Time and Change

Panta rhei, Heraclitus (may have) said: all things change. Literally it means ‘all flows’ and this is one of our most common images of time, a river. We also think of time as the passing of grains of sand in an hourglass, the progress along a timeline, the ticking of a clock. It is self-evident that Heraclitus is right, all things do flow, some – like mountains – more slowly in comparison to others – such as seas – yet all things flow.

All except for time. The concept of time, this construction, convention and convenience, is so ingrained in our brains that we risk the accusation of insanity if we stop and think about it. Time does not flow because it does not exist.

Water, and all the other constituents of rivers, grains of sand, sand dunes, deserts, objects moving along a line, eyes moving along sightlines, lines of perspective, the cogs and gears and hands of a clock, like all things, change. Not time.

Things change in relation to other things. While I am asleep, at night, while the terrestrial hemisphere of shade that borders the hemisphere of light passes over the surface of the Earth, the hands on my little alarm clock go round, my dog’s chest rises and falls in the rhythm of his breath, the cells in the sprawling green plant atop my wardrobe elongate and divide, the fridge hums on, voices on the street come and go, my dreams confabulate and confuse my memories, processes of change, renewal and decay, go on in my sleeping body. All things, including the blood in my body, flow. Time does not.

As a metaphysician this interests me. As a life coach it informs my practice radically. Closely allied to this treasured concept of time being some kind of entity, rather than a complex cultural metaphor of comparison, is our concept of treasured tales. Here I am not concerned with the great meta-narratives of science and religion, there are so many variations of both that in valuing a particular one it should be quite obvious that we are doing just that. No, as a life coach I am more concerned with our life stories. The stories we tell ourselves, and others, about our lives. The ones that start as ‘the way I tell it’ and end up as ‘the way it was’.

Some months ago (it’s impossible even to form a sentence without using this cultural construct) a friend spoke to me about her suspicion of stories. It wasn’t till this weekend, with family and Ben the dog on lovely Lindisfarne, that I began to understand her disquiet. When another friend lent me Byron Katie’s book Loving What Is, I felt in her fourfold interrogation of the truth of stories a confirmation of this understanding.

The Persian Sufi poet, Rumi, gave us the inspired maxim “fihi ma fihi”: it is what it is. It struck me this weekend that on islands there is less danger of ignoring limitation. In cities everything, including relationships, can feel provisional. In my work with people and in my own life, my temptation is to reject the reality of what is in order to replace it with what I consider to be a more lovely or harmonious version. Most people call this lying. Other people call it advertising. Some even call it therapy. It’s dangerous.

I don’t believe in time. I do believe in change. In order for change to happen there must be a resignation to reality. This is why I believe nurses would make great politicians, they know that more important than the history is the presenting condition and that patients often are extremely creative when it comes to their biological autobiography. The friend that lent me Katie’s book spoke of this resignation to reality as ‘surrender’. I like that. A laying down of arms. It takes so much effort to keep up pretences about our physical surroundings, about our bodies in general and our health in particular, about our social relationships, about our heartfelt emotions, about mindfulness and soulforce.

One exercise I recommend is to take a story that has an emotive and gumption-destroying conclusion such as, “look at the mess you got me into!” and tell it differently. Maybe from another person’s point of view. Consciously move the position of the camera, the box inside our head that records the action and the dialogue. It can be written or acted out. Stories, I now realise, have as much power to trap as they do to uplift. When we realise that our treasured tales from our autobiography ain’t necessarily so, this can give us the freedom to accept present circumstances by allowing them to simply be what they are. That acceptance may already cause a shift.

We can’t go back in time because there is nothing to go back into. Changes happens, as Dr Robert M. Pirisg states in Lila (Ch.8, under Causation), because certain processes are valued. Instead of ignoring our present circumstances, wishing them away, blaming them on others or on a fictitious past time, we can value them. Choosing not blame but responsibility (the ability to respond) we release others and release the past and accept the gift of this present configuration of people and things, however difficult. Only here, only now is there potential to change. Value reality. Watch it change. All things do. Panta rhei.


Colonial Sundial photo by Ken Kistler on Public Domain