Figure with long red hair, in sharp focus, is wearing a backpack, joining people, shown out of focus, walking down a lighted transport tunnel.

It’s Not Normal to Go Back to Normal

The world has been through so many changes due to the pandemic. And those changes brought many challenges: quarantine, masking, and unmasking. After so much change, we find ourselves in a post-pandemic world. This has been quite a confusing time. Because we have this idea of going back. Everybody’s talking about going back, going back. Talking about “going back to normal.” But actually, “going back” is not possible, is it? When we say this, we are talking about doing the impossible. Because going back to the past is impossible. To do that, we would need a time machine. 

So the very idea of going back is a problem. And actually, from the dharma point of view, it’s a very good teaching. Because we can now see very clearly how attached we are to the past. We can see how much we want to maintain what is familiar to us – how much we would like to continue the status quo.  And that, in turn, shows us our mind’s habit of clinging, how our mind tries to make something permanent. Do we want to be impermanent? If somebody spontaneously asked us, we would say we prefer to be permanent.

When you’re looking for a good job, what are you looking for? A permanent position, right? Nobody’s looking for an impermanent position. We want a good job, leading to a permanent position. And of course, the reality is there’s no such thing as a permanent position. So, we should think about this. We are looking for something that does not exist.

We have many such contradictory thoughts – we want to live a long life, but we don’t want to get old. These two things are not possible, are they? Which one do we want? To live a long time, or to be young? We want things to stay exactly as they are. Because permanence feels like security.

We put a great deal of effort into avoiding change. We rely on medical companies for help with our ailments. Or we take ginseng. Or we try to eat only organic foods. But if we really think about it, we have already tried all of those things in the past. Emperors tried ginseng and organic foods. The British and the Americans have tried various methods, too. But they couldn’t stop change.

Life is change 

If we really think about it, to live our life means living a life of change. We all know there’s no such thing as a permanent life. Throughout life, we experience transitions. We watch as our physical shape changes from childhood to adulthood, to old age, to sickness, to death. Such transitions are happening all the time.

We experience transitions at work as well. Our work life is always changing. And we experience transitions in relationships. Even when we don’t want that, it happens. Because relationships change, whether between friends or between partners.

And we experience transitions on the path of dharma. Such transitions are good, aren’t they? Otherwise we cannot become Buddha. If no change takes place, then we will remain confused, suffering sentient beings forever. But because transitions are inevitable, we have the opportunity to become a great bodhisattva. We have the opportunity to become a very kind person. We have the opportunity to become Buddha one day. So, it’s a good thing that transitions are taking place all the time.

We can see, then, that change is actually helpful to us. If something good happens but it changes to something bad, don’t worry. It’s bad right now, but it will definitely change. Perhaps for a few days we have a very strong rain, really stormy weather. The air feels very humid and heavy, and we don’t like that feeling. But don’t worry – the sun will come out. All change is like that! Whatever is going on right now, it’s going to change to something else.

Sometimes we say that bad situations never change, but the good ones always change. But of course, if we look at it, we can clearly see that isn’t how things work. 

When we experience our body in decline, no place is good. That’s the case when you reach a certain age. Perhaps now things are good: your body’s in good shape and you feel happy about it. But when you’re up, when you’re happy, don’t be proud. We have to remember dharma when things are good as well as when we experience challenges, because our happiness can always change. And when your body goes into decline, remember dharma then also.

How can we get it right?

We have to correct our wrong view about the way things are. Of course, that only applies if you have a wrong view. Maybe you’re lucky and you don’t have that. Our typical wrong view is that we think permanence is normal. Instead, when you think of “normal,” think about things changing. Then when change inevitably comes, you will see it as normal.

Change is normal. For things to remain unchanging would not be normal at all! But somehow we got it wrong somewhere. One day it’s raining, and then the next day the sun comes out. That’s change, and that’s normal.

So we have to be prepared for change. Buddha taught that the way to work with our mind in preparation for death and dying is to be prepared for change. Then we’ll be prepared for the biggest change.

We can begin by trying to see any change as an opportunity. Because every situation, any situation at all, actually carries an opportunity to turn that situation into something wonderful, for oneself and for others. That is what I mean by opportunity: the chance to create something that is wonderful not only for ourselves but for others.

And it wouldn’t be possible to get a good opportunity if things were not impermanent.

From the worldly point of view, without impermanence young people could not become new millionaires and billionaires. We could not have new billionaires if things always stayed the same. And from a dharma point of view, without change there also could not be any new bodhisattvas, new buddhas, or new compassionate beings to help our world.

Three ways to cope with change

So, how can we cope with change? How do we learn to live with impermanence?

1. Accept impermanence as normal. Normal is not a state of permanence. Normal does not mean unchanging. Normalcy is change.  

2. Embrace change. Nobody can stop change. So, embracing it is much better than longing for what isn’t here. For example, when I arrived in Hong Kong, right away I went to the place where I like to eat curry. But it seems to have changed and now the food’s not so good. So I will find a new curry place. 

When we embrace change, we can see it as a fresh new opportunity: what is there for me to discover here? This is very simple to understand. For example, don’t try to ignore death and dying. Our big change is coming, you know. We cannot ignore that. We have to accept it and be able to embrace it. The more we accept and embrace that big change, the smoother our journey will be.

3. See change as an opportunity. We go through big changes and small ones – so many changes all the time. When I see a young child, it’s clear that no one can stop them from growing and changing. 

When the sun is setting, you cannot stop it. And when the sun is rising, you cannot prevent it. Sometimes I don’t want the sun to rise because I want to sleep longer. When I was growing up in the monastery, I especially hated sunrises because I wanted to sleep in. I wanted to sleep without the change of the sun coming up.

We cannot stop change, but at the same time, it’s so beautiful. It can be beautiful if we look for opportunity in the change. For example, death and dying. Practitioners see death as their last opportunity to be enlightened. Not only the last opportunity in this life, but a great opportunity. As the great yogi, Milarepa, said in his song, dying is not just dying – for a yogi, dying is a mini-enlightenment.

We Buddhists talk about dharmakaya, the true nature of mind. And right now we cannot see dharmakaya, or we may see it now and then, indirectly. But at the moment of dying,  it is taught that boom! dharmakaya appears to you directly. So if we become familiar with it right now, in our meditation practice, then at the time of dying, we will recognize it. We’ll say “Oh, dharmakaya!” And we can be liberated on the spot. That’s a great opportunity.

Every situation – whether it is a beautiful one or a painful one – carries a hidden opportunity. Impermanence, change, always brings us some kind of opportunity. Once we recognize this, we can work skillfully with impermanence.

How to work with impermanence now

As you see, impermanence is not bad. Impermanence is not our enemy. And, the way to work with impermanence is to be present. In other words: be here, now. 

Sometimes we get pulled into the future too much, and we forget to be present. If you forget to be present, you don’t observe what’s happening around you. When we tune out like that, we’re missing the whole experience of now. We miss the whole precious thing, such as being with your child, being with your parents, or being with your partner. 

To seize the opportunity, we have to be in the present. Being present is not only applicable in our meditation but for any moment of our daily life. Most accidents happen when we’re not present.

If we succeed in working with impermanence, then we can experience actual success, both in day-to-day life and in our spiritual path. And this is very important for us, especially at this point, as we are entering this new, post-COVID world. As I mentioned earlier, everywhere I go – Seattle, Kathmandu, New York, California, Taipei, Hong Kong, everywhere – people are talking about “going back to normal.” But there’s no such thing as “back to normal,” in my opinion. Let’s not think of going “back to normal” because that will just bring us a lot of suffering.

Let’s enjoy this new post-COVID world and embrace it. We can say, “Okay, let’s see what our new world is like.” Here is our new world, after all of the pandemic challenges. I hope we all can enjoy our world and be happy. I wish you a peaceful mind, joy, and happiness in this post-pandemic world. And don’t torture yourself too much. Remember that any challenge we face is also impermanent, so don’t worry. It will change.

Clouds will pass, and again we will see the blue sky. So don’t worry. The clouds cannot stay in the sky forever. So, relax. Make sure you meditate every day. That will change your world in a positive way. 

I try to meditate every day. And so almost every day I do meditation with my daughter. We do between 3 and 5 minutes – it’s up to her. And personally, I can really see a difference in her when she meditates and when she doesn’t.

Meditation is really helpful for coping with impermanence, embracing change. It doesn’t matter how old you are. You can sit for just 3 to 5 minutes like I do with my daughter. Or if you can, do it for longer. It’s fine to sit quietly for just 15 minutes. It will make a positive difference; it will be a welcome change.


The teachings in this article were given by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche at Nalandabodhi Hong Kong in April 2024.