One of the cornerstones of the Buddha’s teaching is that nothing is permanent, everything is subject, moment by moment, to change.
This idea makes innate sense to us all, for we see it in front of our very eyes. Right now, in the Southern Hemisphere, the oak trees are losing their leaves, just as in Europe the oak trees are pushing out buds.
What I find so very hard to grasp is that even though everything is changing, minute by minute, and that it is only clinging to things, and wanting to keep them as they are that produces suffering, so much of life manages, when I wake up into each new day, to look EXACTLY THE SAME as it did yesterday!!
Maybe as a way of surviving the swirling, unpredictable chaos of reality, we have perfected the art of making things seem permanent, from the flaws in our own bodies when we examine them in the mirror, to the repetitive thought patterns and problems we experience in that “here we go again” kind of way.
Despite knowing, in truth, that everything passes, and is passing, all the time, we manage to get things to stick in place in ways that can leave us feeling very much stuck!
This is why I love the Afrika Burn festival: because it provides a ritualised and conscious way of participating in impermanence. From the blank and arid canvas of the Tankwa Karoo springs up a small “town” called Tankwa Town. It takes some few weeks to build, and to dismantle: one of its core principles is to leave no trace. For a week each year Tankwa Town bursts into a festival of art, music, dressing up, fantasy and play. Imagination runs riot.
I have the privilege of living closely with one of the men who build the main sculpture. Modelled on Black Rock Nevada’s Burning Man, the San Clan sculpture, like Tankwa Town itself, appears from the desert floor to be marvelled at for a short while, and then to be burned back into the dust.
Knowing the blood, sweat and tears (literally) that it takes to bring “the San Clan” to ‘life’, every year I marvel at the joy and liberation experienced by the team in the aftermath of burning their masterpiece.
The energy that is released, both in the fire itself, and in the hearts and minds of the onlookers, has a certain ecstasy to it that reminds me of Rumi’s writing:
“In order to give light, one must first burn……….Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames.”
I spent three hours in the Medic Tent at Afrika Burn this year, struggling to breathe, and to contain a heart beating very much faster than normal. Thanks to the doctor and nurses who cared for me, I came right. I don’t think it was as life threatening as it may have felt at the time, but coming up against the physical limitations of the body I inhabit gave me pause. What am I assuming that causes me to stay stuck: when the very fabric of life is impermanence?
In the aftermath of the medical intervention, I feel the flirtation of letting go, more…….and then some more. To a Bull, born in the year of the Ox, unyoking myself feels almost irresponsible, almost reckless.
And this is interesting, don’t you think? That the words we have that fit the flames are vacillating and volatile, whimsical, whirling and wild – that the whole language of impermanence produces frisson, makes one giddy at the thought.
We like to know. We like to be right. We like our comfort zones, that’s why we call them comfortable: for when we are in them life is predictable and we are less afraid of being caught out, in the headlight of not knowing.
But our comfort zones are not truthful. What we know, deep down underneath the soothing illusion of having it all together, is that everything is slipping away, all the time.
I’ve been noticing that when I apply this understanding to being in conversation with others, something magical happens. Like the mythical Pheonix arising from the ashes, when human beings allow themselves to be pulled towards connection, letting go of needing to be right, burning down the need to already have the answer, the possibility that exists just beyond the tried and tested, emerges from the ashes. It belongs to no-one and to everyone, at once.
It’s hard to put into words. But it is tantalising. And, at the risk of wanting to capture and hold on to it, I share this out into the listening that receives it, and wonder what might be birthed by each fierce intelligence that reads these words and ponders them with me.