The origins of the saying "this too shall pass" are attributed to Persian Sufi poets, such as Rumi, Sanai and Attar of Nishapur and brought to modern attention by English poet Edward FitzGerald who was famous for his English translation of "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" in 1860.
The story is about a king who sought wisdom. He searched all over his kingdom for wisdom and did not find it.
Eventually he heard of a man living in a remote part of the kingdom who had a reputation for great wisdom.
The king sent for this man and had him brought to court, whereupon the king offered the man a great reward if he would share the secret to his wisdom. The man agreed and departed from the king’s presence.
He returned several weeks later and presented the king with a small box.
The king looked a little surprised and very disappointed as he opened the box and removed a ring.
“Is this it?” he shouted at the wise man.
“Place the ring on your finger and read the inscription out loud” replied the wise man.
The king read the inscription:
“This too will pass”.
The wise man counselled the king:
“Wear that ring that at all times and look at it frequently, and regardless of whether you are experiencing good fortune or adversity remind yourself that this too will pass…”
The king was satisfied that he had at last found true wisdom and he duly rewarded the man with great wealth.
This is how I learned the truth that this too shall pass. Approximately 25 years ago I was in a senior management position working on a large multi-million dollar IT programme in London. The various projects involved major change in the client organisation’s service delivery processes.
It was an extremely pressured role which was made far more difficult because of the adversarial relationship between my employers who were the prime contractor and our client’s IT department who were our direct interface on behalf of our client’s business users.
A Highly Political Environment
these situations so often are, this was a highly political environment where
emails were used by the client’s IT people and their subcontractors to make
mischief and generally stir things up.
A typical strategy was for the client’s project manager or one of this team to fire off a critical – but inaccurate and misleading - email and to copy-in senior management and directors in the client organisation and with the prime contractor – and thus ensuring a continuous escalation of highly politicised issues.
This would happen several times a week.
I Was The Buffer
My role in all this was to act as buffer and filter for my boss who was the programme director – to field these offensive emails – resolve the underlying issues and/or recommend a solution and to neutralise the politics.
You may find all this is a bit hard to believe unless you have worked on a large messy IT project (the large ones nearly always are messy!) – but I assure you it is true when I tell you that it was not uncommon for it to take me the best part of a day to deal with one of these emails.
Often my colleague – the programme manager - and myself were unfairly and inaccurately personally criticised in these emails. It was wearing, draining and deeply unpleasant (and yes I only stuck it for the money – a lot of money at the time).
How I Discovered The Truth
But here’s the thing, even though I did not know anything about mindfulness I did rapidly discover the truth of the mythical “this too will pass” story.
very soon realised that these angry and defensive states arose automatically
but if I just sat with them and observed them, without engaging with them for
about 24 hours, and reminded myself that this too will pass, they did just that.
I was then able to exercise clarity and to manage the tricky politics on behalf of my boss and to best effect. This became known on our side of the programme as the 24-hour “dead bat” rule – that is, to never reply to a politically motivated email for 24 hours!
How much time does it take before you can truly say "this too shall pass" and be able to move on?
When my daughter was at college studying for her first degree, she called me one night in a state of distress. She had split up with her boyfriend.
She said: "Dad I don't know what to do or how to cope with this?"
I asked her how she thought she would feel about the break up in 10 years time. She replied:
"I will be over and it will be history by then."
So I asked her how she would feel about the break up in one month's time.
"In one month I will be still be upset and hurting"
The conversation continued, and I narrowed the time-frames and she agreed she would have got over the break up and put it behind her at some point in the next 6 to 12 months.
So I advised her to work out a strategy to deal with her distress and feelings of loss. There are a number of models for doing this and I recommended the Kubler Ross model.
At a societal level, given the passage of enough time, societies assimilate and integrate and evolve beyond the traumas of war, invasion and conquest. The wounds do heal.
At time of writing with the Russian invasion and war with Ukraine this may sound insensitive and I don't mean it to.
But taking the long view of many generations, societies do move on. This process is inherent in the development of many nations states. In my home country, the United Kingdom, our history has gone through many iterations of invasion and assimilation.
The key point in both of these contexts is the importance of the passage of time.
Coping with the transition
The personal challenge is how to cope when you are lost in transition as you attempt to make your readjustment and realignment to the new realities of imposed change.
I once heard someone say: "Every relationship ends in tears...someone leaves, or someone dies...".
At the time I thought this was a deeply cynical thing to say, but now I am not so sure.
Shantideva the 8th century Indian Buddhist sage commenting on impermanence, and the innate reality that this too shall pass, said:
"The moment we are born, we have no freedom to remain for a single second.
We are running towards death, like a galloping horse.
We call ourselves ‘living beings’ but we are ear-marked for death. This is sad indeed. That is the reality."
In Ecclesiastes 3 in the Old Testament the preacher/teacher [alleged to be King Soloman] speaks of the seasonality of impermanence and declares that this too shall pass as he says:
"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
At times of great suffering and loss impermanence is felt as a curse. The loss of a loved one, a job and material comfort, the loss of status and reputation...these losses are hard.
The path to healing
The path to healing ultimately lies in the transforming power of acceptance.
There are situations where impermanence is a relief and a release, and this is especially true with our emotional and mental states.
Another key approach to dealing with suffering, loss and impermanence is to be found in the power of framing and learning how to change how you feel by changing the language you use to describe and talk about your losses.
In my personal experience, the practise of mindfulness is one of most effective remedies for reducing stress, gaining perspective and enabling us to realise the blessing that comes with the acceptance that with all things....this too will pass.
I want to close this article with this beautiful song by Peter Himmelman "Impermanent Things".
Next Article: The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Return from "This Too Shall Pass"
to: Walking The Talk
Or to: What Is Spirituality?