From the mysteries of time comes the conundrum of life. Do we journey through life or does life journey through us? Or both. Are you the driver or the hitchhiker? Or both. Are you the traveler or the witness? Or both. Are you on the stage or in the audience? Or both. Do YOU move or are you moved? Or neither?!
Such questions have plagued the intellects of philosophers and mystics for centuries. Today, few of us have little time for such self-indulgent naval gazing reflections, (!) busy as we are with more important matters such as the price of a house, the latest score in the cricket and the weather for the weekend! And yet many of us often feel an ache in our soul which, when examined, reveals a desire to know the answers to such deep and profoundly significant questions, if perhaps phrased in slightly different ways.
If you do stop to look, to understand, to ‘stand under’ the idea of what it means to live, you may begin to sense all is not what it appears to be, all is not what you have been taught to see, all is not as real as you were led to believe.
For example you may start to notice there are no straight lines in the universe? Everything has a curve somewhere. Even that old ruler at school had a curve at the end, although you may need a bed bug sized perspective to see it! Everything in the world including the world itself is round or rounded. What we tend to do however, is try to straighten out the world. It comes from the impulse to control. We think we can straighten out other people, gardeners think they can straighten out their garden, parents think they can straighten out their children, countries think they can straighten out other countries. Sometimes our arrogance stretches as far as the weather, as we attempt to manipulate its mysterious patterns. But the world just doesn’t work like that. It works in curves, or more precisely, cycles. The carbon cycle, the water cycle, the economic cycle, the cyclical movements of orbiting planets are all testimony to the idea that the world goes around, it doesn’t go along.
Our educations tend to condition our minds into the habit of linear thinking. We learn to see, to think and to speak in straight lines, with a beginning, middle and end, and if we can’t we are regarded as being confused and we become frustrated. And yet even the world in our heads moves in cycles – thought, feeling, action, result, thought, feeling action, result. And most mystically of all, time itself, the time that we witness in the reflection of an ever changing world around us, straight lines or cycles? The day, the year, the seasons are all cycles that define the rhythm of our lives. In these cycles there is both a sense of completeness that sits easily alongside an awareness of continuity. What is momentary sits comfortably within the eternity of what is! For that is one of the characteristics of any cycle, there are no conclusions!
So it is no surprise to find, in many schools of thought, the symbol of the wheel being used to describe the journey of life. There is a symmetrical beauty in the turning of a wheel, wholeness and harmony in a rhythm that turns back on itself to begin again. If the movement of worldly time and space was also a cycle that would mean that at any point on the surface of the ‘wheel of time’ the past is the future, the future is the past. And the present a meeting of the two, when all is contained in one singular, infinite moment called ‘now’. Being aware of being present ‘here and now’ is not easy when the world around us and within us is constantly calling us back to the nostalgias of the past or inviting us forward to live in the promises of the future. Paradoxically to be fully present ‘in life’ and ‘to life’ as it happens requires we leave the surface of life and cease to be ‘entranced by’ and at the ‘mercy of’ the flux of continuous change, and journey to the center of the wheel, the heart of the cycle, the only place where all that is happening on the surface can be seen in the truest possible perspective. That place of course is the heart of our consciousness, and a state of awareness in which we simply ‘observe’ all that is ‘happening’ around us without judgement or the desire to fix anything we may see. Just as the center or the hub of a wheel is still, while everything else revolves around it, it is by returning to the center of our consciousness and being still that allows us to see:
- How everything that happens on the surface is both transient and temporary, like waves on the surface of the ocean. This helps us to not take things so seriously. Like waves everything comes to pass and like waves everything merges back into the ocean. And after a while we will notice the cyclic nature of things which then allows us to be unsurprised and eventually unshockable by any event on the surface of life.
- How absolutely everything is interconnected. This vantage point of our center allows us see the big picture allowing us to free our self from small mindedness and the pettiness of a limited perspectives.
- And we start to see how futile it is to become frustrated by anything that is seen to be happening ‘out there’, and that attempting to fix people and situations out of any frustration only sabotages our wisdom and contentment. At the center there is a freedom from ‘wanting’ things to be any other way than as they are! So our peace is stable and our power is undisturbed.
Being at the center and living from the center, watching the wheel of time and space moving around us, recognizing that life is unfolding as it should, realizing all is well with the world of events no matter what seems to be ‘playing out’, is the purpose and the prize of meditation. It is not a denial of the world or an avoidance of living in the world, it is simply a state of awareness where the self is the master of the self, and no longer a slave to anything or anyone in the world. No longer a reactionary and able to be responsive. Only then can our contribution to any particular circumstance in the world be one informed by a wisdom that does not add to the suffering of the self or others.
It appears that few people learn how to be in this centered state and live from this centered awareness. Many believe it to be a form of ‘opting out’, for the theory can sound as if it denies the world. Others sense there is something ‘there’ that is powerful to be rediscovered and restored. But as they attempt to ‘center themselves’ amidst the movements of life around them the nature of the changing world attracts their attention, absorbs their energy and draws them back to the surface where the superficial awaits to capture and rule their awareness. This both tiring and draining and eventually the peace of the original still point, the liberation from limitation and the expanded awareness that it holds, will be yearned for. This is the ‘ache of the soul’ for its seat at the center, for the stillness and the silence of ‘home’.
Being there, being centered, being at the hub and watching the circling activity of life moving in their cyclical fashion around the self requires practice. However it’s only when you actually start to practice that the gap between and theory and practice becomes apparent. As always theory is easy and practice… challenging! So here, in as few words as possible, is the practice:
Sit in a quiet space.
Watch even more attentively but without tension.
Notice who is watching.
See all that is being watched is moving but the watcher is still.
Everything watched passes only the watcher remains.
And there YOU are.
Watching beyond time.
At the center
here and now.
As you practice, remember to expect nothing, compare not with others and never attempt to repeat an insperience.
Slipping into the awareness of yourself as the watcher is the foundation of being mindful of the moment, fully present in the moment, fully aware of now. You will effortlessly begin to see (without the need to think) that every moment has a value of its own, even if the insperience of that moment does not connect with any of your ambitions, or goals, or mental preoccupations. Every day contains infinite opportunities when you can return to the center of your wheel and be ‘in the moment’. And the more that you practice the more you will see that when you are not ‘at the center’ of your cycle, not present and aware of the moment, you are trapped in the past by regrets that are impossible to repair, or trapped in the future by imaginations that are impossible to fulfil.
To spotlessly clean a window, sweep leaves from the backyard, wash dishes after a meal, are all grounded activities that have their own significance and nobility. This is why monks of many faiths recognize the spiritual value of routine agricultural work, such as digging, planting and other activities that we might normally consider tedious and banal. They knew that the time signified by the machines we call watches was nothing compared to the timelessness that can be insperienced by being fully present in the moment, fully mindful of whatever action is being performed. They knew that cycles of change into which we offer our activity, were made of unlimited moments of eternity. They knew the deepest peace and the clarity of the enlightened state, however brief, was not to be found in anything ‘in time’ but only by going beyond time, beyond change, beyond the surface. Their life was devoted to going beyond the drag of memory and the temptation of speculation, while still ‘doing’, still in action, still performing in the world. Their life was dedicated to finding the entry point, the doorway to eternity, while still living and moving through time. They heard and felt a call that we all hear, albeit faintly, to return to the center, to the still point, the NOW, around which our life revolves perfectly, even amidst all its apparent imperfections.
Question: What does it mean to live fully in the present, what difference would it make to your average day?
Reflection: The past is history but why do you become trapped in memories, the future a mystery but why do lose yourself in your worries, and the present is all there is but why do you not realize more often that this is so?
Action: Leave your watch at home today. See how often you think, “What time is it?” and look for a clock. Each time you do, remind yourself all is moving in a cycle and see if you can see the cycles in all that is moving!
Written by our professor Mike George