Ageing and death have been in my consciousness more than usual this past while. With my sister’s illness and death and my own 60th and then 61st birthdays, the passing of time and life has been impinging more strongly. A long-standing preoccupation for me is how to make the most of the time I have when quite often I feel I’m not making the most of it. Additionally I’m not even that tuned in with the finitude of my life and everyone around me. It’s like the mind refuses to take seriously that my lifespan really is passing actually quite fast, and even if it wasn’t, my life could still come to an end at any moment. I’ve got curious about what is actually happening when the delusion of disbelief is operating in the mind in this way.
Two themes have come together recently that have illuminated some of the mechanisms at work – time and attachment.
A helpful book about time is Oliver Burkeman’s ‘4000 weeks’ – the span of an average human life. It’s an evocative title as 4000 weeks seems too little, it sounds less than seventy-seven years. A week is a casual measurement of time for most of us. We bandy it around without thinking. There’s the two-week holiday in the summer, or a week’s retreat a few times a year. There are things I do every week such as the Chapter meeting I attend regularly with some friends within the Triratna Buddhist Order. We say ‘’I’ll see you next week” not quite realising we’ll have one less week in hand by then.
A couple of months ago I listened to a talk (twice) by the Buddhist teacher Akincano. He was talking about Upadana, which translates as ‘clinging’ or ‘grasping’. We cling because we are trying to find certainty and stability within an uncertain world and a constantly changing body and mind.
This stability or safety needs to be in our lives in a psychological and physiological sense. Especially as young children, to thrive, we need to feel safe and loved. The health of our nervous system, which affects our physical, mental, and emotional well-being, depends on it. We need to have a healthy sense of self before we can go beyond the view of a fixed self.
But what we are doing in practice is to look more deeply at what is happening in our experience from a perspective that allows all the usual views and perspectives to be recognized.
Without mindfulness we don’t notice the mind is constantly seeking out moments of experience through the senses. It is ingenious really. To create cognitive and emotional stepping-stones that contribute to who we think we are, we take hold of the brief registering of sense experiences. Sights, sounds, tastes, tactile touches, smells, and momentary experiences through the mind sense such as thoughts are drawn into our sense of self. We disguise the ‘existential uncertainty’ we feel by attaching to and identifying ourselves with fragments of sense experience because we are afraid to confront death (the ultimate instability). As Akincano says we’re identifying ourselves with brief moments in order to cover up the fact that one day sense experience will come to an end. Through the moments of temporary stability we create, we gain emotional security from the sense of ‘this is me’, ‘this is who I am’.
Where Time comes into this is through our habit of living in the future. We are very rarely fully present here and now. Through the planning and imagining minds we outsource our life into an off-planet conceptual mode where thoughts and emotions create temporary but whole and believable fictional worlds. While we’re meditating, we might think “after this I’ll pull some weeds up from the garden” or “I’ll email so and so about lunch tomorrow” or I’ll think about how my teaching schedule is panning out for next year and when I’ve got time to get on retreat myself – the ‘juggling things mind’. These are normal and ordinary thoughts, we all have them and many more, and we have them for the same reason – we are creating mental stepping-stones into a future where we feel we have some control. The implicit thought-feeling process within me is something like ‘I can’t die whilst I’m living in a world of future plans.’ Life can’t end while I’m half living in a future where there is a holiday to have and a wedding to plan, or a promotion or a meal to prepare for. This project of self-construction by identifying and attaching to momentary happenings takes a lot of mental energy but we feel it’s worth it if we are then more able to ignore the reality that stability is not to be found in a world that is conditioned.
However existential uncertainty is not so easily ignored and much of the dissatisfaction we experience comes from daily confrontations with dukkha, with things not quite going right, or the way we want them to go. The Buddha’s advice is to see this process more clearly from the standpoint of the present moment. See how frequently the mind absents itself from this moment to create some imaginary one that will happen further down the line.
Ironically, I have found that becoming more aware of the tendency to ‘future the self’, I’ve understood the value and importance of the present moment more clearly. I’ve prioritised awareness and felt a decided reluctance to enter the conceptual mode when not completely necessary. Doing nothing has become easier and more welcome. Trusting that it is enough to simply ‘know’ and rest with what is happening within the body-mind, has become more natural.
These moments of understanding and their fruits are, of course, also conditioned, and they weaken at times when conditions are not so supportive but by speaking of them and writing about them, I hope to prioritize them and support their continuing and deepening presence.