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Impermanence is a concept familiar in Buddhist circles, but not exactly an everyday sort of conversation topic for most of us. Who wants to hear about how fleeting life is, or be reminded of the fact that all things born must perish? We’ve been told that not one of us will escape death, no one ever has, and it can come at any moment to take us away—and away to where?

There is something beautiful about that which is fleeting. It heightens our experience. For a few moments, we see a dancer spin like silk, twirl while gliding as if on water across the stage. A move that may take 20 years to perfect but only 20 seconds of an evening’s performance. It’s the gift to those who are present, to experience and witness in the now. A breath or two later and it is over, like a flash of lightening. That is how life is. Things are in constant motion. Nothing remains static.

How do we take the concept of impermanence to heart? To know it intellectually simply won’t work. A teacher will insist that the student meditate on it and never forget it. The point of these instructions is not to depress the student or cause anxiety, but to ensure that he does not squander the treasure of a human life. The wisdom traditions of the East believe that to be born human is rare.

If we looked at life as the gift of an experience, I believe we would live our lives very differently. Maybe superficial pursuits would not be so interesting. Maybe we would not risk damaging our fragile bodies in search of quick thrills but use each day, each hour, knowing we have freedom to live something authentic while we are here for but a short time on this gorgeous planet. There are quests to be made for wisdom, love, truth, and knowledge.

Being around older persons, we may observe a wisdom gained from a full life, like the joy they take in the most ordinary and common activities. Mailing a letter, tea with a friend, or hearing from someone they love.

Knowing we are here for a short time will make us behave better. One master says, “It’s as if we are guests for only three days; we can certainly behave for that long! Like lodgers at a home or a fine hotel, when it’s time to depart, we do it alone, a sole traveler journeying to our next destination—we would not want to leave behind a big mess.”

Joseph Campbell had a broad and rich understanding of the human adventure gained through his lifelong study of mythology and philosophy of the world’s traditions. He compared our human life to walking into a theater, after the movie has already begun. We do our best to figure out what is happening in the film, and before the film is over, we must leave.

This inner knowing that our time here is not forever allows us to use our life with the respect that is due to our place in a great mystery. It also makes it easier to accept the difficult moments with grace, and make the very, very best of what we have been given.