September 17

This Too Shall Pass: Maybe Like a Kidney Stone, But It Will

Trivia for the day: A memomagnetist is someone who collects fridge magnets. Of all the things you could collect, I suppose fridge magnets aren't that wacky because they can serve as constant reminders for essential life lessons. Especially lessons we need to remember but tend to forget. Such as this one: "This too shall pass." It's a phrase that packs a punch not many other word combinations in the English language do.

I suggest everyone get a fridge magnet inscribed with the words, "this too shall pass," even if you aren't quite a memomagnetist. That way, when you open up the fridge and find that you don't have enough milk for your cereal, or if you have to eat the same boring salad a second time, you can reassure yourself about life's fundamental truth: it's all fleeting. And that more milk and better meals may be in your future.

Night-blooming cactus

In the rain, Tom Randall was walking home in Brooklyn when at 11 p.m. he heard a stranger's voice call out to him asking if he wanted to see a beautiful flower. Against his better judgment, as Randall writes on his Twitter feed, he paused to take a look. Randall was greeted with one of nature's magnificent wonders—a blooming Cereus.

Romanticized as the Queen of the night, the Cereus flowers from an otherwise ordinary-looking cactus plant. Its specialty is that it blooms just once, and only at night, and withers away by the morning. A true one-night-wonder. But in that brief period, the flower looks spectacular and smells heavenly. So much so that people (and botanical gardens) are known to host watch parties to witness the rare night-blooming cactus.

The Cereus flower is nature's version of show and tell and serves to illustrate one of life's most important philosophies: This too shall pass. Everything is impermanent. A much-awaited flower can bloom and die within the space of a night. In its full glory, the beauty and fragrance of a Cereus can take your breath away. But, if you don't pay careful attention, you could easily miss the one-and-done episode.

The Cereus flower's one-night existence should convince us of the fleeting nature of life itself and the inevitability of change.

Change is the only constant

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river, and he's not the same man - Heraclitus

When a man steps into a river, the river changes. Literally. Water gets displaced, ripples form, the water could get warmer, rocks and pebbles in the river bed could move. Conversely, the man is changed by stepping into the water. He is wetter, possibly cooler, and just by the very act of passing the time (between when he steps into the river and when he gets out), he ages a little.

Heraclitus' words are a metaphor to illustrate that change is the only constant in life.

Nothing stays the same. Trends change, neighborhoods change, climate changes, stock markets soar, and crash. And, at least at a cellular level, we aren't even the same people we were seven years ago. (Fun fact: all the cells that make up the body are on a self-replacement cycle every 7-10 years.)

Happy and sad events, success and failures, bouquets and brickbats, all have one thing in common. They are fleeting.

So, how do we stop being so resistant to change, especially when change is the only constant?

This is where mandalas can give us some perspective.

The story of mandalas

Mandalas are precisely designed, balanced layers of geometric configurations devised by Eastern religions. Some of the more popular mandalas, such as the Kalachakra (wheel of time), depict various stages of the human spiritual journey.

The sand mandala is typically what the Western world is quite familiar with. These mandalas are stunning, colorful, and intricate designs created out of fine grains of colored sand. A trained team of monks typically create them through painstaking effort that lasts days, weeks, or even months. In the end, it isn't the effort or the beauty of the sand mandala that has people in awe. The shocking part of a sand mandala is the way it is ritualistically destroyed at the end.

Sand mandalas are now a well-known art form demonstrated by traveling Tibetan monks who showcase the process to wide-eyed and mesmerized audiences. The actual procedure is laborious. Trained monks (typically trained for 3-5 years at least) draw geometric patterns at first and then go about meticulously dropping one grain of colorful sand after another into these shapes.

The process of creating the mandalas, of course, requires extreme focus and concentration. The monks are in a meditative flow state when creating the mandalas. It is said that the process of creating these large mandalas is to make the monks (and the people watching the spectacle) aware of a world larger than themselves.

The dissolution

But it isn't the process of creating the mandalas alone that is spellbinding. After the mandalas are made, and their beauty appreciated, the monks ritualistically sweep away every grain of sand in the mandala. The mandala is fully cleared away with no trace left behind. The sand from the erstwhile mandala is collected and deposited into an ocean or other flowing water bodies. It signals that the beginning (where the sand came from) and the end (where the sand goes) are the same.

Here's an image gallery that documents a sand mandala from conception to dissolution.

Lessons from the sand mandala

Here's the underlying lesson from a sand mandala: This too shall pass. Everything is temporary.

The mandala comes from nothing and will go back into nothingness. The world around us, our thoughts, emotions, beauty, and all objects are like mandalas; always in a state of flux.

The message for us is to learn to let it all go, to drop expectations and attachment. To have an attitude of "this too shall pass" regardless of whether we are happy or miserable. Easier said than done, right?

But it's a life principle worth spending time to adopt.

This too shall pass

Knowing that every melancholic or joyous moment will eventually pass is liberating. It can keep us grounded when the highs are high and save us from becoming despondent when the lows hit. It can bring ease and maybe even levity into otherwise fraught situations.

Cultivating the attitude of this too shall pass couldn't be simpler:

  • When things are bad, tell yourself it won't last forever.
  • When things are good, savor the moment. Again, because the good times may be over soon.

Simple in theory, difficult in practice. That's because, whether we admit to ourselves or not, we like to have the cake and eat it too. We want the good times to keep rolling forever and the bad ones to disappear the second they show up.

If only. Right? Since the odds of that happening are about the same as the odds of us traveling to the outer reaches of the solar system, we're better off with the alternative—learning how to adopt the
"this too shall pass" mentality.

There isn't one secret formula to learn to live with its ups and downs. But two practices can help make the process much easier.

1. Embrace the suck

No one's life, not even Captain America's, is all excitement and fun all the time. Things will get tedious, boring, or unpleasant sooner or later. When the inevitable downswing happens, the best you can do is to drop your resistance and rein in your need to want change right away.

There's a whole blog post here on how to (and why we should) embrace the suck.

2. Be Zen

If the monks creating mandalas can teach us one thing, it is this: immerse yourself in the present. Focusing on the task at hand without bothering about history or consequences is all that mindfulness is. To develop that focus, practice mindfulness meditation.

As Michael Pollan, author and professor of journalism, says,

When chopping onions, just chop onions. When I finally got into the Zen of cutting onions, I passed over to another place.

A word of caution

Like most self-help advice, "this too shall pass" sounds better when you say it to yourself instead of someone else. And, as the word itself conveys, it's easier to advise others rather than follow the suggestions yourself. Having seen me, my family concurs.

If someone is in the throes of grief or dealing with loss or disappointments, it may sound unempathetic for you to tell them to move on or give them a lecture about the fleeting nature of life. Therefore, the mentality of this too shall pass should be practiced under test or low-stress conditions.  Preferably in a setting like the yoga mat ((mindfulness meditation), so you're ready in real life when (not if) distress surfaces.


Many of you may be familiar with poet Percy Shelley's famous poem Ozymandias, where he explores the concept of impermanence.

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Quick summary: Over time, neither the greatest empires nor the works of the best kings survive. Everything is fleeting, and ultimately everything turns into dust.

The talented Shelley was simply retelling an ordinary truth using great poetry. The truth is that "this too shall pass." This meaning everything in the universe—every person, place, animal, object.

"This too shall pass" is one of my favorite adages of all time. Not just is it a crutch to lean on when times are low, but it is a reminder to enjoy happier and more fulfilling times as well. I'm in esteemed company on this subject.

Lincoln's words

The adage was popularized by none other than Abe Lincoln in a speech to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society before he became president. Here's what Lincoln said:

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: "And this, too, shall pass away." How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!

Don't be too afflicted. Or too proud. Because this too shall pass.



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