The waves were large and loud today as I approached the beach where I walk most mornings. To actually get to the shoreline, I leave a parking lot and walk about 5 minutes through what signage tells me is a “Coastal Sage Scrub Habitat”, much of it plant life taller than me. I follow a carefully curated trail and can gradually hear the waves rumbling.
Then suddenly, at a slight turn in the trail, I can see the Pacific Ocean before me, expressing itself with both shushing and crashing of waves and water. The picture above captures that moment, which thrills me every time I make that slight turn in the trail. And then the lessons commence.
Impermanence refers to “the state or fact of lasting for only a limited period of time”. In my sequential deep dives into various wisdom systems for humans, I have always encountered the concept of “impermanence”, starting with my childhood trip to Ash Wednesday services where I was reminded “From dust you came and to dust you will return.” Wisdom systems shine a light on impermanence because it is an essential insight about the nature of being a human. It can open doors and windows to even more profound insights and spiritual fulfillment. Also, it is also accurate and “true”.
Practically speaking, impermanence is not really a captivating topic for most people, i.e., it probably would simply be viewed as “odd” or “uncomfortable” in most social settings. Even where those gathered embrace a journey of spiritual self-realization, the topic can be off putting as it grates against our well-constructed national competencies to deny, disparage and dismiss death and dying, doggedly committed to not experiencing it. Impermanance is not a gracious or fun topic for most people.
This aversion and avoidance do not, of course, make it possible for selected humans to then become “permanent”. I have been bemused by reports of a small group of extremely wealthy white males competing to see who can be most successful in slowing down aging. It is unclear why this is fun or fulfilling. It is also unclear whether these men actually see this as a prolongation of life or a holding pattern until we cleverly invent the magic factors of immortality. For me one of the most important and informative insights about impermanence is the intensity with which the US invests in NOT seeing or understanding impermanence.
Which brings me back to the trail, the first glimpse of the ocean, the walk to the shoreline, the omnipresence of waves and their sounds and motions. Like many people, I find the tidal patterns of all bodies of water somewhat mesmerizing. The most powerful and personal for me are the waves of the Pacific Ocean. If my life did not insist on distractions and divergencies, I would simply sit on the shore of the Pacific Ocean somewhere and experience the waves, and their effect on me, all day, every day.
Now the effects of my wave watching are varied and diverse. I often am entertained by the arrogance of grand waves, reassured by the reliability of soft slow shushing waves, reflective watching the competitive waves crashing on the shore, where one powerful wave offsets the impact of several waves to follow…there are many narratives in my head about all of this. I enjoy watching small children seduced by the waves, hurry toward them, then desperately run back to the safety of other humans. Shorebirds add dimensions and curiosity, as they interact with the waves. And what the waves wash ashore is always instructive.
I value all of this, however the most powerful impact the Pacific Ocean and its waves have on me is the persistent presentation of what I consider the best possible metaphor for impermanence. Waves are varied, some powerful, some modest, many beautiful and even musical, yet all wash ashore, and all “disappear”: they no longer exist as waves. A powerful metaphor is always helpful to me.
This is because waves are impermanent, they last for only a “limited period of time”. Now, I celebrate every one of them as they come ashore, am indeed mesmerized by them, and then they are gone. The large and loud ones are not somehow “superior”, simply more large and more loud than others. After they crash into “non-existence” their size and volume are merely fleeting memories, especially because I am now focusing on the “new” large and loud wave that just showed up…and disappeared.
The first and most obvious lesson provided by waves is the metaphor they present of impermanence. The second dimension of this set of lessons is more elusive. The waves crash and disappear, but the ocean does not. When I imagine the ocean as “all of what is”, then the wave emerging, manifesting, and disappearing is part of impermanence, however the ocean itself endures. For me, the ocean provides a metaphor for the larger sense of all that is, the mystery we do not know, and a stage or arena where impermanent forms can arise, manifest and disappear.
Waves set the stage for the honest coming to terms with the nature of human existence. We humans manifest “the state or fact of lasting for only a limited period of time”. Even as we prolong life, we do not announce that we no longer are impermanent but merely that we have more time in our manifested state. The hard lesson of accepting impermanence is, I believe, necessary to understanding the more astounding part of the metaphor: what is the ocean and what is it doing with the waves and the disappearance of waves?
I do know that droves of serious scientists may rise up and feel an impulse to explain to me tidal patterns and the role of the moon in all of this. The tidal moon managing the waves is yet another mystery embedded in the metaphor. No matter how you explain all this, the power of the metaphor persists for me.
The United States Geological Survey reports that “about 71 percent of the Earth's surface is water-covered, and the oceans hold about 96.5 percent of all Earth's water.” I consider this good news. There is a high availability of water, an access option that makes wave watching and wave pondering a possibility for many humans. It is hard to miss the impermanence part. It is also hard to ignore the persistence of the ocean as a presence as the waves disappear. Both ponderings count!
“It is not impermanence that makes is suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.”
- Thich Nhat Hanh -
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