One way to think about time is in relation to change. In fact, time and change are inseparable — the two are intertwined. Nothing can change without time and with the passing of time, everything changes — nothing ever stays the same.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus (535 BC — 475 BC), Greek philosopher
As Heraclitus poetically stated over two thousand years ago, if a person steps in a river a second time, it’s no longer the same river or the same person.
If you recall a personal experience that took place over 7 years ago, it’s accurate to say that you were not even there. Every molecule in your body has been replaced since then. So the physical you that was then is no longer here. You are no longer the person you were. And the same applies to your ex-partner, assuming you were together for more than 7 years, your partner is no longer the person they were when you met. Both in a physical sense as well as a person. It’s a cliche to say that “we grew apart” but it’s a physical fact as well.
Not only do people change, of course, everything changes. The sheer amount of change in the world from moment to moment is incomprehensible and much of it beyond perception. A speeded-up time-lapse video of glaciers moving or tree leaves changing colour can bring perceptions of gradual change artificially into our consciousness, albeit after the fact and in a compressed way. High-speed video can bring into our consciousness the impact of a projectile shattering a fragile object or the beating of a hummingbird’s wings.
Our brains are hardwired in such a way as to smooth out change. Our persistence of vision, for example, is the reason television and cinema look real to us. If we could perceive the time between frames of the video, the illusion would be ruined, observing a flickering set of still images.
Our minds play a similar trick at the macro level. We sense that things are much more constant than they actually are, an effect entitled “eternalisation”. After all, it’s much easier to navigate and exist in a world with little change than one in which we are faced with a barrage of constant, rapid change. Our minds construct a model of reality in which change is limited. We tend to live in the moment as if aspects of our lives will exist forever. For example, our youth, our health, our home, our relationships, our place of work, etc. The fact that such things are not eternal despite our perspective that they are, can be a major source of suffering. When we perceive things as being constant and unchanging, we can get disturbed when they change. Impermanence and its relationship to suffering (Dukkha) is a core concept of Buddhism. Seeing the true nature of things (Right View) and the fact that nothing stays the same is part of the path to alleviating our suffering.
“ ‘All conditioned things are impermanent’ – when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.” – The Buddha
So it would appear that our perception of time and change are distorted both in a way that helps us to function day-to-day but can also cause us suffering and limit our performance. The following Zoom-Out principle comes into play here:
All perspectives are wrong but some are helpful
– Zoom-Out Principle
When is it helpful to hold a perspective that something is eternal and when is it helpful to hold a perspective that something is impermanent? It’s left to the reader to reflect on aspects of their lives. Was viewing a relationship as lasting forever helpful? Was that realistic? How can you look back at it now?
Whatever your conclusions, it’s clear that nothing ever stays the same and expecting things to stay the same is unrealistic. When things are great we want to hold on to it, to grasp it, as if to hold back change, to literally halt the march of time. If we can see that any grasping is in vain it may help us to let go and this may be much more helpful.