This post is structured around the three Dharma Seals, as is most of life, it seems.
Impermanence is permanent.
Ten years ago, I was about to start a new job. It was only my fifth new job since the turn of the century. The startup that I had worked for for two years was being shuttered, and I had been hired on at another startup funded by the same fickle billionaire. Working for a fickle billionaire is a good way to learn about impermanence. Every week is a pivot, and then one day the fickle billionaire decides to do something else.
The job I started in 2012 lasted almost two years, before the fickle billionaire once again moved on, and I found myself unemployed for only the fourth time in this century. Jobs are impermanent. Even the ones you like.
In 2015, I started working for the Seattle Public Library, which could have been the job I retired from, but it wasn’t. Working for a public institution is way more stressful and political than anything I had experienced in the private sector. But I stayed for six years.
Also in 2015, I met my future second husband (my first marriage had turned out to be impermanent). We started planning trips almost right away, with our first international excursion to Japan in 2016. Then Portugal, Spain, Morocco, the UK, Scotland, Paris, Ecuador in the following years. No vacation lasts forever, which is exactly what makes them special.
Our daily routines are not permanent. In 2020, everyone got sent home from work at roughly the same time and realized that life can sometimes turn on a dime. From my new work-from-home cave I did what so many others did at the height of the pandemic: I found a new job with a company on the other side of the country. Now I am a fully remote worker, which was not even on my agenda three years ago, much less back in 2012.
I contain multitudes.
The second Dharma seal is translated sometimes as “not-self.” The idea of a static and everlasting core of identity is a Western fallacy. The truth—when we can be bothered to look at it—is that our experience is ever-shifting, like the weather.
In 2012 I drank a lot. That was part of my sense of self that I found hard to let go of. I was fun, edgy, smart, and liked a large glass of whisky to drown my cynicism. Now, I drink alcohol almost never. The aspect of me that needed to drink has faded into the background as other parts get a bit more exercise.
In 2020, this body was diagnosed with breast cancer. I thought, why did this have to happen to me? But really, it wasn’t happening TO ME, it was just nature doing its thing, in this body. Nothing personal.
Nonetheless, I had a response. I started cooking meals every day, rather than living on takeout and bar food. I started exercising at home and going for long walks. I upped my supplements game.
The idea that I have some kind of central “self” that is immutable would have left me stuck in that identity of an edgy drinker. My thoughts, actions, and experiences change constantly, which means I am just a shifting psych-physiological conundrum. I’m a person, with a name and a job and a husband, but the essence of that person is not fixed.
Suffering is optional.
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” This is a Buddhist truism that gets at the core concept of Nirvana—a state beyond suffering. By learning to meditate and recognize thoughts and feelings as simply passing ephemera, we can let go of the need to cling to them. We can break free from the downward spiral of despair and experience life as it is.
I always thought of Nirvana as some sort of transcendental state of bliss, and maybe sometimes it is. But at the most basic level, it is experiencing reality without our usual filters of delusion and wishful thinking that cause all the suffering. It is waking up from the dream of our own mental states.
Nirvana comes through compassion, starting with compassion for ourselves. That has been a challenging one for me. Ten years ago, I was pretty judgmental of myself. I was in the middle of bankruptcy and felt like a failure. Money and jobs seemed to always slip away without my permission, so I had the scarcity mindset that comes with growing up in poverty and struggling to stay afloat as an adult.
In 2014, I went through a painful separation from one of my closest relationships, the death of a childhood friend, and the dissolution of the startup I worked for. I drank my way through these traumas, but I didn’t let myself get bogged down in grief. I moved on.
Pushing myself through all of that may not have been the most compassionate move. I could have used some time to grieve and rest, but instead I had to get a job.
It wasn’t until I started a meditation practice in 2020 that I was able to get some perspective on my suffering. Being able to notice the thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them is a skill, and it is one that I am still working on. There will always be pain and uncertainty in life, but we don’t have to let it own us.