In spite of our practical certainty that the world we live in exists independently of our perceptions of it, it seems likely that what we encounter is a kind of mirror image of how we are looking. To a large extent, we see what we expect to see. For instance, when we feel anxious, the world seems threatening; and when we are optimistic, the world appears welcoming and appealing. So just how reliable is the world view we construct using such a biased instrument of observation?
We might well wonder how much our moods actually influence our surroundings. Like house plants that are shriveled or luxurious depending on the harmoniousness or hostility in their environment, we also, as living beings, are affected by the emotional climate in which we live. But does this relationship flow the other way? Does our seemingly substantial world respond to the quality of our attention?
As adults we can learn to discount our biases, including the emotional potholes into which we blunder, but few of us would claim that our inner thoughts flow with the harmony of beautiful music. Most of us live in the midst of a minefield where mines go off unpredictably both inside and outside our minds.
When we feel crowded in by our external environment and by our reactions, we may dream of returning to a happier time, when our lives were simpler and more hopeful. But Tom Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” And T.S. Eliot said, “At the end of all our travels, we return to where we started and know the place for the first time.” I prefer Eliot’s diagnosis in which the past at least remains open to our visits–just altered from when we were last there. This kind of relationship with the past leaves room for our own growth. And when the mirror of experience reflects new understanding, then the past is more likely to share its secrets with us.
In the past month I’ve returned to a couple of practices (Tibetan yoga, and meditation) that I had let lapse. It feels like being visited by old friends that I haven’t seen for years.
Sitting down to meditate, I encounter a mind that has become more fitful, distracted and unused to focused concentration. Trying to touch my toes, my hands dangle above the floor, no longer able to descend with ease. But somehow this doesn’t feel like a failure. Even though I am now less vigorous and limber, this isn’t evidence that “I can’t go home again”; because I’m not trying to go home again.
I have no desire to give up the wider perspectives that time has brought, which support who I have become, and who I am becoming.
With my hands dangling above the floor, I am pleased to discover that my fingers can sometimes still graze the tiles beneath my feet–the same tiles that ground my presence here on Earth. As my taut hamstrings and stiff calf muscles gradually relax into the present moment, I find myself returning to a stream of time that has always been there. And I realize that this is the home I have always known and which has always known me. I don’t have to go back to some earlier time to reclaim a lost treasure. Everything is bobbing along in a great sweep of time that, amazingly, seems to know that I am still here—and knows that I am still along for the ride.