What are we to make of this so-called “new” year?
It’s just a bookkeeping trick, isn’t it? It just happens to be the first day of a new year, but really it is just another day. That’s true enough. To the trees in the neighborhood, and the rocks resting in the park, it’s just another day.
Actually, it’s not just another day. Trees and rocks don’t know squat about time and days and death and all of that. And that’s the point. We are time-bound beings, at least on the level where we live here on earth.
We may talk about the timeless, those of us inclined towards the spiritual, the mystical, the philosophical, but all of us live in time, and we know it. After a certain age, we’re all conscious that the clock is ticking, and though we may not like to think about it, we know what happens when the clock stops and time runs out. That’s why to some degree or another we humans psychologically register the beginning of a new year.
I’ve seen a drawing called The Hand of Death. Some people don’t like it. There’s an old woman, lovely, to my mind, with a gentle but old and somewhat skeletal hand reaching towards her, about to touch her left shoulder. It’s the hand of death. To those chased by time, worried that the game will end all too quickly, the image is a painful reminder of something we would rather not be reminded of: Death is coming.
What a macabre subject to be writing about, you might be saying, especially at the beginning of a new year when we should be setting goals and making plans and diving into life with vision and gusto as we plunge into 2011. (That’s what my last blog, You Can Too Make Commitments That Work, was about.)
Yes, we set goals—I do, anyway—and we set a course for the new year. We look back at what we’ve done and how our lives have gone. But I think we need to be careful and attentive: What are our annual New Year’s resolutions, our commitments, our goals, our plans, in light of the unarguable truth of our death?
If you stay with this for a moment, though you may not like it at first, you may come upon something surprising.
I’m in my 50s, not old, I would like to think, but I am no longer at an age where I feel as if, I will live forever. I know now for certain, as I did not when I was younger, that I will die. The unexpected thing is that this somehow opens me up to a greater appreciation of the timeless quality of life. This is tricky to explain, but I feel like someone who is visiting a place he truly loves and is on the last day of his vacation. He looks around and his eyes take in the place, and he breathes it in, appreciating it in a way that a native of that place might never do. The permanent resident may take the place for granted and never look at it deeply in the present moment. An awareness of death, of the limited time we have, opens our eyes to the beauty, the depth, the poignancy, and the fleeting quality of this place we call home.
Paradoxically, our awareness that our time is limited can slow us down enough so that we can be still long enough and quiet enough to open up to the timelessness of the present moment, to “hold Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand,” as the poet William Blake wrote, “And Eternity in an hour.”
We live in two worlds. That’s why we have a brain with two separate hemispheres. We live in time. We live in our plans, our work, our goals, and our history.
But we also sense the timeless.
Maybe it’s when we’re out on a quiet walk looking up at the stars or into the eyes of a newborn child, or when we breathe deeply into our own mortality that we open up to the mystery, the ineffable sacredness of existence, and the shock of our being conscious in the world.
It’s the beginning of a new year, time to dream, and plan, and work, and build, and create. Be a force in the world. But also allow yourself to open to the timeless, to that which was here before you arrived and will be here after you are gone. See if you can live your life with the here and now, and with the timeless presence of ancient hills; with eyes that look at the world as if you were 10,000 years old and had never taken a step, but had learned to watch the flowing river of life with a sense of peace and acceptance and gratitude.
You will never achieve all your goals. You will never do everything on the big to-do list. There will always be another article to write, another walk to take, another conversation to have, another problem to solve, another deal to make. That’s our life in time. That’s us trying to live fully and deeply. But no matter how hard we try, we will never take it all in, at least not that way. There comes a time when all our getting and gathering comes to a stop.
So, live your life if you can with the awareness of the timeless. Let infinity find you. But to do so, you must have some time, some space, and some opening. You must have the eyes and the heart of the traveler who is in the town square for the last time, knowing that soon he leaves, never to come this way again. In that last glance, it’s like the traveler looks right through the present moment to the timeless heart of all places. It touches him and opens him to the mystery of the ages. In that glance and in that moment he sees more than he ever has in his life, and he feels more alive and more present.
It’s not the place that does it. It’s his eyes that do it to the place. He sees through the place to all places and all times. So be a traveler in your own place. Have eyes that see deeply and a heart that responds accordingly. The journey is not really to see new places, but to have eyes that see anew.
Be well. Plan, Work. Create. But remember to see the present moment as deeply and as richly as you can, and to do that, you must let yourself be still so that the timeless can find you.
I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (805) 680-5572.