Friday, December 09, 2011

Thoughts on a flight after a friend's funeral

A dear friend died recently.

Sometimes I go to funerals for the sake of others – the survivors who will live with a hole in their lives for years to come. But this one was for me.

The hole is in my life.

Not gigantic – not the sort of hole that would be left without my wife or sons or brothers. But yes, a hole.

A Zen chant:

All things are impermanent.
They arise and they pass away.
Living in harmony with this teaching brings great happiness and joy.

In every moment, there is change.

Not so much a truism as a definition: there is no moment without something changing.

It took me several weeks of study, of knocking my head against the wall of my own mindset, to finally “get” special relativity. Conceptually, I could accept that the nearer one draws to the speed of light, the greater one’s mass.

I even thought I was ok with the idea that the greater one’s speed, the slower ran one’s clocks, relative to an identical clock at the point of origin. And I generally could work with the idea that the difference in clock time of the rocket and the earth was a calculable function of the velocity of the rocket.

But I made a mistake in my original conception.

I understood the idea that time would run more slowly for the astronauts in the rocket.

But the way I understood that was that those travelling in the rocket experienced those peculiar effects because they were in a peculiar situation that made their clocks move more slowly. *Real* time continued to click away right on schedule.

Eventually, I realized a mistake in my understanding: how did the clocks know how slowly to go? Which was the wrong question, but kind of right, nonetheless. Because the clocks don’t go more slowly. They measure each and every second, exactly as a second. It wasn’t just the clocks that went more slowly: the molecules and atoms and subatomic particles of the clocks moved more slowly, too.

*All of existence* that moves in that direction at that velocity moves at the same speed -- exists at the same speed.

For that to make any sense at all, *time itself* had to be defined by change.

From within a system, no change=no time.

It’s nighttime and moonlit. I’m walking barefoot on the concrete pavers of the courtyard. As a foot presses into the stone, the residual heat of the absent sun warms the skin of the sole. As each foot lifts, the warmth disappears and the sole feels the barest whisper of cool, night air. My gaze is soft, resting on an invisible spot in the air ten or twelve feet ahead of me. With each step, that spot never changes. But with each step, all of the visible world in the periphery flows and fluxes. Parallax motions work their changes with mathematical precision, responding to my step. If there were an I, it would be the center of the flow of space and time. But there isn’t. That sense is quiet. Missing, yet not missed. There is only the flowing. The changing. The arising. The passing.

Robyn was one of those people who was gently, insistently kind. When she’d walk in a room, she’d look for someone who needed attention. Who needed a hug. Who needed love. Her actions were modest. She wasn’t particularly interested in herself, but fascinated by the world. Committed to a particular way of living.

At the funeral, one of her daughters told a story. Shortly after they’d moved to Colorado, the daughter was walking home from elementary school. Some boys started to throw rocks in her direction. Then, bolder, they threw rocks at her. One hit her just below the eye. She ran home with an ugly welt, crying and scared. Robyn hugged her and comforted her and cleaned her up. Then Robyn got two chocolate suckers out, and led her daughter to the boys’ house, to share the sweets with them.

Love your enemies.

And teach your children how to love their enemies.

There’s lots about the meditation that I practice and teach that tends to be misunderstood. I suspect that the misunderstanding must have something to do with how I’m teaching it, but whatever. One of those misunderstandings is that there’s something to be thinking about – or that there’s nothing to be thinking about. But as far as my meditation practice is concerned, thoughts are just the sensations of the mind.

As I sit in this moment, I smell the dry, processed scent of airplane ventilation system. In the next moment, I see sunlight angled in on the seat-tray of the passenger next to me. I feel the pressure of the soles of my feet against my socks, shoes, and floor. A particular hair follicle on my left cheek. The blue of the computer screen background. The vibration of the airplane’s engines coming through my seat cushion. The sensation of the air I inhale as it crosses the edge of my right nostril. The pressure on the pad of my left ring finger against the keyboard. The taste of Diet Coke. A thought of my wife at home. Anticipation of New York City. Stomach. Thought. Sensation. Thought. Dit. Dit. Dit. Ditditditiditditditditditdit…………………………………………….

Each perception is a change relative to the prior state. The very definition of a moment.

One of the most important meditation instructions I ever received was this: “It doesn’t matter what arises in your experience; it only matters that you notice it."

“And then speed up your noticing.”

I considered the instruction, and thought, “ok, I’ll try it.”

Then I got the next part of the instruction: “With diligent practice, you can notice dozens of perceptions each second.”

Each second?!!? No way. Uh uh.

And in a way, I was right: it was impossible to do what I was doing dozens of times per second.

Eventually (and this took years), I began to realize several things. First, I realized that in a normal conversation, at normal talking rates, I was already perceiving, processing, and making use of at least a dozen inputs per second. Think about it. “Think” “about” “it”





“- -“






“- -“



In a single second, a dozen sound changes, to say nothing of assembling the sounds into conceptual words, to say nothing of associating the words with meanings, to say nothing of understanding the meaning ,to say nothing of formulating intention with respect to the meaning, to say nothing of acting on the intention.

So I realized that in fact, a dozen is more than possible. I remembered that movies run at about 30 frames per second, giving even the fastest-noticing people the illusion of motion pictures.


So what was the meditation secret? Getting out of the way. Letting go. Why was I only able to notice two or three things per second? Because I was holding onto them. Sometimes only a split-second or two; sometimes longer. Long enough to recognize them, name them, assign some content-meaning to them, relate to them, attach to them or avert from them. Lost in thought.


So how am I getting in the way of Robyn’s death? Attachment. She was – she is still – interwoven in my experience. My mind formulates certain meanings with her role in my life assumed, steady, essential, permanent.

And yet, she is not.

If I simply notice that, there is a sense of change. If I try to argue with reality – the reality that does not include her – suffering arises. Disappointment.


All is unsettled. Anicca.


Even Robyn. Even “I.” Even even.


Anicca: impermanence

Ken McLeod: What is the one thing you know about every relationship you have? That it will end. So what should you do with every relationship? Savor it.


Several years ago, I worked at a company that was in the final stages of being sold to another company. Because there were a lot of government regulatory approvals that were required before the deal could close, there was a gap of about a year between the time the deal was announced and the time it was expected to be completed. As is usually the case with such events, many of us working there expected to lose our jobs within a few days of the deal closing.

Toward the end of the process, a group of us decided to have a celebration dinner at a nearby restaurant. We reserved a private room, and had some fun sharing food and stories and laughs from our time together. Toward the end of the evening, Tom – a lawyer I’d worked with for several years – asked for a moment to speak. We quieted down. He brought out a bottle of port, and said, “I like to collect bottles of port when I can, but it’s harder to find the right moment to open a old bottle of port than it is to find a really old bottle of port. When I learned that the company was being sold, I realized that this was the occasion and the group to share this with.” He then uncorked a bottle of 130 year old port. The room we were in was large enough for the 14 or 15 of us there that evening, but not much larger than that.

As soon as he pulled the cork, the entire room was filled with an incredible fragrance of pears and walnuts. We breathed it together. It lasted only a couple of moments, then disappeared.

And ten years later, I still remember it clearly.


When I think of savoring the impermanent I think of the brief scent of Tom’s 130 year old port, reconnecting with the outside world, blossoming briefly, then done.


A blessing – not a curse:

Every building ends in ruin.
Every meeting ends in parting.
Every aggregation ends in dispersion.
Every birth ends in death.