This morning, it feels like an idle boast to claim that I move backwards in time, as I claimed in my previous post. When I actually made an attempt to reverse the flow of time in memory, I realized just how deeply entrenched is my dedication to a forward-driving flow of experience.
The context for this discovery was doing a practice called “Reversing Time” (in Love of Knowledge by Tarthang Tulku), where we are invited to start from the present and review the past few hours, proceeding backwards in time. With interest and energy, I set off on this excursion into my recent past. (I expect that we all do this kind of recalling of the recent past, for instance returning to the moments surrounding when we last had a key that we now cannot find; or when rehearsing moments of embarrassment or shame).
Undaunted, I brought to mind the activities that had occupied me before I sat down for my 30 minutes of practice, recalling what I had done: the dishes, making coffee, weighing myself, reading a chapter in Love of Knowledge, getting the paper at the end of the driveway, and feeding our cat, Kiva, to name a few. These memories came back like chickens who, hearing seeds pouring into a metal pail, congregate at the fence. I felt that I was successfully breezing through my recent past. But then, on closer inspection, I noticed that I was recalling patches of experience organized in the same forward-flowing temporal structure as the original activities themselves had been.
At one point, I tried visualizing myself walking backwards, as in a video recording played in reverse. But that is not how my memory works. When I recall an activity, such as unloading the dishwasher, I remember it being played forward, as in: “Then I opened the dishwasher door, pulled out the lower rack, took out clean dishes. . .”).
It surprised me to see so clearly how pervasively my mind experiences both current and remembered events in a sequential order, each moment moving ineluctably forward from the past towards the future, sometimes in onrushing urgency, sometimes in tedious repetition.
It isn’t only while doing this kind of exercise that a forward temporal flow can be witnessed in operation. Typing these observations, I relate what comes next with what I have already written, proceeding from premise to conclusion. Nor has it escaped my attention that I view my entire lifetime as a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.
Recalling the events of the morning, I came upon a moment that stood apart from this sequential unfolding. It was as if the forward momentum of my experience skipped a beat in my usual forward-driving passage through time.
With the morning newspaper in my hand, I looked up at the sky, wondering if the clouds would produce rain later in the day. My eyes followed a bird flying overhead from north to south. Then another bird, about the same size, travelling at the same speed, and following the same flight path came into view. I assumed that they were together, but then the second bird suddenly turned to its left and wheeled overhead in a wide circle.
Probably both birds scoop up insects in the sky, I thought, and I am witnessing this feeding pattern in operation. (I make these kinds of assumptions all the time, stitching each new observation into a tapestry I consider to be ‘my meaningful world’).
I then went back inside, and soon was sitting with my eyes closed, recalling how I had made coffee, loaded the dishwasher, read a few pages, and so on. When I reached the moment outside with the two birds, I found myself thinking about the circumambulating bird in a different way. He was no longer the helpless participant in genetic and learned patterns of behavior, which I had reflexively, and without the benefit of factual knowledge, appended to my observations.
Now, in recollection, I realized that I simply didn’t know why the second bird diverted off the path taken by the first one. In the unknowing that emerged, my imagination invented other, equally arbitrary, explanations for this bird’s behavior. Perhaps he had decided to explore the open sky before catching up with his mate. Perhaps he was an independent explorer of space, or at least as independent of conditioned patterns as it’s possible for us creatures to be. Perhaps, like a child who walks around the periphery of the school yard during recess, because he hasn’t bonded with the other kids, he was marking time before he was called back to the compelled patterns of the flock.
It seems that my entire remembered life reflects a compulsion to make meanings and I miss the beating wings and the water flowing from mountain streams into my dishwasher. No wonder I can’t fathom my remembered life or live with my inevitable death.
I rarely hear the harmonious rhythms beating against the shoreline of my awareness—committed as I am to the propagation of stories with their beginnings, middles, and ends: each narrative played out and replayed in that precise order. But this doesn’t need to prevent me from appreciating that I have been given a seat in the bleachers of a grand spectacle that is too great, too amazing, for my mind to grasp more than fragments.
If I had the power to really pare down the grand spectacle of burgeoning life to fit into my small mind, how terrible that would be. At least, I am able to recognize that there is more going on than I can begin to fathom. If a bird can take a spontaneous lap around the morning sky, imagine the degrees of freedom enjoyed by beings such as us.
My mind may only draw small sips from this vastness, but I am able to dip my cup into this boundless stream, whose current is never bound by directions or outcomes, linear of otherwise.