It’s not every day that I learn something new; even less often do I understand something familiar in a fresh way. But a few mornings ago, I found myself reevaluating a familiar reaction that frequently prevents me from going any further.
I have long felt at ease with phrases such as Ram Dass’s “be here now” and George Santayana’s “the flying moment”; I am at home with a range of words, such as ocean, wind, water, moments, experience, presence, ground, flow, time, current, movement, space, understanding, loss, balance, understanding, home and all the other words I employ to express feelings of comfort, intention, sadness or hopefulness. Such words allow me to feel that I am alive in a recognizable world.
In the same spiritual traditions in which I find these evocative words, I encounter another kind of language which stops me in my tracks, as if a sign has appeared on a mountain trail announcing: “Only those able to focus their mind with deep awareness and concentrated attention can continue this way”. Concluding that deep meditative experience is being called for, I turn around and move onto something else.
I have developed a belief that I am excluded from the depths of certain spiritual and mystical kinds of experience; they intrigue me; I circle around like a coyote warily observing a space ship that has landed in a field before dawn, but go no further.
Then, a few mornings ago, as I read something in a book by Tarthang Tulku, “Gesture of Great Love” I paused at the border between the familiar and the unexpected.
It was a passage that distinguished the image of an ocean wave rolling along from the ocean’s water; and “moments” in time from an “instant” of zero duration. Without questioning the importance of waves, or of embracing life in terms of our concerns, another way of engaging our world was presented. If we slow down and pay attention–before we tell ourselves that we are seeing something already known–we can contact the dynamic energy that dances in the objects of our world and in our experience of them.
“Our usual way of understanding time breaks time down into moments and then has to find some way of connecting those moment back together. It’s an impossible task, because it leaves the flow of time out of account. The instant, however, engages the flow. It restores our link to the dynamic of time. In a sense, it gives us back our lives.” “Gesture of Great Love” by Tarthang Tulku.
If I had to make a choice between them, I would choose to live among moments, precisely because they include the concerns and interests that shape my life. They allow me to remember and look ahead; it is in moments that I engage with others and feel happy or sad. I could not be a person, as I understand what it means to be a person in this world, if moments didn’t keep rising up like stepping stones amid the current of a flowing stream. But this appreciation for the moments of my life doesn’t need to exclude another kind of time that is carrying me along on the journey that began the day of my birth and will only end with the last breath I take in this body.
These pages about the “instant” went on to say that this other kind of time, and the instants that sometimes spring forth unexpectedly from the rush of familiar, consequential time, are not bound to the web of meanings I use to measure my actions and feelings. Each instant is the same as all other instants, even if they are thousands of years apart (located in terms of the kind of time that defines everything in our world). These instants are not potential doorways into the eternal. They are that eternal realm itself.
What a thrilling possibility. For me it remains more possibility than lived-in actuality, but at least I don’t feel condemned to stand outside an eternally locked door. It’s helpful to know that instants don’t remain long enough for me to incorporate them into my not-so-substantial-world. I’m already used to beings vanishing into the mist with scarcely a wave. Why wouldn’t the essence of empty space also slip out of my grasp if should try to catch it–still hanging around at its last known address?