Most suffering is a consequence of clinging. And clinging is a consequence of the mistaken idea that the status quo can be preserved with sufficient manipulative effort.
But that’s not the way the world works. Natural systems are always dynamic in nature and in flux. Things are expanding or they are contracting. Everything is in constant motion. Nothing is fixed or permanent. The only constant is change.
Among Buddhists, this phenomenon is known as Anitya or impermanence. Acceptance of impermanence is the beginning of the end of suffering. Denying impermanence is a recipe for depression and resentment and infighting.
Why is the obvious impermanence of the external world so hard for us to accept? Why do we cling so desperately?
Over the course of our lives, we all come to identify with things that are not actually us, and this distorts everything. We come to identify with being Americans, Catholics, Presbyterians, conservatives, liberals, Southerners, New Yorkers, Puerto Ricans, males, females, non-binaries, feminists, anarchists, voluntarists, statists, patriots, victims, self-sufficient, pretty, ugly, average, exceptional and/or thousands if not millions of other things or qualities. In some instances, these things are just mere preferences or beliefs, but in a great many cases they actually come to define our sense of self.
Identifying with externalities in this manner is problematic for several reasons. One is that it’s simply an error.
Second, to serve their evolutionary purpose, our identities need to be fixed to some significant degree. We need some way of distinguishing “us” from “other”, of distinguishing “me” from “it”. This becomes very difficult if what I perceive to be “me” is constantly shifting—that is, if it is as impermanent as the external environment.
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This causes us to then obsess over the impossible. We exhaust ourselves trying to force stability and permanence upon things that are inherently unstable and impermanent lest we die. Any uninvited changes to those externalities come to be perceived as an attack upon us, upon our personhood and our identity. The ever-changing world thereby becomes a very hostile place.
For example, when our identity becomes attached to certain external aspects of the culture in which we were raised, those aspects become part of us. So, we’re often going to perceive any changes (and especially non-consensual changes) within that culture as an attack upon us. And, at an unconscious level, that’s going to kick us into self-preservation mode.
This explains why we might become actively hostile or highly resistant towards immigrants with new or differing values, why we might irrationally favor aiding members of our tribe (the one with which we identify) over aiding other humans that might have even greater needs, why Luddites exist, etc. It explains why we cling to the past and try to manipulate the future.
What’s the solution?
The solution is to consciously and deliberately purify and reform our sense of personal identity, which is far easier said than done. We must discover, and through discipline adopt, an identity that is both stable and accounts for the impermanence of external things. And this requires us to go through the painful process of disidentifying with nearly everything we formerly knew to be ourselves and of replacing it with… something else.
What is that something else?
That’s a complicated topic, but it’s sufficient to say for now that it's what is often described as “witness consciousness”.
When we develop witness consciousness we no longer identify with the objects in, or the qualities of, our external environment. We instead come to identify with the internal, ineffable point of consciousness that observes its environment—that is, with the “witness within”.
Once we’ve done that, once we’ve shifted our identity in this manner (and it ain’t easy), we are no longer compelled to cling and to manipulate and therefore to suffer. We can observe change, and even participate in it, without feeling personally threatened by it. In short, we can flow and adapt. We can embody true compassion.
This does not mean (at least at this stage) that we will no longer have preferences, but achieving those preferences will itself simply be a preference rather than a pathological compulsion. And failure to achieve our preference will merely be a sad historical event rather than a permanent insult to our sense of self that we carry forward into our future.
[If you want to think and see more clearly; discern more accurately; predict more reliably and live, love, and understand yourself and the world more fully; or if you just want to watch people who do; then please continue to follow me here.]