Change is a strange thing.
While worldly phenomena—including human bodies and minds—seem to be in perpetual motion—transforming, modulating, modifying, adjusting, etc. pretty much all the time—change turns out to be rather slippery to actually find.
The reason for this slipperiness is that to say that a particular object has “undergone change” requires that it partake, simultaneously, of “sameness” and “difference.” For a given object to “undergo change” means that it remains essentially the same, while one or more of its less-essential characteristics transform in some way, over time.
But the change can’t be so dramatic as to threaten the identity of the object. Somehow, the object must remain identifiable as the “same object” even as it undergoes the change.
If the difference tips the scales too heavily in comparison to the sameness, then we have the situation of the caterpillar transforming so dramatically as to lose its essential caterpillar-ness—and become an entirely different entity: a butterfly.
Presumably a biologist—equipped with the definition of biological sameness—could identify, more-or-less precisely, the moment when the caterpillar ceases to be a caterpillar and instead becomes a butterfly.
Does the caterpillar, in its own experience, know this moment of “becoming a butterfly”?
Once again, our notion of “change over time” requires some “thing” to remain essentially the same, even as certain of its qualities display a difference.
Meeting a Friend
If we meet a friend we haven’t seen for a couple of years, we compare our current perception of them with the memory we had of how they acted/appeared the last time we saw them—and from this comparison we say: “You have changed.”
Maybe their hair is longer. Maybe they have lost weight. Maybe they seem much happier than they used to be. Maybe they have gotten married so now have a different sur-name. But we still recognize and relate to them as essentially the “same person.”
And if we haven’t seen our friend for, say, seven or eight years, pretty much every cell in their human body will, in the interim, have replaced itself—yet still we consider them “the same.” Strange!
Viewing a Painting
Imagine …. Going to a museum to view one of your favorite paintings, say a Monet or J.M.W. Turner. You approach the painting, appreciating it from fifteen or twenty feet away.
Then you step closer, to ten or five feet away. Then you sit down on a bench, and let your eyes wander from one place on the canvas to another—enjoying different parts of the painting. Then expand your gaze once again to take in the entire thing.
Even as our perspective shifts, from one moment to the next, we assume that it is the “same painting” that we are observing, throughout the changing points-of-view.
Feeling the Elephant
Similar to the thought-experiment that we’ve just conducted (of viewing the same painting from different points-of-view) is the well-known story of the blind men feeling the elephant:
A group of blind men—let’s say, four of them—come across an animal which a bystander tells them is called an elephant. Having never before encountered an elephant, they decide to find out what it is, via their most developed sensory capacity: touch.
So, each of the four men approaches the elephant, from a slightly different angle. After some time, they reconvene, and discuss among themselves what an elephant is.
The first blind man, who was feeling the elephant’s tusk, says: “An elephant is long, hard and smooth, gently curled with a point at the end.”
The second blind man, who was feeling the elephant’s leg, says: “An elephant is tall and cylindrical, with a rough surface.”
The third blind man, who was feeling the elephant’s tail, says: “An elephant is thin and cool and fast-moving.”
The fourth blind man, who was feeling the elephant’s trunk, says: “An elephant is vast and warm and stable.”
In the same way that the “same painting” can be viewed by the “same person” from different points of view, while retaining its sameness—so it is that the “same elephant” can be perceived by four different people to generate the different points-of-view.
So the question remains: In the face of differing points-of-view, how is it that an object/event/process retains its essential sameness?
Because what we call “change” requires both sameness and difference.
Mugs & Donuts
One way to proceed might be to acknowledge that different fields of human endeavor maintain different definitions of sameness. So, in the instance of the caterpillar becoming a butterfly rather than remaining a caterpillar simply “undergoing change”—it was a biological definition of sameness that was in play.
Mathematical topology, to give another example, has its own very specific definition of sameness: Two manifolds are considered the same when you can tug, compress and expand one into the shape of the other without ever tearing it. This absence of cutting or gluing means that there is a conservation of the number of holes in each manifold.
The classic example here is of a donut-shape being topologically equivalent to a mug-shape, since both of them have a single hole.
A donut-shape can be topologically transformed (i.e. stretched, compressed, tugged) into a mug-shape without losing its topologically-defined sameness.
Does this mean that it makes sense—within my human life activity—to relate to glazed donuts and coffee-mugs as being the same? Of course not! While they may often appear together, donuts and coffee-mugs have dramatically different functions. What would happen if I tried to hold coffee in my glazed donut? What would happen if I tried to eat my coffee-mug?
Topological sameness applies to abstract mathematical entities. And while we can recognize that a donut and a coffee-mug—as shapes alone—are topologically equivalent, to relate to them as being functionally equivalent would just be silly.
The Splash Brothers
For several years now, the Golden State Warriors have featured a pair of basketball players (Steph Curry and Klay Thompson) who—because of their collective proficiency at 3-point shots—are known as the “splash brothers.” These two players are part of a team whose roster, as a whole, is comprised of 15 players.
But over the course of any given season, as well as from one season to the next, the team roster changes: Some players are traded to other teams. Others retire, or are sent to play in the G-league. New players are drafted, or signed on from free agency. While some players stay with the same team for decades, other are part of the team for only a few days.
So, the “same team”—viz. the Golden State warriors—somehow retains its “sameness,” even if all 15 of its players have changed!
Furthermore, the ownership of the team may change. Its general manager may change. The team may even be moved to an entirely different city—yet still be referred to as the Golden State Warriors.
This is an identity or sameness in name only. It is a sameness which allows for dramatic changes across pretty much every characteristic of the entity (the team)—while still retaining its nominal identity.
Ships Passing in the Night
As mentioned above, we tend to consider a human body essentially “the same”—i.e., continuously “mine” or “yours”—from infancy through old age, even though every seven years or so all the cells are replaced, so no one cell remains of the previous body.
A definition of physiological sameness may hinge on more-or-less continuous functioning of various systems (circulatory, nervous, immune, etc.) which, collectively, are sufficient for the human body to maintain itself as a human body. Still, it’s a bit strange!
It’s a situation akin to a ship whose parts are replaced, one by one, as they wear out—so that after a certain amount of time every one of the parts has been replaced—yet still we refer to it as the “same ship,” since it has maintained its name, recognizable design, and function.
Just for fun, we might consider an even stranger scenario, of a very clever thief who wishes to steal the ship. His strategy for doing so is to fashion facsimiles of each and every part of the ship—and then, one by one, clandestinely swap out the original parts for the facsimiles. Once he has acquired all the original parts, he reconstructs the original ship, as his own—while the original ship (unbeknownst to the owners) is now, in actuality if not in name/function, a facsimile.
So now, which of the two is the “real” ship?
* Change is slippery! Why? Because when we look deeply, we can’t actually find any (separate, limited) “thing” which retains its essence while “undergoing change.” Any such definitions of “sameness” are relative to specific contexts.
* Even if we consider the entire manifest cosmos as the “entity” that is “undergoing change,” we can ask: What is the unchanging essence of the cosmos, against which such differences over time are measured?
* The same/different polarity—central to our perception of change—is like two sides of the same coin. Each depends upon the other, not only for their conceptual meaning, but also in relation to our human experience.
* To dissolve this same/different polarity is to find oneself resting as the Awareness which contains all apparent movement and repose. It is in and as this Awareness that we find the non-phenomenal sameness of “one taste”—our True Nature shining through and as all appearances.