The Practice of Impermanence

August contains a powerful lesson in impermanence. Each year, school-aged children across the country foresee the ending of their summer vacation. It is a huge loss of freedom and play.

This early conditioning of the school/summer cycle is so deeply etched in our psyches that as adults we still feel the loss, even if we worked throughout the summer. There is an anticipation of the end of a time of ease simultaneous with a ramping-up of activity for fall and winter.

Time seems short. We feel it in our bones. And with each passing year we sense it getting shorter.

The sand castle, the focus of this month’s illustration, evokes for most of us the idea of impermanence. Although it is beautiful and we may feel attached, we understand that it will not survive the night’s tide.

sandcastle color adj - The Practice of Impermanence

We are like children building a sand castle. We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of colored glass. The castle is ours, off limits to others. We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea. – Pema Chödrön

Ours is a paradoxical culture when it comes to impermanence.

On the one hand, we build things that barely last a nanosecond. Our computers and cell phone become obsolete as they are removed from their packaging. Furniture, cars, even our houses are built to fall apart because something new and better will soon be coming down the line.

My husband, a woodworker and furniture restorer, is an anachronism. He builds for longevity. He is a craftsman of the old school – a breath of history in our hyped-up world of accelerating speed. Maybe it’s my age, but I enjoy the slowness of his work, its precision and artistry. He boasts of using tools fabricated a century ago, while laughing at the rest of us struggling with the latest software updates. However, even the things he creates will not last forever. Impermanence is the nature of the material world.

Although we have come to accept the impermanent nature of physical objects, we resist it in ourselves. We hide our seniors in gated communities and disguise death with word like “eternal sleep” and “palliative care”. Aging is held back with exercise and surgery, while we delay saving for retirement, estate planning, and preparing for our disability and decline.

When death knocks on our door, we are always stunned as though this was in contradiction to the plan.

Even though I work in the field of death and loss, I too have difficulty imagining, let alone planning, my demise — until some event equivalent to the school child’s August momentarily wakes me up.

The death of my friend Maryanne in 2009 had this effect on me. She was only 53. It made me brutally aware that my expectation of living to an old age had no foundation. Even worse I envisioned the possibility that my husband might die before me and leave me on my own. Interesting how resistant the mind is to such thoughts! How quickly it turns to distractions!

The remedy for this resistance, this denial of death, is having a daily practice of embracing impermanence.

Some Buddhists do this by contemplating the decomposing of a corpse. They watch it from death to dust.

Of course, there are less dramatic ways of practicing this awareness.

We could, for example, simply notice our response to the mundane changes in our daily lives — such as, when the banks have lowered their interest rates yet again, or when the supermarket has rearranged its shelves, or when a speed bump has been added to our favorite shortcut through the neighborhood. Do we feel irritated and annoyed? Why? Is it simply a matter of inconvenience or a resistance to impermanence?

A more proactive approach is the conscious practice of letting go — throwing out aging but still edible food for instance, or recycling books. We could give away unused clothes cluttering our closet or have a yard sale of old kitchenware. Be curious! What happens? Does it feel good to clear out what is no longer needed or is it frightening? What happens to the space our letting go creates? Do we enjoy the spaciousness or fill it up right away? And what stories come up to prevent us from letting go of any of it at all?

Going out into nature is another option. Nature is abundant with reminders of impermanence. Observe the short life of a flower, the color changing leaves, migrating birds, shifting clouds, the creeping lateness of dawn. Although less challenging than a corpse, they are no less revealing when you pay attention!

Most important and perhaps most daunting is taking steps to prepare for the final phase of our own lives – for a time of disability, dependency and death. This is a powerful acknowledgement of our impermanence.

We could start with little steps like saving a dollar out of every ten for “that time,” or going to a talk on estate planning or downloading an advanced healthcare directive. Pay attention to the feelings that emerge. Breathe. Release. Remember that our plans may never unfold as we expected and then proceed with them anyway.

Awareness, acknowledgement and release are the keys to this practice of impermanence.

Maryanne’s death left my husband and me dealing with four storage lockers and a tiny apartment crammed with her stuff.  Her sister-in-law told us to simply throw it all away. Attached, we could not do that. It would be like throwing Maryanne away. Her love of the beauty of things needed to be honored! She had exquisite taste.

Carefully, we sorted through her lockers seeking homes for this and that, much of it finding its way into our own closets. But there was SO MUCH! As our own capacity to take in Maryanne’s possessions or find them homes diminished, more of her things went into the trash bin. It was wrenching! It was illuminating! It was our grieving process!

I was reminded that nothing remains of a life but memory and this too will fade as the last of our acquaintances follow us into death.

Certainly there are a few people — exceptionally talented, holy or notorious — whose names and stories survive the test of time . . . reformed and distorted through repetition and by design. But these people are the exceptions. Most of us are for the dustbin.

One final suggestion for this exercise in impermanence — think of your life legacy, not as a monument of stone but as a sand castle. This will release you from a lot of expectations.

Create a life well lived, thoroughly enjoyed, and full of uplifting experiences, human connection and love. These are easier to carry, take up little space and in their reverberating influence on others — more likely to endure.

Blessings and bliss,



WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR EZINE OR WEB SITE? You can, as long as you include this complete blurb with it: Grief, Loss and Death Expert Dr. Michelle Peticolas, empowers professional women struggling with grief and loss to find peace-of-mind, closure and a life worth living. If you’re ready to shift into a whole new way of being with death and loss, a new way of living your life, get Michelle’s complimentary illustrated guide, Essentials for Grieving Well at

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