Separation & Impermanence

Twenty years ago, I was a burned- out, stressed-out nonprofit leader and social justice activist. I had spent 30 years in the fight against U.S. imperialism, racial injustice, economic inequality, and patriarchy in every corner of my life as a woman. I worked nonstop on issues, campaigns, and organizing that I hoped would create a better world, but personally, I was a mess. I often operated out of anger, frustration, and harsh judgments of myself and others.

At a certain point I realized my commitment to a life of social change had become unsustainable and unhealthy. If I did not want to lose my passion for change — a casualty of my drive and intensity — I had to find another path.

The change for me was gradual. It began with retreats, first for a day and later for several days. I began to intentionally nurture myself, to stop to rest more often, and to recognize that “I was not responsible for fixing everything wrong in the world.”

I found my way to a healthier lifestyle, poetry, meditation, stronger relationships with family and friends, and eventually to the practice of Buddhism.

Now, 20 years later, I can say that I am still a grassroots organizer and advocate for social change, but I no longer believe all the world’s injustice is my responsibility to mend.

What a relief it has been to realize that my purpose is not only to do what I can to change the world, but also to rest with ease into “life as it is.” I seek connection more often than division, quiet more often than rage, and inner strength rather than a forceful exterior.

Now that I am in my early seventies, I like where I have ended up.

I could not have gotten to where I am without a strong foundation in Buddhism. This is a practice that identifies our acute perception of separation as one of the main barriers to greater happiness.

The antidote to the sense of a separated self was expressed beautifully by the poet Jane Hirshfield in a recent On Being podcast. She speaks of “inseparable kinship” — the notion that we are not alone, but fully in relationship with everything else.

We are not separate, whether we realize it or not. We live in inescapable kinship with all living things, the natural world, and even the cosmos.

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who died in January, calls this “inter-being.” In other words, though my body is my distinct container, and my skin is a barrier to the outer world, I do not exist except in relation to all that is alive and constantly changing around me. This insight helps me to appreciate the gift of life and to develop greater reverence for the natural world we share.

The second helpful insight from Buddhism for me is the notion of impermanence, which suggests the fluidity of time. Everything is constantly changing, including ourselves. Our atoms, molecules, and cells are constantly growing, mutating, changing, and dying. That which leaves me is born again in the air, the water, the plants, the earth, and in other human beings. It is a comfort to realize that our thoughts, perceptions, and behavior are impermanent — because if things feel permanent, they can destroy us.

With practice, we can learn to sit quietly with our emotions, become curious about them, gain insight, and even watch them change. If I am depressed personally — or in despair about my country, the pandemic, or the overwhelming suffering in the world — I have the ability to calm myself, focus my breath, and recenter my energy so that I can act skillfully in the world. This is not passive acceptance of things as they are but living in awareness of the process of change.

It is hard to have our eyes wide open to human suffering, climate catastrophe, racial injustice, devastating inequality, and our own painful experiences of living. To change what is, we have to first lean into life “just as it is” — gather our resources, recognize that we are not alone, and then do what we can to make a difference.

Change is constant. What that change will be depends in part on us.

Pam Costain (she/her) is retired from AchieveMpls and spends time with her grandchildren.