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Soulful Sundays: Lines and Circles

"No matter where you go, there you are." -Confucius


One of the biggest struggles that I have is wrapping my brain around getting older. I still consider myself a young person and don't see myself ever losing my vigor for life. The fact that the end is always looming is precisely the thing that renews that vigor day after day. The Romans called it 'momento mori' or "remember that you must die." The Buddhists meditate frequently on their deaths. All human cultures have some aspect of this idea in their ethos. A reminder to the living that what you do right now is essential.


There are two (seemingly) contradictory ways of thinking about life. The predominant one in the Western zeitgeist is that of human life being like a line. We are born, the line begins. We do things, the line continues. We die, the line ends. Each and every person has their own line and they are all intersecting, creating a giant timeline that is existence as we know it. Distinct. Causal. Possibly depressing.


Thinking about life so discreetly implies a 'destination oriented' mindset. A kind of arms race for accomplishment, saying in our heads "you only get one chance to live this moment, so you better make it good." We compete with ourselves to have the most heightened reality possible. If someone were to describe their lives, they would probably tell you all of their accomplishments and all of their defeats. The highest highs and the lowest lows. They probably wouldn't tell you about the relatively boring Tuesday that they had last week. It wouldn't register as all that important, yet the usual, every day stuff makes up the majority of our time here on Earth.


In the Eastern zeitgeist, time and human life are seen more like a circle. Cycles of regeneration and death bleeding endlessly into each other. No one life is any more important than the next. No one accomplishment or failure is of more significance than the daily processes that created them. The whole of existence lies in a single moment, propelling itself not forward, but back to where began. End and beginning are the same. It is impossible to describe these notions in English, as it is a linear language after all. It is best arrived at through imagery. Just think of a river flowing. The same water molecules are constantly circulating through the river, yet you can never stand in the same river twice.


As someone who has one foot in the West and one in the East, I have developed my own method for living in both worlds. I like to think of life as an endless experiment. When I am presented with an opportunity or a passion, I follow it. When I bump into an obstruction, I back off and wait. I still have goals, but I don't busy myself with dwelling on them (ideally). I set my mind instead on noticing the openings and obstacles in each moment. Almost without fail, when I push too hard to accomplish a given outcome, it gets further and further away. I am reminded in these cases that actively waiting and watching is not apathy, but just part of the circle going around.


The truth is that while we are all getting older and closer to your deaths, each second of life presents an opportunity to be even more alive. There are no "missed moments" per se, only reminders that the next moment is always coming and always right here. I am reminded of a story told by the Buddhist leader Thick Nhat Hanh in which a hungry man is eating an orange yet does not get satisfaction because he is constantly thinking about his next bite while chewing the one he is on. And on his last slice his mind is on the next orange. I hope you all enjoyed these Sunday musings and will take some time today to slow down and want what you already have, which is one definition of being happy.

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