Groundhog Day and the serious problem of impermanence

Steve Goodheart Essay

One of the most basic teachings of the Buddha, so far as I understand it, is that all conditioned things, all contingent things, all fabricated things, all things that arise, and thus all things that pass away, are inherently impermanent, and thus are intrinsically dukkha—suffering and unsatisfactoriness.

Further, the Buddha, or Buddhism, teaches that our attachment to these conditioned, fabricated, contingent, and thus impermanent things, is the cause not only of our suffering but of our continual becoming into in a world of suffering.

The Buddha doesn’t offer this teaching as a set of metaphysical ideas we accept or don’t accept. Rather, his teaching urges us to look and see for ourselves. To take the idea of impermanence as a mere intellectual idea or world view is surely the cause of hopelessness and despair for many people.

What meaning has life, if all things are going to pass away, especially all things that make us happy, and if we, finally, must die? Surely this abstract, intellectual understanding of impermanence is why those who haven’t actually practiced Buddhism sometimes call it “pessimistic” or “world denying.”

Impermanence isn’t a just Buddhist concept, it’s a fact of life

But Buddhism didn’t invent the problem of impermanence. All we have to do is look around us. Look at what the physical sciences show us. The impermanence of material things is pretty obvious. Virtually anything created or fabricated can become “uncreated” and unfabricated. All things decay and wear out.  Birth, aging, and death are the fate of all living creatures. Species come and go. Civilizations rise and fall.

Even galaxies are impermanent

Mountains thrust up and erode away. Continents appear and disappear. Planets are formed, life may or may not arise, and finally, the planet shares the same fate as the star it orbits—heat death as all energy runs down and out, or annihilation when the star goes nova or supernova.

Stars form from dust and gas, burn brightly for billions of years, and then go out with either a whimper or a bang. Galaxies form, burst into light, age, and fade into final darkness. Even the universe starts with a Big Bang and then either expands forever or falls back into a Big Crunch. Quantum physics reveals that matter itself it ultimately unstable. After eons of time, even the elementary particles all dissolve into radiation, cooling and expanding forever.

Looking on all the material world and the transient works of man, an ancient biblical preacher cried out, “Vanity of vanities…vanity of vanities; all is vanity” or as another translation has it, “Meaningless! Meaningless!…Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

So, all things pass away. What’s the solution?

Wow, what a bummer, to say the least! Clearly, “pessimism” isn’t the special province of Buddhism! Thinkers throughout history when looking deeply into the problem of being and personal mortality have all felt this same kind of despair and sense of ultimate meaninglessness.

Playing shuffleboard on the Titantic?

And if people don’t see the seriousness of situation we are in, they are either asleep or in deep denial, playing shuffleboard on the deck of the Titanic. In the end, we all are going down, but so often, we live and act like this isn’t so.

So, what to do? Much of humanity looks to a supernatural salvation as a last minute or ultimate “get out of jail free” card to entrapment in a material world and frail, finite matter bodies.

For these believers, salvation comes from outside of us, from personal and divine saviors who lived millennia ago and who people still hope will finally show up and save the day. Salvation hinges solely on belief or non-belief in these saviors or prophets. In the meantime, hundreds of millions of people have already come and gone—for a select few, to an eternal heaven or for the majority, to an eternal hell. Happy thought!

Others just accept that what we can know and see with the physical senses is all there is. They reject the idea of any “spiritual” solution or escape. We are born in matter, we live in matter, and we die in matter. Period. What’s the “problem?” That’s just the way it is.

According to this view, all we can do in the short period of time we have is the best we can. We must bravely accept our fate and stop looking for supernatural escapes. In the words of atheist Bertrand Russell: “Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way…” Happy thought!

Buddhism—a response to impermanence we can try out right now

Buddhism doesn’t see either approach as a solution to the problem of impermanence and to the end of suffering. It doesn’t look to a supernatural god to save us, and it doesn’t accept a materialism that says one short material life and final death are all there is.

Rather, it offers us the opportunity to find an end to suffering and a practical solution to problem of impermanence—right here, right now, in our very own lives. Buddhism doesn’t claim we can change the impermanent nature of conditioned, fabricated things. But it does say that our conscious relationship to impermanence can change.  This change can become so radical and complete that we can not only find total liberation from the suffering that originates in our clinging to impermanent things but final freedom from entrapment in the impermanent.

Starting out in Buddhism, we don’t have to believe any of this.  We don’t have to believe in life after death.  We don’t have to believe Buddhism offers final solutions.  (Though confidence grows with what we can prove for ourselves.) A continuation of existence after death can never be proved or disproved from this side of death.

And though Buddhism does not agree with materialism, it doesn’t ask us to take the idea of ongoing existence on faith. Nor does Buddhism say we can’t practice unless we believe or understand that we are, effectively, in a situation not unlike that of Groundhog Day—the (great) movie where Bill Murray plays a character who has to relive the same day over and over again until he fundamentally changes his nature.

As for the permanence or impermanence of the death experience, each of us will just have to see for ourselves, which each of us ultimately will. But right now, right here, we can begin our own investigation into the nature of impermanence.  We can discover for ourselves what brings an end to suffering and what brings permanent happiness.  Just maybe the answer to the “one big problem” starts with answering the “little” problems, like why do I hate, why am I so unhappy, why am I so angry, why do I do things I know are wrong?

Solve the problem of impermanence from within

So here’s what Buddhism says.  Cosmically, it’s Groundhog Day, whether we believe it or not.  At the very least, we can verify this for ourselves:  we keep thinking and acting the same way over and over and yet somehow expect things to change.  We do what we always do, think what we always think, feel what we always feel, wake up  the next day, and sure enough, the same basic  problems are still there.

Look within to find the answer to impermanence

Doing things that same way and expecting things to change has rightly been called the very definition of insanity.  And frankly, we are all more than a little crazy!

So, here’s what Buddhism suggests: why not really explore and look deeply into the nature of  impermanence. Not “out there” in the physical world, where it is more than obvious. Rather, it asks us to look within—to find the insight into the nature of the cosmos in our own minds and hearts.  Buddhism asks us to look deeply into the consciousness itself— the only thing that bears witness to impermanence—the only thing that is consciously involved with and enmeshed with impermanent things and suffering.

So, for starters, we learn how to meditate. We learn how to let our minds grow still and get truly quiet. With growing concentration and attention, insight arises—what do we see? What lasts and what doesn’t? What’s impermanent and what isn’t? What do we see, moment to moment, as we observe thoughts, feelings, forms, perceptions, without clinging to them?

What happens when we practice metta, and give out unconditional love to ourselves and to everyone? What happens when we hold hate in love, envy in generosity, or fear in the equanimity born of calm insight?  How solid, real, and permanent are our self-concepts or how we feel about others or the world?

What I’ve found out about impermanence

Speaking from my own meditative practice, what I see is that thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and forms arise and then dissolve and pass away. There’s nothing to hold on to. Everything is flux and flow.

In deep concentraton, or samatha, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions pass by like clouds floating in a blue sky.  We can watch them, but we are not them.  This “big sky” mind sees and observes yet does not lose itself in the flux and flow of the impermanent.

Looking deeply into that which observes the flux and flow, I don’t find an “I” but I also don’t find a “nothing.” The thought of “me” and “mine” is a phantom, but so is the thought of “no me” and “not mine.” When things are seen with  greatest light and clarity, there is just is-nesssuchness.  And what is has no becoming and does not give rise to stress or suffering.

What’s more, with this experience of liberation from “me” or “mine” and “not me” and “not mine,” something else is evident. It’s not the result or effect of letting go of grasping and clinging. It’s not the result or effect of anything, so far as I can tell. It is not even an “it.”  Isness just is. And that suchness or isness appears as great love and great compassion and great wisdom.

When one awakens to it, this unconditional and unconditioned love, compassion, and wisdom seem to embrace and interpenetrate everything. (Or, maybe I’m finally seeing what’s been there all along?)  The sorrows of my heart over the inevitable losses of the world, my own suffering, and the suffering of others, are then held in a place of healing where transformation and liberation can take place.

Unconditional love and a love beyond all conditions

Through meditation and metta (loving-kindness) practice, I have begun to experience something (though it’s not a “thing” or a mere emotion or a feeling or thought) that is, so far as I can tell, beyond all change and impermanence. This love and compassion are always there.  Their nature never changes. But in this liberated, unselfed love, there is no separation between being and doing, between thought and action; there is just loving.

Yes, sometimes I lose sight of the “is-ness” of love (but that doesn’t make such love impermanent, anymore than losing sight of the sun in clouds make the sun impermanent.)  And yes, like anyone, I get caught up in clinging to the impermanent things of world and this inevitably brings suffering.  I have so much to learn and so very many thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and emotions that cause suffering because I cling to them and self-identify with them as “I” or “me” or “mine.”

Truly, the unliberated human mind is a mess! But I can honestly say that now, no matter what’s going on, I feel in my heart a transformative love and compassion that are the context and framework for everything, and yet, transcend even that.

Ironically, our heart’s protest against impermanence can lead us to something permanent and deathless. The Buddha’s teaching and practice show us how to open up our hearts and minds, without limit. Rather than denying or escaping the world’s suffering, we are here to transform it and use it as a vehicle for liberation, our own and others.

The impermanence of all things is a serious problem.  We all suffer from what the Buddha called anicca. But we can prove for ourselves that there is a way out of an unending Groundhog Day.  Change can be positive and not just the repetition of ignorance, grasping and delusion.  Any of us can find refuge from impermanence in the liberated mind and heart that do not pass away.

That limitless, open heart isn’t some far off heaven or nirvana.  It can be experienced, in some degree, every day, here and now.  The Buddha taught that every one of us has the capacity to awaken to a love and compassion that depend on nothing outside themselves. This love and freedom, I suspect, will outlive death itself. We’ll see!  In the meantime, there’s plenty of work to do!  And it begins with ourselves.

My hope is that what I’ve shared here will encourage you to investigate this path of mindfulness, insight, love, and compassion.  To me, it is the very  happiest way to live and it leads to ultimate freedom.


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

5 Responses to “Groundhog Day and the serious problem of impermanence”

  1. Inspirational as always, Steven. Funnily enough, I was studying a commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras this afternoon – the portion of it dealing with dharana, dhyana and samadhi. Your posts ties in beautifully with that.

    • Hi Hilary! Thanks for stopping by the blog and for you kind remarks.

      Pantanjali is sage and teacher I’ve long admired. Indeed, my appreciation of his teaching has greatly increased, recently, through reading Michael Stone’s great book, “The Inner Tradition of Yoga.” He really brings how how similar the Buddha’s and Patanjali’s fundamental teachings are. I highly recommend the book, and hope to review it here before too.

      Warm metta to you,

  2. Hello Steven!

    I enjoy buddhism as well as Eckhart Tolle’s teachings.

    – Mindfulness is the key –


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