This too shall pass.
This phrase (or a variant of it), which can also be attached to a story of a king and/or a ring that has this words inscribed on it, is a sentence that is always true – in times that are good, and in times that are bad. First found in the writings of the medieval Persian Sufi poets, this simple proverb reminds us of the transient nature of everything that is, including our own existence. Nothing lasts forever. I try not to see this as either good or bad. It is what it is.
The comprehension of the “law of impermanence” leaves little ground for arrogance or desperation. Knowing that nothing is eternal, life’s achievements and drama lose its seriousness and can be accepted for what they are: a mere chapter in a life of a person, a nation, a planet. Nothing matters that much in a big scheme of things.
Of course, animals and humans, we have a natural survival instinct that serves the purpose of evading death for as long as possible. Pain and fear are parts of this self-preservation strategy, for they guide us away from danger. So, I am not suggesting at all, that you should ever ignore pain and fear, even though they are also impermanent.
However, unlike animals, humans have an added capacity to form an identity out of their life situations, be it good or bad. Even this ability probably has some benefit for the individual, but it can also grow out of proportion, into a delusion of grandeur or, conversely, into a victim identity. When this happens, suffering is a guarantee. If you identify yourself as a victim, your whole life will be miserable; and if you have a big ego, you will suffer when things don’t go your way or when your world starts falling apart, as it will eventually. If nothing else, you will grow old and helpless.
It is only when you truly accept impermanence of everything, including your own, that you can really start living your life with ease. If nothing lasts, then it doesn’t matter much if things go one way or the other. It can make a difference now, but in the long run it will make no difference. With that burden taken off of your life, you can start looking at the world as a light place. You can still strive for achievements and success, but you do it as a game, a play, and not because you want to build your self-importance, or because you want to run away from something (provided that you already have your most basic needs taken care of).
You live your life like a kid who is building a sand castle on the beach. You know that it will be washed back into the sea tomorrow – yet, you are doing it anyway, simply for the fun of it.
There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.
– Morpheus, The Matrix (1999 film)
This has been one of my favorite quotes of all time – I even used it for my signature on internet forums at one point. The reason that I put it there is because I knew that I should be reminded of this quote every single day. Because it applied perfectly to my own life, for I was one of those people that would intellectualize all day long on a certain topic but never actually do anything about it. One of those people that live by the rule that knowledge is power.
However, I don’t believe anymore that this is a good way to live. Knowledge is pretty much useless, if you don’t apply it in practice. What’s even worse – everything that you learn, you will eventually forget, unless you internalize it through repetition or practice. Let’s say that you want to learn how to develop web pages – do you think that it is a good idea to read every single book you can find on how to develop and code web pages before you attempt to build your first web site? I think not. Before you will even finish reading one of those 600+ page books on HTML or PHP, you will forget 95 % of what you have learned in earlier chapters.
The best way to remember what you have learned is to read and learn about a few basic concepts regarding web site development and then immediately implement your knowledge by building a simple web site. It is first hand experience that gets you real understanding of the subject and it is much less likely that you will forget the knowledge that was tied with your personal experience. Knowledge supported with experience will then form a good foundation for further learning. You can build up your knowledge from there, one step at a time.
So, knowing the whole path from the beginning is not even necessary in most cases. It is much more important that you know the direction where you want to go, that you know your very next step that will lead you in that direction, and finally, that you actually do it then. Without action, nothing will happen. You can have the best map, compass, GPS and satellite images of your route but if you won’t bust your butt and walk it through you will never get anywhere. You have to walk the path.
But it is not just achievements that are important here. The path is important in and of itself. After all, that is your experience of life. At the end, you may not reach all of your goals, but if you walk your path, you will probably have quite a good ride. If, on the other hand, you just collect knowledge as you go through life, you may die as a living encyclopedia, but you won’t have really lived.
Eckhart Tolle – famous author, whom I generally find a little too New Agey for me, but I like some of his concepts – uses a very good example for the difference between gobbling knowledge and experiencing things: he says that you can study and talk about honey for as long as you like, but you won’t really know it until you taste it. Think about that.