The Certainty of Change
I am a creature of habit. I like my routines with the set quality of certainty sketched into a daily schedule. Such habits create a bit of order against the backdrop of a day that has yet to unfold—a little like the comfort of buoys defining the horizon of the ocean.
Perhaps it is a human tendency to cling to such certainties since they provide a relief against the unknowns of an uncertain world. As we know, though, such certainties pass quickly and dissolve against the stream of change and transformation of the demands of our daily lives.
As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously remarked, it is not possible to step in the same river twice since the water is always moving.
The river of time and space, which comprises the world, moves continuously—changing, transforming, evolving—and despite the wish to “fix” it, we have no choice but to move with it.
Taoist philosophy takes the principle of constant change as an unwavering truth, and even though there is the idea of yin and yang or the Five elements (metal, water, wood, fire, and earth), which seem to speak to finite states of being, these concepts are merely words to point at the processes involved. Each element, for example, acts in a relationship with other elements: balancing, creating, destroying one another. Wood feeds fire and is destroyed by it, whereas water tempers fire and in doing so is transformed into steam. Yin and Yang, too, exist as an infinite dance of swirling energies that generate and disintegrate material forms—what the ancients called the 10, 000 things that make up the world.
Instead of focusing upon the forms of things, it is about observing the processes by which forms come into and out of being. If we extend this to T’ai Chi Chuan practice, this reveals an open secret: T’ai Chi Chuan isn’t about the postures; it is about the consistency of movement from posture to posture. Each move merges into the next and each posture never fully stops.
A common misunderstanding that leads to underemphasizing the importance of process in T’ai Chi Chuan may derive from a misreading of the classic T’ai Chi saying to “discern yin from yang” as if such energies are a static fixed state instead of a continuous swirl of balancing qualities. To discern is not to feel the frozen state of yin or yang but rather yin transforming into yang and yang into yin.
We need to prioritize process since the only certainty is that there is no finite stopping point, but how do we embrace process?
Tools such as meditative awareness and concentrated effort work to still the mind so that we can “see” the interconnectedness of forms as well as how forms are constantly transformed: even a stone deteriorates in time to become earth and minerals. We train ourselves to experience change. In T’ai Chi we focus upon the process of movement and transformation of energies and not upon the fixity of a posture. This is the essence behind the saying that T’ai Chi is “stillness (or meditation) in motion.” The mind is concentrated in such a way that it is able to fully discern change and transformation. The misunderstanding around T’ai Chi being meditation in motion has to do with the misperception of meditation as an escape from reality instead of being a concentrated engagement with the world.
Such a perspective of constant change may unsettle that part of us that wishes for nothing more than a stable world, and unraveling that certainty may create fear and anxiety. The reality, though, is that accepting constant impermanence and change equips us to respond to change—and act appropriately, which Taoism calls “wu wei.” The principle of awareness of the inevitability and inescapability of change is the foundation from which we are better equipped to respond. We see change as it is happening and respond accordingly.
The lesson, to nuance Heraclitus through Taoism and T’ai Chi Chuan, is “See the flow of the river; step deliberately and carefully since it is all flowing time and space and forms.” The deep value of authentic T’ai Chi Chuan practice is that it is training us to be open and able to move within our world. Change and our ability to respond is our only certainty.