Photo: Diana Scalera, Windscape, Cape May, NJ 1987
One of the characteristics of our Stay at Home experiences is that they heighten the feeling of impermanence. What is scientific information one day—don’t wear masks—becomes what will save us the next day–wear a mask! One day COVID-19 is a respiratory disease then the next day, blood clots and kidney failure are a more significant danger.
We also create expectations of what will happen next that are not reliable. When attempting to buy food, I found that the store where we had been buying food no longer included our zip code in their delivery zone. NYC has been quiet, and the air so clean. Our window sills stayed clean of the usual amount of soot, and we were able to see beautiful blue skies. But, today, all that changed. I could hear the roar of cars and motorcycles on the nearby highway, Police helicopters were flying overhead, and seaplanes were landing on the East River. These annoyances were absent for the last eight weeks. It was a calmness not felt in this neighborhood for many decades. And now, the noise and soot have returned in almost full force.
What is Impermanence?
In Buddhism and other healing traditions, embracing the impermanence of life is what relieves us from suffering. The doctrine asserts that all existence, without exception, is transient and unreliable. By learning to accept that all life is in constant flux, we might not be surprised by change. We learn that, while impermanence might bring grief and sorrow, it can leave space for renewal and love. It also helps us value what we have at the moment because whatever that is, is also impermanent. We are living in a time that is helping us connect to impermanence on a moment to moment basis. We can use this experience to become aware of and strengthen our ability to appreciate the present, process our losses, and anticipate that good might come from impermanence.
When I was studying to be a teacher, I learned about the Brazelton Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale that measures, among other things, neonates’ consolability. This assessment is used immediately after birth. A team measures various aspects of the baby’s state of being. In the case of consolability, someone disturbs a sleeping baby and then observes how quickly the baby consoles herself. The faster the newborn returns to a calm state, the more emotionally stable she is assumed to be. I think about that test when I consider living with impermanence. It starts with the concept that our bodies have an instinct to return to a calm state. Wholebody Focusing connects us to the part of us present at birth—the ability to console ourselves.
When Narratives go up in Smoke
On a personal level, I’ve been holding space for a health issue. I had created a complicated narrative that explained everything. Then, one day when I held space for the energy of the narrative, it dissolved into a puff of smoke. What my body let me know was that my story was not only a small part of what was happening but also the narrative was limiting me from being open to a larger truth. My search for the magic bullet that would resolve my health issue in one neat package became useless. This revelation put me on a path to encounter a fuller picture. New insights have emerged. What is happening to me is an amalgam of long-held nameless somethings that are wanting my attention. Energetically, a larger area of my body is involved than I had connected to before and it includes the space surrounding my body.
As part of my healing, I am taking a constitutional homeopathic remedy to help deep-seated traumas to emerge. I’ve adapted my chanting process, to begin with sensing the energy of my concerns before I start chanting. I can feel that energy in my hands as I ground myself.
I have small singing bowls on my desk and ring them whenever I need to connect to “me” again by pausing. It ensures that I do not work non-stop. The sound of the bowls have a long duration, and I make sure I do not begin something new until the vibrations have returned to a calm state like that of a newborn.
When new energy or a narrative emerges, I let my hands feel the energy. Sometimes movements come. As the vibrations diminish, I remind myself that nothing is permanent, and my body has the capacity to console itself and reconnect to joy.
Challenges Big and Small
After I started writing this post, I got word that my dear friend Martin Blumenkranz, who lived 1,200 miles from me, had passed away. Even though we had not worked together for almost 20 years, we spoke to each other every week for hours. He was my assistant principal at a new, innovative school in Manhattan called High School for Environmental Studies. He hired a team of teachers passionate about improving the environment and gave us space to be our best selves. Since his death, social media has been alive with stories from people around the world who loved him. His leadership and undying belief in the goodness and creativity of humanity touched us all and helped us become the people we are.
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7 thoughts on “The Impermanence of our Narratives”
Do we really want to go back to that? I think many will want to go back to what feels like normal……. but do really? You have said it so well. I don’t think our planet can sustain our ‘normal’ any more…and is saying so in a variety of different ways. Kevin
Beautifully expressed, Diana. I am savoring both the content and moreover the depth of feeling. Allied with Kevin’s own salutary reflection.
I’m also thinking about what Addie van der Kooy teaches us about learning how to be in grounded presence by practicing when the stakes are not so high–like waiting for the kettle to boil. How can the experiences with smaller moments of impermanence we face every day can help us have some preparation for the big ones like losing a close friend. Given that we may not have much stability for a very long time, this is something to consider adding to our daily practice–just pausing whenever we encounter something slipping away or, a new thing showing up.
So sorry Diana for the loss of your dear friend… another sign of impermanence that is really hard to accept. I hear your bowls ringing as I pause and honour his death. So many people are finding this state of impermanence one of the hardest parts of the current strange world we are living. The longer we are in lcck-down the more permanent this staying home feels but it too changes…We have all lost a sense of control in or lives….did we ever really have any control??/ Now we know otherwise!!
Thank you for this wonderful sharing, Diana. Impermanence is one of the most basic teachings of the buddha, and like other fundamental truths, challenging to fully embrace – precisely because of our seemingly opposite instinct you described, to console ourselves and return to “calm,” even at the expense of fully recognizing in ourselves the extent of the something that has “disturbed” us. This cutting short of our felt experience so that we prefer numbness over life. As you said so well . . . “an amalgam of long-held nameless somethings that are wanting my attention.”
Thanks, Ellen, for your comment.
After I wrote this post and that phrase came “an amalgam of long-held nameless somethings that are wanting my attention,” a release eventually began to emerge. I only had to acknowledge that my body held more than the one narrative that I had decided was responsible for my troubles for there to be a gradual release in my being. I was now able to hold space for the discomfort of unknown origins. Without any identified narrative, it wasn’t frightening or anger generating. I could be with, “it is here and waiting for me.” The discomfort is less. The narrative was impeding this process.
Very moving and lovely meditation on loss and life, Diana.