As he looks ahead to his 75th birthday it surprises him that he doesn’t feel any closer to the end of a journey; and he certainly doesn’t feel much closer, as we say in the slow lane, “to figuring out the meaning of life”. Even more surprising, he realizes that he doesn’t have a way of counting down the hours so that he can know when the gas in his life tank is running low. In an abstract way, he knows that with every breath he must be approaching the moment when there will be no more breaths remaining, but this seems an axiom of pregame logic, not a report from the playing field.
There have been moments in his life that seemed to confirm the presence of a realm beyond the reality he inhabits day after day, and such moments have felt like messenger birds with branches in their beaks. But then these emissaries have passed on following some unregistered flight path of their own.
He looks up from the book, which he reads every morning, and remembers.
In the late 1980’s, on a Berkeley hillside, lying on his back for hours, he is encouraging the open, blue sky to fill his awareness. Then, without warning, the moment arrived: the sky was suddenly there, as much inside as outside, as if there was no one operating the camera. Instead of yet another framed image, cut to fit the interests and expectations of the one watching from the bleachers, there was only sky mind, open, unbounded, and utterly inside.
After this momentary unravelling of the deeply entrenched mental patterns that dictate what he calls “reality”, the incident was filed away in a drawer labelled “mysterious happenings”. He was 45 years old at the time.
Twelve years earlier, when he was 33 years old, and in the grips of a desperate need to escape from a life that had become intolerable to him, a wall rose up, blocking his way forward. It appeared as hard and impenetrable as brick and mortar. Utterly at a loss, with nowhere to go but to retreat, a thought came into his mind: “This is exactly where I have yearned to be for so many years!” Without conscious intention, he stepped forward, and in a flash the wall vanished.
That moment had a more lasting effect than the sky inhalation practice, because afterwards he found himself inhabiting a brighter world, as if he had walked through a door that had been invisible until he stepped through it.
Now he wonders if that moment can prepare him for the moment when his life comes to an end. Not to hurry that along, mind you, he smiles to himself, but an experience of leaving behind elements of his character, his allegiances, and his fundamental perspective on reality, might be a useful preparation for when his sentient body packs it in.
Sitting there, reading his book, he hears the kitchen clock chiming from the other side of the house. As expected, the “Big Ben” prelude is followed by the counting of the hours. He wonders if there will be five or six strikes since it is still early.
Then the chiming stops, rather abruptly; but without giving it much thought, he returns to his book, which it so happens is examining these sorts of questions: how we perceive and how we incorporate our perceptions in terms of what we expect to find.
Then the chiming starts up again but now it doesn’t sound like either Big Ben or a count down. The clock appears to have gone rogue from its programmed measuring out of the hours.
With the speed of a light switch flicking on, he realizes that he hasn’t been hearing a clock in the kitchen in front of him, but his neighbor’s wind chimes through the open bathroom window behind him. And a feature of the reality that had a moment before been indisputable, vanishes as if it had never existed.
No wonder he has trouble viewing the span of his lifetime from a higher perspective: his awareness is being held hostage by a mind that only perceives what it has already recorded in its ‘encyclopedia of the real’, and often then, simply accepting the page it happens to fall open on.
However, this morning, between the reign of the chiming clock and the recognition of the neighbor’s wind chimes—when, for a moment, he doesn’t know what he is hearing—there is a song of the wind, through which, like himself, the neighborhood is passing.
For a moment, he is a bird travelling above the rooftops, above all the beings, including himself, who are measuring out their lives with coffee spoons, one after another, until our tins are empty.
Perhaps it’s enough, he thinks, to have moments that peer into what lies beyond. And in the act of noticing that our predefined realities—to which we inevitably return—are being assembled from hand-me-downs of other times and places, we continue stitching together the quilt of our days, with a tentative smile on our face.