What if Reflecting on Impermanence & Death Feels Hopeless?

A student writes:

An enormous amount of my suffering stems from my resistance to impermanence/death. The more I look at impermanence the more I see the pain of samsara.

The fact that samsara is so unbelievably painful can make me seek a Truth beyond that. I can certainly see that that can lead to wonder and delight. But I just tend to feel the hopelessness and despair of samsara. It also can open into compassion, but not ‘wonder’ for me, it doesn’t feel delightful or happy.

Lama Shenpen responds:

I suppose I am talking about two different ways of meditating on impermanence. If you look at things we take as being real and present and that we want to hang on to, such as our body, our life, our home, our dear ones, then yes, meditation on impermanence takes the form of remembering all this will die and we will be left without our world, our body and our dear ones.

When the truth of this sinks in, which for you it has, then it produces a strong revulsion for samsara and a longing for the Truth that lies beyond it. That is absolutely spot on – that is a realization. It is the Buddha Nature within us that is driving us to seek an ending of that suffering. That is our Openness, Clarity and Sensitivity at work, as it were.

Since that is the case, as we really let go of attachment, we get a corresponding increase in feelings of lightness and joy. It just works like that. The pain and the joy increase together in a strange way – a very strange way.

The other way of meditating on impermanence is to just look directly at your immediate experience and notice it is never the same moment to moment. It is this aspect of impermanence that can strike us as wonderful and awesome. It can also strike us as intensely poignant. This moment will never be again. It is gone forever. Maybe it’s that sense of poignancy that makes us grab for a camera or seize on some memento. How could it be so excruciatingly lovely only for a moment and then to go, and never come again?

I feel that particularly when I see young people, like flowers coming into full bloom, only to begin to fade. Yet freshness and newness are only possible because this is what happens. The newness has a life and intensity to it that, when noticed, is exhilarating. It is always new – always – it is never the same. Nothing actually ever ages.

It is all new, new, new, and somehow, as one really links into that properly, the potential for joy becomes overwhelming. You could say the potential for horror is overwhelming, too – who knows what lies just around the corner or even, when one thinks about it, in the next second?

This kind of meditation can take one’s breath away. It can feel like racing along trying to keep one step ahead of a taper lit behind one. One could relax into that somehow, and notice it’s okay. It’s just like that and that is okay. From learning to be able to relax with that come all sorts of insights and sources of joy. Well, it is Openness, Clarity and Sensitivity itself actually. It’s not just open, not just clear – it’s sensitive, responsive, alive – and being alive, living, feels good.


I know due to my own recent experience that death can come at any moment, which instantly seems to link me into impermanence/loss/dukkha all around me, but there doesn’t seem to be any way right now that I can open to wonder at impermanence.

Lama Shenpen:

I think maybe the joy is competing with the grief. To allow the joy to bubble up, you would have to let go of the grief. That would mean a sudden change in the whole way you are coping right now. You are coping with grief and you have your strategies. Joy would cut through all of that and be very confusing! So joy doesn’t get a look in really.

What kind of world would it be where you were happy and there were no more grief? I think the fear is that it would be a world where there would also be no more you and the person you’re grieving for.

But that way of thinking is just attachment. You don’t actually need to maintain that pattern. Every little inch of it could be given a little nudge and a push and somehow, at some point, it could all collapse and it could be a new day, a new life, a new you and a whole different feel about life and about everything. It does happen in the end.

Lama Shenpen