One of the core Buddhist teachings is that every conditioned thing is impermanent. We may see this in our daily lives as things come and go. We buy something, knowing that it eventually will break, be lost, or simply cease to exist. We see the change in the weather, cars go by, and relationships change. Although we may understand impermanence in this sense, we often lose perception of this insight when it comes to our thoughts and emotions.
When sitting in meditation, we tune into our present-time experience. If we are paying attention deeply, we see the arising of thoughts and emotions. Sometimes the thoughts arise in response to some sensation or sound, but sometimes the just come out of nowhere. The mind thinks all by itself. Thoughts arise that we don’t choose to think, at times we don’t want to be thinking. We do not fully control the mind’s thought process, no matter how hard we try.
Usually we notice these thoughts when they are strong enough to grab our attention. Sometimes we actually notice them arising. One characteristic of the thoughts and emotions that we rarely notice is their nature to pass. We see them when they’re present, but then our attention gets drawn elsewhere. Although the thoughts pass and are no longer with us, we don’t even notice.
We can bring awareness to the passing of thoughts and emotions. When a pervasive thought or emotion is no longer present, take a moment to recognize it. Seeing the passing of thoughts, we begin to know impermanence a little better. We begin to see the natural impermanent nature of experience. This builds insight into this mark of existence. As we notice this over and over, we begin to know impermanence more intimately and easily.
We may also notice how emotions change. What arises as one feeling often changes. The sorrow, anger, joy, or gratitude doesn’t remain exactly the same. Even though some feelings feel static or regular, they are always changing. When we really look at the emotion, we can see the subtle changes. We must stick with it with mindfulness in order to see this quality of impermanence.
Impermanence doesn’t necessarily mean that everything just passes. It may also mean that something changes. One of the most common arguments I hear against impermanence is that love is permanent. If you love somebody truly, that love doesn’t die. Aside from the fact that both you and the one you love will both eventually die, there is an important piece to understand here. Love like this is impermanent because it changes. How we love somebody one day may be different than how we love somebody ten years later. It is the same when we look at our thoughts and emotions. Although they may be pervasive, the quality of these experiences is always changing.