One man's experiences of impermanence teaches him the art of letting go.
Miami Beach is not a place you'd expect to stumble upon a gathering of Tibetan monks. But one New Year's Day several years ago, during the final weeks of a dissolving four-year marriage, I did just that. My wife and I had planned to fly to Miami from Manhattan—our five-day trip to warmer climes intended as a last-gasp attempt at reconciliation. But, long story short, I ended up spending the holidays in South Beach alone. Boy, was it depressing.
On the day I found the monks, I had barely eaten. After trudging for hours along the deserted dunes, bundled against a surprisingly chilly wind in a wool sweater and faded jeans, I peeked into a small community center on the beach near my crumbling art deco hotel. A sign above the entrance read "Enjoy Tibetan culture and art." Inside, six Buddhist lamas from a monastery in India huddled quietly over a six-by-six-foot platform. The monks were on day two of a weeklong project to create a sand mandala, a richly metaphorical depiction of the universe made of millions of grains of vibrantly colored sand.
I joined a handful of visitors seated in chairs arranged around the cordoned-off platform. Some guests closed their eyes. One silently chanted a mantra and thumbed her mala beads. Most of us were barefoot. The only noise came from the gentle crashing of the ocean waves, no more than 50 feet away, and the tiny stick each monk stroked over the grated surface of his chakpur, the metallic straw-like funnel through which he directed the brightly hued sand, grain by grain, onto the slowly blossoming mandala. One monk kept a fold of his maroon-and-saffron robe pulled over his mouth to prevent his breath from scattering the sand.
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After a short while, I felt an unexpected calm wash over me; it was the first moment of genuine ease I'd had since first learning from my wife that she was considering a divorce. For months I'd been holding tight to broken promises and spending so much energy wishing things were different that I felt as though I'd forgotten how to breathe.
No Need to Panic
Sitting there, I recalled hearing that a spiritual journey is akin to falling from a plane without a parachute. Terrifying. And that's what my life felt like at the time. Like many other people, I sometimes desperately grasp for material comfort and cling to expectations for the future in a misguided attempt to stop the sensation of plummeting into oblivion. But watching the mandala unfold reminded me that panic is unnecessary because the parachute is unnecessary. Why? Because—as yoga teaches us—there's no ground to ever hit. We're all in perpetual free fall. One breath to the next. One exuberantly lived life to the next. The monks weren't going to preserve the intricate mandala for future generations; they were creating a symbol of the transitory nature of all things and would destroy the design almost as soon as it was complete. But the mandala was no less beautiful for its impermanence.
The monks' absolute mindfulness, punctuated by an occasional hushed comment or chuckle, proved both mesmerizing and deeply soothing. I stayed for more than three hours, until the center closed for the night. During that time, the monks never stretched their backs nor glanced at the clock. No matter how far they leaned over the table, they somehow never disturbed the sand. Despite a dozen arms stretching over the mandala, the effect of their collective work was a sense of profound stillness.
The proximity of the monks' delicate artwork to the briny mist and rolling whitecaps of the Atlantic Ocean reminded me of another unlikely shoreline meditation I once witnessed: the Santa Barbara Sandcastle Festival, held every summer on East Beach in Santa Barbara, California. From dawn until dusk, bare-shouldered teams equipped with buckets and rakes, melon scoops and putty knives, deliver wet sand to 16-by-16-foot plots to make enormous and impressively detailed sand sculptures, some as large as a mobile home. Past entries have included scaled replicas of the Taj Mahal and the Manhattan skyline, a 20-foot dolphin morphing into a mermaid, Hogwarts Castle, and an eerily realistic laughing buddha as rotund as a VW van.
While they're diligently working, the sand artists are intent, as if nothing in the world is more important than crafting their sculptures. And yet, at the end of the day, as the sun sinks beneath the horizon, the artists and their friends and families gather cross-legged on the dunes, sunburned and quietly exuberant, to watch without complaint as the tide washes their creations away.
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Like the sand mandala, this event is for me an inspiring illustration of sunyata, a fundamental tenet of yoga. Sunyata, often translated from Sanskrit as "emptiness," is what Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, represents: that everything eventually falls apart and becomes something else. This cosmic recycling dance is implicit in Shiva's jig-lifted leg, with which he's often depicted in Indian statues and paintings and in Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance Pose). Realizing sunyata's significance, not just intellectually but also experientially, is essential for becoming enlightened. For truly awakening.
Sunyata: Nothing Lasts Forever
Though it sounds paradoxical, sunyata is the core of what yoga and Buddhism generally affirm is a coreless reality. To fully understand yoga and Buddhism, you must not only recognize but also be OK with the fact that everything—every thing—is a sandcastle, and that material stuff, any compounded phenomenon, sooner or later falls apart and washes away with the tide. This magazine is a sandcastle. My marriage is a sandcastle. So too are the yoga studio I own, the bike that gets me there, the century-old pecan tree in my backyard—even my achy but faithful body. I find this a sobering and empowering truth, and it leads to some compelling questions: Who am I really? What am I? And what, if anything, actually dies?
In Miami I began to more fully appreciate that moving toward enlightenment means, in large part, knowing that the wisest way to hold something (or someone) is with an open palm. William Blake understood sunyata when he wrote,
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sunrise.
The challenge—and it's a challenge that can separate enlightened behavior from unenlightened—is to love the sandcastle no less for its transitory nature. To treat each precious moment as if it's the most important thing in the universe, while also knowing that it's no more important than the moment that comes next.
I returned to the Miami community center the following morning and sat alongside the Tibetan monks and their evolving sand mandala for much of the day. And the morning after that. Three days after my return to an empty Manhattan apartment, the six monks completed their work. What had made watching them hour after hour such a sweetly challenging meditation was my knowing from the start how it would end.
After a collective bow of respect, they'd brush their beautiful creation into a multi-colored heap, pour the heap into an urn, and empty the urn's contents into the ocean. Similarly, with a growing sense of peace, I gradually surrendered my dying relationship with my wife to the tidal pull of the cosmos.