Anyone who has lived or spent time in Korea can testify to the blistering pace of life here. “Pali Pali” (hurry, hurry) is virtually a life motto.
It hearkens me back to one of the primary principles of Buddhism – impermanence. Impermanence means that nothing will last forever. Everything, be it physical, mental, or emotional, is transitory – merely ephemeral phenomenology locked in an ever-passing present moment.
Pema Chödron, an American Buddhist practitioner put it well.
“Impermanence means that the essence of life is always fleeting.”
In other words, impermanence serves as the justification for Buddhist practice of recognizing and then disregarding for attachments and desires.
It is futile to attach oneself to youth, money, intellect, happiness, sadness, or anything else. All that we seek and acquire will inevitably evaporate with the ravages of time. As many sportswriters say when a famous athlete retires, “Father Time is undefeated.”
How does recognizing impermanence lead to improved well-being? On the surface, it can feel nihilistic and depressing. Everyone and everything we love (including ourselves) will one day disappear. Why bother doing anything?
However, there is a brighter side to impermanence. Unpleasant experiences and emotions are equally fleeting. Some days I return home from a tough day rife with trying students, unruly classes, unbearable weather, or an inexplicably depressed mood. Being able to recognize these experiences and feelings as unequivocally temporary serves as a salubrious salve.
Moreover, a logical extension to the idea that nothing is permanent is that everything changes. The best we can ever do is take a snapshot of the current moment. If we assess ourselves and discover unpleasant aspects of our body or mind, we can always tag our flaws as “for now.” Maybe that unpleasantness is tied up in a congenital medical condition or an unhealthy relationship with one’s family. In that case, the attitude one takes towards that unpleasantness is also temporary and changeable.
We can choose to improve our perceived weakness in each given moment. Each moment is an opportunity to be better than the last. Even more important, each time we fall flat on our faces we are given a new moment to pick ourselves up and take a fresh step down a fruitful path.
Many who know me know I am prone to occasional unhealthy binges on food or alcohol. I either eat myself sick or I wake up the next morning with a head-splitting hangover and a puddle of regret.
“No matter,” I can choose to think. “I will make better choices moving forward. I will undoubtedly stumble again, exiting my productive highway for a hedonic and unfulfilling rest stop. That’s okay. Each moment presents an opportunity to refuel, re-merge, and continue moving forward.”
It reminds me of David Stendl-Rast, a Benedictine monk with an incredible TED Talk about gratitude. He debunks the myth that opportunity knocks only once. In fact, each and every moment presents us with an opportunity. If we miss one moment, another will appear, and another one, and another one. On the flip side, when we take advantage of an opportunity, we must remain mindful of the next moment.
We must remain flexible. Everything (especially our minds) are subject to change. Are we open to change or do we cling to obsolete and ineffective ideas?
Every time I remind myself of the impermanence of all things, I benefit. When I consider impermanence during good times, I remember to savor the goodness of the present moment. If I remember this in bad times, I can confidently look ahead knowing that this undesirable state is fleeting. Either way, accepting the fleeting nature of life produces a net gain on our psyche.
My time in Korea is finite. One day I will return home to the United States. What do I want to say once my time is up? Did I appreciate each and every moment that this unique experience offered? Probably not, but nobody is perfect.
Did I do my best to mitigate unpleasant experiences so as to maximize my enjoyment? I mean, anyone can do their best if they choose to.
Did I learn anything important? Did I return in a better condition than I left? If I have anything to say about it, the answer to each of these questions will be, “Yes.”
Came across this lovely statue in Yeosu. It represents something about thinking or communication or some sappy shit like that.
The bears around Mokpo have a serious problem with getting drunk and passing out in cafés.
The King and I climbed Yudalsan, braving slippery slopes of snow and ice. All for the sake of this selfie.
Damn it, Korean sign translator. You had one job. On the other hand, the phonetic matching is not far off. We typically do assimilate [n] and [k] to make the sound [ŋ].
I was in far better shape on this particular visit to the self-serve bar. Can you guess who picked out the soju? I’ll give you a hint. They are wearing headphones.
I filed this away in the ever-growing folder of seemingly serious Korean signs. My best guess is “No Kidnapping Allowed in Gwangju Subway Stations.”
Monks ring this super-old bell by throwing a log into it.