“A process cannot be understood by stopping it. Understanding must move with the flow of the process, must join it and flow with it.”
By the time you finish reading this sentence, your brain will have changed. A million synapses will have become slightly more or less facilitated. A million myelin sheaths will have become slightly thicker or thinner as your plastic nervous system adapts to the use and disuse of your mind and body.
But that’s not all. By the time you finish reading this paragraph, every cell in your body will be slightly different than it was before. You’ll experience microscopic repairs to membranes, protein synthesis, informational molecules doing their work, modifying the deep structure and function of every organ and tissue. Feel it or not, your body is in constant motion.
Heraclitus would have understood this all perfectly. The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher made history with his claim that “All entities move and nothing remains still.” As he famously put it, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” The river is always changing, but so too is the person doing the stepping.
Our problem is that we often fail to appreciate the dynamism of our bodies, our worlds and our lives. Bodies change constantly, but so too does our habitat. Plants, animals, water, soils and air are always turning, flowing and shifting in substance and form. Likewise our social and cultural habitat; the people around us are notoriously dynamic. Their bodies, their personalities, their opinions and their preferences are in constant flux. They are never the same people twice.
But what does it mean to inhabit a body that’s always changing, in a habitat that’s also changing, in a social and cultural sphere that’s never quite the same? To riff on Heracitus’s original observation, we might well propose a set of corollaries:
You can’t eat the same food twice.
Your body is always changing, but so is the food that you eat. Metabolism is never the same twice. Foods today are drastically different from foods that were available tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago. Even the foods that you eat today are different from those you ate yesterday. Changing climate, changing soils, changing genetics: every meal is unique.
You can’t do the same workout twice.
The effects of movement are always different. The sets, reps and mileage that you perform today will have a different effect on your body than they did yesterday. On some days exercise is a stress-reliever but on other days, it’s a stressor. You can try to pin this dynamism down on a spreadsheet, but it won’t work; your body is always in motion.
You can’t take the same medicine twice.
Likewise, your body’s response to medicines, supplements and other forms of treatment also changes continuously, sometimes by the hour. In particular, modern oncologists know that chemotherapeutic agents can have radically different effects depending on the time of day. A glass of wine may therapeutic at 6pm but toxic at midnight.
You can’t have the same relationships twice.
So too for our human relationships. Much as we might prefer the people around us to be perfectly predictable, constant and reliable, they are just as fluid as we are. And when people change, so too must their relationships. We try to lock it all down with vows and labels and roles, but movement remains. People are inherently fluid.
You can’t tell the same story twice.
Our narratives are also in flux. So too are our interpretations of the stories that we hear and tell. Every story of our lives is nested inside a context, one that is also changing. Plot, characters and tone; even the most classic stories are moving. Meaning drifts, sharpens and sways with the arc of history and our predictions for the future.
When we look at these specific examples of change, the dynamism of our experience becomes clear. But still, we often try to ignore it. Our minds seem to prefer the static over the dynamic. Stable facts and qualities are easier to understand and control; we become attached to the word is.
Over and over we get trapped in the illusion of stasis. We say that a thing is some particular way and let it go at that. Inquiry stops and awareness stagnates. We do it in every dimension of our lives, but it’s particularly problematic in matters of health and the body. We say that a certain kind of training has a particular effect, that a certain food or substance does a particular thing. Our categorical statements might well be true at a particular moment in time, but that moment soon passes and a new reality takes its place.
And so it’s time to get back into the river and refresh our attention. Stop trying to pin everything down. Give up the promise of static certainty and get in the rhythm of movement. Assume change, assume dynamism, assume that this moment is different than the one that proceeded it. The universe is fluid. Our bodies and our relationships are continually unique. The world is different than it was at the beginning of this essay.
Whatever way a thing is, it’s going to be different in a few moments.
Your body is a river.
Your habitat is a river.
Your culture is a river.
Your life is a river.
Get on with it.