Last week was spring cleaning in my office. It was actually “meta” spring cleaning because I was going through and shredding nearly two decades of files from my 25+ years in psychotherapy practice. Over the past three years I’ve shifted down from a full-time clinical practice to just one day a week. Presently I have only a small core group of clients left as I make more time for writing and other pursuits.
While shredding chart notes, I occasionally paused and reflected on clients with whom I no longer work. Their voices and faces came to me, some vivid and some faded. I wondered where and how they were now and felt an acute awareness of the passage of time.
This act of spring cleaning is an important example of the nature of impermanence.
All things are impermanent, including ourselves. Impermanence is an inescapable fact of life. Realizing this can fill us with existential fear and lead us to wonder about our place in the scheme of things. If nothing lasts, then do we, our values, and our relationships matter? Feeling overwhelmed, we resist accepting the fact of impermanence. But this resistance causes more suffering and diminishes the vibrancy of our lives. When we are unable to accept that all things pass, we can’t engage in them wholeheartedly when they are present.
Embracing impermanence is critical in order to end suffering because, in so doing, we are embracing truth. With this comes loss, but embracing this truth also brings renewal and welcome change.
Pausing with some of my clients’ charts, I experienced the pang of time’s passage. And, with it, I felt gratitude to have shared so many stories, connections, and courageous journeys. Some of the journeys were about struggles in relationships, for example, how to know when to stay and when to leave. Many were about addressing wounds from the past that held clients back in the present – like how to let go of childhood pain when important needs weren’t met. Some were about learning strategies to cope with difficult and disruptive symptoms of depression and anxiety. Some were about finding clarity in one’s life path – letting go of some dreams to move toward others. All were about the courageous journey toward authenticity: letting go of who we believe we ought to be in order to welcome who we can be.
Last week’s spring cleaning reflected my own changes in terms of where I want to grow and place my efforts in the coming years. As with many new beginnings, there is both loss and creative excitement. Feeling the pain of impermanence is also a profound reminder of how precious and beautiful life is. By using opportunities like this to accept the truth of impermanence, including the fleetingness of my own existence, I feel more connected to my life, to my choices, and to others.
Sometimes clients from years gone by reach out to let me know the changes in their lives. They send pictures of their weddings and children or send word of their comings and goings. It is a gift to hear from them. It always evokes feelings of gratitude to have been a part of their journey.
The clinical notes I shredded were not actually vibrant representations of my work with my former clients. But they were symbols of the many relationships whose professional nature did not preclude deep caring and connection. I welcomed the pang of loss which this spring cleaning created. If I hadn’t taken this opportunity, I would have missed the experience of even greater openness to my present and future.
In your life, what would it look like to practice awareness of impermanence, on the Buddhist central tenet that all conditioned things have the nature of vanishing? Is there spring cleaning, concrete or symbolic, that needs to be done? What would letting go of benefit you? What are you not ready to leave behind, but still would benefit from thinking about?
In a modern world that can idealize accumulation of things over and above experiences and people, letting go can be experienced as personal diminishment. But this isn’t true!
The practice of deep cleaning, literally parting with things, is a wonderful opportunity to embrace the transitory nature of this precious human life, and in so doing, enrich your life.