It was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who said that you can’t step into the same river twice, thus pointing his finger at the constantly shifting nature of the world and our place in it. Likewise, the cells in our body are replaced over a period of approximately seven years. The person you are right now, is not the same person you were just a moment ago. Everything, including us, is evolving and constantly changing.
In Buddhism, one of the three seals, or marks of existence is Anicca, usually translated as inconstancy or impermanence. Nothing stays the same, nothing lasts; every conditioned thing is in a state of flux. Being awake means looking deeply, understanding the underlying reality, the true nature of things and when we do that, we are faced with the impermanent reality that grounds our being in time.
The place where I work is presently going through a re-organization – some of it as a result of the recent turbulence in the economic climate, some of it in response to the need to be lean and agile and more efficient. Of course this has meant that some people have lost their jobs, some have been assigned different roles and everyone is struggling to make sense of the new organization. It is not easy, and people react very differently – some try to cling to the way things were, some are angry, some are worried, a small few are excited and energized by the changes. In any event, the stress is enormous and it indicates, to a large degree, how we become attached to our need for constancy. If we are to be happy, we must be happy always, true love lasts forever, and, it goes without saying, we must never get sick, get old or die. To what extent do we go to preserve our youthfulness, our beauty? We bolster ourselves with creams and lotions, vitamins and potions, always on the lookout for the fountain of youth.
But change happens, whether we want it to or not, and if we look for a moment at the nature of impermanence we realize that it is also necessary and, without it, life would be impossible. For how could an acorn ever grow into a mighty oak, how could a caterpillar transform into a butterfly, how would our children mature into the glorious adults they are to become. Day changes to night and night turns to day, winter gives way to the spring, but no day or night or season is ever exactly the same.
The other interesting thing about change is that it doesn’t happen in isolation. Who and what we are – indeed, what anything is, is the result of causes and conditions – everything is interdependent. No plant can grow without sunshine and rain, without first being a sprout and before that a seed and before that another plant that has developed and scattered the seed, and so on. We are all the happy result of causes and conditions that reach back hundreds of thousands and millions of years to a primordial soup, to a big bang, to a yin and a yang.
This interdependency gives rise to many things, not least of which is, perhaps, our need to treasure every moment, each brief passage, for it can never occur in quite the same way again. My 16 year-old son, now a teenager, will never be a child again. How many moments did I waste in anger, in expectation, in wishing the present moment away? More than a few, I’d venture.
Let me close with a Christian teaching, from the Book of Ecclesiastes (and reprised by Pete Seeger and the Byrds) that sums things up nicely and let us all turn to that beautiful teaching:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace
Miles Murphy works in the field of learning and professional development. An independent scholar, he has a wide range of interests including the humanities of East and West. He is a devotee of Buddhism and a t’ai chi ch’uan enthusiast. His poetry and other writings endeavour to poke about in the rich soil and empty sky of the human condition. Miles can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article cannot be re-published without permission.