Venerable Thubten Chodron discusses impermanence with an inmate.
Venerable Thubten Chodron: I watch how easily my mind goes into the past—imagining, remembering, dreaming. But this takes me out of the present and into my head. I don’t want to grow old to be an old person who only has good memories. The past is gone. I want to learn to live a vibrant life now—every minute is now—no matter how old I am. Sometimes in the middle of insignificant things, I’ll stop and just say silently to myself, “This moment,” to remind myself to treasure the present, to smile and radiate a good heart right now, wherever I happen to be.
Sometimes, when I do this, I become acutely aware of how transient everything is. I’ll be petting my cat, enjoying his company, but also aware that everything that comes together must separate. The kitty and I are together now, but we will separate. There’s nothing to hang onto here, grasping and trying to extend the happiness doesn’t work. But mourning and getting depressed because things change is equally useless. Enjoy and let go.
One evening I went outside to take a walk and silhouetted in the dark blue evening sky, on the ridge of the upper meadow, was a deer. We stood and looked at each other for some time until he (she) leaped and ran into the forest. The next night I looked at the same place, hoping to see the deer again. I caught myself and reminded myself, “Don’t try to recreate the past. If you do, you’re missing out on the present. Tonight there may not be the spectacular sight of a deer silhouetted on the hill, but this evening has its own beauty. Come back to here.”
B. F.: I really like what you said about living in the “now” and not in the past. I’ve been working on that aspect of myself for many years now, trying to come to some kind of détente with it. Being in prison makes it much easier to hang onto stuff from the past because those things were “free world” events, and memories from times before prison seem to possess some kind of reverential quality because we were free men.
I often catch myself thinking about or remembering stuff from the old days, yet now I’m getting better at putting those things in perspective and realizing that the past is simply that—the past. To dwell on it means that I am taking some potential away from my NOW and possibly from my future. I think a person always needs to remember where he or she has been and the events, lessons, and people that were a part of that path—the path that led to where we now stand. But we shouldn’t cling to those memories. Attachment to the past is definitely negative; remembering what got you to this day in this life is positive. I think that’s called wisdom.