“‘All conditioned things are impermanent’ — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.” – The Buddha
As anyone who has read this site for very long can probably guess, one of my passions is learning about new philosophies and religions and intellectual traditions in order to see what the wisdom of others can teach me about my own life. I incorporate bits and pieces of many different things that I pick up from books, conversations, and life experiences into a hodgepodge of ideas by which I govern my life, a mix that I’m constantly adding to and occasionally removing bits from.
Today, I want to talk about one of the things I picked up from Buddhism – the idea of impermanence. In fact, I consider the focus on impermanence and its meaning to be perhaps the most valuable lesson on modern life that most of us can take from Buddhism.
One of the central tenets of Buddhism is the idea that everything has a life cycle. It comes into being, grows, ages, withers, and decays. People do this. Ideas do this. Thoughts do this. Buildings do this. Plants do this. Buddhism argues that everything does this.
If you take that type of thinking a step forward, you’ll realize that Buddhism thus argues that tomorrow will be different than today and will consist of a mix of ideas and things from today that have aged a bit as well as new ideas and things, each of which are on their own cycle of life.
At the most cursory of glances, this seems to be a depressing philosophy. It means that there’s a constant acceptance that everything is on an endless march toward its end! How can that be joyful?
Actually, it is quite joyful. If you accept that an end is a natural part of everything, two things happen. First, you already have some degree of acceptance that everyone and everything will eventually meet an end, and that’s a normal part of life. More than that, though, you recognize that your time with which to enjoy and appreciate many things is short. Even your own life is short.
When this idea first really clicked with me, it brought a period of intense joy into my life. I began to realize that nothing was permanent, so I needed to say and do the things that were really important now rather than later. I started telling many of my family members and friends that I really cared for them, because I didn’t want me or them to leave this earth without saying that, and recognizing and accepting the impermanence of both of us nudged me in that direction. I started really appreciating today more and more, and I also started appreciating little details of life.
Right now, for example, as I write this, I can hear a robin chirping. I know that it’s a young robin, almost assuredly one of the robins that hatched in a nest on our property. I had the joy of seeing the blue robin’s eggs in that nest this spring and now I can hear robins chirping, likely those same tiny chicks I witnessed in May who have grown much larger in the ensuing months. That robin will eventually grow older and may serve as a parent for another nest of robin’s eggs somewhere else. That chirping robin in the warmth of summer is not permanent; there may be another robin next summer, or there may not be. Why not enjoy it now?
I love the feeling of warm sun on my skin, a sensation that does seem to be very, very common, but in truth, there will come a time in my life where my chances to feel that nice sensation will be very limited.
For now, though, why not appreciate it? The same is true for almost every little experience I have in my day that brings me joy: the smells and sounds of walking in a forest, the feel of a fountain pen etching across paper, the gentle soreness the morning after exerting myself, the feeling of my wife’s skin on my fingertips and the taste of her lip balm after a kiss, and so on. Those things are little joys; why not slow down a bit and appreciate them? I won’t always be able to do so, after all.
Buddhism takes this core idea of impermanence and turns it into what it calls the “four noble truths.” These are, in order (and with some variation based on translation):
There is suffering. Life contains disappointments, failure, and loss. We don’t always achieve what we want. Things we relied on eventually wear out and fall apart. Our things, our relationships, our own bodies and minds. Our children grow up. Our friends and loved ones die. Others drift away. The things that once made us passionate can sometimes dull over time.
Suffering has a cause. The cause of suffering is the pursuit of things which decay. We work so hard to obtain things that are fleeting, and when those things drift away, we experience suffering. For example, many parents often struggle to watch their children grow up because they are attached to those people in their childhood state, and seeing that state drift away is difficult.
The cessation of suffering exists. The cause of suffering is our attachment to things that are transient. We become attached to having things as they are, in their current state. The cessation of suffering comes when we accept that things will change and remove our attachment from the current state of things. For example, love your children as they are, not as they once were, and don’t lament the change.
There is a path to the cessation of suffering. How do you do that? How do you let go of things as they currently are and accept that they change? It’s not simple, but there is a path. Buddhism offers an eightfold path to this type of perspective on the world, consisting of perfected vision, perfected emotion and aspiration, perfected speech, perfected action, perfected livelihood, perfected effort, perfected awareness, and perfected concentration. Practicing that path makes it easier to understand the world as impermanent and remove your attachment to a particular state of the world while still loving it.
All of this may seem interesting, of course, but what exactly does any of it have to do with personal finance? This is The Simple Dollar, after all. Let’s start heading in that direction.
The first thing to realize is that nothing in your life is really permanent. The way your day-to-day life is right now is not the same as it always was, nor is it the same as it always will be. Your job will change. The people in your life will change. Your financial situation will change. Unexpected events will happen and have an impact and change the course of things. Change is the only guarantee.
Knowing that such impermanence is the reality of things, we can prepare for it. We can do things today, when things are as they are right now, to prepare for an uncertain future, so that we’re better able to enjoy the unexpected good things and better able to sustain the unexpected bad things. The only certainty is that the future will contain new things and the fading of old ones, so we should prepare for it.
How do we prepare for it? One key way that many people take is simply having an emergency fund. In other words, just stick money into your savings account for whatever may come, and only tap it when you need it. I do this automatically, so I don’t have to concern myself with it on a daily or weekly basis. It’s simple – just instruct your bank to transfer a specific amount of money each week from your checking account to your savings account, and then don’t touch the savings account until a need arises.
Beyond that, we can save for things like retirement or for the education of our children. We don’t necessarily know that those things are coming, but we can see that many of our paths lead in those directions and that those paths will be much easier for us to follow if we take action today and save for those things.
Another useful way to prepare for an impermanent future to improve yourself. The stronger and more varied your personal skills, the easier it is to handle whatever changes may come your way in life. Work on your communication skills, your physical fitness, your self-control, your ability to not react emotionally to things, your information organization skills, your carpentry skills, and so on. All of those skills widen the possibility that you’ll be able to handle whatever changes may come in your career and your life. You can do this by taking online classes or getting involved in groups that help build skills, like Habitat for Humanity.
Another aspect of impermanence worth considering is the fact that the person you are tomorrow will be different than the person you are today. I often compare myself to who I was 10 or 15 years ago and the truth is that many of my interests and passions and uses of time are quite different than they once were.
What does that imply about your spending? Don’t buy anything you can borrow. I might be really tempted to buy a book or a game today, but will I still like it in five years? Many of the board games I bought several years ago are ones that I have no interest in playing today. Many of the books I bought several years ago are ones I have zero interest in re-reading. Why own these things? Borrow them from the library. Go to a community game night and play them.
Not only that, having piles of stuff means it’s harder to move to a new place. It’s harder to keep things clean and organized. It’s harder to move on to a new phase in life. Your stuff holds you back. It holds you in a spot in your life that might be fading away. In other words, it’s a call to minimalism. More and more, I’m finding that I want to have less stuff because it means that almost everything in life is easier going forward.
It means less money spent on physical items and thus more money that’s free to save for the future or to use to improve myself. It means less time and effort spent on maintaining things. It means more time to devote to other things that I care about and more time to devote to actually using the things that I do still own.
It also has interesting implications regarding your career. Don’t be attached to your job. Instead, look at it as a stepping stone, a place where if you do your best, you’ll be setting yourself up for more options later. (Again, we’re getting back to that theme of self-improvement that runs through all of this. Diversifying your options down the road means you’re better able to handle whatever changes may come.) What skills can you build here? What relationships can you build? What projects can you complete so well that you can show them off in a portfolio or on a resume? If you build genuine value in yourself, then you’re not just taking from your employer, as they have a more valuable employee, too. If you hit a home run with a project at work, you both win. If you build a new skill, you both win.
The final implication I want to discuss in this is one that has become very central to my life. Live your life as though today is the only one that matters.
Many people see that as an excuse to be irresponsible. I don’t. I actually see it as an excuse to be very responsible and productive.
Here’s why: although the statement makes it clear that your focus should be on today, it doesn’t say that your actions don’t have consequences. Everything you do is like tossing a rock into a still lake – it has waves that ripple out into the future in many ways. Many of your best days are the ones where you cast powerful positive waves out from the rocks you throw in. In other words, your best days are the ones where you make the most progress you can on the things you care about by focusing on the moment, by focusing on what you can really do today to make things better.
I can’t control the future, of course, but I can do things today that will roll forward with positive impact and potentially make the future better.
I like to use my children as an example. My children are constantly changing. I look at a picture of them from just a few years ago and I am stunned at the changes in them. I know that if I saw them as they will be a few years from now, I’ll be blown away at the changes.
However, I can’t do a thing about the past, and I can’t really do anything directly about the future, either. The only tool I have to guide them on a great path is right now – this very moment. I can choose to pay attention to them, to listen to them. I can choose to spend time with them in which they are my genuine focus. I can choose to control my emotions when they make a mistake and use every ounce of focus I have to guide them well. Will it be enough? Maybe. Will it be another key segment in a long journey? Absolutely.
You can look at finances in the exact same way. The choices you make today regarding your spending either cause money to drain out of your savings or allow money to stay there for your future self. It is only today when you have that choice – you can’t fix the choices of the past, nor can you do anything about what may happen tomorrow. You only have today to make the best choice.
In order to fuel this concept, I try to avoid looking at myself as unchanging. I will not live forever. I will age. I will not be as physically strong in the future. I will grow tired more easily. My mind may become a little muddled. In short, I’m probably as strong – or close to as strong – mentally and physically right now as I will be at any point after this. Why would I not, then, choose to bear some extra burdens now so that the weight is lifted from the shoulders of my future self? I don’t want to be struggling with work in my old age. I don’t want to be trying to handle a child that I didn’t give my full commitment to as they were growing up. I don’t want to be trying to build a career or trying to save desperately for retirement.
It is far better for me to take on the harder tasks now, when I know I can handle them, rather than later on, when I may not be able to. Life is impermanent. I may not be able to do these things later. I may not be as strong later in life. I may not be as focused later in life. I may not have a great job or a great career later in life. I have all of these things now. Why not use them before they slip away, as things do?
Yes, of course, there is that possibility that I might die tomorrow, that this is my last day, so why shouldn’t I enjoy it? On the other hand, if this is my last day to make a mark on this earth, what better way to spend it than by spending some meaningful time with my children or to do something that leaves as much behind as possible for them as they grow? What better way to spend it than to enjoy the wonderful things that the world already has on offer for me, like the sunshine on my skin and the things I already own, without throwing away elements of my future out of some sense of the unknown?
If this really is my last day on earth, I want to leave it in a state where Sarah knows that I love her, that my children know that I love them, that my parents know that I love them, that my friends know it, too. I want to go away knowing that I found joy in this world without just giving away everything I worked for. I don’t achieve any of that by shirking responsibility and spending every dime that I have. I achieve that by working as hard as I ever have, by focusing on the things that I care about the most in my life, by enjoying the pleasures I already have, and by accepting that none of this is permanent. That’s a pretty amazing day, and a fitting cap to a life well lived, I think. I can send no better ripples into the future than those.
“Ardently do today what must be done. Who knows? Tomorrow, death comes.” – The Buddha