Disclaimer: I’m not convinced there are universal truths so much as there are universal facts. Facts aren’t truth, they’re just reality. Facts are what make statements true or not. But since I may be one of the only people who thinks this way, we’re just going to run with the common usage.
Here’s a thing we all deal with:
better known as: THINGS CHANGE.
But, you may be asking, what kind of post is this going to be if it’s something we all know about already?
Look at you, ahead of the curve, again.
And you’re correct, I’m not really here to speak to that thing we all know already, although, I’m not certain absolutely everybody knows it as such.
Anyways, this post is about the “we all deal with” side of impermanence.
Because try to ignore it as you might, we all must face the spinning hands of the clock – even for you digital types out there.
Beyond the question of how long our consciousness continues, or what happens when we die, is the BIG Question: Am I still Me?
If everything is in a constant state of change, that means I/ you are changing. And if that is so, what are we changing into?
Here’s the thing, once you acknowledge impermanence, you begin to see it not just as gateways to pass through, but as a continuous process. And it is. Even now, the words you are reading are causing chemical changes in the state of your brain, leading to changes in consciousness while, at the same time your cells are dying off and replicating – in a constant state of flux, so that – while they may appear the same – they are, in fact, different.
Yeah, take a minute to soak in that weirdness.
Hard to absorb, isn’t it?
And we, as a species, have been trying to reconcile it for likely most of our existence. The first recorded thoughts on the matter come about somewhere around the birth of Taoism, in Ancient China. Taoism may have been the first “religious” practice to embrace impermanence. It’s difficult to pin down exactly. There may be something about it in the Upanishads, but we’ll need a historian who specializes, and I don’t have one of them handy at the moment. So, we’re going with Taoism. That puts us somewhere around the 6th-century B.C.E.
But even the Western Tradition – read as the Ancient Greeks – were coming to a similar conclusion around the 3rd-century B.C.E. So, since Taoism is a bit opaque for a western audience, we’ll start with the Greeks and come forward from there. Don’t worry, we’ll be getting back to the Tao, in a Tolkien-esque fashion.
So, by way of Plutarch, we have accounts of debates – in this case between Aristotle and Heraclitus – on the nature of impermanence and continuity.
Because if, as has previously been stated, everything is changing, even us, even down to our most minute, atomic parts, are we still us? Do I remain me and you remain you, even in the midst of all this change?
Enter Theseus’ Ship.
It’s a thought experiment. Here’s a place to start looking, but don’t stop there. wikipedia/ Ship of Theseus
Briefly, the experiment goes like this: A ship is brought into the docks to be repaired. The mast is replaced. Is it the same ship? Then the deck is replaced. Is it still the same ship? Eventually, every board and nail is replaced with new materials. Is it still the same ship?
Starting to see the connection to us and our constantly dying and replicating cells yet?
I knew you would. I have the best readers.
Aristotle took this idea and created the “Four Causes” solution to the problem. Feel free to read up on that. It’ll be illuminating for certain modes of our modern thought.
It also has a fundamental flaw: It’s starting from a conclusion and trying to work backward to an argument/ explanation that proves that conclusion.
In less archaic parlance, it’s adding epicycles.
(Ok, I’ll admit that example isn’t really less archaic per se, but it’s fun and you should check it out.)
Basically, Aristotle and his followers were convinced of our essential continuity and tried to create a system by which that continuity was preserved, even in the light of the implications of the thought experiment.
And by way of response, Heraclitus gave one of the most understated hot takes in history, “No man ever steps into the same river twice.”
Just let that one simmer in your brain-pan for a moment.
Heraclitus’ response succinctly states that continuity is an illusion.
Think of when you were a kid, on the Fourth of July. Out in the dark, writing letters on the night with a lit sparkler. Same thing.
(We call that “persistence of vision” but as a phenomenon, it is analogous to how we perceive our own existence.)
Nothing is continuous. Contiguous, maybe. Likely. But not continuous.
By all the available evidence, that does seem to be the case. Every 7 years or so we’ve replaced all of our cells. Every new piece of information we get changes how we interact with the universe, even if in subtle ways. And if you’ve ever listened to the same song more than once you know that no two iterations of any experience are ever the same.
No two meals.
No two kisses.
No two nights, high as the clouds on acid, lying in a field, holding hands with your best girl and staring up at the stars…
…But I digress.
It is a thing we intuitively recognize about the world in which we live. Sure, we dismiss it, take it for granted and as read, but it’s always there, a part of our awareness. But it’s funny how reticent we are to ascribe to ourselves this seemingly obvious and self-evident fact of existence.
Well, not all of us.
There are non-Western cultures that integrate this way of seeing the world and ourselves. You should look into that. It’s cool in the way certain hidden things are.
Taoism is one of them. Buddhism another. Certain Native American traditions. Some Australian Aboriginals, I think. Do yourself a favor and check it out.
But, just before you go, let me give you one Western-style take on the whole affair, by way of J. R. R. Tolkien.
(Admit it, you thought I forgot.)
The Shards of Narsil.
Yes, from the Lord of the rings books. The sword that cut the ring from Sauron’s hand and broke in the process. The one Aragorn used to prove his claim to the throne of Gondor. That sword.
If you’ve read the books, or seen the movies – so really, this can’t be a spoiler – you’ll know that the sword is eventually re-forged. And after it is re-forged, it is given a new name: Anduril.
Same bits of metal, put back together into the same type of form, to make the same type of thing, to serve the same type of purpose, but with a new name.
The new name being an acknowledgment of the inherent change in the thing itself.
But, in the West – whatever that nebulous term means – we don’t give ourselves new names when we begin new stages of life. We feel as if we are the same person from birth until death, even though we recognize that we go through different stages of existence.
So, I wonder, why is it so hard to acknowledge that we’re different people in those varying phases?
Here’s the thing: when you think about it, you won’t feel you’re the same person now as you were when you were an infant, or a teenager, or in your twenties. No one does.
We don’t feel like the same person, well, because we aren’t the same person.
And yet, we want to believe that this thing in our heads, this thought we call “I” has been eternal and unchanging – in some cases since the beginning of everything – in most cases at least for all of our lives.
I’m not suggesting we take on new names with each passing phase of life, althought that would be cool. But I am suggesting that I can see that “kid” me hated broccoli, but “adult” me quite likes it, and that’s because they’re different people. (See how the language trips us up here.) And that means “I’m” different people.
And so are you.
All of you.
Yes, even you.
Something to think about, at least.
Until next time…