There is a scene in the first “Karate Kid” movie, where a talented and impatient teenager is assigned the job of waxing Mr. Miyagi’s car. Later in the film he realizes that the upward and downward motions involved in waxing has equipped him to block an opponent’s blow with surprising power and speed. He has also overcome his impatience and gained respect for his teacher.
Could it be that all cycles of repetition—so inescapable in our lives—offer an opportunity to develop skills that will be of use later; and that if we recognize these cycles while we are still in their midst, we could learn from them without having to wait for them to end?
As I listen to my pendulum clock’s rhythmic ticks and tocks I realize why we don’t call these sounds: tick, tick, tick . . . For some reason that I don’t quite understand, each turning point in the back and forth swings sounds different—like a drum solo greeting the new day—and draws me into a mesmerizing rhythm. It occurs to me that this is one of countless cycles that provide a metronome for my life, each offering a chance to rock back and forth in a hammock woven of imagination; just as a meditative practice invites me to sink into an awareness that, this very moment, I am breathing.
These pendulums–my breath, dawn and dusk arising each day, the seasons’ procession through the year—provide a rhythmic swaying back and forth to which my ordinary routines of inattention can attune themselves. Glancing to my right I notice that the hands of my clock tell me it’s 6:29 am, and I wonder which will arrive first: the single chime marking the half hour or my pen reaching the end of this sentence. So I keep writing, as if it’s a competition, or a journey in time and I need to hang on. And when I hear the chime, I keep trying to fill the space that awaits on the page, striving to inhabit this cycle of time with activity and constantly soliciting a knowing that might make sense of it all.
I think that when we head off in a certain direction and continue for long enough that we perceive ourselves to be on a journey–be it in our mind or sitting in a train car listening to the clicks and clacks of the wheels marking our passage through space and time—we have an opportunity to notice the melodies, the cycles, and the acts of creation that are inviting us to come along for the ride. And if we’re lucky, there may be moments when we are allowed to feel that we are in the midst of some momentous and meaningful symphony, whose origins we seem unable to trace.
For instance, why did I start writing this? Perhaps for the same reason that the chicken crossed the road. An image came into my mind and nudged me into a curiosity which I found myself following, like Sisyphus—not a fast learner apparently— who races after the rock he has previously just pushed up the hill. He has been pushing it for as long as Greek myths have been telling the story of beings stuck in psyches that never learn; of beings who yearn to enter a realm of discovery and change but who keep travelling the same path because it keeps showing up in front of them.
The story of Sisyphus, endlessly repeating an act that is immediately undone, and to which his only response is to do it all over again, raises an important question about choice. Can we choose to act differently? Do we have the freedom to choose who we are in the situations in which we find ourselves? Can Sisyphus—in the very midst of the rhythms of his life–become aware that he is still alive? And even if he is stuck behind the locked doors of some karmic fate, can he choose how he responds? Can he notice the clouds in the sky, the changes in the seasons, his own heart beat and breathe quickening as he labors back by the hill yet again? Can he take a conscious breathe at the bottom of the hill? And if some external or internal force propels his hands back onto the rock and compels his feet to dig into the hard scrabble dirt–as the difficult assent begins once again—can his body, breathe and mind resonate with a greater field of being?
Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”, which gives an account of the author’s experience as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II–a voice of the human spirit rising above a broken land—answers for us: “Yes, it’s possible”.