This is an edited version of an episode of Noah Rasheta's podcast Secular Buddhism:
Truth in the Context of Time
Truths are contingent upon space and time. Everything exists in space and time, and, in terms of space, all things are interdependent. We've talked about this. In terms of time, all things are impermanent. Usually, when I'm discussing this concept with someone and I talk about the idea of impermanence, they think about the opposite of impermanent being permanent. That makes sense, but it's more than that. I think a better or maybe easier way to understand the concept of impermanence is understanding the idea of something fixed and permanent versus something fluctuating and changing.
How does that apply to the way that we view conceptual truths? That's really the heart of what I want to get at today, and the whole way that this conversation started up was in a discussion with a friend in my ministry programme about having read an old love letter. My friend read an old letter that said things like "I'm so happy that we're finally together. I'll never leave your side. You're the soulmate I was looking for." Seven months later, after the date on this letter, there was a divorce. How do you make sense of things like love or things like promises? A promise seems like a permanent thing. How does that work in the context of impermanence?
There was a point in my own marriage that was very rocky. There had been a breach of confidence and I wasn't sure if it was going to survive. Right before entering that difficult phase, I had spent some time on Mother's Day. I had some post-it notes and I thought I would write 100 things that I loved about my wife. The idea was to write 100 things, one per post-it note, and put them all over the wall. I started working on this and it took me a while and there was no appreciation for it and I felt kind of silly for even doing it. I didn't think much about it later because we entered our new phase but many months, maybe even years, later I came across one of those post-it notes. I had a conflict between what was true now and what felt true then and what felt true in between now and then. It was an interesting and fascinating experience for me to sit and contemplate this notion of truth relative to time and I had to analyse it carefully and conclude that it wasn't a lie because, when it was expressed, it was absolutely true. I didn't know that it was going to be only a month later that it got really rocky. At that point, that was the new truth, the truth that we weren't sure we even wanted to be together, and then, years after that, we reached a point where we were committed and decided that we did want to make this work. That was the new truth. At every point along that spectrum, all of those emotions were true.
I think we do this a lot in life. We project the truth of the present and we apply it to a truth in the past or even in the future that's not relevant. It's taking the concept of something that was true yesterday and understanding that that may not be true today. I think we do this with beliefs and with views and with tastes. It may be that as a kid I liked hot dogs and now I don't. It's true that I love hot dogs and it's true that I don't love hot dogs. It's just contingent upon the context of time.
Our tendency is to take the present-day truth and extend that through time, past and present, and that's where things can get a little difficult. It was difficult for my friend to see that letter and think that was all a lie because she knew that seven months later that marriage was going to be over and all those words were now empty and meaningless and no longer true. But the reality is, as hard as it may be for us to accept, they were true. They were just true in the context of the time in which they were written. They're not true now, but they were true at one point.
I have thought about this a lot in the context of other times in my own life, and beliefs that I've had. At one point in my life, I believed certain things that I don't believe now. At some time in the future, I may believe things that I don't believe now, or I may not believe things in the future that I do believe now. These will be my truths, and they're always going to be relevant in the present moment.
In a world that's ever changing, what's the point of making a promise? Let's say my promise is I want to be faithful to my spouse, or I want to be a certain type of dad for my kids. That's a long-term promise or a long-term commitment and why would you make a promise that's long term in a world that's ever changing?
I think the answer to that is that you don't. You don't make a promise in the long term. I think that what that means for me is that I am eternally committed to my spouse, for example, but that I am committed in the present moment. Right now, this is the promise and it's an ongoing promise that's continually renewed. That might seem a little weird because you think, "Well, but it sounds more noble to say I'm going to love you forever" but, if you really think about it, love doesn't work that way because it's not permanent. When you fall in love, the person that you fell in love with changes over time and you change over time. You have two people who are constantly changing, living in a world of constant change, and somehow the emotion of love is supposed to be this permanent thing, but it's not. It's also changing. It's fluctuating.
The way it works is that you're constantly falling in love with the person that you're committed to staying in love with. I think, in fact, that what makes it work is realising that it's constant and that, every day, my spouse is the person that I'm learning to love. Every day, there's a new version of her. Every hour, every minute. The moment I make that a stagnant thing, the love that I have for her deteriorates. It would be very easy to say, "Well you're not the person I fell in love with seven years ago when we got married" or eight years or nine years, whatever it is. The thing is, you're absolutely right. That's not the same person that you married. Guess what? You're not the same person that they married. This doesn't just apply to relationships. This applies to everything.
I think with careers, this is common too. It's like, well, when I graduated from college, I wanted to be a film maker, and I was for a while, working on television commercial production. That, for me personally, has evolved year after year. I've done a lot of different things. You take someone who's been in a career their whole lives and then they look back one day and say, "I got into the wrong career because what I wanted should have been this or should have been that". That's not true because you did exactly what you thought you wanted to do when you did it.
It becomes tricky to work with the truth of the past, applying it to the present, because it changes. The truth is what changes. Maybe truth isn't the right word here. We could say life or reality. Using the word truth, life, reality, these are all interchangeable, but the concept to grasp here is impermanence. Impermanence means constant change. That means that whatever was true at one point in the past may not be true today. If you really want to be liberated by this knowledge, you need to understand that what you hold to be true today may not be true in the future.
This is a very powerful way of experiencing reality in the present moment. It's understanding that I'm experiencing my own conceptual truths in the present moment and they are completely relevant here and now. They may not be relevant in the future and they may not be relevant when compared to the past. If you're honest with yourself, you'll look and realise that that's true. There are so many things in your past that I'm sure are no longer relevant. The healthy way of viewing the present is that it's in a state of flux. Rather than a fixed mindset, it's a growth mindset. As soon as there's no growth, then that's death. Life is a process of constant change. The moment you're not changing, that means you're dead. There is no more change.
Yet somehow we become attached to this idea of trying to grasp life and make it a fixed concept. I want all my truths to be fixed. I want my sense of self to be a fixed sense of self. Who I was in the past is who I am now and it's who I will be in the future, and that's just not true. Who I was yesterday may be irrelevant to who I am today and it might be very different from who I am in the future because that's the nature of change. It's the nature of life, reality and truth. They are constantly changing. If you really want to get something out of this, try to spend some time looking at the things that you hold on to as fixed truths today, and look at them with the perspective that they may not be fixed truths in the future because that's the nature of change. All of our conceptual truths work this way. Conceptual truths are always relative to time.
You can hold on to your truths. But first work out whether they are conceptual or empirical. Once you've done that you will realise: "Wow, all the truths that are so important to me are actually conceptual truths." Then you let go of the grip a little bit. The next step is to take those truths and understand that these are actually truths that are relative to space and time. They're true to me here and now but they may not be in the future and you can see that yesterday's truth may not be true today. Then you let go of that grip a little bit more. What happens when we let go of the grip is that we're left with a sense of freedom: freedom to move around and to flow with the nature of reality, which is the nature of change. And, of course, you change with it. That's where this sense of freedom comes from. The moment we become fixed and we hold things like truth or reality as fixed things, then we start to encounter problems because the nature of reality and the nature of truth aren't fixed. They're impermanent, which means they will never stand still.
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He studies, embodies and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, attempting to integrate Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism and humour. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids. You can listen to the full episode here.