The impermanence of life causes suffering, but permanence is hell.
When I was young, I had a recurring nightmare in which I was trapped in a grid or maze. I was not alone in the maze. Other people, including friends, were visible and in shouting distance, but we couldn’t move to really face one another. There were no visible shackles or chains but we were all frozen in assigned positions, some on one level, some on another, some vertical, some horizontal, some upside down. There were grooved pathways in the maze, suggesting the possibility of movement, but we could not budge. The worst part of the dream, the truly hellish part, was the heavy message that this situation could never change.
We were like butterflies pinned to a board by a giant hand. There was no hope. The dream conveyed that all hope is at bottom a hope of change. Our lives move from hope to hope—and ultimately, wishing to move towards greater happiness, greater ease, ultimately greater freedom. In this terrible dream I was completely thwarted. I would be desperate to find a way to connect with my friends. I would shout to them that together we could find away to break through to life outside the box. But they had all given up.
We were all crushed into a miserable isolation, all consigned to living a flattened little life with all the spaciousness and possibility and hope sucked out of it. I kept trying to twist and turn and break free but I was paralyzed. I kept trying to shout to them that maybe if we all tried we could find a way. But they were just spacing out, dreaming, suffering in mute silence, telling me not to stir things up.
I knew that I was dreaming but I couldn’t wake up. It was deeply alarming when the dream repeated. I couldn’t quite decode the message but I knew the warning light was blazing red on the dashboard of life. I was being shown the flaw in the mechanism, the way to hell. I couldn’t convey how horrible and deeply important it was to see and feel how we are frozen. They would say things like “at least you have company.”
Later in life, I came to see that this dream encapsulated my deepest human fear, the fear under my seemingly quirky fears of being buried alive, of being confined in very small spaces, of forms of stagnation. It was the fear of hopelessness. “If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving,” writes Martin Luther King, Jr. “You lose the courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all.”
Impermanence causes suffering, but permanence is definitely not the way out of suffering. Learning to let go and allow life to flow is. When we suffer great physical or emotional pain or we naturally feat that this state is permanent. But we can slip out of this cage with the next conscious breath, discovering that this body and heart and mind is not solid and fixed and isolated but flowing, in a state of constant movement and exchange with the life around us. This can be hard to trust in the midst of great pain, but it is true. Life is always in movement, always and inevitably involved in a molecular dance of exchange with a greater life. One conscious breath can show us this. It can be like stepping out of a prison cell into vast nature.
“Life is like a bicycle,” said Albert Einstein. “To keep your balance you must keep moving.”