Seize the (eternal) moment

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times (with apologizes to Charles Dickens).

We’ve all looked at the clock with dread as we battled a deadline and willed the hands to slow down. We’ve all spent a night before someone we love leaves, fixing the clock with an evil eye, hoping the hands of time will take a coffee break.

We let the world outside control us and we respond, like puppets, to strings pulled by who we know not and dance to an unseen caller.

  • We hurry.
  • We scurry.
  • We stress.

We can identity with Andrew Marvell as he sat at his desk in Elizabethan England and wrote: “Had we but world enough and time.”

Even thought it was written 400 years ago, it feels present, as if time had collapsed those four centuries into this moment.

To His Coy Mistress is not on many people’s reading list, but we’ve all identified with another line from the poem as we spilled our tea hurrying to a meeting or a presentation: “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”

We feel it at our back and think the horses in the chariot’s braces are galloping even more furiously than when we had more hair and less waist, but they’re cantering at a more leisurely pace.

Only a few billion years ago, the day was 10 hours. And contrary to what we think and feel, it’s getting longer as the moon’s pull drags on the Earth’s rotation.

We compensate for the planetary sloth by operating in the supersonic: we zip from one thing to the other without really touching down; we check out schedule on our cell in traffic — even though it’s against the  law — and race to where it tells us to go.

We’ve switched jailers from the one on our wrist to the one in our pocket, or on our belt.

“How we spend our days is how we spend our life,” wrote Pulitzer-winning author Annie Dillard.

We promise ourselves that tomorrow we’ll learn Spanish, go on that long vacation, take yoga, start meditating, slow down.

But in spite of our hurrying, the running from one thing to the next until we fall into bed exhausted, we know it doesn’t have to be this way. We can control time. We can bend it to our will.

The writers of The Talmud, that great fountain of knowledge from the Jewish tradition, knew that. “Who forces time is pushed back by time; who yields to time finds time on his side.”

We’re time’s willingly slave. We adopt a victim mentality that allows the digital slave master to dictate how we behave, and when.

“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking,” said Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Inc.

“Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

There are about 745,000 hours in an average lifetime, but we dictate whether we want to be average. (The average 60 year old has a one per cent chance of increasing those hours to 876,000, to watching the clock tick pass the century mark.) 

“Time goes by very fast,” Canadian Rockette Jeanette Heller was quoted in a Globe and Mail obit. “When I tuned around and was 95, I didn’t believe it myself.”

Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher, and Nero’s mentor, had a similar view almost 2,000 years ago.

”It is not that we have a short time to live,” he wrote in On the Shortness of Life, “but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements, if it is well invested.”

There are two kinds of time: chronos and kairos. We worship one and ignore the other, except when it grabs us in those moments of accidental reflection. One is nine to five, something outside us that we allow to dictate how we behave and how we feel inside.

The other covers the special times, the shining times, those times when we turn off our cell and ignore the clock on the wall, the time we spend in eternity.

Those are the times we get lost in the wonder, when we fall into the music of a great song, hug someone we love, are transfixed by a baby’s eyes. Time feels different then.

"(Kairos) signifies a time in between, a moment of undetermined period of time in which something special happens. What the special something is depends on who is using the word. While chronos is quantitative, kairos has a qualitative nature," says an article on Wikipedia.

“According to ancient Greeks, Kairos was the god of the fleeting moment, a favourable opportunity opposing the fate of man. The moment must be grasped; otherwise the moment is gone and cannot be re-captured.”

Kairos is a child at play or an artist at work: absorbed in the moment, unselfconscious. They’re immersed in eternity.

“In Our Town, after Emily has died in childbirth, (author) Thornton Wilder has her ask the Stage Manager if she can return home to relive just one day,” Madeleine L’Engle writes in Walking on Water.

“Reluctantly, he allows her to do so. And she is torn by the beauty of the ordinary, and by our lack of awareness of it. She cries out to her mother, ‘Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me… it goes so fast we don’t have time to look at one another.’

“And she goes back to the graveyard and the quiet company of the others lying there, and she asks the Stage Manager ‘Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?’ And he sighs and says, ‘No. The saints and poets, maybe. They do some.’”

Carpe diem!


Turn, turn, turn

To everything - turn, turn, turn
There is a season - turn, turn, turn
And a time for every purpose under heaven

That song was written by Pete Seeger in the 1950s and made famous by the Byrds in the 1960s, a time of great societal ferment and personal change.

While Seeger gets the royalties, the lyrics were written more than 2,000 years ago by Ecclesiastes, one of the most pessimistic writers in the Bible.

Seeger changed and added a few words, but otherwise, it’s all Ecclesiastes.

It’s time for another turn. Summer is a time out, a respite from our nine-to-five life, when we take off the tie and tight shoes and slip on shorts and sandals. The season isn’t quite over yet, but if we listen intently, we can almost hear Mother Nature packing up the greenery.

Students go back to school, workers return from holidays, some people start new jobs, others new lives. We feel a quickening, a buzz, a sense of unfinished business, an urge to do something that has nothing to do with back-to-school shopping, getting a new wardrobe or a new car.

The seasonal change is mandated, while the personal is a choice. But, then, every day, every moment is pregnant with purpose if we choose to accept the invitation to our own re-birth, if we respond to the inner stirrings that are always there, but we ignore.

“Perhaps life is calling you right now to look beyond the appearance of things, not to find a deeper meaning, but a whole new way of looking,” Neil Douglas-Klotz writes in The Sufi Book of Life.

In the Five Stages of the Soul, Harry Moody tells another Sufi story, involving Charles Campbell, and his wife who quit their jobs and went on a spiritual journey. For two weeks, they sat at the feet of a Sufi master in Iran, but eventually returned home.

Two years later, while sitting in mediation, Campbell heard a voice inside his chest: “Come!”

An hour later, on his way to work, he heard it again. Later that day, his wife said she, too, heard the voice in her chest.

Five days later, they were on their way to Teheran.

“I heard you calling me,” Campbell said as he entered the Sufi master’s chambers.

“Did you now?” the master said.

“Here, right in my chest.”

“I see,” said the master, “and what did I say to you?”

“You were calling me, telling me to come.”

There was a long silence and finally the master broke it with a barely audible chuckle.

“Mr. Campbell, my dear Mr. Campbell, don’t you realize, I’ve been calling you every day for two years. It’s taken you all this time to finally hear me.”

We all have an internal Sufi master calling us to reach for our potential, to be faster, higher, stronger. But we’re too busy to answer.

Most of us acknowledge, at least intellectually, that we create, or choose, our life, that the world is a reflection of our thoughts and beliefs. So if we know it’s inside our head, why do we keep looking outside when we want to make changes?

If our methodology isn’t working, maybe this season is a time to change our strategy, to re-frame the problem and look at it from a different perspective.

We could turn, turn, turn. Turn around. Look in. Shift the essence of us 180 degrees and stare into the universe of self and see the worlds contained therein.

In Hindu mythology, there is a story of Krishna being raised among the Gopis in which the foster mother of the god pretending to be a boy heard he was eating dirt.

She ran to clean out his mouth and saw the whole universe contained inside. The god gave her the gift of forgetfulness, but we have to give ourselves the boon of remembering.

“The privilege of a lifetime is being who we are,” mythologist Joseph Campbell said.

Go back and read that again. There’s a doctrine, a philosophy, a religion, a way of life embedded in those
10 words.

Granted, there aren’t any rules or schematics that tell us how to behave, but if we lived that statement, we wouldn’t need any.

We would be spontaneous; it is only when we ignore our nature and act the way we think others expect that problems arise.

Perceval, one of the knights of the Round Table, found, but lost the Grail because he behaved “politely” rather than spontaneously and didn’t ask the compassionate question that would have healed the king.

“The formula for failure is trying to please everybody with everything that you do,” said motivational guru Wayne Dyer. “So the formula for success must be opposite of that which is not being consumed with what other people are thinking, and listening to your own inner voice.”

This can be the season for self-inquiry, for total commitment to mapping the undiscovered country of self, the search for our Holy Grail.

“Ask of yourself, inquire into yourself, pursue yourself, investigate within yourself, and never let others tell you what it is, not let it be explained in words,” D.T. Suzuki quotes a meditation master in The Essentials of Zen Buddhism.

At the top of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is self-actualization:

“the desire for self-fulfilment, namely the tendency for (the individual) to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”

“A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time to love, a time to hate
A time of peace, I swear it's not too late!”

Personal change is glacial

Personal change is usually glacial and we sometimes wonder whether the endeavour is worth the effort.

Essentially, the pace doesn't matter, but some of us want to know whether we're making progress.

The more enlightened know we shouldn't judge how we're doing, but us less enlightened know it happens all the time.

“The classical understanding is that a spiritual life is how we live each day,” said meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. “It’s how we relate to our children, how we relate to our parents, how we earn a living, how we speak to one another, how truthful we are.”

One way to find out how we're doing is to go home, or any place that's a cauldron of conflict, crisis and controversy, where debate is a full-contact sport.

When we go home, no matter how old we are, we often fall into the role we played as a child, like an actor returning to a series after being written out. If we're conscious and mindful, we turn down the traditional role; we always have the choice to be an actor rather than a re-actor.

Einstein said the theory decides what we believe. No matter what we believe, we look for evidence to support it, and usually ignore or attempt to explain away what doesn't. When we can accept contrary evidence and toss the theory, we're open to change.

Salzberg tells a story about her teacher, Trunga Rinpoche, which supports that point. The Tibetan Buddhism master took a white sheet of paper and drew a floppy, V-shaped object. He asked his students what it was.

“It's a bird,” he was told.

“No, it's not,” he said. “It's a picture of the sky with a bird flying through it.”

Old thinking patterns can be as hard to kill as a great white. If old reactions erupt like sharks out of the deep, we have the opportunity to observe and choose whether we will be the actor or re-actor.

“Everything has a pattern, and that pattern is the key to creating a specific event,” Robert J. Gilbert wrote in Shift magazine. “All human beings go through stages of increasing self-awareness of their psychological and emotional patterns.

“In many cases, we are victims of these patterns until we recognize them and act to change them.”

We recognize them by being constantly mindful of what we think and do. A study, using an MRI to scan the brain, proves we can even defuse old reactive patterns by naming them instead of reacting to it.

When we feel threatened, the amygdala, which plays a primary function in the formation and storage of memories associated with emotional events, kicks into high gear. If we label the emotion, it doesn't.

“One way to practise mindfulness meditation and pay attention to present-moment experiences is to label your emotions by saying, for example, ‘I'm feeling angry right now’ or ‘I’m feeling a lot of stress right now’ or ‘this is joy’ or whatever the emotion is,” said research scientist David Creswell, lead author of the study.

If we are true to our beliefs we accept people, even family, for who they are and look at ourselves to see if we are responding and behaving according to our beliefs, or if we revert when our patterns are pushed.

If we do, it's a great opportunity to observe ourselves, to be aware of those old patterns of thought dictating how we behave in the present.

“It can be very difficult to shift a firmly entrenched model of reality. We can get pretty attached to what we think is true, important and real — even when presented with evidence to the contrary,” it says in Living Deeply, the result of a 10-year study on transformation.

“To a great extent, our world view determines what we’re capable of seeing, and therefore determines our perception of reality. What our worldview doesn’t expand to contain quite literally escapes our perception. We just don’t see it. This perception of reality colours our perceptions and actions every moment of every day.”

We don't, of course, just simply switch our worldview, although that happens. What's more important is the shift to how we see ourselves, which usually means we see the world differently.

If we're walking down the street at night and see four large men walking toward us and we think the world is an unsafe place, we're likely to run or cross the street as we press 911 on our cell. But if we believe it's a friendly universe, we'll walk on and say hello as we pass.

It has been said many times that when we change how we see the world, the world we see changes. That doesn't mean we go out of our way to say hello to hooded men on dark streets. Spirituality does not negate common sense.

The world responds to us at the level of our belief; it is done unto us as we believe. And change involves the present. When we look in our rear-view mirror, we see our past receding, but if we keep our eyes front, we can see where we're going. Just as our past dictates our present, our present determines our future.

If we're not paying attention now, we shouldn't be surprised where we end up and who we become.

We summons our experiences with our repetitive thoughts. If we can see the divine in others, especially our parents and siblings, it becomes easier to feel the divine in ourselves, creating an endless feedback loop that transforms us and our world. We become the change we seek.

That might take practice and persistence, but we do have a lifetime, and really, nothing better to do.

In moments when we're tempted to be the re-actor, there’s an old saying that's easy to remember and can prevent so much grief:

“Lord, make my words as sweet as honey, for tomorrow I may have to eat them.”


Finding light in others

The put down has a high profile in our culture.

One of the favourite topics around the coffee pot and the beer jug is running down other people while TV sit-coms are built around it. We chuckle when people use their wit like a rapier to impale an absent “friend.” We even talk about our spouses, parents and children in less than glowing terms.

Running down others is a popular sport played by both sexes, although men like to think women are better. We relish the thrust of the well-honed insult, the riposte of the polished slur and the flick of the slashing innuendo.

Even if we have vowed otherwise, whenever we’re in a group where someone absent is being verbally attached, we’re drawn into the action; we can’t seem to help ourselves. Even if we’re conscious enough to realize what we’re doing, we don’t always disengage even though we know we’re de-humanizing them and demeaning ourselves.

But the group attack is less harmful than the one delivered in person, eyeball to eyeball. If the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can start a hurricane in Florida, imagine how a cutting or thoughtless remark can ripple through someone’s day. It’s not hard to envision how even a little or ridicule or a little anger can adversely affect someone giving a presentation or writing an exam.

But, paradoxically, in spite of our willingness to verbally attack others, we are awed when we meet people who always has a kind word for everyone. Being in their presence raises the serotonin levels of everyone around them yet we don’t strive hard enough to be like them.

“I will speak ill or no man … and speak all the good I know of everybody,” said Ben Franklin, which might explain why so many people spoke highly of him and why history remembers him so fondly.

That should be our goal. Indeed, it’s a national avocation in China, where “face” has been one of the pillars of its civilization for more than 2,000 years.

“Face is probably the most fundamental facet of Chinese life — business, professional, personal and family,” said author Ernie Tadla, a former West Kelowna man who worked in China for seven years and married into a Chinese family.

“It is showing respect to the individual by protecting their good reputation, public dignity, prestige and self-esteem. You never disagree in public or to their face, never argue, never ridicule, joke about, confront, and denigrate another person. 

"You always present their good side, their strong points in person and behind their back.”

In the book, Bono in Conversation, the rock star tells about a meeting Martin Luther King was having with his advisers, who were complaining about the new attorney general. Finally, King ended the meeting.

“We will re-adjourn when somebody has found one thing redeeming to say about Bobby Kennedy because that, friends, is the door through which our movement will pass.”

Bono echoes that sentiment. “Find the light in (your opponents), because that will further your cause. And I’ve held onto that very tightly, that lesson.”

We could use the bull’s-eye approach to spreading kindness and light. We can start by speaking well of ourselves, then our children, our spouses, our parents.

As our loved ones head off to school, university or a job, we can ensure they leave with positive words ringing in their ears, and are praised for doing well rather than ridiculed when they don’t.

Too often in our desire to ensure the people we love measure up, we tear them down. We hammer at their perceived weaknesses to try to make them strong until eventually all they see are their deficiencies.

The poem Children Learn What They Live By, written by an unknown author, starts like this:

“If a child lives with criticism/He learns to condemn.

“If a child lives with hostility,/He learns to fight.

“If a child lives with ridicule/He learns to be shy.”

That’s also true of adults because the child we were is still in all of us, no matter what our age.

We can be the people who always have a kind word to say about everyone. We can be an example by our actions and our words; we can refuse to participate — but without judging — when someone is being verbally assaulted.

“We don’t see that we are all teachers,” writes San Diego Zen master Joko Beck.

“Everything we do from morning to night is a teaching; the way we speak to someone at lunch, the way we transact our business at the bank, our reaction when the paper we submit is accepted or rejected… everything we do and everything we say reflects our practice.”

The universe — and our immediate neighbourhood — would be a better place if we treat everyone as if they were perfect, whole and complete, if we see them for what they could be, if we praise their strengths rather than point out their perceived flaws.

We’re not likely to run into many perfect beings in the line-up at Tim Horton’s, but nothing in our job description says we have to judge others — or ourselves — because they don’t conform to how we think the universe should be run.

Religion and science preach that we are, at some deep level, one. We can call that spirit or energy, but we are the me that is we, and when we treat someone poorly, we do it to ourselves.

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds,” Hebrews 10:24 proclaims.

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About the Author

Ross Freake, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, has worked at 11 newspapers from St. John's to Kamloops. He is the author of three books and the editor and ghost writer of many others.

He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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