Monday, September 5, 2011

Coda 2: Time

I owe to Robert Grudin the idea of time as a crucial dimension in human affairs. Not that this is original to him, but his book Time & the Art of Living sets it out especially well. I want to also acknowledge a debt to Stephen Batchelor's Alone with Others.
    
Everyday time is ordinary time. It has dimension, but its boundaries are both contained and amorphous. It has its plans and deadlines. It's also where work happens, where we practice. We don't always or often practice with any larger sense of time in mind. When we're young, others do this for us, urging us forward in the name of where we might end up. This is closer to evolutionary time, in which our genetic makeup plays a similar role. Evolutionary time plays out in cycles, so its horizons are in a way infinite. Hence being's chain, a linked series of events that repeat a sequence in roughly the same way.
    As individuals, we're born into both types of time. The everyday gives us glimpses of evolution's cycle. (In this sense, the Buddha's secular story of being protected from it rings false. You don't need to leave your palace to see time's effects. Pets are often our earliest experience of it, but every household also has its illnesses. Everybody ages. So it seems more likely to me that he left his household and marriage in an effort to solve the apparent dilemmas of existence on his own, a spirit quest that brought him back to their radical acceptance and the establishment of another family, larger, rooted in being.)
    "Just sit." This is Dogen's famous summary of Zen. Sitting is placing yourself in life, within all of time's dimensions - the ordinary, time you can measure and count, and the evolutionary, geological, cosmological, time that moves steadily beyond our lived experience. We see and slowly grasp these latter dimensions of time by their traces and artifacts, but intuitively we experience them as a cycle or chain, a learned sequence, a set of theories, a mystery. Our persistent belief in a parallel world of spirits, of reincarnation or the hereafter, reflects the oddity of being adrift in a world in which this unknowable force works invisibly and relentlessly. "Just sit" acknowledges that as life unfolds, we unfold with it. We are part of life, not separate from it.
    When the Buddha became enlightened, he noted that every blade of grass was enlightened, too. I take this to mean that he saw that the entire universe, including himself, unfolds. Can time run backward as well as forward? I have no idea, but the analogy to a river, to water that finds its way no matter what, seems apt. The mystic George Gurdjieff talked of shifting streams in order to make the soul immortal. He called time "the merciless" and said our souls had to acquire a coating in order to avoid its ravages. The Buddha also spoke of taking our selves out of time, an ending that ends the unfolding.
    Yet the Buddha added that no one knows what lies beyond visible life, and in any case this isn't our problem. What troubles us is the fact of our ephemeral individuality, living in time as we are. We are haunted by our ephemerality. "Work as if immortal": this maxim, coined by E.M. Forster, was taken up by Christopher Isherwood, a writer with a guru. I interpret it to mean, "suspend time as a factor in order to taste something of time's expansiveness and fill your sails with its beneficial wind." Ordinary time is a place of such immediacy that it can blind us to this if we're not careful. School and work both structure ordinary time so that, without really thinking about it, we accomplish a lot. 
    Part of the power of organizations is to recognize these accomplishments and move us along, an escalator that can take us beyond our actual capacities, "promoted above our station." Without a critical sense, we can get on this treadmill and lose ourselves entirely in the everyday. The way that men with consuming careers act in retirement, racing to pick up lost threads, attempting to continue as they were, or simply falling apart as they finally realize their predicament, points to the dangers. We don't teach how to live with time in the same way that we don't teach how to live with death.
    Death is "out there" unless we understand along the way that time will drown us. "I had a good ride," many men say as they slip under. That part at least is granted them. But my "drown" is not quite right. "Just sit" invites us to contemplate how we fit. It also invites us to wonder at the sheer expanse of life, to take seriously every aspect of it. Zen practice is more than just sitting - it's living consciously in ordinary time. Zen practice is a vow to be aware - aware of what connects everything, of the fact that we're all just passing through, time-travelers all. Compassion and responsibility start here. 

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