The other day, in the midst of roasting beets, I noticed for the first time that our stove has a button on it that says “Stop Time.” I wondered to myself: a) how have I never noticed this before? And b) what would it mean to be able to stop time?
In Buddhism there are three “marks of existence.” Three things we have to get our heads around if we are going to cope with the roller coaster ride that is our life. (And meditating is the practice that helps us do that). The first mark is impermanence, the second is the inevitability of suffering, and the third is that everything is inter-connected with everything else.
Impermanence is something that life will teach you, if you get to stay around long enough. I come from a family where there have been many funerals, and to our credit, we’re pretty funny about it. My aunt showed up to our Christmas party wearing what she calls her “terminal coat,” i.e. the last one she’s ever planning to buy. At a family picnic my cousin Brian suggested that pall-bearing should become an Olympic sport with a two-man category, and my father pointed out last time we were at the cemetery that the Jacksons on the wrong side of the turf are starting to out-number the ones above it. I am very blessed to come from a family endowed with a good sense of humour as a consolation for our bad genetics. But every time I hear that one of the people I love is sick or dying I really want to be able to stop time, so that I can hold on to them forever.
But no one wants to be the prisoner of someone else’s neediness. That’s what the fight against impermanence looks like. It’s tight. It’s fearful. It’s grasping. None of us gets out of here alive. The part of us that knows we’re impermanent is always in a battle with the part that wants to deny the passage of time and create a fortress of self to hide in. We take selfies, we tell stories, we buy lots of stuff, rack up all kinds of achievements—all attempts to make ourselves feel invincible and permanent and important—and to stop time, to stop aging, sickness, and death. But the reality is that the thing that makes us real is loving and being loved. Relationships are what make us real, and no matter how hard we try, no matter how good we are, we can’t control the outcome. We still lose people we adore. Something much bigger is at play, and we are just a miniscule part of that big ungraspable something.
The good news about impermanence is that every day is a new day, a new opportunity to be intimate with what is here now. We always have the possibility of redemption. The hard part is that we have to let go of our sense of self-importance, our sense that we are the centre of the universe, and the belief that the world can’t go on without us. We have to believe that we can go on in the face of pain. The impulse to stop time doesn’t come from a fear of death…it comes from a fear of life.