“All compounded things are impermanent,” we are taught by the Buddha. Yet how often do we cling to this or that manifestation of reality, or a particular manifestation of politics, or our religion, or the dispositions of our loved ones or ourselves?
Spring has arrived fully in my city of Seattle. With it comes a season of change. In the last two months I’ve (re)visited Utah, a home of adventure, gotten engaged, making official my commitment to the woman I love, led a retreat in my home state of Montana, and begun planning for jobs in both China and Hong Kong for the summer and fall.
It is easy to get swept away in all of this change.
It is easy to resist it.
The middle way, however, seems to lie in being a part of the flow and yet set apart, to be “in the world but not of it,” to borrow a Christian phrase. In the flow, but not of it. Still just so slightly set apart. Free to observe the changes, the feelings, the thoughts and attitudes, the worries and anxieties. Not pushing them away. Not diving in, losing one’s agency.
“Strong back, soft front” is the description of this I heard from Roshi Joan Halifax, who visited Seattle recently promoting her latest book. Our discipline and life experience gives us a strong back, unbending to winds of time or the fickle wills of others or even our own cravings or aversions. Our compassion gives us a soft front, open to the world, open to others in their unique forms of suffering.
The combination of these is difficult. The soft front can be burned, or it can lead one astray if the back isn’t sufficiently strong. Or the back can be too stiff, too closed to new experience, too dogmatic.
My hope is that as I age I get better at this balance, at managing life’s transitions with increasing grace, openhandedness and openheartedness. I know I fail often, falling to one extreme or another, pausing, reassessing, and going forward.
Even getting it right is impermanent, as the next transition arises and with it the next opportunity for balance, or a little bit of failure and growth.
Onward, into the world.
But first, this breath.