Urgency and Flow
“Time for the Buddhist is flow; the past flows through the present and into the future. Time is also singular; the present contains the past and the future is necessitated on the present. That is not to say the past determines the present or the present determines the future; but that the past provides the condition for the present to be effected and the present influences the outcome of the future. Nor do I intend to present time as divided into three distinct and easily distinguishable parts. There is no such thing as Past, Present, and Future; for the Buddhist there is only flow of time. The Buddhist would also say that time has always existed and all pasts, presents, and futures are part of a single cosmic (or atomic) moment.”
The Buddhist Concept of Time in Depictions of Parinirvana
I have always been fascinated with the concept of “flow,” even reading books by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. There exists a state in which knowledge comes fluidly and efficiency increases exponentially. It is beyond description. I do not understand it. I have experienced it a few times.
At the same time, I don’t think this reality is related to some of the “eternal now” psychobabble so popular these days. The idea that this moment is all there is is the essential problem of our culture today. One can easily live on Facebook, always posting and awaiting responses from one’s friends and family. The “eternal now” philosophy dovetails nicely with unending entertainment, ceaseless TV viewing, and the illusion of accomplishment. We sit in front of a glowing screen for hours a day while our productive years slip away. (And the planet heats up and the oceans rise, etc.)
I try to imagine Kwan Yin putting up her feet, reclining, eating a bacon double cheeseburger, and saying, “Live for the moment for that is all there is.”
Most religions have some sense of urgency. It might come in the Christian form of the one-life-to-live model or the Buddhist every-human-birth-is-a-great-opportunity model.
The issue is one of where the sense of urgency comes from. Some companies violate the principle greatly by having every task deemed “urgent.” The result is what you see in emergency rooms: only the person passing out or bleeding the hardest gets any attention at all. Not everything is an emergency and artificially manufacturing a sense of urgency only proves to everyone that nothing truly urgent was ever occurring in the first place. Urgency cannot ever be manufactured convincingly. It makes even the most severe situations look like nothing more than ploys for attention.
So where the heck does real urgency come from? Zen masters will tell people to meditate as if their hair were on fire. This urgency is reinforced with meditations on the fact that we all are of the nature to grow sick and die.
But I’m unsure that that is sufficient. Death is inevitable. How can the inevitable motivate anyone?
I am finding the ongoingness of life to be a much greater threat. The question isn’t, “OMG. What if I die?” The real issue is, “Oh, shit. What if I live? What if I outlive my income? Then what?” I thought Barry would die a few years ago—and made plans accordingly. Oops. He’s still alive and I am still stuck in Michigan. I am now trying to figure out how exactly to move with no help from an invalid husband, a situation I never planned on. Another example is a friend’s roommate, who is living in my friend’s basement, which is a huge step up from being homeless (her previous condition). She said she thought she was too old to go back to school. My response? “What if you’re still working thirty years from now? How is now too late?” We had all just gone out to eat for her fiftieth birthday. Dead people don’t require food, clothing, and housing. The living do.
I don’t understand time, but I do understand that this moment is not the only one that exists. Later does come eventually. The choices we make now determine the choices we even have later. To me, the sense of urgency comes from knowing that, one day, we will no longer have choices available to us and will have to passively accept the consequences of our previous choices. This is not a pretty picture for many people.