Engaged Buddhism in This Time of Pandemic (2)

This is the second in an open-ended series of posts exploring some of the principle teachings of Buddhism for insights into how we might conduct our lives more skillfully during these challenging times of the coronavirus pandemic. For an overview of the entire projected series, please see the first entry.


The Three Characteristics (“Marks”) of Existence:

(1) Impermanence

There are three characteristics (frequently referred to as “marks” in traditional Buddhist texts) that are said to fully describe the nature of our human existence – impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self.  While each of them is present to some degree in just about any given circumstance, it seems to me that all three of them are manifesting in particularly unique and unmistakable ways in the current conditions that we are collectively living through during the coronavirus pandemic.

Here are some thoughts on the first of these three characteristics – impermanence.

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While we all know that things are always changing, and that nothing lasts forever, we often act as if we didn’t know.  We do so, of course, for the very good reason that, on a day-to-day basis, the persons, places, and things that were there in our lives yesterday are usually still there today, and (we can reasonably presume) will still be there tomorrow. We rely on this day-to-day continuity for our ongoing sense of identity and purpose.  In its absence, our lives would be chaotic beyond imagining.

The mistake we typically make, though, is to conflate this essential aspect of continuity with the erroneous attribution of permanence.  We naturally expect things to continue on a daily basis as we’ve become accustomed to, because that’s been our lifelong experience.  But our presumption that this will remain the case indefinitely into the future is in fact just that – a presumption.  And this presumption flies in the face of the first characteristic of our existence, the impermanence of all things.

On the first day of social distancing and stay-at-home directives, we awoke to find that so much that we take for granted as permanent features of our experience – commuting to our jobs, seeing our kids off to school, shopping for groceries, dining at a favorite restaurant, taking a stroll through the park, visiting with friends – could practically vanish into thin air, like so many random pieces of paper blown out an open window by a sudden unexpected gust of wind.

Today, more than one month into this new normal, we have an opportunity to reflect upon the tenuous nature of our mistaken sense of continuity-as-permanence, and to correct that erroneous perception with a newfound awareness that every aspect of our experience is ultimately impermanent.

Such an awareness would not only put us in better alignment with Buddhism’s first characteristic of existence, but would also almost certainly change for the better how we experience life going forward.  Imagine what it might be like if, instead of thoughtlessly presuming that whatever it is we’re enjoying today will automatically be there for us again tomorrow, we took the more thoughtful attitude of appreciating today’s experience all the more because we know much better than to simply presume that it will still be there for us tomorrow.  Hopefully, of course, it will.  But now we would know that, perhaps, it won’t.

Embracing the characteristic of impermanence in this deep and lasting fashion would, I think, enhance our experience of every present moment – including each of the very challenging moments we are living through, and enduring, right now.

Stay well, everyone …

The next post in this series will focus on the second of the three characteristics of existence – unsatisfactoriness.