Change

Alan Watts

You must understand the idea of the world as being in flux. Duhkha (suffering) really arises from a person’s failure to accept the other two characteristics: lack of permanent self and change.

The feeling that we have of an enduring organism – I meet you today and I see you, and then tomorrow I meet you again, and you look pretty much as you looked yesterday, and so I consider that you’re the same person, but you aren’t. Not really. When I watch a whirlpool in a stream, here’s the stream flowing along, and there’s always a whirlpool like the one at Niagra. But that whirlpool never, never really holds any water. The water is all the time rushing through it. In the same way, a university – the University of California – what is it? The students change at least every four years; the faculty changes at a somewhat slower rate; the building changes – they knock down old ones and put up new ones – , the administration changes. So what is the University of California? It’s a pattern of a particular kind. And so in just precisely that way, every one of us is a whirlpool in the tide of existence, and where every cell in our body, every molecule, every atom is in constant flux and nothing can be pinned down.

From one point of view, change is just too bad. Everything flows away, and there’s a kind of sadness in that, a kind of nostalgia, and there may even be a rage. “Go not gently into that good night, but rage, rage, at the dying of the light.”

This is the nature of change. If you resist it, you have Duhkha, you have frustration and suffering. But on the other hand, if you understand change, you don’t cling to it, and you let it flow, then it’s no problem. It becomes positively beautiful.

The fact that things are always running out, that things are always disappearing, has some hidden marvel in it. The Japanese have a word – Yugen – , which has no English equivalent whatsoever. Yugen is in a way digging change. It’s described poetically; you have the feeling of yugen when you see out in the distant water some ships hidden behind a far-off island. You have the feeling of yugen when you watch wild geese suddenly seen and then lost in the clouds. You have the feeling of yugen when you look across Mt. Tamapeis, and you’ve never been to the other side, and you see the sky beyond. You don’t go over there to look and see what’s on the other side, that wouldn’t be yugen. You let the other side be the other side, and it invokes something in your imagination, but you don’t attempt to define it to pin it down.

So in the same way, the coming and going of things in the world is marvelous. They go. Where do they go? Don’t answer, because that would spoil the mystery. They vanish into the mystery. But if you try to pursue them, you destroy yugen.

I remember when I was almost a child in the Pyrenees in the southwest of France. We went way up in this gorgeous silence of the mountains, but in the distance we could hear the bells on the cows clanking. And somehow those tiny sounds brought out the silence. And so in the same way, slight permanances bring out change. And they give you this very strange sense.

Life is life, you see, because, just because it’s always disappearing. Supposing suddenly, by some kind of diabolical magic, I could say “zzzip!” and every one of you would stay the same age forever. You’d be like Madam Tussaud’s wax works. It’d be awful! In a thousand years from now, what beautiful hags you would be!

So, the trouble is, that we have one-sided minds, and we notice the wave of life when it is at its peak or crest. We don’t notice it when it’s at the trough, not in the ordinary way. It’s the peaks that count. Take a buzzsaw: what seems important to us is the tips of the teeth. They seem do the cutting, not the valleys between the teeth. But see, you couldn’t have tips of teeth without the valleys between. Therefore the saw wouldn’t cut without both tips and V-shaped valleys. But we ignore that. We don’t notice the valleys so much as we notice the mountains. Valleys point down, mountains point up, and we prefer things that point up, because up is good and down is bad.

But seriously, we don’t blame the peaks for being high and the valleys for being low. But it is so, you see, that we ignore the valley aspect of things, and so all wisdom begins by emphasizing the valley aspect as distinct from the peak aspect. We pay plenty of attention to the peak aspect, that’s what captures out attention, but we somehow screen out the valley aspect. But that makes us very uncomfortable. It seems we want and get pleasure from looking at the peaks, but actually this denies our pleasure, because secretly we know that every peak is followed by a valley. The valley of the shadow of death.

And we’re always afraid, because we’re not used to looking at valleys, because we’re not used to living with them, they represent to us the strange and threatening unknown. Maybe we’re afraid the principle of the valley will conquer, and the peaks will be overwhelmed. Maybe death is stronger than life, because life always seems to require an effort; death is something into which you slide effortlessly. Maybe nothing will overcome something in the end. Wouldn’t that be awful? And so, we resist change, ignorant of the fact that change is life, and that nothing is invariably the adverse face of something.

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2 thoughts on “Change

  1. I see an axis which usually contains negative numbers to -infinity, pozitive numbers to +infinity, and 0 in its center. For me life is everything to the right of 0, excluding 0, because wise people never let themselves be conquered by depression (things before 0 on the axis) at least for their dear ones, even if it is possible that it is interesting to have contradictory feelings sometimes, but never too much, and I believe it is bad for the collective mental. 0 is for me inexistence (what I feel when I sleep without having dreams).

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