Time for some self-indulgent rambling and reflecting (as if there were any other kind), as today is indeed my natal anniversary.
Reflecting on the passage of time (for those of you who are curious, this is my 43d such natal anniversary), I began to wonder, is time linear or circular? Most of us consider time to be linear, and we have various ways of measuring the passage of time. Life is considered to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. (I like to think I haven’t yet reached the middle of mine…) The longer I look at it, though, the more I see time as circular rather than linear, or perhaps circular is the wrong word. Perhaps the correct word is seasonal, or cyclical.
Whether we see it as linear or not, we often mark time with recurring events, rituals if you will. Birthdays are the most obvious marking in one’s own life – another year passed (enjoyed, squandered, take your pick), another new year yet to come (to be anticipated, to be dreaded, new chances to achieve, succeed, fail, despair). Other holidays recur year after year, and we develop complex rites and rituals to accompany them (but we have to eat such-and-such on this day, we’ve always had that!). The liturgical calendars of most religious traditions reflect this seasonality, the cyclical nature of time. We tell and re-tell the same stories, and yet (hopefully) we can find new meaning in them each time around the wheel.
As we get older, we also increasingly value time as a precious, scarce commodity. We talk about spending time, wasting time, not having enough time. For many of us, it seems that we don’t have enough time to do the things we want to do. Maybe our problem isn’t that we don’t have enough time, but that we don’t savor the time we have. There’s a catch phrase in there somewhere – instead of “seize the day”, try “savor the day” (hopefully someone who remembers their high school Latin better than I can provide a pithy translation). This is also known, in Buddhist teachings, as mindfulness. Often Buddhist teachers will communicate this idea with simple phrases such as “Pay attention!” or “Wake up!” The popular guru of the 1960s, Ram Dass, wrote a book called Be Here Now. That’s the same idea. It’s not so much a call to do things differently than a call to do things intentionally, with awareness of what you’re doing.
Of course, once you really start paying attention to what it is you’re doing, you might wind up changing the things you do. When you pay attention to those knots in your stomach and shoulders after your hour-long commute home after another eight or more hours at the daily grind, you might consider whether you can find another way to make a living. (Feel free to send comments about other things that might change once you really start paying attention to them.)
But how do we learn to wake up, to pay attention? I think that meditative practice is a great way to do this. Try spending even a few minutes every morning in some sort of meditative practice – this could be centering prayer, Zen meditation, or a walk on the beach or in the woods. Quiet your mind, settle your spirit, and pay attention to your breath. There are plenty of resources out there to learn more about this stuff – here are just a couple that I think are first-rate (with easy-to-us Amazon links):
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind – Shunryu Suzuki
Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening – Cynthia Bourgeault
Check out these, or other types of practices that fit with your particular spirituality (just about every tradition has some form of contemplative/meditative practice). It’s not easy – trust me, I know – but even the attempt makes a difference.
Pay attention. Wake up. Savor the day.