The word anitya in Sanskrit means impermanence, passing or transient. In Buddhism, impermanence is one of the three characteristics of reality. Indeed, we all know that things constantly shift and change. In a year’s time, we will not look as we do now; in an hour and even in a minute, we will not feel the way we do right now. There is nothing in the entire material nature (Prakriti) that is not subject to the law of incessant change. Some things seem to change slowly while others change quickly. A mountain can exist for millions of years until it is completely washed into the ocean. Yet even a mountain changes every moment; the forces of nature – the sun, the wind, the water, and the tectonic activity of the earth are constantly transforming it. Our consciousness changes very quickly. Try to sit quietly for a few minutes and follow your thoughts; there isn’t a moment without movement – one thought haunts another one, the flow of thoughts and emotions is ceaseless. Our body is also constantly changing; at any given moment millions of cells die and others take their place. Very few cells exist in our body for more than three months.
Change is a fact well known to us all. Everyone knows that everything is in the process of change. But do we really internalize the reality of change? We all know we will die one day, but do we really live in awareness of our impending death? Probably not, since otherwise, we would use every minute for our development and growth and would not waste time in stupid quarrels, fights, and insults.
If we were fully aware of the constant change of all things, we wouldn’t cling and without gripping, we wouldn’t suffer. But our consciousness tends to attribute permanence and stability to things. It seems to us that the things we hold on to will continue to exist. When we experience something pleasant – are we aware that it is about to end? Because if so, then why does the inevitable end of a pleasant experience cause unease, frustration, sorrow, and sometimes even despair? When we own an object we perceive as precious, are we aware that it will not remain unchanged or that we may not own it in the future? When we experience something unpleasant, bothersome, disturbing, painful – do we not think it will be so forever? If we were really, deeply aware of the transience of all things, we would not have been so deeply bothered by unpleasant experiences, knowing that they too, shall pass. Or, as Leonard Cohen put it:
“Passing through, passing through, sometimes happy sometimes blue…“
There is, therefore, a fundamental difference between the intellectual comprehension of the fact of change (which includes the fact that we will not live forever) and a deep internalization of this reality in a way that will transform deeply our life experience.
Sutra II.3 enumerates the five kleshas; II.4 notes that avidya is the field from which the rest of the kleshas sprout. Sutra II.5 describes what avidya is. Below is the Sanskrit text of this sutra and next to it, is the English translation of B.K.S. Iyengar:
|anitya ashuchi duhkha anatmasu nitya shuchi sukha atman khyatih avidya||Mistaking the transient for the permanent, the impure for the pure, pain for pleasure, and that which is not self for the self: all this is called lack of spiritual knowledge, avidya|
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Anitya is translated here as transient. Nitya is permanence. One aspect of avidya -delusion or flawed perception – is hence the perception of the transient as if it were permanent or eternal. That is: the lack of internalization of the ephemeral character of reality is a major cause for the suffering and the distress we experience.
One of the miraculous powers of the yogi, according to Patanjali, is their ability to see change as it unfolds; this is truly an extraordinary ability:
“Successive sequential changes cause distinctive changes in the consciousness.”III.15
We know that people and places are constantly changing. When we visit a place which we have not visited for several years we notice it has changed; when we meet a person we have not seen for several years we notice they have changed. But do we see how a person who is close to us changes? Do we notice that our house is constantly changing? When I speak with someone, undoubtedly, they change during our conversation – their body and their consciousness are constantly shifting. But can I notice the change as it occurs and not just in retrospect once time has passed?
What heightened sensitivity as well as sharp perception are needed to witness a change as it unfolds! Truly a wondrous ability!
How can we foster such an ability? How can we behold changes as they constantly unfold?
This requires observation. Drawing our attention to anitya, the impermanence of all things. Practicing yoga is a great opportunity to do that. Throughout our lives, we are often too busy to pay attention to small and subtle changes. Practice is a time to stop and observe, that is why it enables us to notice the change more discerningly.
Try this now: Stand in Tadasana (The Mountain Pose) and observe how your body is held and how it is grounded on your feet. Pay close attention to the exact regions of the feet that carry the load of your body. Make a mental map in which regions that carry more load are colored with darker colors. Then observe how this map changes over time. Initially, you may not notice any change, but if you pay close attention, and keep observing this, you will surely feel that the load distribution on your feet shifts and changes all the time. You will start to notice the change as it happens and not only in retrospect!
Two aspects of the practice allow a glimpse into change; the first is the fact that we encounter ourselves differently in practice every day. Anyone who practices regularly knows that no two practices are alike. In The Tree of Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar writes:
“I don’t want yesterday’s experience. I want to see what new understanding may come in addition to what I had felt up to now. In this quest, my body is my bow, my intelligence is my arrow, and my target is my self. I am aware inside and I am aware outside. We must learn to stretch the bow well before we can hit the target, so go on extending the bow of your body. Then the arrow of your intelligence will become sharp, and when you release the arrow, it will hit the target, which is your soul. Don’t worry about the target. When the bow is stretched well and the arrow is sharp, you will hit it.”
During practice, therefore, it is vital to have a “beginner’s mind” – a mind that meets each experience with fresh eyes and curiosity; not one that knows in advance. Then, we will be able to see that our experience is changing from day to day. Some days the practice flows smoothly and our body responds to us, while other days we experience stiffness and resistance. Even if we want to repeat a sequence of asanas we have practiced in the past, we will not be able to fully recreate that experience. The very fact that we have already done this sequence, makes the experience different. It is important to be aware of these differences and try to understand why on a certain day we feel light and open while on other days we feel closed and contracted. What could be the reasons for this?
It is important to pay attention to our mental state as we begin our practice; do we begin our practice in a rajasic (enthusiastic, energetic, passionate), a tamasic (heavy, lazy, resistant, inert), or a sattvic (peaceful, balanced, pure) state?
Practice is also a wonderful opportunity to learn to pay attention to changes as they take place. Our sense of body and our state of consciousness changes constantly and significantly during practice. Often we begin our practice in a tamasic state, feeling resistance and heaviness, looking for excuses for how we can postpone our practice. But as we begin our practice (to the extent that we actually brought ourselves to begin…) even after the first Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose), we will immediately feel a change in our physical sensation, the quality of our breath, and the state of our mind. We can notice these changes as they arise.
Later on in our practice, if carried out correctly, we will move towards a more sattvic state, in which we will sense more flow, as well as responsiveness, and our consciousness will quieten and empty itself of unnecessary thoughts and narratives. If we pay attention to these changes, we will cultivate the ability and the sensitivity to really witness anitya – the ephemerality, temporality, and transience of all phenomena. Then we won’t hold on to anything and live with greater freedom and joy!
 The other two are dukkha – the fact that the experience of existence involves discomfort, dissatisfaction, pain, and suffering, and anatta – the lack of constant, independent, and eternal self.
- From Hebrew: Eleanor Schlesinger