This is one of my morning journal entries. I thought I’d share it here, because it touches on matters of the spirit, from a personal point of view. As I confront a very common family crisis — the illness of a parent — I find my thoughts turn to the subjects of time and death more frequently. I hope my personal reflections bring you some comfort, or insight, and food for thought.
The passage of time is strong on my mind this morning. My parents getting old, and my dad having a very serious illness has brought that to the top of my mind in a way that it has never been before. I see my boys getting older — My oldest son is an adult, and I am used to that, but now my youngest is growing up and it is weird not having any children in the house at all. I mean, it is such a cliché, and it is not like we don’t know, every second, on a conceptual level, that time is passing and there is always less of it ahead of us than there was in the moment before. No one should be surprised by that experience.
I am not; I don’t think it is about that, what I am feeling this morning. In fact, it’s the opposite. I find myself feeling the cyclical nature of life, and that there is always exactly the same amount of time ahead of us no matter how much time passes: infinity. It is hard for me to put into words; well actually it is hard for anyone. These kinds of concepts are always elusive when you try to put them into words. But the eternal moment becomes more real and clear to me as I face this situation with my father. I find myself thinking about the fact that we are all a part of a process taking place on a scale so much larger than any of our perceptions — especially our perception of time.
We treat time as such an absolute, and the way that we measure it out and the way that we experience it become these landmarks that are supposed to be a rock-solid reference in terms of scale and meaning and the value of things that we have and that we lose. Our lives seem to have duration to us, they seem to have a span, and we have a lot of opinions as to the length of that span and whether there should have been more or not. We see the passage of time in our lives as a straight planar path extending ahead of us and trailing behind us. But as I move into this phase of life where I have to face the deaths of the people who have always been the anchoring presence in my world, I feel that less and less.
Instead, my experience of living becomes more like that of a constellation of stars, a galaxy of constellations. Instead of that straight planar path, we are actually walking along an eternal loop. We are going around again and again, and the perennial symbolism of the circle and the spiral and the orb are all ways of expressing that. Every life is just a point of light, a momentary flash, in a sky full of lights and flashes and sparks. That is the sum and substance of any one life, no matter what the impact or significance of it from our human, linear perspective.
I have said it many times, though usually not out loud: time is not a “real” thing, it is instead the projection of our process of perception onto the field of experience. The field is there, the whole of what is possible for an individual to experience, all manifest simultaneously. But, our perception cannot encompass that whole. We must take experiences one at a time, and process them in a way that allows us to eventually comprehend that interconnectedness of it all. And yes, we lose sight of the forest for the trees. We think that the sequence of our experiences has some kind of meaning, or even worse, that each individual experience perceived is a whole thing in itself, large enough to define the whole of our lives or even the whole of ourselves.
So often, that is the mistake that we human beings make. We imagine that one moment, one powerful event, one overwhelming outcome, is enough to color the entire stream of our existence and being. The only thing that can color that entire stream is our perception — the filter that we lay over the moments that we encounter. That includes the moment of death, as well as any other moment that we make into an enormous passage of one kind or another. I am coming to understand that these moments are not inherently stressful or painful or fearful. We tend to take them that way. But this is just an echo of something that we understand on a deeper level. Something that is also expressed in the religious imagery that depicts moments where a person encounters the light of god directly and is devastated by it.
The ego is devastated by those moments, it is burned up in the light that shines through those cracks in our mental armor that occur when life strikes a blow. In those moments that we see as passages or initiatory shocks, we are in a zone where there is an invitation to see the truth of our being — the wholeness and continuity of it. The pressure of loss, grief, transformation, growth, etc can throw us back on the changeless ground of who we truly are underneath the sense of ourselves that gets us through our days. In order to get through an ordinary day, it is better not to be aware of the inerconnectedness of things. Our perception and our sense of self is indeed overwhelmed by this awareness. It is for this very reason that touching in to that awareness can be therapeutic.
When the sense of self has become confining or self-destructive, then it needs to be overwhelmed and devastated. That is the point of most spiritual practices and traditions — to bring us to a moment of meeting the larger whole with clear seeing, in order to devestate the ego. The goal, in my understanding, is not to entirely shed the limiting effects of our ego and human perception, but rather to cultivate a sustained awareness of the fact that the whole is larger than what we are able see at any point in time, and that our perception is indeed limited and we do not have to ever suffer for that, when we can understand that we have choice about how we take in our experience.
Perception is always limited, we don’t have a choice about that. But we do have a choice about which parts of the whole we are taking in at any given moment. What I am becoming aware of lately is that I have actually cultivated a good bit of flexibility about that. Death is a gifted teacher — I think it is best to seek its lessons long before we die.