Long ago, before indoor plumbing, iPhones, disposable razors, squeezable cheese and remote controls TVs, sometime in the sixth century BC, along the coast in what was then Greece and is now Turkey, there lived a reclusive thinker of royal decent named Heraclitus of Ephesus (530-470 BC).
Little Heraclitus had no interest in politics or power. He preferred to think. He rejected information-gathering because it didn’t teach understanding (Heraclitus). He renounced royal privileges and withdrew to a secluded estate in the country where he enjoyed observing nature and self-questioning (Basics of Philosophy).
He wrote, “There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it” (Russell, 1945) and “The character of man is his guardian spirit (Stanford). One should turn one’s luck into a function of character and ethical stance.
He noticed how most people sleep-walk through life without understanding what’s going on (IEP). They called him the Obscure, the Riddler, the Reviler of the mob and the Weeping philosopher – possibly because he used to sit in Ephesos and cry over man’s feebleness (Heraclitus the Obscure).
Heraclitus noticed how things flow and nothing stays the same. “We both step and do not step in the same river. We are and are not” (Fragments). “Unless you expect the unexpected, you will not find it, for it is hidden and thickly tangled” (Wikiquote).
“Panta Rhei” – all flows, nothing lasts. Permanence is an illusion of the senses. Things change for the continued existence of other things. Opposites replace each other (IEP).
But this is the hardest message of all. All things are transient: your happiness, your home, your family, your friends, your dreams, your health, your moments of ecstasy and insight – everything is flowing through your hands as you’re aware of it.
But what if it’s not such a bad thing? Life is change. It’s a good thing! That’s the point! What if there’s more to it? What if, at a level you’re not aware, you’re more important than you think you are. What if you actually matter?
Science says that you’re a complex machine. In a Scientific American article Why Life Does Not Really Exist it reads, “Life is a concept that we invented… all matter that exists is an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles… We have failed to define life because there was never anything to define in the first place.”
Really? A cat is a complex machine. You’re a complex machine. No wonder people treat each other like machines. According to science, we are machines.
But do we really think that there is no difference between an inanimate machine and a man or a woman? What about feeling? What about consciousness? What about beauty? What about love? What about a baby? What about a boy learning to skate? What about spirit?
Sam Harris observed that many people consider the word spiritual to be “thoroughly poisoned by its association with medieval superstition” (In Defense of Spiritual) and yet, it’s just the right word. Spirit is the deliberate effort to overcome separateness and non-ordinary states of consciousness.
In 1797 William Blake wrote: “What is the price of Experience? do men buy it for a song? or wisdom for a dance in the street? No. It is bought with the price of all that a man hath: his house, his wife, his children. Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy (The Four Zoas).
Experience is a loss of innocence and yet through that pain Blake sees how the world is infinite. “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour / A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” (Auguries of Innocence).
Can you see infinity in a grain of sand? What would it take to do that? Could any little thing contain a cosmic truth that you could be aware of with enough imagination? Could a wildflower be a miniature heaven? Could a grain of sand be a miniature world?
Most people don’t know how to hold eternity in the palm of their hand. It’s hard enough keeping it together until the end of the day! We’ve lost our minds. Our attention is lost in a blur of appointments, technologies, to-do lists, worries and agitation. We’re more absorbed in movie worlds than our own. We walk by a crow or a rabbit or a sparrow without being blown away by how miraculous it is!
But… sometimes… in the briefest moment, when we freeze in our tracks, when we hear Pachelbel’s Canon or harmonia 76 or some music, sound, sight or smell that takes us out of ourselves for no reason. And we look into the eyes of people who look angry, distant or afraid and we feel compassion for them. We feel a spirit of friendship. We have a feeling of beauty and a happy, tingly shiver goes through our body. In a brief moment of attention we pick up the scent of something more going on than survival, but the moment passes and mundane thinking swallows us again.
The trick is to cultivate those moments. Enjoy them. Again and again. Blake’s vision of an expansive experience is available to anyone, any time. It’s just that the modern world has given itself to the literal, to the informational and to the material. We’ve lost touch with what matters within ourselves. The pendulum has swung to non-spiritual. We miss the magic in front of us. A tree is not just a tree. It’s a tree! It’s a tree! It’s a damn tree!
You can see the Universe in a grain of sand! You can stop slogging through your day and take a moment to notice something cosmic. The connection between everyday reality and ecstatic enjoyment is as close as your face! It’s in the dust on the floor, in the mess on your desk and the water in your sink. The trick is to notice… and imagine… and love… and dream.
Dream your own particular impossible dream.
Harris, W. (n.d.). Hericlitus: The Complete Philosophical Fragments.
Russell, B. (1945). History of Western Philosophy. Simon & Shuster. New York.
For Roberto. Who encourages.