Light is showing up among the branches visible through my sunroom windows. Not enough to predict what kind of day it will be, but enough to get me thinking about the rolling of Earth on her axis, the continuum of months and years, the discordant squeaks and blares as the orchestra warms up for the day’s first melodies; the inescapable soundtrack that always inveigles me into pondering who I am and what’s in it for me. Isn’t it strange that whenever we evaluate the environment that defines our life, we have to include ourselves: the presumptuous nomad of time who, invited or not, keeps sitting at the head of the table?
I hope I’m not being too tedious when I keep asking, in the midst of trying to find my sea legs on a ship not yet built, let alone launched, what kind of journey I want to make; as if a voice that hasn’t found its middle-C can know what it really wants to say.
But that seems to be how I feel about the act of writing. Along with thinking and feeling, the act of expressing those thoughts and feelings is central to being alive. Like Caesar’s famous dictum (at least it was famous in my Grade Ten Latin class)–“Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered)—(veni) my aspiration is to bring into the act of composition the spirit of arriving at the outer edges of my own consciousness; (vidi) my interest in having a look beyond the shoreline; (vici) I hope to discover, through being present in the terrain of feeling and thoughts, whether there is anything deep and abiding and if so, whether I can bring back a few inadequate words.
Perhaps I think too much about whether I will be able to write something with the potential to interest others. After all, when we are enthusiastic about what we are doing and are motivated by the wish to contribute to the common good, perhaps we’ve gone as far in that direction as we can, with no need to register our intentions with the Corporation Commission.
I work with a woman, who has Parkinson’s. She is devoting her energy to the first ever Parkinson’s Walk in New Mexico (this Saturday, at Hoffman Town Church) and it is clearly more than a simple project for her. She is more inside the activity than that. As she puts it, she is determined to give all the energy she has for as long as she has it, to share, through her personal example, ways to remain vital and engaged whenever and with whomever the challenges of Parkinson’s have come to call.
I would like to apply her example to my own life situation: getting older, having had a recent minor stroke whose cause remains a mystery, wanting to seize my remaining opportunities in order to get something valuable done, and to feel that I’ve grappled a bit with the unsatisfactory conditions in which our society seems helplessly mired. I would like to try to share my remaining energy in a useful and fulfilling way–provided I can find something in my own understanding that seems worth sharing.
It’s only wishful thinking, of course, but I would like to put something together, polish it a bit, and then present it for your consideration. Towards that end, I find myself wanting to contemplate what I am doing right now and how I feel about the deeply mysterious availability of consciousness, side-by-side with the presence of a realm that seems designed for this consciousness to fathom—like how the orchestra leaves room for the violin solo to enter and explore a great space of silence. In the back of my mind I feel that in this wishful thinking I am not different than anyone who might read this. Don’t we all wake up and—fast or slow, retired or frantically busy—get ready for whatever comes next, while recognizing that we are being driven by the past as we scramble to prepare for what we imagine is coming next.
In giving some thought to what is driving me out of the past into the constantly arising, and inescapable momentum of the present, I feel I am doing what I have done all my life: making my way through a constantly changing onslaught of emotions and situations.
What feels different now is that I have an opportunity to observe from a somewhat shaky tower that overlooks the tree tops of the forest in which I have wandered all my life. I have nothing against being lost in the trees—working, making and losing friends, falling in and out of love, having a family, being delighted and disappointed; it’s all good. And even if it’s not all good, who could ever discover what’s good without going through the bad times?
Now I want to ask a question, in the hope that it will help me to not waste anyone’s time. The question is: why am I planning to write a book in which I envision making the Time, Space, Knowledge vision a kind of spiritual maypole around which the events and quandaries of my life continue to whirl?
Is it because I remember vivid, productive and thrilling experiences—especially in the 1980’s—being evoked by the TSK material? Is it because—after many years when my main connection with TSK was only to read each new book as it was published every few years—I have returned to reading TSK most mornings? Or is it because in the last several years I have become involved at a more fundamental level, including three years in a TSK Teacher Training program, including three retreats in California, from which a TSK community and friendships have developed to make it all feel more human and personal?
Such involvement is important; but in terms of penetrating to the core of a transformative vision and sharing how it can help humanity, perhaps this personal involvement is secondary. It’s not that I consider as unimportant the experience of someone who enjoys having donuts and coffee with the congregation following the hymns and sermon at a community church service. It can be in such human interactions that we discover the power of our willingness to connect. And the fact that my study of TSK has settled into a comfortable place is a shortcoming in neither the vision nor my own engagement with it.
It’s just that, if I’m going to write a book that includes an appreciative presentation of the TSK Vision, I should be aware that what I really appreciate about it is largely secondary to what someone who really lived it would experience. (As I can verify from my own experience, in which the world felt new and full of doorways that I had never noticed, before I was rescued from the painfully stagnant life in which I was living.)
Robert Pursig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” makes this distinction—between the things we know in the head and the understanding we live out in the heart—with unmistakable force. That was the book I took with me when I left Montreal in the late seventies. I recall reading it, with a flashlight, sitting in the stern of a boat rocking in Lunenburg harbor. At that time in my life, feeling unbalanced and unanchored, it inspired me to set out on my own journey and to persist in the face of the wallpaper with which I had plastered over my ability to see what was directly in front of me. I treasured this book because it presented the possibility of finding a path of understanding to help me make my way along the journey I found myself on. The narrator, on a motorcycle trip with his son, has a parallel mental story going on in his head that skirts madness. While exploring the philosophic roots of his own western culture, in the light of the Eastern spiritual tradition of Zen–so recently arrived on our western shores–he keeps suspecting a fundamental dishonesty and insincerity going back to Plato and Socrates. Pursig’s narrator doesn’t seem to have a clear understanding of where his journey will lead, or even who (which version of him) is undertaking this journey of exploration.
I’m tempted to look to Pursig’s book as an example of how I could undertake an exploration of the essence of my own life, and thereby reach a fuller understanding of life’s underlying meaning. But Pursig’s is an intimidating model to adopt, because his narrator remains in the dark until the last page of the book. And only then is he rescued by a single word that his son uses, and which the entire book has set us up–in a shocking stab of recognition—to celebrate along with the father. And since, in his novel, the limitations of both western philosophy and the narrator’s obsessive observance of Zen mindfulness are given a send-up, the message that is left is that neither personal memory nor any particular system of spiritual practice guarantees that we will be able to live the examined life for which we yearn.
I realize that I haven’t answered my question. Which is: have I ever really incorporated the insights of the TSK vision in a way that would allow me to share its insights and relate them in a useful way to the private and social problems that arise in our worlds; especially now that one problem seems to follow on the back of the previous ones, like the Atlantic flooding one compartment after another in the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic.
Since no one has ever suggested that anything could have been done about the Titanic’s design, or about the number of lifeboats on deck–once they were racing across the cold Atlantic waters–that’s a pretty fatalistic image.
And I certainly don’t want to be fatalistic. But I would like to discover an optimism that is not based on simply ignoring what is going on: namely that our ship of state is not well designed—as revealed in the fact that the benefits of the common activities of all people are so unequally shared–and that the life boats of school lunches and retirement income fall far short for people who have no means to prepare for their present and future needs.
But my question was not whether a spiritual perspective can become more present in the minds and hearts of ordinary people—or for the leaders whose decisions create and foreclose opportunities. The Dalai Lama and Pope Francis are working on that. My question is more limited in scope.
My question is: Do I have the kind of acquaintance with the TSK vision to have anything worthwhile to share from it? I once was involved with a new age church which had a motto “Change your mind, change your life, change our world.” Adapting that maxim: has TSK changed the way I think and feel; has it born fruit in how I live; and as for the world, do I believe that any of my world-mates might be open to exploring the kind of time that doesn’t feel like racing downhill to the edge of a cliff; exploring an open, accommodating spaciousness that is more fundamental than either things or the emptiness surrounding them, and which beats to the living pulse of a greater presence than anything we can park in our driveways? And can we all learn to trust that there is support and guidance available to us not limited by the edges of the already known—just as flowers and trees are no less complete because their roots are underground?
Perhaps a preliminary answer to my question can be that I don’t need to perplex myself with concern over how to present time, space and knowledge, since it’s not possible to take a step, utter a word, or even smile, without relying on and expressing time, space, and knowledge.
When we smile, our lips rising on either side of our face are like the rocking chairs on which our ancestors sat; we smile because something in the recent past, or perhaps a reflection from long ago, lets us feel at home in a present moment, open to what is yet to come.
When we utter a word we are drawing upon all the times in the past we have used that word, in unison with all the other words, and with the images and experiences that they capture for us. And when we utter that word we are reaching out to the future by conveying our willingness to be present for whatever that future brings.
And when we take a step, placing one foot forward and transferring our weight onto the ground before us, which is offering us a future time as it rises up before us; only then do we allow our other foot to release its reliance on the past and feel comfortable about leaving it behind.
That’s when knowledge can remind us: “not so fast with all this leaving stuff behind”.
We can walk, we can smile, we can talk away as much as we want, but how can we live in a greater time if the present doesn’t honor what has gone before, which has made so much possible for us? How can our smiling become a way of life if we don’t feel love and concern for those who will outlive us? And how can we speak with honesty and understanding if we don’t remember the times we have tried and failed and if we don’t leave space for the heart—in ourselves and others—to continue to care about what will happen next?
If a vision is a true expression of the context in which it has arisen, then it will be of a piece with that context: just as our shadow both maps and is connected to our breathing, sensate body; and just as the planet on which we stand is connected to the Sun.