Of Tulips and the Transitory



I wish tulips bloomed all summer. Two weeks of glory is far too little. During their spring performance I find myself making excuses to sit among the tulips lining the walk leading to my front door. I can’t resist shooting tulip photos year after year, hoping to preserve them somehow but knowing that two-dimensional images can never do them justice.

I love everything about tulips—the simplicity of their form, their unabashed brightness. I love their tenacity, how their leaves lance the near-frozen ground in the gray days of February to begin their annual emergence. They appear reliably each year as if by grace, often having multiplied. Walking out my front door into their chaotic color reminds me of all there is to appreciate in this world.

Perhaps if tulips bloomed all summer their presence would become less special. Perhaps I could walk right past them without noticing, let alone marveling at their wide-open gullets singing to the sun. Perhaps I would no longer admire how their silken petals fold into themselves like a fine kimono each evening. Maybe they would become as pedestrian as the sight of grass or asphalt.

During the past year a good friend left this earth unexpectedly from a heart attack. A few months later another dear friend died suddenly while taking a leisurely walk in a canyon. Another succumbed to ovarian cancer. My beloved cat, Cleo, passed away a few months ago. My mother fell and fractured her pelvis in March. Like the tulips, our glory days are fragile, our lives all the more precious in their brevity.

The understanding that all things are impermanent is central to Buddhist thought. Impermance is listed as one of the three characteristics of all conditioned phenomena, along with the understanding that all things are ultimately unsatisfactory (because of their impermance) and devoid of self. It is said that the Buddha’s last words to monks hovering around his deathbed were: “All things are impermanent. Work out your liberation with diligence.”

The late Zen master Suzuki Roshi, author of the spiritual classic, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind said: “Nothing exists but momentarily in its present form and color. One thing flows into another and cannot be grasped. Before the rain stops we hear a bird. Even under the heavy snow we see snowdrops and some new growth.” All things are in constant flux. As the tulips wither, the irises emerge.

It is a very human habit to grasp after what we find to be pleasant. When we hold on to the pleasant we experience disappointment when it goes away, which it always does. How many wonderful experiences have we had in our lives? Where are they now?

“ Nothing is worth grasping because nothing lasts.” says author and meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein. “It is all empty, without self. Knowing that nothing is secure, that there is no solid place on which to stand, we can let go, let be, and come to rest.”

This does not mean we can’t enjoy the pleasant times in our lives. In fact our experiences are much more enjoyable if we are living them fully, appreciating their momentary presence.

The reality of impermanence was one of the first insights I had when I began meditation practice. As my mind began to quiet I could see for myself that the physical/mental/emotional sensations I felt were all in constant flux. As I learned the freedom of letting go, phenomena in my present reality, whether physical, mental or emotional, began to pass through with even greater speed. I was no longer hindering their movement by holding on.

This insight has changed my life in many ways. I no longer grasp on to material things I don’t need and habits that no longer serve. I fall into the trap of self-referencing my experiences less often. How can I define myself by something that does not stay?

Still, some things—relationships—are much more difficult to release. Even though I’ve lived with the truth of impermanence for many years, I still feel let down at the ultimate deterioration of tulips as they move into dormancy. I mourn the loss of friends and relatives who have passed to the other side. I fret about my mother’s condition.

Recently a friend e-mailed me about her relationship with her three 15-year-old cats, who serve as her friends and confidantes as only four-leggeds can. Each morning my friend greets her cats by saying, “Good morning. Look, aren’t we lucky? We have another day together.”

This moved me deeply. What a wonderful way to relate to those we love. Instead of living in the fear of someday losing them, why not be grateful for the time we have with them right now? Why not greet those we love with genuine appreciation rather than worry, or worse, indifference?

How often do those closest to us become an expected and under-appreciated part of our landscape? How often are we mentally traveling when our families or partners are talking to us? These are the relationships that most deserve tending. It is our close relationships that ground us, that give us ballast when our lives are least stable.

A year before her passing, I found out that Cleo’s condition was terminal. Thereafter I resolved to focus on her presence in my life. While I noted the subtleties of her changing state, I chose to let appreciation for her presence override my tendency to worry. I greeted her with gratitude each day. Intention is powerful. Appreciation has become a part of my daily practice.

I have begun seeing my close human relationships this way as well, although I don’t always voice it. Humans often perceive words such as these as gratuitous sentimentality, especially if they hear them every day. Animals aren’t embarrassed by a truthful expression of emotion, and they readily return the sentiment.

I am learning that there are many ways to express appreciation to humans—a kind word, a warm smile, a reassuring touch, the gift of listening fully, an offer to take on a task that might ease a friend’s burden. Finding ways to show appreciation is a wonderful use of creativity.

Appreciation has become a practice, one that has brightened my world. I suspect it may also have some effect on those I love—human and non-human. I know that appreciating the tulips won’t stop them from withering, but it does keep my heart from withering. Look at your life and the blessings it holds—friends, family, community. Enjoy what is here and now. What flowers are blooming in your life?