Timey Wimey

Time is weird. According to the counter I set up on my website, I’ve been meditating for 3,544 consecutive days. As of October 4th, 2016 I had been meditating for 1460 consecutive days by the count on the app I use as a timer during my meditations. Thanks to a long, and very fun, road trip (where we made record time) I had to wait until after midnight to meditate, so the tracker said I skipped a day. That happened again on November 29th, 2016. So now it says I am down to 86 days in a row. When I first started meditating, I took a vow to do 1,000 days. When I crossed that line a dear friend said, “Pshhh! Tell me when you get to 3,500 if you want me to be impressed.”

In the paradigm I was raised, I was taught to think of time in a clockwork, tick-tock fashion. Scenarios like the one above (and not a few experiences with heroic doses of psychedelics) have taught me to think of time in another way.

In his book “The Power of Now”, Eckhart Tolle drives home the old spiritual insight that there is only now. The past cannot be found. It can only be remembered now. The future cannot be seen. It can only be anticipated now. In his book “How long is now?”, Tim Freke examines the idea of this eternal thing that now seems to be.

Looking at the now through the eyes of the old, Copernican paradigm I was raised in, when I examine the now it seems to shrink to an impossibly thin membrane of existence. Once I think of an instant as now, that instant is in the past already. Getting a grip on the now in that scenario seems impossible.

However, we have all had experiences that call that idea of now into question. Our experience of time is not consistent. Some nows pass by without us even noticing. Some nows seem to stretch out over an impossibly long duration. Not all nows are equal. When I was within my 1,000 day vow of meditation, day 1,000 always seemed far off in the distance. Looking back now the whole of the vow feels like it passed in the blink of any eye.

I have begun to think in time, not as a sequence of seconds, but rather as a dance of moments. A moment is a loose boundary of time. A moment stretches to encompass the completeness of a given scene of our lives. When we stop for a moment to catch our bearings and take a long calming breath, that is a moment. When we sit with dear friends and share a long, sumptuous meal, that is a moment.

These moments sometimes overlap, and can sometimes contain each other. They can even have different subjective experiences of duration. Rushing into the house after work to quickly change clothes to hit dinner and a show can seem like a cramped moment that goes by in the blink of an eye, but within that moment you can catch a glance of your beloved as they go about a preparation in a frantic way that is so very them that your breath gets sucked away in a split second that seems to stretch out endlessly as you are reminded of how much you love them. Then, just as suddenly you are back to scrambling to get the right shoes on. Each moment has its own characteristics, and they do not necessarily share those with the moments they overlap. I think this is part of the inherent richness of life. It can also be a source of its bitterness. The moment of mourning after the passing of a loved one can become unbearably long, and it can overshadow any other moments it contains.

Using this as a model for time allows for a richer appreciation of the nuance and emotional richness of a day than the model that sees time as a series of equal and distinct instants that proceed in a regular and mechanical manner. A given moment has a particular feel, where a given instant of equal length is just the ticking of a clock hand.

Living with moments that define their own borders, life becomes a nested and overlapping set of encounters, each enriching all the others. That adds a spice to life that I can appreciate. I think you might too.

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Of Fish and Sacred Truths

Otto West: Apes don’t read philosophy.

Wanda: Yes they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it. Now let me correct you on a couple of things, OK? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not “Every man for himself.” And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up.

The above is an exchange between two of the characters in the wonderful film, “A Fish Called Wanda.” I happen to adore that movie, the writing, and all the performances in it. It’s a gem of a flick. That quote especially sticks in my head because of my long career as a spiritual seeker, and my admiration for Buddhism.

I recall laughing at this scene in particular. I was in full agreement with Wanda (as played by Jamie Lee Curtis) when she railed at Otto (as portrayed by Kevin Kline) in this relationship defining exchange. Wanda was right, Otto had missed the point of Buddhism entirely. Or so I thought…

You see, aS I studied Buddhism, and the life of the Buddha, I came to realize that Otto might not be as far off as Wanda thought. There’s a funny little thing about what the Buddha taught. People often associate him with achieving enlightenment. The odd thing is, he didn’t speak about enlightenment all that much. Not in a direct way anyways. He spoke a lot about Nirvana (which is often what people sort of mean when they use the word ‘enlightenment’), in the sense that he spoke about how someone who had achieved nirvana might comport themselves. He spoke a lot about suffering, and a way to end suffering (with the eight fold path) but it’s not altogether clear whether the end of suffering is nirvana, or whether the end of suffering is something that those who have arrived at nirvana happen to have. He also was fairly clear that his offering to humanity as a way to end suffering was an offering, not a cure all. Many times he stressed that those who followed him needed to test his assertions in their own experience, and he specifically admonished his followers to never take what someone else said as true if it didn’t prove true in their own lives. Lastly, the last words of the Buddha were for his followers to work very hard towards their liberation, and that they should each be a “light onto yourself.”

Another distinction that I think supports Otto’s claim has to do with the concepts in Buddhism of the Bodhisattva and the Arhat. The former is much more familiar to most Buddhists. Especially those lay Buddhists who are mostly exposed to the Dharma through “coffee table books” on the subject (like I was for many years.) The Bodhisattva is a Buddhist who defers the last step in the achievement of Nirvana so that they can stay on the Wheel of Reincarnation and help all other sentient beings achieve Nirvana first. For that type of Buddhist, Otto’s idea is a far stretch. The other type, the Arhat, actually pre-dates the concept of being a Bodhisattva by several centuries. The Arhat achieves Nirvana as quickly as possible, and then leaves the wheel. They don’t stick around to help others. They might help spread the dharma of the Buddha in their current life, but once that is over they do not return. (This is all a bit of a simplification, and these two poles are more like ends of the spectrum of how a particular Buddhist might be.) In the light of the Arhat path, Otto’s “central message of Buddhism” makes much more sense.

I am not saying that I am certain that Otto was right, and that Wanda (and all the Buddhists who agree with her) was wrong. What I am suggesting is that there is a way to look at part of the teaching of the Buddha that exhorts to a radical self-reliance. Time, and again, he urged those who would study his philosophy and practices to prove them in their own experience, and to accept the authority of no others.

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Make Practices Your Own

We all know that the “one size fits all” myth is a myth. It is never true in clothing or shoes. It’s even more true when it comes to practices we use to work on ourselves. From what I have seen, this fact is robustly ignored by most people. They dive into meditation practice, twisting their legs just so, lighting the prescribed incense, and wonder why their efforts seem frustrated. The same is true with yoga, bowling, psychoanalysis, and depression medication. People dogmatically stick to doing things the “right way”, for a long time before trying to figure out if the right way for them may not be the way they were told.

The thing about a practice is that it’s like anything you might take to fix an issue. Like aspirin for a headache. No two people react in exactly the same way to aspirin. For some it works, for some it doesn’t. Some are allergic. For some continued use is fatal. Aspirin is a general enough treatment that the differences are normally not that pronounced. The more specific a treatment gets, the more likely that the differences in people will show up.

The thing about most spiritual practices is they tend to be pretty specific. They also seem to have more of a capacity to being affected by differences between users. From what I can see this gets at one of the core distinctions that leaps out after you look at you for any length of time. Each view on reality is utterly unique, if only because one of the components that makes that tunnel is the view itself, and one view is not another view. Because of that, any practice that gets close to the core truth of what you are must, necessarily, be more vulnerable to differences in effect.

I think that it’s vitally important that this specificity be taken into account. The more the practitioner drills in, the more their unique nature gets revealed, and the more the “effects” of the practices become specific to them. To try and stick adamantly to the way these practices are “supposed” to unfold based on the reports of others who have used the practices before, is to pull away from one’s unique nature. That makes the practices increasingly less effective, and more superficial. One may still gain the surface and most common benefits, but one will no longer reveal new insights. Nor will they advance the development of that particular practice. If meditation students stick only to relaxation, all the states of mind explored and mapped by the Tibetan Buddhists (as only one example) would never become known.

When working on yourself it’s important to take you into account. Find what works for you and adapt as needed. There no carbon copying a one of a kind. Do you.

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