16 – Truth in the Context of Time

What’s true here may not be true there and what was true yesterday, may not be true today. The nature of truth, life, and reality is that they are impermanent. They are ALWAYS changing. How do we make sense of things like promises and commitments in a world that is constantly changing? In this episode, I will explore the concept of truth as being relative to both space and time.

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Transcript of the podcast:

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 16. I am your host Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about truth in the context of time.

Welcome to the Secular Buddhism podcast. I’m excited to announce something new. Within the next few weeks the Secular Buddhism podcast is going to be forming part of a non-profit organization called Foundation for Mindful Living. This is something I will be playing a part in, and part of the overall scope of this new entity is to create content and opportunities for people to learn to live more mindfully. This means there will be opportunities for retreats, workshops, books, and many other tools available in the future for anyone who’s interested in learning about Secular Buddhism or just learning to live mindfully. I will update you with information about this as it becomes available. It’s just something I’m excited about and wanted to let you know that that’s in the works so that you know that this entire thing that I’m putting together will be operating under an non-profit organization very soon, so I’m really excited about that.

Then, of course before we start, a reminder, the Dalai Lama says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” This is something I ask you to always keep in mind as you listen and learn about the topics and concepts discussed in the podcast. Again, if you enjoy the podcast, please feel free to share, write a review or give it a rating.

Now, let’s jump into this week’s topic. In last week’s podcast episode, I spoke a little bit about the idea, the concept of fath and doubt, and specifically the faith to doubt, at least within the Buddhist worldview or the Buddhist concept. Today, all week, I’ve been thinking about truth, which was another podcast episode that was discussed a few weeks ago and I believe I highlighted kind of the difference between what I call conceptual truth versus empirical truths. I wanted to elaborate on this a little bit more based on a conversation I had with a friend this week. The idea, just as a recap, is that when we’re talking about truth, there are at least two major kinds of truths the way I like to think about it. These are the truths that are true regardless of what I believe and the truths that are true because of what I believe.

An example of the first one, a truth regardless of what I believe is an empirical truth. This is the type of truth that’s true whether or not there are humans on the planet. That’s an easy way to think about it. For example, when the moisture in the air saturates to the point where it can no longer hold moisture, then it starts to rain. That would happen whether or not we believe in that. It’ll happen whether or not there are humans on the planet. That’s just something that happens. That’s an example of an empirical truth or, as I mentioned earlier, a truth that is true regardless of what I believe. Most of the truths that we deal with on a day to day basis in our lives aren’t empirical truths.

These are the conceptual truths. These are truths that are true because we believe them. The example I gave of a conceptual truth was the value of gold versus silver, or really, the value of any precious gem. It’s true that a diamond is worth more than a piece of coal, but that’s a conceptual truth. That’s only true because we believe it. There is no inherent value in a piece of diamond versus a piece of coal. That becomes truth and it gains value because, as humans, we have collectively decided that a diamond is valuable and therefore we are going to assign it a specific value. That’s an example of a conceptual truth.

The reason I wanted to elaborate on this a little bit more from the previous podcast where I discussed truths was because truths are contingent upon space and time. Buddhism we talk about space and time. Everything exists in space and time, and in terms of space, all things are interdependent. We’ve talked about that. 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, we think about the opposite of impermanent being permanent. Yeah, 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. Impermanence, think about it as fluctuation and change. That’s the way to understand this.

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 program about having read an old love letter. My friend read this old love letter and it contained wording that was very compelling to the argument of being in love. Saying, “I’m so happy that we’re finally together. I’ll never leave your side. You’re the soulmate I was looking for,” words like that. She was reading this letter from the understanding that seven months later, after the date on this letter, this relationship had ended and there was divorce. The context of the conversation was in a world where all things are impermanent or all things are constantly changing, how do you make sense of things like love or things like promises, the promises that are made, wedding vows. Any form of a promise that seems long term seems like a permanent thing. How does that work in the context of impermanence.

I wanted to discuss this a little bit because that got me thinking. In fact I had been thinking about this a couple weeks after that conversation. I went through a similar experience to what she went through in my own life. Without really giving any details into my personal life or my experiences with this, essentially what happened is there was a point in my own marriage that was very rocky. There had been a breech of confidence and things got really rocky and I wasn’t sure it was going to survive. Right before entering that difficult phase in my marriage, I had spent some time on Mother’s Day. I got these post-it notes and I thought I would write 100 things I love about you. My idea was 100 things, one per post-it note and I would go put these all over the wall and surprise her. 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.

Didn’t think much of it later because, like I mention, we entered a pretty rocky phase soon after that and I wasn’t sure we were going to survive, the marriage was going to survive. Long story short, many months, maybe even years later, I came across one of those post-it notes. It had somehow stuck in one of my binders or maybe it was in a book as a bookmark. I can’t remember exactly where I saw it, but I remember seeing it and when I saw that post-it note, I immediately had this thought of, “Wow, I guess what I wrote back then, all that was fake. It was all a lie because I didn’t know that at the time something was going on in my marriage and my marriage wasn’t what I thought it was. It was a fraud, so to speak.” I had this feeling of a conflict with what was true now versus what felt true then versus 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 analyze and conclude that it wasn’t a lie and it wasn’t fraud 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 was going to be really rocky and neither one of us were sure we wanted to be with each other anymore. At that point, that was the new truth, the truth that we weren’t sure we even wanted to be to be together, and then years after that, we reached a point where we were committed and decided, you know what, we do want to make this work. That was the new truth. At every point along that spectrum, all of those emotions were true.

It was true that I had this intense desire to make it work and be with my wife and it’s true that at one point I did not want to be with my wife. I didn’t want it to work out. It’s true that at one point I did want to be with my wife and I wanted to make that work. I thought of my friend’s letter. 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 apply that in the extension of time, past and present, and that’s where things can get a little bit rocky. I think that’s where this notion was becoming 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. When 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 thought about this a lot in other contexts of time in my own life, beliefs that I’ve had. At one point in my life, I believed certain things that I don’t believe now. I’m sure at one point in my life 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, but they’re always going to be relevant in the present moment. When you take a concept like promises, how does this … In a world that’s ever changing, what’s the point of ever making a promise? Let’s say my promise is I want to be faithful to my spouse, for example, 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 what that means for me, I don’t view it as, I am eternally committed to my spouse, for example, but what I am is eternally committed in the present moment. Right now, this is the promise and it’s an ongoing promise that’s continually renewed. It’s continually renewed in the moment to moment experience of life. 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 you’re constantly falling in love with the person that you’re committed to stay in love with. I think, in fact, that’s what makes it work is realizing that it’s constant and that every day, my spouse is the person that I’m learning to love. Every day, the new version of her. Every hour, every minute. The moment I make that a stagnant thing, it deteriorates the love that I have for her. 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 ago or nine years ago, 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 and to love. 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. One day that evolved and then whatever I was at the time is what I was at the time. That, for me personally, has evolved year after year it seems. 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. The difference is that as you’ve changed and evolved over time, the idea of what you thought you wanted hasn’t.

Then it makes you think that the truth in the present is the same as the truth of the past. That’s where it becomes iffy … I don’t know if iffy is the right word. 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 also 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 realize, that’s true. That’s exactly how it works because there are so many things in your past that I’m sure are no longer relevant now, ways that you used to be, things that you used to think, beliefs that you used to believe. These evolve and change over time. It limits our ability to grow when we have a fixed mindset that decides whatever is now, that sense of permanence, I’m going to extend it, past and future. The healthy way of viewing the present is in that state of flow. Rather than a fixed mindset, it’s a growth mindset.

Carol Dweck talks about this concept of fixed mindset versus growth mindset. In fact, I think that’s the title of her book. You should check that out. In terms of parenting and how we experience life, the idea is that the moment we try to make it fixed, we hinder and limit our ability to grow because as growth, as the name itself implies, growth is change. It’s the only way that you grow is because you’re changing. As soon as there’s no growth, then that’s death. Life is the process of constant change. The moment you’re not changing, that means you’re dead. Now you’re done. There is no more change.

Yet somehow we attach 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. It’s constantly changing. What I wanted to ultimately get at in this podcast episode was this concept of truth relative to space and time, specifically time.

I hope that you can set aside some time in your day or in your week to explore what truths were true to you in the past that are no longer true today. 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. The nature of truth is that it’s constantly changing and it’s … All of our conceptual truths work this way. Conceptual truths are always relative to time.

Going back to the example of the diamond, think about that, that the value of a diamond or the value of gold versus silver is relative, in terms of being a truth, it’s relative to space and time. Alter the equation of space and time and let’s go back to, instead of where we live now, let’s go back to, I don’t know, pick anywhere on earth 10,000 years ago and now the truth of the value of gold versus silver is different. Go back 20,000 years ago, 50,000 years ago, a million years ago and these things just change. Truth changes. Truth evolves.

That’s really what I wanted to get at in this podcast episode, and the sense of freedom that comes from letting go of the fixed part of truth. You can hold on to your truths. First recognize that, my truths, are they conceptual, or are they empirical. Once you’ve done that and you realize, “Wow, all my 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, wow, these are actually truths that are relative to space and time. They’re true to me here and now and they may not be in the future and I can analyze 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 this sense of freedom. Freedom to move around and to flow with the nature of reality, which is the nature of change and 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 isn’t fixed. It’s impermanent which means it’s constantly changing.

I hope that makes sense. Many of you have reached out to me in the last few weeks and I really appreciate it. It means a lot to me to hear that these podcasts are making a difference in your lives. When I first encountered and started studying Buddhism, it became a topic that helped me to experience life in this new perspective that was so liberating. I think what it boiled down to is I had the full freedom to just be me, to accept me as I am in the present moment. Even more beautiful, it gave me the ability to see others for who they are, in the present moment with whatever their conceptual truths are in the present moment, then you just feel compassion for people. I knew that I wanted to make this something more regular. I wanted to be able to teach Buddhism and I wanted to be able to teach these concepts of mindful living. I’m really excited that I’m going to have that opportunity now through this non-profit that we’re forming, the Foundation for Mindful Living.

Thank you guys for being a part of this journey with me. This podcast has been very instrumental in allowing me to build up what I’m trying to do in life and I’m very grateful for each one of you who takes the time to listen to this and shares these podcasts and writes the reviews and reaches out to me. It’s really meaningful, so thank you, thank you, thank you. I look forward to the next podcast episode sometime next week. Until next time.