“This too shall pass.” My mother would comfort me with these words when I was facing something difficult, like an earache or an hour in the dentist’s chair. And her words rang true – those challenges did pass and I was eventually restored to my preferred condition. But I also remember greeting her words with skepticism. “Why do I have to face anything unpleasant? Don’t tell me this will go away eventually. Take it away now!”
But it’s not just bad things that pass. Everything passes. No exceptions. It doesn’t matter whether we consider the people and events of our lives to be good, bad, or neutral. They all arise, stay a while, and say goodbye.
It’s one thing to know that the hard times pass. It’s another to realize that everything else goes too. The Buddha called this the truth of impermanence: “All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.”
What sort of mother would burden her kid with a bummer of a truth like that? Mine never told me that the chocolate-swirl soft ice-cream cone dripping down my arm would soon pass or that the model Red Baron tri-plane I’d just glued together would eventually be tossed into the garbage. Like most of us, I grew up thinking that bad things should pass but good things shouldn’t, and when good things did pass something about that was wrong and unfair.
After many years feeling disgruntled by the unfairness of loss, I decided to face this bummer of a truth directly. The Wise Ones tell us to turn towards our suffering; that by leaning into the wind and embracing our storms, we transform their power over us. In doing this, I began to see that my pain wasn’t primarily due to the impermanence of what I loved. It was because I believed that what I loved shouldn’t be impermanent. And when my temporary beloveds departed, as they inevitably must, my fantasy of permanence created far more suffering than my actual losses.
I discovered that the truth of impermanence isn’t a bummer after all. It is a key to experiencing the joy of life’s fragile blessings. Knowing that we will be separated from all that we love unlocks the joy of being together. We don’t throw away this experience based on the illusion of an endless shared future because we know, one day, our togetherness will end. We enjoy the smoky fall air because winter is almost here. We cradle our crying child because one day he will be too ‘grown-up’ for our hugs. We tilt our face towards the Blue Moon because we have eyes that see and legs that stand, at least for now.
“This too shall pass” can be more than a tool for helping us through tough times. It can be our mantra of preciousness. As we recite it during life’s mundane moments, we remind ourselves that these moments are provisional companions. All we can do is bask in the audacious generosity of the Universe for putting this snowflake on our glasses, this peach on our plate, this book in our hands, this friend at our kitchen table. And when we recite my mother’s mantra during challenges, we learn to endure with patience and grace, remembering that whether we chose this moment or not, here it is, and it is precious.