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Lessons on Impermanence from the Pandemic

by Kathryn Patrick, LCSW, Guest Contributor


I am pleased to post this contribution from my colleague Kathryn Patrick, a LBC certified DBT therapist, team leader, consultant and mother--Cedar


As a DBT therapist I have spent countless hours in my career teaching the concepts of dialectical philosophy, concepts which include the reality of impermanence and constant change, interconnectedness and interdependence, and the transactional nature of change and evolution. These concepts have a profound way of reducing the human experience of suffering, yet every time I attempt to explain any one of these concepts I am humbled with awareness that my words more often confine them, rarely doing them justice; nothing can replace the learning that results from experiencing the dialectical nature of reality. Now as we find ourselves smack in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, the experiences of dialectics are unavoidable. Perhaps, if we allow it, this pandemic could be our teacher as we learn these concepts from the inside out.

For me the lessons started about 40 days ago: 40 days of hanging out at home, being separated from my usual routines. 40 days in which I have gone to the grocery store a grand total of three times, and otherwise have only left my house to walk through the neighborhood. 40 days of seeking connection with the outside world through the screen of my computer.

Amidst these extreme life changes, it has been 40 days of being hyper-attuned to the reality of impermanence.

The number of days we’ve all been home now varies, but our stories are similar. We can all relate to that experience of one day imagining that we know roughly what the next day, week, or month has in store, and the next day discovering that we surely did not. Despite our expectations of what March and April would bring, each day’s news—of throngs of people becoming sick and dying, of hospitals running out of supplies, of healthcare workers falling ill, of “stay-at-home orders” shutting down our schools and businesses, of lay-offs, mass unemployment, and travel bans—brings us all sharply face-to-face with the reality that the world is of the nature to change, and our ideas about the future are nothing more than ideas. Did we all notice the experience of impermanence?

Remaining with the experience of impermanence can be unnerving; it is one that most of us are inclined to try to avoid. As the pain of social distancing weighs heavier with each passing day, and so many of us are grieving losses of loved ones, jobs, homes, security, and of course the rhythms we had grown to rely on and love in our daily lives, the idea that “life as we knew it” was—or could have been—permanent is alluring. Our minds are drawn to the past, and we ask ourselves: “When will everything go back to normal?”

The question comes to my mind so often these days, usually as a mental act of grasping back to the norms, conveniences, and pleasures of pre-pandemic life. It is a fair question: our lives have been drastically changed and rearranged in a very short period of time, and not based on anything any of us wanted or chose, so it stands to reason that the currents will eventually pull us back in the direction of what was, the ways of life that we spent generations developing and cultivating to be “just so”.

Yet, the question also has a somewhat absurd nature to it when it arises amidst a changed reality; it implies that things could possibly re-set. As if we’ve just been playing an alternate version of the board game Monopoly, decided we didn’t like it as much as the original, and thought “oh let’s just go back to the old one.” But while the original Monopoly board still sits there waiting for us to dust it off and play, a pre-pandemic reality does not. There is no going back; reality has changed.

In my own life the urges to avoid the experiences of impermanence pull me into the future just as much as to a no-longer-real past. I tell myself: “I won’t be seeing my clients face-to-face in April or May, but surely I will in June!”. Or perhaps “If I’m stuck at home all summer long, I’m going to use the time to grow that garden I’ve always wanted!” These thoughts, while certainly optimistic, and in some ways helpful as I attempt to regulate my mood or organize my behavior during this difficult time, also represent my own discomfort with the reality of impermanence. My mind is searching for something solid to hold onto—to be able to say amidst so many unknowns: “this will be so”.

While the experience of impermanence may be initially unnerving, when I keep paying attention it does change; sometimes to a comforting experience, even enlightening. The experience graciously teaches me to remain attentive at each moment to that which only exists in and for this moment. While it compels me to let go of any assurance of the next breath, it also allows me to notice and appreciate the breath I am taking right now. While it compels me to let go of “going back to normal”, it allows me to notice experiences of pleasure and pain that inform and shape my newly forming routines and rhythms. While it compels me to let go of what I think the future will bring, it also allows me to not take the future for granted, and to be a more willing participant as I attempt to influence what my future will be.

Learning about impermanence from the inside out isn’t easy; in fact, in “easier” times we are more easily fooled into thinking those easy times will keep on rolling. A change of pace, a change of scenery, a change of perspective, a change of sensation…these allow us to become more attuned to reality and able to learn about the nature of change itself. The question is, will we notice the experience and pay attention?

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