Heraclitus’s Unseen Waterfalls

Ever since Heraclitus, in the sixth century BC, uttered his famous phrase “ta panta rei,” which means “everything flows” or “everything is in constant flux,” humanity has accepted Change as one of the fundamental laws that govern the cosmos. Heraclitus’s example of the continuously flowing river that a person can never enter twice – because it is never the same river – has even become the archetypal image of this constant flux that permeates everything.

However, while the image of the river works most of the time, it is not all-inclusive and may actually be limiting or even misleading. For unlike the steady flow of change that the river suggests, change in the universe and in life follows another pattern: Change is not smooth, steady, continuous, but rather abrupt, jagged, staggered.

In the physical world, the perpetual motion of elementary particles is not smooth, but “rugged.” Particles move along a regular trajectory for some time before suddenly jumping into another type of movement, another level of energy. These abrupt changes have been termed “quantum jumps” in the field of quantum mechanics – one of the pillars of modern physics. What we considered for millennia to be the regularity of change in the physical world has been replaced by a new concept of Change that includes sudden movements.

The pattern of constant, uniform motion, broken suddenly by an abrupt movement, is also to be found in another science: biological evolution. When scientists began to closely study the fossil record in the second half of the twentieth century, they discovered a strange phenomenon: Once a particular species appeared in the fossil record, it would become stable, showing little evolutionary change for most of its geological history. Then, after millennia, it would abruptly change form and either become a new species or acquire many new features that would make it look very different. This observation led to the creation of the evolutionary theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” which has now replaced the idea that evolution occurs uniformly and by the steady and gradual modification of organisms. According to the new theory, organisms stay in stasis or “equilibrium” for millennia and true evolution happens only in bursts of rapid change that “punctuate” this stasis. Based on these new discoveries, the latest theory, Quantum Evolution (borrowing the name from the now ubiquitous physics term), makes the bold claim that all grand evolution happens only in quantum jumps.

Moving from the grand evolutionary movement of biological organisms to the single life of an organism itself, we observe similar behavior. An often used example in self-help literature is that of the Chinese bamboo that develops its root system over a period of four years only to suddenly grow shoots that pop up from the ground and grow over twenty meters tall within just six weeks. In many other plants, similar periods of constant and slow movement are punctuated by sudden accelerated activity that seems magical. In the animal kingdom, another often used example – which in the East is also used as a symbol of spiritual transformation – is the lifecycle of the butterfly: We first have the caterpillar, which for a long period of time just becomes fatter by incessant eating. Then, suddenly, it starts consuming its own body, turning into a chrysalis, from which later emerges a butterfly. The lifecycle of the butterfly, just as the grand movement of evolution itself, consists of stages of equilibrium punctuated by sudden bursts of transformative action.

Coming to man himself, and to the field of human psychology, we have Jung’s theory of the stages of life: childhood is broken by the sudden adolescent crisis that prepares one for adult life; then adulthood is in turn disturbed at around the age of forty by a mid-life crisis that prepares one for the main adult period; and finally there is the late-life crisis at the onset of old age. Each seemingly constant phase of life is broken abruptly by a period of turmoil, stress, and sudden transformation, which becomes the existential fire that consumes the previous “stasis” in order to prepare a new life on another level.

Even in the field of history, we discover hundreds of examples that follow a similar pattern. The flourishing of great civilizations seems to happen at specific nodal points that are akin to revolutions: the sudden appearance of agriculture, followed by the creation of large cities over a very small period; then the revolution of cavalry and the rapid movements of peoples and tribes across the steppes; then the flourishing of great civilizations that happen in a short period of time. The classic civilization of Ancient Greece happened within the span of eighty years – yet again as if in a sudden burst of energy. At about the same time, Taoism and Confucianism appeared in China, creating a huge leap that would define Chinese civilization for millennia. And in modern times, we have, to name a couple, the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, in which we saw a rapid advancement in European civilization over a very short time span. Even political events seem to follow this pattern of steady continuity disrupted by violent upheavals. One recent example is the turbulent Communist Revolution in 1917, which led to a quite stable and steady period of communist rule, which in turn collapsed in 1989 due to sudden social turmoil.

Similar effects have been observed in economics, epidemiology, and more. Terms such as “critical mass” or “tipping point” have been used to describe processes at which sudden changes increase dramatically after a certain threshold is crossed.

All these examples from many diverse fields seem to suggest, if not actually prove, that Change in all observable phenomena happens in sudden bursts that break the default constant flux of Change itself. It seems that one needed only to have followed the smoothly moving river of Heraclitus, walking alongside its bank, in order to have discovered a little bit further down, that the river became a waterfall! Heraclitus’s ceaselessly flowing river, signifying change and flux, is not one of constant, regular flow, but one that includes a variety of changes that disrupt the flow, creating new types of movement, whether it be a waterfall, or the river splitting into two, or its entering into a pond to re-emerge flowing in another direction. We could even go a step further and suggest that the constant flow of the river – any river of Change – is but the field of preparation for a sudden change. In other words, the river does nothing but prepare the beautiful explosion of the waterfall, just as the quiet and slow transformations of the caterpillar and the chrysalis are the “field of preparation” for the magical flight of the colorful butterfly.

But why does Change follow such a pattern?

The answer to this may actually be quite simple: Everything being in constant flow means that the flow itself is in constant flow! Change is not immune to Change itself. If everything changes, then Change itself must also change. What we experience and observe as the disruption of uniform constant change is none other than the expression of the lurking change within Change: The quantum jumps are but the disruptions of Change, which cannot remain unchanged, because it obeys the law of itself. If Change were predictable, then it would have become synonymous with regularity and stasis. The unseen waterfalls of Heraclitus, lying further down the river, are the symbol of the Change inherent in the flow of Change itself. It seems that Change cannot even “withstand” its own constant change! It “needs” to create disruptions in its constancy, unpredictability in its mode of change, by changing the nature of itself. It is for this reason that Change, exactly because it itself changes, can never be captured, nor completely be understood, nor, of course, be predicted. We can never be certain, as we ride the river, when the next waterfall will appear and from what height we may fall, nor whether it will be a waterfall that we find, or multiple ones, or something else. Although change itself may sometimes be predicted to some measure, the change of Change will forever make all of our predictions uncertain.

But what is the practical significance in our lives of this law of the non-constancy of Change?

Knowing firstly that the law of change exists, and secondly that it self-modifies so that this change is punctuated by sudden rapid changes, we must become vigilant to these upheavals in order to be able to accommodate them in our personal life when they do appear. “Vigilant” here means recognizing the periods of abrupt changes as such and boldly adapting to them by abandoning the familiar normal flow we have grown accustomed to. Unlike the commonly held belief popularized by New Age thinking and the recent movement of positive thinking, “going with the flow” does not necessarily mean flowing along the smooth regular river of change, but being ready, when on a cliff or precipice, to plunge into the sudden void and follow the waterfall to the next level. Sometimes “going with the flow” means recognizing that the flow is about to accelerate, slow down, or even reverse its course altogether; it may also mean giving a noble fight, standing your ground, or taking a hammer to break the Berlin Wall – rather than staying home to watch events unfold by themselves on television! The flux itself being in constant flux means that we must also be ready to occasionally move in the opposite direction from the one in which we had been moving – to depart from the known path to enter the road less traveled.

Missing such junctures of sudden change, which usually happen when things in our life are “ripe” for a new series of rapid changes, may mean that we miss one of the greatest gifts the Law of Change has to offer us. For as we have seen, all major leaps in inanimate matter and living organisms in general, as well as in man and human society in particular, seem to happen at these sudden quantum jumps, these junctures at which Change itself becomes “jaded” with its own regular movement and seeks to introduce major transformative action engendering new possibilities in the cosmos.

The law of Change demands from us that we never remain still, never stay too long in one place doing the same things. “For to stay [put]…is to freeze and crystallize and be bound in a mould,” as Kahlil Gibran so eloquently put it. The Grand Law of Change demands that while we do change – and we can never force Change to cease – we must not remain complacent in our own change, but welcome even more abrupt, revolutionary, bold, creative, strange and unusual changes that will take us to new levels of activity and life. Otherwise, if we are too slow to see the signs of the major shift that invites us to be a part of it, we risk missing the opportunity to evolve…from a reptile into a bird!

Let us always be mindful, not only of Heraclitus’s forever flowing river that symbolizes the Law of Change governing the universe and our lives, but also of the unseen waterfalls scattered within Change itself. These waterfalls actually reveal the grandest law of them all: The Law of the change of Change.

© 2017 Nicos Hadjicostis