Impermanence: Everything Changes — And So Can I

A limb splits off from a live oak tree in San Francisco Bay Area. Photo by BF Newhall

A limb split from a live oak tree in our canyon during a storm. Photo by BF Newhall.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

Impermanence. It’s a helpful, if not always comfortable, idea. Everything changes. It just does.

Sometimes change is a good thing:

  • My son Peter is engaged to be married. He’s not my cute little kid anymore. He’s a grown man in the process of creating a family of his own, and I’m glad for him.

At other times, the change is nothing but painful:

  • My Aunt Grace died last month. She just did. There was no stopping her.
  • An oak tree in the canyon below our house split in half a year or two ago. Thirty feet of living, striving branches and twigs fell downhill.
  • A cherished rural landscape in Michigan – near my father’s 1912 birthplace – has been transformed by a field of steely, towering wind turbines. Fifty-six of them. Each one 312 feet high.
  • I don’t have a job to go to every day. I miss the noise and hubbub and interesting people — my colleagues — in the newsroom.
  • Same goes for the wonderful women — the other moms — I’d see on a daily basis at my kids’ schools and on the sidelines at a soccer game.

I’m trying not to grasp. I’m trying to let go here. I’m trying to accept that:

  • Yes, the precious 2-year-old, 5-year-old, 13-year-old Peter is no more.
  • No, I can’t have my Aunt Grace back.
  • Yes, that live oak is half the tree it used to be.
  • And yes, the powers that be have had their way in Mason county, Michigan. All 56 turbines are rotating right now  at the “Lake Winds Energy Park,” like it or not.
  • And, no, it’s not 1912 anymore, 1912 is gone forever.

And so, I’m sitting here in my writing room in 2013 trying to remind – convince – myself that indeed there’s a good side to this impermanence thing.

The logic, my Buddhist friends tell me, goes like this. If all things are impermanent, that means we humans are impermanent as well. We don’t have to stay stuck in the same-old-same-old.


We can change. We really can. We have that choice.

Zen teacher and executive coach Marc Lesser makes this point in his new book, Know Yourself, Forget Yourself. He talks about impermanence this way:

Sometimes we get trapped by the stories we tell about ourselves, or by our interpretation of what past events mean. These stories create a ripple effect; if we believe them to be true, then we are influenced to live them out. But we don’t have to do that. If it’s true that we are afraid to speak in public, do we explain it by pointing to some humiliating event in childhood? Is that the story of our shyness? More to the point, do we use that story today to hold ourselves back? If so, then we need to work to rewrite this story. Nothing is set in stone.

Lesser goes on to say that he has nothing against stories. “We speak and think and feel in the language of stories,” he writes.

But he recommends letting go of the unhelpful stories we keep on telling ourselves.

Utilize your stories, he says. Don’t be pushed around by them. Jettison the ones that get in your way, especially the ones that say you have a fixed self that cannot be changed.

A tree flowering behind a California live oak tree. Photo by BF Newhall

The split off oak limb made way for the fruit tree.

Lesser describes a married couple who sat down to do a little retirement planning. They gathered a wealth of data – spreadsheets and graphs – about their financial situation. As they studied it, the husband saw a future full of possibilities and opportunities, the wife saw only risks and pitfalls.

The couple concluded that, however things worked out for the two of them, the husband was going to be a rich and happy old man, the wife a poor and unhappy old woman.

Husband and wife were living by differing stories, differing viewpoints, Lesser notes. That can create problems for any two people trying to get along, because “to even entertain the opposing viewpoint can seem to risk our own version of reality, our very self.”

Sad to say, Lesser adds, most of us tend to be like the wife in the story. “We are much more inclined to perceive, feel, and cling to negative stories than to positive stories.”

Which brings us back to impermanence.

Yes, it’s sad to lose that job, that friend. It’s sad to see the Thanksgiving chrysanthemums fade and the needles fall off the Christmas tree. And that oak tree down in the canyon is a sorry sight indeed – a skinny shadow of itself.

But earlier today, when I climbed down the canyon slope to take a closer look, I saw that, yes, the oak tree was greatly diminished.

But the flowering fruit tree growing behind it was not.

Three years ago the flowering tree was small and cramped and hidden by the more expansive oak.

But this afternoon the fruit tree was huge. Sprawling. It had burst into the sunny open space left behind by the oak tree. It had filled the sky with a delicate criss-crossing of branches, which were covered with buds – thousands and thousands of them – waiting to change themselves into blossoms.

Know Yourself, Forget Yourself: Five Truths to Transform Your Work, Relationships, and Everyday Life,” by Marc Lesser, New World Library, 2013, $14.95 paper.

For another post on Buddhism read about Jack Kornfield.

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Meanwhile, I’ve checked out those windmills in Michigan. Read about them and see pictures at “The Windmills of Mason County.”

A flowering trees buds out in February 2013 in California. Photo by BF Newhall




  1. Barbara, this is an excellent post, beautifully written (as usual!), and I’m sharing it with quite a few friends. Thank you!

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Guess who also has a copy of this — because she was my roommate at St. John’s women’s retreat this weekend — your sometime Mills colleague, Marilyn. Thanks for passing the link along.

  2. Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

    Interesting pro wind energy article in the current issue of the Sierra Club magazine.

  3. Lindsey Newhall says:

    This was a thought-provoking post. I’ve often heard change is the one constant we have in life. I think a lot of people are afraid of change in general, and often with good reason. For me, I believe that change can be difficult to face, which is why I often try actively to change my life around, to “get used to change” in a sense. It’s a part of what pushes me to move around so much, move to different places and get to know different sets of people. I once heard someone say that courage takes practice. And I believe coping with change gracefully takes practice too. Thank you for this excellent post, as always.

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Interesting, Lindsey. I think the (Buddhist) thought that Lesser is trying to pass along is that we make ourselves unhappy (or, unhappier than we need to be) when we try to hold on to things that are bound inevitably to change.

      For me, the thing that doesn’t change is that I did indeed have an Aunt Grace, who loved me lot. Nothing can change that. Lesser would probably want to add that I can change the story I tell myself about my Aunt Grace.

  4. Barbara,
    This post was beautiful. I was quite moved by it. Yes, we live with impermanence all our lives, sometimes as loss, sometimes as gift. Life is always teaching us and, when we allow it, transforming us. I loved the last paragraph and its images of the fruit tree that “had burst into the sunny open space left behind by the oak tree” and was “covered with buds…waiting to change themselves into blossoms.”
    Sounds like an interesting book by Marc Lesser. I’ll have to look it up!

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Jan, Marc’s book is pretty interesting. It’s aimed especially toward people addressing workplace issues. How to be more effective, etc. A very useful text, I’d say. As well as inspirational.


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