When we spend our time focused on the big list of “to do,” we shift our perception of time and lose the time we have now.

It’s revolutionary to read, Bernie Glassman’s line, “There’s always enough time.” Glassman is not ruled by time, instead, he chooses to set his priorities to get done what needs to get done and using time as an ally instead of a master. His common knowledge secret is the wisdom from Zen master Maezumi Roshi, who told him, “when you walk, you walk.” It’s that old, one thing at a time practice. This is the spirit in which Thich Nhat Hanh describes two ways to wash dishes, “The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes. The second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.” We can extrapolate that direction in our own lives to when we drive, we just drive, when we sit, we just sit, when we make breakfast we just make breakfast.

Doing one thing at a time, with a small window of planning sounds so supremely simple, but then why is it so difficult?  One reason is that the mind can develop a strong habit of taking care and get a bit overzealous. This hyper-vigilant mind state can become reflexive, giving us less than helpful reminders, “Have you thought about what you’re going to say at the meeting? You know you have a due date, shouldn’t you be further along?” This nagging, hurrying, protecting mind does all this out of love for us and the deep desire to keep us safe. Sometimes, it’s wise to thank our mind for trying so valiantly to be our guardian, and then, with promises of calling and visiting this anxious warden, we come back to the small circle of momentary engagement, right here right now. It is not easy because the mind convinces us we will risk everything if we ignore the hurry up message.

There is hope for the chronically overscheduled. Bernie Glassman gives this explanation of how we can free ourselves from the idea of the time prison, “when we eliminate the gap between our expectations and what we’re doing, our energies all go into what we’re doing at the moment. We’re not wasting our energy on what we think we should be doing. At that point, all of a sudden, the notion of time disappears.” When we set up our lives to include what we value, focus on what is achievable in a short amount of time and then stay present with what we are doing, with our mind and our body, that is about as good as it gets. Then we can find that we too have all the time we need for what is needed.

May we all trust our light,


happiness is here and now