Heraclitus – The Flow of Impermanence

When we take a general view of the wonderful stream of our consciousness, what strikes us first is the different pace of its parts. William James, 1892

Everything Flows

About the same time the Buddha was teaching about impermanence, Heraclitus was talking about being unable to step into the same river twice. While neither men coined the concept, Buddha better elucidated the teaching, showing how change leads to dissatisfaction, pain, and suffering. Heraclitus, known for the phrase “everything flows,” drew his own conclusions.

Follow the Common

For Heraclitus, the flow of change in life and the world led to some other associated ideas. For one, he taught his disciples to “follow the common,” the idea that a divine movement shapes all activity. It is man’s task to understand what the flow of activity means, or where it is leading. However, Heraclitus didn’t necessarily believe humanity was always up to the task of understanding and responding properly. Later Stoic teachings drew upon this teaching, calling on each person to see the beauty in the natural outcomes of life, and avoid being surprised or disappointed when life takes its turns for the better or the worse. That’s just life. It may be worth exploring the similarities and differences between Heraclitus’ teaching of “follow the common,” and Lao Zi’s teachings of the activity of the Dao.

Strife is Justice

Heraclitus is also known for the phrase, “strife is justice.” If the energies of growth and decay are constantly creating change in the world, harmony comes from the balance of these two forces of change.

Ship of Theseus

Several observations point out the impermanence, or constant flow of reality. Plato refers to Heraclitus’ observations on the Ship of Theseus.  The ship was a prime of example of impermanence at work. The fact that time and decay necessitated the replacement of rotted wood in order to preserve the ship raised the question: if a historic object (like a ship) continuously has parts that decay and need replacement, what happens when the sum total of the ship has decayed and been replaced? Is it still the same ship? Similar processes happen to the human body– a few cells or parts of the body remain with us our entire lives, but most of the cells in our bodies change over a matter of months or years. How much of our bodies is us?

It is not known if Heraclitus touched upon a significant conclusion of his teachings on impermanence, namely that the mind itself is also subject to ongoing change. This extends to change in understanding and even to the perception of change itself.