This week in our graduate meditation course, our teacher Daryl explored the theme of impermanence. She reminded us that, even though we know intellectually that everything changes all the time (e.g., our bodies, minds, and relationships; the seasons; political and social structures), it’s still difficult for us to bring that understanding to bear in our moment-to-moment reality. According to Buddhist teachings, this difficulty is the source of much suffering.

Daryl guided us in a meditation that helped us directly experience impermanence by watching body sensations, perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and moods as they arise and pass away. When, in between distractions, I was able to rest in the awareness of moment-to-moment experience, I could see that my thoughts, feelings, and body sensations are changing every moment. Daryl’s guided meditation allowed me to further recognize that other day-to-day conditions that I take for granted–my relationships, job, and environment– are also constantly in flux. That’s why, Daryl said, work, relationships, and the other seemingly stable conditions of our lives aren’t reliable foundations for well-being and contentment. Rather, well-being and contentment depend on the capacity to hold onto who and want we care about somewhat more lightly.

How do we hold these things lightly? Many of us in the group weren’t sure exactly what this meant. If everything is impermanent, should we not even bother making plans for the future or striving to reach our goals? Should we not try to attain well-being or contentment?

Daryl explained that holding dreams and desires lightly doesn’t mean never having goals or objectives, but rather not being so attached to achievements and outcomes. Furthermore, stress and dissatisfaction (the opposites of well-being and contentment!) often result from attachment to things being a certain way, e.g., being pain-free, being in a good mood, people being punctual, weather being seasonal. When we hold those expectations lightly, understanding that moods, physical states, time, and weather are impermanent, we can roll with the punches, maintaining greater well-being and contentment.

For example, I can work toward a university degree and aim for top grades–which is important to me–without being too attached to a precise date of completion or to a certain GPA. By holding the objective lightly, I’ll be less stressed about and work more skillfully with the inevitable obstacles or twists and turns in the pathway to completing my degree. I’ll have greater perspective on the impermanence of this goal.

Think about it: does acknowledging impermanence result in resignation and stagnation? Or does it merely decrease the stress borne of attachment, and allow us to move forward toward your dreams and desires?