Category: philosophy

About Time

There is a term used these days that rankles me like fingernails on a chalkboard–real time. And I may be going on a little rant here–sorry. The vernacular “real time” has become a synonym for the “present”. And I suppose it’s because there is so much information available to us via the Internet that a qualification is needed between what is an original interaction and what is disseminated through the layers of media stratification. But it’s the subsequent illusion of knowledge–because of all this information accessibility–that makes the term “real time” so annoying for me. Because time is not a quantitative entity–something that can be packaged up into a neat glib term–it’s a profound mystery, and to my mind, we need more profound mysteries to dwell upon and less information minutiae.

Here are some interesting ideas about time:

Einstein discovered that time slows down the closer a moving entity comes to the speed of light.

Mircea Eliade wrote about sacred time—a circular time incepted in ritual, where the very act of performing a ritual connects that time to all the previous times the ritual was enacted.

 Zen Buddhists say time does not exist, as in; there is no three o’clock in the afternoon as something separate from ourselves–time is one moment after another.

In the space/time continuum theory, space occupies three dimensions and time is a fourth dimension.

Closer to home, time can be both the grandfather clock with its precise tangible mechanisms, so carefully handcrafted, and the electric impulse of the digital clock.

And time can be an internalized boundary—an asset or a stressor–“plenty of time” or “not enough time;” “out of time.”

And finally, the Buddhist belief again: there is no future, just an endlessly changing present.

Which would–happily–mean that all we ever have is real time.

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Trust Undefended

I live my life from instinct. I started this as soon as I became an ‘adult’ at age eighteen. I went to college at nineteen, dropped out at twenty. Burned all my bridges at twenty-one.

It was while on a train from Stockholm to Paris, sleep deprived, trust undefended, that I let go of my fears that the universe would not hold me in its arms. I was in one of those European train compartments with three seats on each side. The train travelled overnight, but I didn’t have a sleeper–I was nineteen and on a tiny budget. There was one other person in my cabin, an American also. A man in his late twenties, perhaps. He said he had been the campaign manager for a candidate who had lost, and he needed a break. I wasn’t political, so I didn’t care to ask further.

But he slept on one side of the cabin and I slept on the other, and when we woke, we were somewhere in Germany, fog rising over the Rhine in the very early gray of morning. I rooted through my backpack, suddenly self-conscious around this man I had sort of spent the night with. I found two old pieces of bread and a can of those tiny cocktail weenies. I hesitated. It was all the food I had and it was hours before Paris was due. But I offered him half anyway, thinking he wouldn’t take it. He did. Then he pulled out two beers and offered me one. I took it. We drank warm beer and ate stale bread with cocktail weenies and swapped stories and became two travellers grateful for the kindness of each other. I knew then I had nothing to fear from life.

My careers and experiences, when I look back on them, have been tailor made for me to grow into the person I am today. I trust my life; I have a saying that I say when it looks like things are getting bad: “Everything that happens to me is for my highest good.” I believe that utterly.

My deep depression in my forties gave me the gift of becoming a massage therapist and developing my closed heart. My alcoholic first marriage gave me the gift of the courage of self-reliance, my moving away from family and friends gave me the gift of my voice, to write (with the support of my amazing second husband).

I can look at it as: alcoholic marriage, depression, loneliness, or I can see the real meaning: the courage developed, the compassion opened, and the voice discovered.

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The Rules of Change

During a manuscript critique two years ago, a fellow student informed me that I had broken a cardinal rule of writing. Her comment prodded me to examine this concept of ‘rules.’  Thinking about it, I decided that ‘rules’ develop gradually from what works. Meaning, if something is successful–“show, don’t tell” is a big rule in writing fiction–then gradually it becomes a rule to be followed. Except of course when someone breaks it and has an amazing success. I’ve discovered that most award-winning books have broken the rules. And then the writing style forged by the award-winning books becomes the new ‘rule.’

Speaking societally, we revere what has nurtured and sustained us, building rules to keep things that way—and failure is inevitable. Change is the way of the world and what has been, must always make way for its usurper, even if it seems it has lasted forever. (I’m thinking right now of Ancient Egypt, whose civilization was toppled after three thousand years of existence.)

There is a Buddhist expression: “Life is suffering” but that’s only half the saying. The other half is: “and the cause of suffering is attachment.” Get rid of attachment and we get rid of suffering. Why? Because if we don’t attach, we accept things as they are. We accept the change that inevitably, endlessly occurs.

Another Buddhist saying is: “Everything, everywhere, at every moment is perfect and complete, just as it is.” Now I find that a hard one to believe with my dual mind—that’s the mind that lives in “good/bad, black/white, right/wrong.” But with my big mind—the mind that knows it is a part of everything, it makes perfect sense. If we don’t judge, we don’t dualize. If we don’t dualize, we see that everything is exactly as it is—no more, no less. In this respect it is perfect and there is no attachment to have things different from what they are.

Non-attachment is a nice truth to be aware of, to be reinforced during meditation and to be tucked into an innermost part of our being. When the big changes come, I like to be able to take out the trump card of non-attachment and use it to help me through those rough times.

But as an overall goal, I’ll pass. I like feeling my life. I like the feeling of growing and the tug of resistance as I learn to let go of the old, as well as the joy when I learn to trust the new. Life is always a wobbly tight-walk balance between endlessly changing and resistance to change.

Suffering is part of life; emotions are part of life, and really, I don’t think I’m ready to give up those perks to living just yet.

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Respect Your Elders

This past week, I heard a talk by Terry Farish, author of the YA novel, The Good Braider. I had read an early draft of the book in my Editing class, and I was eager to hear Terry speak. Her book is a delicate story about a harsh subject—that of Sudanese refugees. In the talk, someone raised the topic of the relationship between parents and children in different cultures and Terry replied by quoting one of the Sudanese she had interviewed for her book:

“In this country [United States], parents respect the children; but in my country, the children respect the parents.”

This observation goes to the heart of what is worth respecting and also to the heart of the two cultures. In a culture of tradition, like that of Sudan, it is the parents who have the knowledge and the children respect them for that. In the United States, the culture is one of rapidly changing technology and the children have the knowledge to use this technology––more than the adults since the children are growing up with it.

But there’s something missing in a culture that respects its children over its adults for their fluency in technology. Since we, in the United States place such value on the new, we have been misled as a culture into thinking that youth is better than age.

While it’s nice to admire our children’s proficiency at mastering technological change, it’s important to remember that it is simply, as my husband Richard Sachs says “the ability to process information that someone else has put out there”.

Deeper than fluency in technology and by and large missing from our culture is the role of the elders (and by elders, I mean adults). The elders’ value lies in their life knowledge. If we take away the bells and whistles of society, we have what we have always had: people looking for a community and people looking to express themselves in a satisfying way. These are the urges that are part of our human legacy and the elders have lived these urges over and over. They know that life is a cycle; that it will be good, it will be bad, it will be interesting, it will be boring. And most importantly, they know that all that is just fine. 

As a dear elderly friend often said to me as I poured out my teenage heart to her: You are so young. That always comforted me. I didn’t have to figure it all out. I was young. I was finding my way. This is what the elders offer. The wisdom of perspective.

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Persistence…and Trust

This is my last week of graduate school. After this weekend, when I present my final thesis and final Mentorship presentation, I am done. I am graduated.

I started grad school at age fifty-three. It felt like the right thing to do. I was in classes with twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings—I could have been their mother. We had some deep belly laughs as we tried to hash out the rules and ethics of writing for children. (Me: “Excuse me, the middle aged white person wants to know what a ‘straight-edge’ is.”)

At any rate, I’ve loved it. Except for the first half of the first semester when I broke out in hives (first time ever) from stress, and dissolved into tears during a phone call with my advisor. But once I realized that this commitment wasn’t going to be the twenty hours a week I thought, more like fifty to sixty hours, I gritted my teeth and rearranged my schedule.

I’ve had many sleepless nights, read too many grim Young Adult novels, and climbed up a steep learning curve with the Internet. (‘Track changes’ didn’t get on my radar until my second semester. God knows what my professors thought as I blithely ignored all their comments and continued turning in papers with antiquated punctuation.) And trying to access the Simmons Library via Internet…well, let’s just say I needed the help of a very patient Reference Librarian. But I persisted against the resistance created by my inexperience.

Persistence is trust at some deep level. It is the trust that the choice we’ve made and the path we’re following is the choice and the path we need to be on at this time in our life. We continue steadfastly because we trust. And this trust, in its turn, reveals to us to the larger consciousness and the intimation that that our individual lives are a vital and valuable part within it.

Persistence, it seems to me, is like a seed. Watered by trust, the sprout emerges, pushing first against the soil then the elements, to unfold its leaves and become its realized potential.

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The Role of Grief

Grief is linked, in Traditional Chinese Medicine, to the lung and large intestine organs and, like anger, fear, joy/sadness and worry, it plays a fundamental role in our health.

Our lungs hold and distribute the oxygen that sustains our life, so our inhalation is quite literally the act of taking in life.  When we exhale, we are letting go, in the trust that our next inhalation will come. Without this exhalation––this letting go with trust­­––we can’t take in another breath; we can’t take in more life.

It is the role of grief to facilitate the letting go process. When we grieve, we are letting go of that which no longer serves us. Grieving is the process of sifting through the loss to discover the essence that we wish to carry with us. And then allowing the rest go, so we are able to take in another breath, to continue living.

This week I am grieving the lives lost and maimed at the Boston Marathon bombings (and newly, the MIT officer) and underneath that, I am grieving the awareness that there are people so separated from the basic heart of humanity, that to maim and kill innocent lives is, to them, an acceptable act.

But my grieving has unearthed an essence in the tragedy, to wit: the darkest acts of atrocity are covered by a million lights of kindness. In Boston, people rushed toward the scene of the bombings seconds after they occurred heedless of their own safety, in their impulse to help. Social media spontaneously sprang into action to coordinate emergency information.

Everything is revealed by highlights and shadows.  We are moving forward as a species defined by our immense kindnesses in the wake of our isolated evils.

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For Sale

The focus of my last semester in the MFA program at Simmons College is on preparing us for the ‘real world’ that is, navigating the process of getting published. Which is as it should be, since the Simmons program is highly regarded and has placed many, many graduates in the publishing community as editors, authors, agents, and publicists.

But I find myself, in these classes, getting short tempered and snappy. I would like to have a book contract. (I think.) But if I’m stringently honest, I think what I most want is to be heard.  And that brings up my conflict. I want to be heard, but do I need to be heard? There is a crucial difference here and it is the difference between self-reflection and self-absorption.

Self-reflection is the soft voice of curiosity and wonder––the musings of wanting to understand one’s place in the world. Self-absorption, by contrast, is the loud unceasing voice of need.

When I learn about book trends, and ‘what sells’, I switch from the voice of self-reflection to the voice of self-absorption. I get caught up in the craving—the need––to be heard, and that’s what makes me grumpy.

The world is becoming increasingly noisy, and the ante is being raised. The quiet voice is being replaced by the voice that shocks because that is the one that is heard. Many, if not most of the young adult novels I read for my classes were violent and/or dystopian. As I read, I wondered: are these books reflections of a jaded teen audience, genuinely speaking to their concerns, or are they exploiting the teen marketplace? Because remember, by far and away, authors of YA novels are not teens. They are adults.

I wanted to learn to write to express a creativity in me that tells me it’s time. But after a long day of hearing what sells––of being reminded of the endless American obsession with money––I am weary.

A different reminder (one that is especially poignant in this age of status updates): there’s more to life than selling yourself.

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Intrinsic Value

 Depression is anger turned inward, so they say. And just as outer anger reminds me to go deeper within myself to find the boundary that is being challenged, likewise a feeling of depression is a red flag to alert me to inward turning anger. I think of the process as our bodies nudging us to health. Since all health—emotional, physical and spiritual—is intertwined, excavating what we can helps uncover beliefs that encourage our well being.

The other day after a workshop, I was feeling low. Not just sad, but the low that warns me to pay attention or risk the slide down the slippery slope. So I went inward to explore.  The way I do this is to tell myself words that may be triggers to what precipitated this feeling.  In this case, the word that resonated through me when I unearthed it was “value.” Something about the idea of value jump-started an anger that I turned inward—a self-anger that I refused to see consciously––until my low mood keyed me into it.

Value, says my dictionary is “the importance or preciousness of something.” It also says value is “the usefulness of something held in respect of a particular purpose.”

Within these two definitions, a truth lay ensnared in the thicket of my low mood. Teasing it apart, I realized I had unconsciously held the belief that my value was determined by my usefulness, or to put it another way, my contribution to pleasing others.  Did I make my parents proud? My teachers proud? My friends happy?  If yes, I had value. Don’t get me wrong, this belief has its good points—it keeps me motivated to push myself and to do my best. But because I did not hold the other–and I think perhaps more important definition of value—that of “the importance or preciousness of something” I was only half, not whole. And my inner being was pushing me to be whole.

Once I realized that both definitions of value must necessarily be held in my consciousness for me to be healthy, the thicket was cleared and the self-anger released. (And I felt a lot better.)

So now I know this: We all have intrinsic value. We all hold a value that is separate and inviolate from our usefulness.

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The Role of Anger

I’ve been thinking about the emotion of anger lately because of the ongoing debate around gun control.  Hearing the trumpeting of the Second Amendment as a justification for the slaughter of children makes me angry. And so I want to go deeper and figure out why.

A few years ago, I took a course taught by a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine that discussed the connection of emotions to health. I learned that traditional Chinese medicine identifies five emotions as integral parts of the human–Anger, Grief, Joy/Sadness, Fear and Worry–and that each of these emotions is linked to a specific organ in our body. In TCM therefore, feeling an emotion is not an unattached event, but is instead a clue–a signpost pointing us in a direction toward greater clarity and self-understanding.

The emotion anger links to the liver and its role in our lives is to set boundaries. We feel angry when a boundary within us is being violated–something we believe in is being challenged. Seen in this light then, no one makes you angry; you make yourself angry.  You have created the emotion. And that is where the empowerment lies.

When I feel angry, I try my best to rout out and examine the belief that the anger is asking me to look at. In this way, I can hope to act with clarity, rather than react. This is important, because anger is a rather pensive emotion. It is not meant to be belligerent.

In the case of gun control, the boundary within me that is being violated is the idea I have that we are all one, and that what we do to each other, we do to ourselves. Therefore in my belief system, if we think we are justified in murdering one another for ‘personal freedom’ we are not only committing violence on a physical level, we are ripping ourselves from a fundamental truth.

Now that I have ferreted out this belief, I can ask myself: do I really believe this idea the anger has pushed me to see? And in this case, yes, I do. From the moment years ago, when a damaged Vietnam vet shoved a pistol against my sixteen year old head threatening me, to the slaughter of six year olds last December by a deranged teenager, I see no value in guns. They tear rather than mend.

My anger has revealed a belief, challenged me to examine it, and asked me to affirm or reject it. In this way, our emotions are guides for our self-growth. The more we understand the role of emotions in our lives the more we can change what doesn’t enrich us. Working from inward to outward is using our emotions in the way they are meant to be used.

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What Do You Give Up?

I recently read an early draft of the novel, Passion Blue, published in 2012. It has been well received and I am eager to read the published version. The story revolves around Guilia, a girl living in fifteenth century Italy, who is trying to change what she believes is a deleterious fate. Her horoscope (and casting horoscopes was considered a science in fifteenth century Italy) seems to indicate that she will never marry. In the fifteen hundreds, females had very little rights and it was only though the protection of marriage that they had anything like a secure life. Or so Guilia thinks, so she tries to change her fate through sorcery.

When she gets sent off to a monastery, where she discovers the world of painting, it becomes obvious that this, not a husband, is where her passion and security lies. However, Guilia stills holds to her original idea of a husband. She thinks she knows better than the stars what her fate should be and to that end she tries to command them to her will. The consequences of her decisions is the plot of the book.

The book’s theme, that of free will versus fate intrigues me. It opens up the idea that, with our limited scope and experience, we think we know the way our world should go, and try to arrange events accordingly. It makes me wonder if most of the heartache in life comes from trying to force our idea of free will on fate. Which is not to say that we can only let things happen to us. There’s a finer distinction here that I’m struggling to understand.

I once read in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, something that went like this: “if you want to control a sheep or cow, give them a bigger pasture.” That seems counter intuitive to the idea of control, but I think what that phrase is doing is challenging our idea of control altogether. That it is saying that control in the larger sense is about the control to let things become what they are meant to become. We cannot see what the overall tapestry is, since we are only one thread in it and have the viewpoint of only seeing the threads nearest us. So we try to arrange our limited threads to a picture that does makes sense, not realizing that the bigger picture is already perfect.

Toward the end of Passion Blue (at least the draft I read) one of the nuns tells Guilia: “there is always sacrifice, you always have to give something up”. And I’m wondering if that is the free will. What do you give up, to obtain the freedom to live expansively within your fate. I’m thinking that ultimately what you give up is the idea that you have anything to give up–that free will and fate are anything different at all.

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