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A Taste of Impermanence December 14, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, Buddhist practice, contemplative practice, impermanence.

This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

We were a few days into a week-long silent meditation retreat and pecan bars were on the lunchtime dessert menu. I was particularly into the process of bringing mindful awareness to mealtime. In the past, the practice resulted in loosening knots in my mind so I felt open to the possible surprises this retreat might offer.

A sign next to the dessert tray listed the ingredients: brown sugar, butter, eggs, pecans. I decided to indulge and took one pecan bar to my seat at the massive, dark table in the silent dining room of this one-time monastery. It was small, soft, and barely held the rectangular shape into which it had been cut. I placed it in my mouth and felt the sweetness on my tongue.

Served at room temperature, the pecan bar began to melt in my mouth — literally. Since I was practicing mindful eating, I didn’t chew at first. For many moments I held a nutty morsel in my mouth. Over time, my saliva dissolved the sugary brown butter. Sitting in attentive stillness I noticed the changing size and shape of this small mouthful. Over time, my mouth held nothing more than pecan fragments. Slowly I chewed and swallowed them.

A remarkable thing about this experience of mindful eating was that it provided an embodied way to appreciate the phenomenon of weathering — the process by which Himalayan-sized mountains get transformed into Appalachian-sized nubs. It’s not an easy transformation to envision — 24,000 feet-high mountains being reduced an order of magnitude to 2,000 feet in hundreds of millions of years. And yet it is true that impermanence applies to Earth formations as well as to mental ones. Even seemingly permanent landscapes don’t last forever in the fullness of geologic time. How does this happen? Mindful consumption of pecan bars shows the way.

Because pressure and temperature conditions deep inside the Earth differ substantially from those above ground, rocks and minerals experience a change of state from equilibrium — a mineralogical equivalent of equanimity, if you will — to disequilibrium when they become exposed at the surface. Rocks and minerals disintegrate and decompose as they readjust to the changed conditions. Without needing to be transported, they are chemically and mechanically transformed.

Rocks and minerals are not organic, living beings and yet they are impermanent. During the type of chemical weathering known as dissolution, fluids alter the structure of a mineral by adding or removing elements. It is by this process that marble monuments become less defined when subjected to acidic rainwater.

In the case of the melting pecan bars, the moist warmth of the mouth provides both a chemically active fluid and temperature conducive to the breakdown of sugar crystals.

During mechanical weathering, rocks disintegrate physically into smaller fragments, each with no chemical transformation. In the case of those easy-to-swallow pecan bars, teeth did the mechanical work of breaking down the resilient nuts.

Though I often find that earth processes recapitulate the dharma I was delighted to experience in this instance an example of mindfulness practice illuminating earth processes. Impermanence holds true for human beings and mountains but how nice it was to become aware of this benign example during the retreat.

Click here to read more of Jill S. Schneiderman’s “Earth Dharma” posts on Shambhala SunSpace.

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