Paddling About Cautiously In The River Of Change

Nick Williams
5 min readAug 20, 2022

The thing we are most resistant to seeing is that there is no ‘real’ or ‘genuine’ self which persists through time. There are no constants in life, as Heraclitus has said, and yet we all live on the basis that there is this very special constant, this very special constant which we call the ‘me’!

The ‘one thing that can never be’ is the very thing we assume as an unquestionable, unanswerable basis, and so this has got to be a recipe for trouble. There’s absolutely no way it can’t be! No matter how hard we might try, we could never come up with a better, more reliable recipe for trouble and strife than this. This is — we might say — the perfect formula for never-ending suffering…

The absence of a fixed, consistent, or genuinely existing self isn’t a privation, which is how we automatically take it to be — what we’re talking about here is the absence of something which could never have existed in the first place, so how could this be said to be a loss? We can only lose what was actually there in the first place, not what we falsely or deludedly imagined to be there. We can’t be cheated out of what was only ever in our imaginations.

When we hear the quote from Heraclitus where he says that we can’t step into the same river twice (because the river has changed and so have we) we tend to think that we get this straight away, but we don’t. We only think that we get it. We can’t really get it at all because we can only understand stuff via our concepts or ideas, and our concepts and ideas are fixed. When we say that we ‘understand something’ what we mean is that we have located it within the framework of thought, and frameworks — by their very nature — are always static. There’s no such thing as ‘a flowing framework’, obviously enough.

There is simply no way to understand the Heraclitian Flux therefore. ‘Understanding’ has become a perfectly meaningless concept — if I can’t step into the same river twice (because the river is always different and so am I) then this means that there can be no thinking going on. There can be no thinking going on because thinking means that one thing stays the same and everything else gets compared to it, measured by it; in the River of Change nothing stays the same, however. There are no yardsticks and there is no yard.

We spend a lot of time trying to come up with theories about the world that we can live with. Every time we think a thought that’s us having a theory about the world, that’s us labelling the world. A lot of us imagine that this is what the task of science is — to definitively understand the universe we live in, to come up with a TOE, a ‘theory which explains everything’. If that’s what we think then this is simply because we don’t see reality to be a flow and understanding (or conceptualization) to be a freezing of that flow. We don’t — therefore — see that we’re trying to do a perfectly absurd thing.

We can’t know or understand the world around us because the world around us is a happening, not ‘a thing’. The world is a happening and it is always happening. The world is what’s happening and so how can we know it? We can only know what has already happened and in the River of Change there is nothing that ‘has already happened’. There are no ‘results’, no ‘outcomes’, no ‘things that have definitely happened’, only the ongoing process of happening. Happening is reality itself therefore and anything that seems to have happened can only ever be a mind-created illusion. Anything that seems to have conclusively happened has only happened ‘in our own heads’, in other words.

Human beings have always had lots of theories about the world, lots of beliefs about the world. We have also always had lots of myths and stories about the world and this is something very different — it’s very different because whilst beliefs are always literal, myth never is, and for this reason mythology has the possibility of orientating us towards the truth (rather than orientating us away from it, in the way that belief always does). The more currency myth has in a culture the more conscious that culture will be therefore, and Western Rationalism doesn’t value myth at all!

Instead of valuing myth we value ‘facts and figures’, we value ‘the literal worldview’. Instead of wisdom, we value ‘the retention of knowledge’. Instead of insight we have ‘evidence-based procedures’. Instead of wise people, who listen, we have a plague of experts telling us what is best for us, telling us what to do in each and every conceivable situation. In the world of psychology we imagine that mental health is some kind of equilibrium state; we assume — in other words — that it is something we can define, something we can know about and devise appropriate rule-based based procedures to help us accord with. These procedures or therapies are then applied across the board. We turn therapy into mass-marketing, we turn therapy into a technology.

What we’re trying to do with this technological approach of ours is to ‘rescue the fixed idea that we have of ourselves from those forces which are threatening to undermine or change it’. We’re fighting against our own growth, therefore. We’re assuming that there is this fixed or consistent thing called ‘the self’ and we’re basing our entire approach on this. We’re trying to ‘reify the illusion’, in other words, under the impression that this will work out to our benefit. We have an eye turned towards the future, we are goal-orientated, and this is considered to be prudent; this is very far from being the case, however. Our ‘prudence’ actually creates a very sad situation for us; it creates a very sad situation because everything we do, everything we invest our time and energy in, is for the sake of an entity that doesn’t (and can’t) exist.

I spend my life prudently arranging for all these good or beneficial things to happen to me (I put in the effort so that I can reap the reward, in other words) but if I am successful in this then my very success turns into a disaster. It’s a disaster because all I’ve done is to create a world that is tailor-made for a person who not only ‘no longer exists’ but also never existed in the first place. There is only the River of Change and so all of my planning, all of my analysis, all of my diligent goal-setting, comes down to ‘freezing the River of Chance for the sake of a fictional identity’. This is easily the most stupendously futile strategy there ever could be, therefore! All of our thinking, all of our ‘clutching after concepts and ideas’ is no more than the attempt to defend ourselves against this river, and this is deeply perverse since — when it comes down to it — we are the river that we are trying to defend ourselves against! We are the river that we are forever trying to limit, we are the river that we are forever trying to ‘bring under control’…

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