Presence, Impermanence and Botox:
Building Castles in the Sand
by Lionel Fisher
For most of my life, stillness was an undesirable place to be, a melancholy reminder of the grim finality that awaited me, implacable and eternal beyond the grave. For all those frantic years, inner peace was the antithesis of life itself, the polar opposite of human
endeavor, passion, growth and attainment.
The measure of my worth lay in the total expenditure of my time. Mounted on the noble steed of ambition, my banner of courage and commitment unfurled to the wind, I galloped off in all directions at once, in
quest of – I can’t remember what now; I’m not sure I knew even back then. No matter. It was the doing that counted, the striving and achieving.
Always ahead of myself, I was forever playing catch-up. Never sure where I was going, I still made good time. I may have been lost, but I always got there in a hurry. And for all those driven years, I mistook quantity for quality, volume for worth, motion
for meaning, achievement for self-actualization, compulsion for character, professional success for personal fulfillment.
“We skitter about like hyperactive gerbils,” observes Amy Krouse Rosenthal, “high not just on caffeine, but caffeine’s luscious byproduct, productivity. Ah, the joy of doing, accomplishing, crossing off.” Oh, yes, and making money, certainly a legitimate
reason for optimum zeal and productivity. Trouble is, even when our need for money diminishes, our compulsion to keep making it doesn’t. Busyness, however mindless and unnecessary, becomes essential to our sense of relevance and well-being, holding stillness ferociously at
The tragedy of hyperactivity is that though it’s cloned from workaholism with the best of intentions -- to cope with the challenges and “stuff” of life -- it becomes a bloodthirsty plant in our own real-life “Little Shop of Horrors,” commanding us through
our fog of exhaustion, “Feed me! Feed Me!” as we shovel ever-larger chunks of time, energy, emotion and spirit into its insatiable maw until there’s little left for ourselves or anyone else.
Too Exhausted to Care
The blind eye of this whirlwind of activity, claims Sogyal Rinpoche, is our fear of death. Because it scares us stiff, we make the merry-go-round of our lives so fast-paced and hectic that we’re too harried and preoccupied to think, much less worry about
our onrushing mortality. “We smother our secret fears of impermanence by surrounding ourselves with more and more goods, more and more things, more and more comforts, only to find ourselves their slaves,” writes the Buddhist meditation master in his spiritual classic, The
Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. “Our only aim in life soon becomes to keep everything as safe and secure as possible.”
Samsara is what Buddhists call our grasping for permanence, born of the egotistical self-delusion we can somehow avoid pain and find lasting pleasure: “a hopeless cycle that goes round and round endlessly and causes us to suffer greatly,” observes
Pema Chodron. This foolish notion is laughable from the Tibetan perspective because life is nothing if not a “continuing dance of birth and death,” in Rinpoche’s words, “an everlasting dance of change.”
“Grasping is the source of all our problems,” stresses Rinpoche. “Since impermanence to us spells anguish, we grasp onto things desperately, even though all things change. We are terrified of letting go, terrified, in fact, of living at all, since
learning to live is learning to let go.”
Buddhism’s diagnosis of Western culture’s epidemic of attention deficit disorder is that we cram our lives with compulsive activity in order to trivialize or deny the real issues confronting us: fear of loss, impermanence and change, the core of which is
our dread of that pale rider who draws ever closer. “All anxiety, all dissatisfaction, all the reasons for hoping that our experience could be different are rooted in our fear of death,” affirms Chodron. “Fear of death is always in the background.”
Botox for the Soul
For 40 percent of our population, the answer lies in whatever prevailing miracle plan combines diet, exercise and surgery to stave off biological aging and the effects of gravity on body parts and skin tone indefinitely: “Hey, as long as I can bench press
300, run 3:30 marathons, still be the hottie I was 20 years ago, how close can death be?” Thus does our spandex-clad denial generate the Botox that softens the frown-lines on our angst-ridden souls. For the less energetic 60 percent of Americans, overeating and other
indulgences seem to mitigate the emotional pain, though hastening the arrival of the object of our dread.
Still, why not just ignore that ashen king of terrors until the moment he sidles up? After all, for Americans enjoying life has always meant disavowing its natural conclusion. The “D” word has long stuck in our throats. “How do you feel about dying?” is
not a great conversational gambit for first dates. Why, therefore, dwell, even briefly, on the depressing subject?
For two reasons, one having to do with dying a good death, the other with living a good life, both inextricably joined. Staring death in the eye keeps us squarely in the present, the only place life can be lived and stillness be found. Acknowledging death
nails us to the present -- between a past forever gone and a future that may never come. It makes us question our priorities, prods us into doing what we otherwise might put off, turns the pessimistic phrase “Life is short!” into a rallying cry for maximum effort and
sustained passion in the time remaining to each of us.
Chodron likens our desperate clinging to children building a sand castle on the beach. “We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood and pieces of colored glass,” writes the American Buddhist nun in her wise book, When Things Fall Apart.
“The castle is ours, off-limits to others. We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when
the time comes let it dissolve back into the sea.”
But easier said than done, Pema, since we tend to postpone our enjoyment of whatever we think will make us happy until the ironclad titles, deeds, certificates and lifetime warranties have been signed, notarized, sealed and locked away for safekeeping.
Permanence is the prerequisite of the giving of ourselves to others. After all, society reminds us, “Till death do us part,” is how the wedding vow reads, not “For as long as it lasts.” And, of course, you must keep score. How else do you know if you’re winning or losing?
Letting Go All Non-Moments
Yet there’s only one immutable law in the universe, points out Sogyal Rinpoche, which is that everything changes, all things are transitory. Taking this doctrine of impermanence to heart, he assures, softens our fear of loss and eventually
frees us from our false passion for security and control, the shifting sands on which we try to build everything in our lives. By opening ourselves fully to whatever each new moment brings – sorrow or joy, loss or gain, another beginning, another end, we open ourselves to the
biggest moment of all: “Oops, what d’you know, there’s death, how interesting…”
What is stillness after all, asks Eckhart Tolle, but presence in the moment? Only the stillness within us can perceive the stillness without, he counsels. The portal to the “no thing” Tolle refers to as the “eternal essence” (and some call God) lies in the quiet amidst of
noise, in the silence under the sounds, the gaps between the words. Here is where God is found. And as stillness flows from silence, as presence and consciousness are the same, so is nonattachment one with serenity.
Peace of mind, tranquility of heart, gentleness of spirit require – no, they demand nonattachment, a resolute letting go, the unconditional release to a higher power of our pathetic notions of ownership and control. And along with them, all the caveats, conditions,
promises and expectations we attach to the bestowal and acceptance of love, friendship, affection, respect or approval. Unconditional surrender, if you will.
And so I’ve found my place of stillness, even though it took getting old, becoming a hermit and completing my 12-Step Ego-Abatement Program to finally reach it. Unlike Superman’s Fortress of Solitude at the North Pole, my Citadel of Silence is far more accessible. It’s a
state of grace I carry inside me, affirming and impregnable, well, most of the time.
Occasionally, in a place with too many people far from the solace and solitude of my beloved beach, I’ll feel a crack in the citadel’s thin armature, usually resulting from a close encounter of an inappropriate kind with Grossly Inconsiderate Cell-Phone Man or Rudely
Obnoxious Sales Service Lady or Drunkenly Dangerous Machismo Road Rager.
Once in a while, as well, the winds of bombast gusting from the mouths of our nation’s business and political jivers, shakers, shockers and awers on the media’s airways will roil waves of disquiet that wash at my citadel’s flimsy foundation of sand and sea foam. So far,
though, the sanctuary has held its tenuous ground.
Here you’ll find me.
Building castles in the sand.
And waiting for the tide to take them.
© Copyright 2005 Lionel Fisher.
All Rights Reserved.
Lionel Fisher is a former journalist, columnist, corporate communicator and advertising creative director who lived and worked in San
Francisco, New York, Chicago, Miami and Portland, Oregon, before becoming a hermit on Southwest Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula. He is the author of “Celebrating Time Alone: Stories of Splendid Solitude” (Beyond Words Publishing, 2001), "On Your Own: A Guide to Working
Happily, Productively and Successfully from Home" (Prentice Hall, 1995) and "The Craft of Corporate Journalism" (Nelson-Hall, 1992). In addition, Fisher writes several self-syndicated humor/lifestyle columns, including one on the art of being alone. Reach him at
Fisher’s last book is about living well enough alone,
even magnificently, instead of seeking our happiness, our fulfillment, our very identity in others when we first must find it in ourselves. Fisher’s reflections on solitude came into sharp focus on the remote Pacific Northwest beach to which he moved eight years ago where he
kept a detailed journal to record his thoughts, feelings and emotions during this climactic period of willful isolation.
In "Celebrating Time Alone" he interweaves his own insights and experiences with the stories of the "new hermits" he interviewed across the country: men and women who have stretched the envelope of their aloneness
to Waldenesque proportions, achieving great emotional clarity in the process, as well as their urban counterparts who, through necessity or choice, prefer to savor their individuality in smaller servings.
The book’s central premise is timeless and simple, notes Fisher: "There are gifts we can only give ourselves, lessons no one else can teach us, triumphs we must achieve alone. It affirms that it’s all right to be
alone, to want to be alone, even to be lonely at times because the rewards of solitude can make the deprivations so worthwhile. It sings the praises of those who have found amazing grace alone. They lead us in quest of our own undiscovered selves."
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