The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said, “Everything changes but change itself.” In saying this, he hit upon the second realization of Tao: Everything is transient; nothing remains the same. If anything looks solid and permanent, it is only an illusion since everything in the universe is in a constant state of flux—growing and shrinking, living and dying, breathing in and breathing out.
Change Cannot Be Avoided
In a lesser known passage about change, Heraclitus continues his meditation on the inevitability of change: “You cannot step twice into the same river, for waters and yet other waters go flowing ever on.” In this analogy of a river, the essence of change is obvious—the water you step in at one moment will be replaced by other water in only a fraction of a second. But did you ever consider that this is also true for everything you see and experience in the world? Even solid, inanimate objects are constantly changing form. The chair you are sitting on now is not the same chair it was yesterday, and it will be a little bit different tomorrow, too.
For an example, let’s imagine that you have an antique piece of silver jewelry, an heirloom from your great-great grandmother. In some ways, it may seem like a very permanent thing, something that has survived through the generations when so much else has passed away. Yet, in reality, this object is constantly changing, too. The change is slow to our eyes, but change is happening nonetheless. Physics teaches us that nothing is truly solid; everything is made up protons and electrons with lots of space in between. Every time you wear or polish the silver, a microscopic layer of silver atoms are sluffed away. Even if you never touch it, the outer layer of the silver will interact with the oxygen in the air and will tarnish, which changes its chemical makeup. In this way, the piece of jewelry continually changes, even with the most careful maintenance.
Change Is Energy in Motion
But why must we experience this? Wouldn’t it be better to live in a world where everything stays the same and nothing diminishes, declines, or dilapidates? The problem with that is that that would be a stagnant state, a dead state without growth or movement.
Change is inevitable because this is a living, moving universe; it is not a stagnant universe. Ours is a universe that is imbued with energy, and energy that cannot flow has no purpose. Thus, change is like the prime mover of all existence. It is the change-maker that gives rise to everything in existence: an ever-expanding universe, a swirling galaxy, a fiery sun. The earth, too, changes continuously as volcanoes erupt and plates shift. And we humans are ever-changing as well, growing from a fetus to a child to an adult to an elder in a blink of the cosmic eye. All this change is the essence of life and the essence of existence.
In previous posts, I have written of the three types of attachment—attachment to control, safety, and recognition—that cause so much suffering in this world. The secret to avoiding and/or dropping these is acceptance of the transience of life: if we understand that we cannot keep any of these things permanently, we can remain unattached to the conditions and outcomes of our lives. Then, just like energy flowing freely through a healthy body, the energy of life will be able to flow through our lives, bringing healing and vitality to our minds, bodies, and spirits.
The Meaning of Life Is Change
One basic question of life is “Why am I here?” Since change is an ever-present part of life, an important part of the answer to this question must be “to experience change.” If you look at our existence here on earth as an “Earth School,” change must be the primary curriculum since it is a continual part of our studies. What do we get from all this change? Growth, since only through change can we grow beyond whomever and whatever we are now. Without change, there is no growth, no evolution, no transformation.
For that reason, it is important to embrace change. For humans, it is natural to resist change since we like to feel safe and to control everything, even things which we know we can’t. It is fine to support meaningful traditions and to preserve precious heirlooms from the past, but always remember that even these things must change and that new will always grow out of the old.