Reflections on Impermanence
I was delighted when Judith Stenneken invited me to contribute a piece on impermanence as an introduction to her new book, “A Mountain is Only a Slow Wave.” Judith undertakes parallel investigations into time and consciousness through her photographic work, and I hope the following thoughts serve to enhance the power of her images.
When we contemplate the nature of reality, even in solitude or silence, we occupy a shared domain. Mysteries unite us. We stand in awe at the very thing we are all a part of. Judith Stenneken’s work emerges from this same realm of curiosity and contemplation, and she offers us an opportunity to cultivate a sense of connection as we meditate on impermanence.
—Annaka Harris, April 13, 2022
Reflections on Impermanence
The more closely we observe the present moment, the more amorphous it becomes. It vanishes as we reach out to touch it, transforming into the next moment, and the next… When we look out at the ocean, we naturally perceive the waves while understanding (both intellectually and intuitively) that there is no real “thing” that is a wave. The concept is useful shorthand for a dynamic phenomenon that occurs in nature. So too with the human brain, which is an ever-changing symphony of electrical firing among billions of neurons.
Contrary to our everyday intuition, there isn’t an entity persisting through time in the form of a static “self.” All our conscious experiences are being generated anew by dynamic neuronal activity. Like an ocean wave, your “self” is an endlessly fluctuating process. Memories trail along from the past, and those memories impact your experience in this moment, but each moment of your experience still depends on the exact state of your brain at that particular point in time.
We’re always residing in the here and now, yet each moment is instantaneously swept away by a ghostly breeze. There it goes. How long did it last? The more focused our attention is on our experience through time, the faster the moments rush by. A raging river. Yet, a vast, peaceful stillness rides along the never-ending stream. We are eternally racing toward the future—yet not moving at all. There’s no traveling forward when you are the river.
I often wonder if time is our small keyhole into a deeper reality—just a glimpse of the vast structure of the universe. Could time be an illusion of sorts? Through the various attempts to understand the implications of quantum mechanics, many physicists have become convinced that spacetime is emergent—that both space and time are manifestations of a more fundamental reality.
In my efforts to understand what it would mean for the flow of time to be illusory, the closest visualization I’ve been able to create is that of a web or loom in which we can only experience a single point on the web at a time. At each locus, the rest becomes inaccessible to us, as if a spotlight were traveling across this “web of time,” inch by inch, painting our reality. If you were to experience a structure on this web—such as left stitch, left stitch, right stitch; left stitch, left stitch, right stitch—you might interpret such an experience as “two left stiches cause a right stitch” when, in fact, the whole structure already exists in its entirety. Your experience through time would still illuminate real “connections,” it’s just that the connections would reveal a structure vastly different from the one we intuit—that is, a universe with a flow of time, where the past is set in stone, the future is undetermined, and the present is the only true “reality.”
Whatever the underlying nature of spacetime, in every moment of our lives, we have firsthand knowledge of a simple truth: we’re not separate from the rest of nature, observing the universe from without; we are a part of it, witnessing it unfold from within. And our sense of connection deepens when we meditate on impermanence, as we bear witness to the fact that nothing ever truly disappears. Everything—from molecules, to mountains, to life—continually recycles and changes form, and this impermanence is on display in every passing moment of our conscious experience. How and why may remain mysteries, but in the meantime, we can revel in the wondrous view.