Understanding that everything exists in a state of impermanence is the gateway to create more fluid, agile, and meaningful uses for everything.
Asked to name a material that comes from a tree, most people would say:
It’s an adequate name for the material, but “a piece of wood” is its identity for only a moment in time:
- It was once a seed, then a sapling, then a tree.
- Once the tree it was cut down, it became a log.
- The log was milled and became a piece of wood.
- The wood will become a table, a chair, part of a house, or something else.
- In time, it will degrade and return to the earth and the process will begin again.
“A piece of wood” is a temporary identity, forever in a state of flux. In fact, everything is in a temporary state between its current reality and its future state. Everything exists in a state of impermanence.
In his book Zen Keys, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “All phenomena [physical, psychological, and physiological] are devoid of a permanent identity.”
“If they were not impermanent, how could a grain of corn grow into an ear of corn? How could your little girl grow up into a beautiful young lady? Things are possible only when they are devoid of a fixed identity.”
Whatever is described with a “This is” label only exists as that identity for that moment.
If you pick up a leaf and say, “This is a leaf,” you’re not going to be able to say the same thing about that leaf next year when it has decomposed and become part of the forest floor.
When your daughter requests material for her pottery class, you can hand her some and say:
But when she proudly shows you what she made…
You’re in a lot of trouble if you say the same thing.
Understanding that things do not exist in a fixed state creates more meaningful uses for everything. It can be a mental stretch at first to let go of fixed identities. Yet as Jake Silverstein writes in The New York Times Magazine, “No design is ever permanent but merely a way station between what a thing used to be and what it might yet become.”
You will have more assets to work with—and the ability to work in a more future-positive way—when you realize all things are themselves part of a larger journey, a larger process, a larger timeline.
Removing absolute definitions from things removes the limitations of their current form.
This is an excerpt from the book This Could… How Two Words Can Build a Better Future.