On Change and Constancy

All is in movement . . .

– Chuang Tzu

This is one of the insights that recurs across time and geography: life is change. Life is always changing. Change is the one constant. We can’t count on anything save not being able to count on anything.

The river is a river because it is always in motion. Its constancy is its changing.

Because this insight appears so regularly in so many human cultures, we might infer that does in in fact speak to an essential truth of the human experience. Everything is in flux, everything changes.

Change is often painful to one degree or another. Some of the spinach I bought last week went bad. That was a drag. My dogs aged and then died and that loss hurt. That was more than a drag. A lot more. My father aged, was laid low by serious debilitating illnesses, and died, and a year and a half later I am still sad, confused and lonesome. That is a deep and abiding grief.

Moreover, I witness the same process of decay in my wife and children and our friends. It’s almost like change and death are . . . inevitable.

So it seems like one reason human beings notice change – and adopt spiritual strategies for dealing with it – is that it is always there and it tends to hurt, sometimes intensely so. And lingering at the fringe of change, is death. Every change – no matter how small – points to the apparent end of what we love and, ultimately, of ourselves.

If we are honest about our experience of change, we can see how consistently and intensely it shades the interior landscape. It touches all of us. It brings us face-to-face with our weakness and inefficacy. I can’t stop a leaf from falling, let alone my child from suffering, or my body from dying.

Thus the insight (inhering in Chuang Tzu’s observation) that change is the only constant. Thus the question, what shall we do in the face of it?

Heraclitus observed that a river remains what it is because its contents continuously change. Its constant identity is its constant change.

The far end of our homestead is a little brook that feeds a larger river. Summer nights you can hear the river, as if the earth itself were whispering to the stars. I often walk past the horses at dawn to sit by the water. A river is truly an amazing thing to look at in a reflective way: it is moving constantly, and its movements vary in both subtle and dramatic ways, yet it is always this river.

We can take this observation a step further. Sometimes it can seem like the river is changing, but I am not – I am the stable observer sitting quietly on the bank. The river flows constantly – it changes constantly – but Sean doesn’t. Sean is the still silent observer in the midst of change.

Now that’s silly in a sense, because my body is in flux too. Blood flows, hair grows, stomach processes food and drink, neurons fire, thoughts come and go . . .

I’m like the river. It’s always me but both me and the container with which me seems to be associated are constantly changing.

There is a theme here. In all this change, we keep encountering someone or something that does not change. Yet when we look closely at this someone or something, it reveals that it, too, is changing.

Does this make sense? I am saying that there always seems to be an observer who does not change. Then, when you observe the observer, the observer is seen to be changing. But that change is always only relative to an observer who is not changing.

This is a loop! And it’s important to see it and not conflate it with some mystical truth, some mysterious force in the universe. The observer becomes the observed, revealing yet another observer. This recursivity is simply what it means to be a human observer.

So what we are saying is that the reflective experience of change is only possible because of a concomitant experience of constancy.

That is, we can only identify change by virtue of comparing it to something that does not change. The perceiving subject that we are – and remain for some period of time – is effectively brought forth by the fluid environment that surrounds it.

It is change that makes things the same. Constancy and change are not unconnected opposites. They are yoked. The one that makes the other possible.

When I say “the one makes the other possible” I am really making two distinct but intimately related statements.

First, I am saying that what appears to be two (change and constancy, in this case) is in fact one. It is (to adopt Chuang Tzu’s phrasing) a single movement.

Second, I am confirming the appearance of two (or many). That is, I am saying that even though constancy and changed are yoked and thus one, they appear to us separately, as more than one. This is a functional distinction that we do not need to be alarmed about. It’s not a problem to be solved.

gazing east across the river, our home a distant image

If everything changed, then there would be no change. There would be no way to know change. Thus, everything can’t change – otherwise, there wouldn’t be change. Something has to remain the same. But that something – when looked at – reveals that it, too, changes. So everything does change. But if everything changes . . .

It comes back to that loop again. That loop has thrown a lot of us off for a long time. When we really encounter it, it can feel as if we are literally touching infinity or eternity. It can feel like we’ve reached the holy grail of consciousness.

But really, we are just making tangible contact with an ordinary aspect of being a human observer. It’s natural. It’s functional. It isn’t going anywhere. It’s okay. It’s more than okay.

The most effective and peaceful way out of the loop – or, if you prefer, to integrate the loop – is to be grateful for the human observer that you are, grateful for the perspective you embody by which such a vibrant, complex and amazing world is brought forth.

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