Most people are fearful of change. Our social systems are designed with this in mind. We are given a set of rules to follow, a group to feel we belong to, a language we speak in common, and in return we expect that nice warm feeling of security to fall asleep to each night.

The problem is most people secretly crave change. This is what I hypothesize, at least. We see the world as a projection of ourselves – our innocent hope, our sparkles of joy, our dark looming fears, our deepest regrets. How we feel at a particular moment of our lives can create a whole set of circumstances to validate that feeling. We see through eyes of our own choosing. And while the brain rapidly becomes accustomed to patterns and systems and habits, the heart – which is the seat of these longings of the soul – seeks constantly to breathe new life force into the experience of each moment. We long to feel alive.

The problem is we don’t realize that holding tightly to everything we already have, everything we think we “have to” have or “have to” do, everything that “should” have been, our lives begin to be ruled by fear of change, resignation that things will never change, and anger that we are tied to the way things will always be. “Suck it up”, our mind tells us. “Drown it in some alcohol,” suggests another voice. “You’ll never be able to change,” says another. And most of us actually believe these thoughts.

We want “better” results, “higher” status, “more” of everything, but we don’t want to face the reality and necessity of change. “You mean, in order to get what I want, I’ll have to do all that??!!” you say to yourself. “No way! I’ll stay right here, thank you very much.” Even if it means clinging to the past, holding on to things we no longer need, and pleasing people who are no longer part of our lives.

I recently saw the Pixar movie Up, a charming love story and beautiful film about an old widower, Carl, who, on the brink of grinding out his last days on earth in a state of rage and regret, decides to take a final risk and follow a childhood dream. On the eve of being carted off to die in the local nursing home, he acquires superhuman energy and inflates thousands of helium balloons, releases them through the chimney of his house, and the entire building takes flight, foundation and all.  [Definitely go see this movie, too! It’s a keeper!]

The central theme for me – being fascinated with Tibetan Buddhism, Tao, yoga, and other Eastern philosophies as I am – was about impermanence and non-attachment. Literally, the house becomes detached at its foundation and starts floating away from the place it stood for the entirety of Carl’s life.

Carl sets sail in his floating house for South America, in order to fulfill the vision he and his late wife dreamed about as childhood sweethearts – having their house at the top of a famous waterfall there. This is a dream he has held onto his whole life, ultimately unfulfilled before her death, and one of his greatest regrets in his old age. At the mercy of severe weather and wind, Carl’s house finally crash lands close to, within view of but not exactly at the top of, the waterfall.  Having come all this way and gotten this close, Carl is doggedly determined to get to his final destination as he pictured it in his mind. The image of this man trudging through the exotic landscape of South America – while pulling the weight of an entire house floating above his shoulders (tethered by a garden hose) was a powerful one. To me, it symbolized the weight of unrealized dreams and unfulfilled promises so many of us carry on our shoulders as we literally trudge through our lives, trying to “get there”.

The wrinkle in the story is the appearance of a stowaway child, seeking to earn his “Service To The Elderly” badge for boy scouts. Russell (an Asian boy whose character ultimately does our people proud! Although he’s kind of dorky, he’s not a math genius or computer whiz and isn’t going to Harvard! Thank you, Pixar!) tags along, leaving Carl no choice but to include him in the journey, and creates all kinds of adventure along the way. Just as the house finally arrives at its destination on top of the waterfall, one of Russell’s newfound animal friends calls to him to help save him from danger. Russell is actually a reminder to Carl that he is not alone, and while he has chosen to isolate himself angrily from the world as an old man, the love in his heart is awakened when he is put in a position to help Russell.

Two pivotal scenes between Carl and the house capture the concepts of impermanence and non-attachment. The first is Carl’s decision to help Russell, and the need to empty out all the contents of the house in order to allow it to float again. Out goes all the old furniture, piece by piece, representing the artifacts of Carl and his late wife Ellie’s life together. As the pieces leave the house, it slowly begins to lift off, taking on a new role in helping to save the lives of Carl’s new friends. As soon as Carl was able to experience non-attachment to his old life, letting go of the heavy, old furniture representing the weight of it all, his house could function in a new way and help him form new relationships.

The other scene is when Carl literally lets go of the house, letting it slip through his fingers and tumble down to an unknown place beneath the clouds. With one hand he hangs on to the new friends he has made – including Russell, the child he and Ellie were never able to have. By choosing life, he has to let go of his entire old life, such a familiar friend that had brought him so far. In reassuring Hollywood fashion, the audience gets to see that after falling through the sky, the house did land right back on top of the waterfall, just like the vision Carl and Ellie had in their dreams. It’s just that neither Carl or Ellie ended up there with it.

That’s the funny thing about dreams. Sometimes, on the way to one dream, you get lost and find another one. I used to be attached to the idea that I had to decide on one dream and go after it with singular focus. I was quite surprised to learn that perhaps we have several chances to dream – and dream again – during our lifetime, if we are wise enough to open up and let go when it’s time.

The idea of impermanence is always illustrated best in my mind by the phenomenon of Tibetan monks spending hours every day for many weeks creating elaborate sand paintings called mandalas. These incredibly beautiful, intricate pieces of art contain profound symbolism of the universe and the journey of the soul. The act of creating them is an aid to meditation, intended to end human suffering and promote a correct view of reality.

The most powerful aspect of the mandala is the fact that upon completion, the entire work is destroyed and all of the sand is dumped into the nearest body of flowing water, so that the blessings of the mandala may spread to far-reaching places. If there were a greater illustration of impermanence and non-attachment, I have not found one.

I have gotten several comments from some people (none of my friends, interestingly) along the lines of, “But you spent all that TIME building your school! And you did all that WORK! How could you just throw it all away and let it go like that?”

The answer to that question is not a simple one to understand. It requires a fundamental understanding of impermanence and non-attachment. It requires an appreciation of the process of creating something – not because of the attachment to a particular outcome, but simply because the act of creating something with love and devotion is a way of living. This does not mean that meticulous attention to detail and care are not used in the creation of something, just because it is “going to be gone someday anyway.” On the contrary, it is an ultimate celebration of the present moment, and reverence toward what we have to offer of ourselves right now.

If the Tibetan monks don’t convince you, maybe Pixar – part of our modern-day Personal Religion of Hollywood – will. Having given up on the earthly offerings of life, our friend Carl finally learns that an old widowed man can enjoy the few remaining years of his life by letting go, and welcoming in the strange adventure of love.

Maybe we can learn something too.

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