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You can't step into the same river twice

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

You Are Here by Thich Nhat Hanh quickly became one of my favourite books.  It offered me new ways of looking at things, in such simple ways.

When I was younger and I would want to look all cool and serious with my eyeliner, tiny handbag and mini heels, my Dad would tell me ‘you’re young! You should walk with a spring in your step!’ I used to just roll my eyes.  I never got it – until now.

After reading this book, I realised I had a lot of reasons to be smiling, I didn’t need to be in a rush to get everything done at once, and in fact, I have since been told I seem to walk with a spring in my step (but that may also be to do with the fact that when I’m humming to myself or listening to music, I sometimes pretend my life is a music video).

‘You Are Here’ is one of the books I like to keep near my bedside, open up at a random page and recite whatever is on the page.  And somehow, what I read is always fitting for that moment.

There are so many things I have taken away from this book, but here are the big three:

Every single thing in life is impermanent so we should try our best to live in the present.

Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.

The way we personally see things is just one of many possible perspectives.

“When we look deeply at the nature of things, we see that in fact everything is impermanent.  Nothing exists as a permanent entity.  Everything changes.”

We often lose sight of the brevity of a moment because we are too busy focusing on something else. Life is in fact a series of individual moments. They blur together and a lot of them feel the same as the one before, and the one after, but they are in fact completely different.

One of my favourite quotes ever, that sparked an ‘epiphany’ moment for me is one that stems from Buddhism: “You can’t step into the same river twice”.  You can only imagine my excitement when I then heard this saying in one of my favourite Disney movies – Pocahontas – but that’s beside the point.

I had never thought of a river that way before.  When we look at a river, we see water and know that it is flowing, but we often miss the fact that if we closed our eyes for a second, the water in front of us now wouldn’t be the same as what we had just seen. It’s moved on already.  A river is always in a state of flux, so yes the river looks the same, but the individual water particles have flowed downstream.  Though the river appears to be the same, it isn’t the same at all.  This can be said for each moment we encounter in our daily lives.

“Some people wait until they have lost their sight to appreciate their eyes.”

Life is but a series of fleeting moments and we often waste these moments because we are unnecessarily preoccupied with 150 other things.  We tend to spend a lot of time over-analysing the past or fretting about the future, instead of enjoying the moment we are living in, where every thing is actually A-OK.

Do you know what I mean?  It’s those times when we’re like ‘actually what did I do yesterday?’ We can’t remember because our minds were all over the place! We weren’t mentally fully present in whatever we were doing.

And then we’re sat there thinking ‘where the hell did the time go?’  Because though it seems like we didn’t physically get through as much as we had hoped, our minds we’re in overdrive!

When people say ‘be present’, it can come across as being some preachy-spiritual crap, I get it.  But being present is about feeling OK with being exactly where you are.  It’s about accepting the notion of impermanence and not putting too much focus on your past nor on your future.

“It is very important to see our physical form as something impermanent, as a river that is constantly changing.”

I like the analogy of the river because it’s not just talking about making the most of life.  In the book, Thich Nhat Hanh uses this saying in the context of suffering.

If everything is in fact impermanent, it can’t just be talking about the good times, it means the bad times too.  And that includes suffering.

He compares our physical bodies to a river.  Just as the water in a river is constantly flowing and changing, the same is of the cells in our bodies.  So though we feel pain, by nature it cannot last forever.  And if we can see our personal suffering as something that is impermanent, we can suffer a lot less.  This too shall pass.

“Perceptions can be either accurate or inaccurate, and every time we have a false perception, suffering occurs.”

We often have to remind ourselves that the reality in front of our eyes is in fact just one perception of a multitude of possible realities.  Everything we encounter is viewed from our personal viewpoint, and one that will not be the exact same as another.

In You Are Here, Thich Nhat Hahn proposes that we should always pause and ask ourselves whether our perception is indeed accurate.  If we take a moment to re-evaluate the situation and acknowledge that we cannot always be 100% sure about things, we may realise that our perception is inaccurate and we are making ourselves suffer because we are all too sure that we are 100% correct.

“It is important not a be a victim of your false perceptions.”

Conflict and anxiety often arise from giving too much power to our perceptions.  We convince ourselves of things that do not necessary have any truth to them.  We make an assumptions, and instead of telling ourselves that they are exactly that – assumptions – our ego goes ahead and magically turns assumptions into truth.  More often than not, when we react to what people have said, especially if it’s something that causes us to feel defensive, we haven’t truly, (madly), deeply been listening nor see clearly.  We project what we are feeling based on our own prejudices.  And we suffer because of it.

But we always have a choice.  We always have a choice regarding what we decide to focus on.  Is your glass half empty? Or is it half full?

In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, remember “you are here for life, and if you are here for life, life will be here for you.  It’s simple.”


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