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The Illusion of Permanence

In Canada, in the 70s and 80s, the ‘invisible (radio) airwaves crackle[d] with life’ with the music of a homegrown band called RUSH. Their style epitomized the progressive rock genre and they were known for uniquely and seamlessly weaving together incredible musicianship, complex compositions, and ethereal lyrics.

I vividly remember frontman Geddy Lee’s description of Tom Sawyer, the modern-day warrior, who ‘knows change isn’t permanent, but change is.’ Clearly, these guys were philosophers!

To hear concepts such as impermanence and freewill in their special brand of blues cum hard rock music was mind-blowing. And, what made it all the more exciting was finding this completely unexpected overlap between the world of Indian philosophy I was surrounded by at home and in the temple, and the exhilarating music I was listening to in the car and in the dressing room before ice hockey games.

I could go on and on about RUSH and the music of my youth but let me instead shift focus to this important, age-old concept of impermanence.

According to yoga philosophy, one of the ways to reduce suffering is to see ourselves and the world around us correctly. This right vision, we are told, has been blurred or covered with the veil of ignorance. So, we end up taking the impermanent as permanent. If we are ‘healthy’ now, we believe we will always be healthy. If our friends or family feel secure now, we believe they will always feel secure.

Then one day, Life decides to take a detour or ends up in a head-on collision and, all of a sudden, everything has changed. For proof, we need look no further than the pandemic that has caused needless illness and deaths, businesses to collapse, people to lose jobs, and the yet unknown effects on educational, intellectual, social, mental and physical health.

But we don’t need a calamity to remind us of impermanence. Getting older is a great teacher. Suddenly we can’t do the things we used to or eat the things we used to or stay up as late as we used to without suffering some palpable consequences. (Of course, a good yoga and wellness routine can go a long way in helping to delay these effects!)

The sage Patanjali, in his 2500 year old compilation of ancient yoga knowledge, sheds a bit of light on this topic of permanence and our ignorance of this truth, which may help us deal with the uncertainty, anxiety and suffering that we all go through at some point in life.

“Ignorance is regarding the impermanent as permanent, the impure as pure, the painful as pleasant and non-Self as the Self.”*1

Now the beauty of Patanjali is that as an unparalleled grammarian he was able to condense vast amounts of knowledge into these concise aphorisms called ‘sutras’. On the flip side however, this means there is a whole lot for us to unpack in this brief, ten-word*2 sentence! So for now, let’s just focus on parts relevant to the concept of permanence.

First and foremost, we should note that Ignorance is not, in fact, bliss. Ignorance, in eastern thought, is the veritable root of all suffering.

Next, we are told that our ignorance entails a misperception of what is permanent and what is not. More specifically, we suffer because we mistake the impermanent - things, money, jobs, health, our body and our mind - to be permanent and, conversely, are blind to that which is permanent - our higher Self.

If this notion of ‘Self’ with a capital ‘S’ or ‘soul’ is all a bit too much, you are not alone. For many of us, it takes a bit of time to go beyond just some vague, intellectual understanding of the esoteric. After all, these concepts are by nature unknowable and inexpressible. It’s like trying to describe the taste of a Jamaican lilikoi fruit to someone who has never even heard of it. (On that note, if you have never tried one, I highly recommend it!)

So, instead, we can look at something more tangible: ignorance in the form of attachment. It will come as no surprise that we humans are built to get attached. We get attached to things, pets, jobs, houses and relationships. We get attached to lifestyle, status, and the foods we eat. But the very notion of attachment is founded on the mistaken belief that we will always have these things and people around and that they will be, for the most part, just the way they are now. The kicker is that we have a second order mistaken belief that we have some control in maintaining the status quo. Alas, as Geddy reminds us, change is inevitable.

What’s here is here until it's not.

As we can see, Ignorance does not concern itself solely with the ‘Big Truth’. Rather, we can easily fall into this state in the midst of our daily life. Recognizing this is an important way to remind ourselves to stay alert and to ask ourselves the right questions: “Am I present for the situation and people around me? Am I making the most out of each day and out of each breath? Or, am I holding on too tight to things and setting myself up for suffering?” And by reminding ourselves and repeating this process, we may automatically experience an undeniable gravitational pull towards that one and only permanence Patanjali calls svarupa*3 or ‘true Self’.

This is why Patanjali claims, in giving us hope, that ‘the suffering yet to come is avoidable”*4 . The way out is this process of our lifelong sadhana (practice) to see life, things and ourselves, correctly. This is the journey. We become active participants in our life, alert and aware, making course corrections and scanning our inner and outer world to catch ourselves when we get bewitched and beguiled by the illusion of permanence.

*1 Patanjali Yoga Sutra (PYS) अनित्याशुचिदुःखानात्मसु नित्यशुचिसुखात्मख्यातिरविद्या ॥ २.५ ॥

anityāśuciduḥkhānātmasu nityaśucisukhātmakhyātiravidyā || 2.5 ||

*2 anitya-aśuci-duḥkha-anātmasu nitya-śuci-sukha-ātman-khyātir avidyā

*3 PYS: तदा द्रष्टुः स्वरूपेऽवस्थानम् ॥ १.३ ॥ tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe'vasthānam || 1.3 ||

*4 PYS: हेयं दुःखमनागतम् ॥ २.१६ ॥ heyaṃ duḥkhamanāgatam || 2.16 ||


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