tisdag, maj 06, 2008

Waiting in line - a Doorway to Eternity - part 1

Have you ever studied people standing in line, to the counter at the local grocery, at the Bank or at the Pharmacy? I work as a pharmacist, and all my customers stand in line to get my help with their drug prescriptions. When they stand there waiting, I don’t think they know that I observe them very closely, It’s an observing that is more like a meditation. I am about to claim that a waiting person can reveal to the observer one of the most fascinating mysteries about the human existence.

The challenge is that this mystery is hidden beneath a thick veil of obvious facts that is pretty hard to look through. I would never have begun this study of waiting people, were it not for a parallel and intensive study of a wide array of contemplative, mystical literature combined with a practice of meditation and mindfulness awareness. When we undertake a contemplative spiritual path of any given choice, it’s very easy to get lost in speculation and theorizing. Being able to anchor our ideas about a timeless dimension of reality and how that dimension might interact with normal every day consciousness, is crucial. All the theories and words has to be centred and structured around, not observable facts like activities, but around subjective experiences that most people can share. One of these experiences is, I would claim, waiting in line. The waiting experience can be subdivided into many grades. When waiting becomes uncomfortable it’s called impatience or restlessness. Waiting can also be less uncomfortable like normal anticipation. Of course it matters what you wait for, if is it something that will bring you pleaser or pain? That do matter, but not ultimately. Ultimately waiting is the same no matter what we wait for or what intensity the feeling has.

I will now just record what kind of thoughts and feelings that appear in me when I study my line of waiting people at the pharmacy. First of all we can notice the obvious fact that a Pharmacy is not a place you visit because you want to enjoy yourself. You go there out of necessity and who could not imagine a place they would rather visit. You can easily observe how their bodies say out loud – take me to a better place, NOW, I don’t want to waste my life waiting in line in this boring place. I want excitement, I want pleasure, I want fun, party, adventure, peace, anything but being here at this damned Pharmacy.
Of course most people are not even aware of these feelings, they think they can tolerate being there waiting, because they are grown up people, they can control their feelings, they can even manage to enjoy the visit, at least that is what they consciously believe. But you don’t have to be a genius at body language to realize that they are trying to deceive themselves. Deep down they hate being there, deep down they have dreams waiting to be manifested, important stuff, fun stuff, adventurous stuff. Waiting in line at the Pharmacy is not something people would call one of their dreams. You have to be some kind of “Zen freak” in order to claim waiting in line to be your dream.

But don’t let us speculate in what peoples unconscious motives and drives are. Forgive me for doing so. It’s not necessary for what I want to reveal to you. Let’s just agree on the fact that life is full of stuff you have to do in order to get to the stuff you really want. Often people want to do things that gets them into a flow state, like a sports activity, some creative activity like dancing, singing, playing an instrument, or an intellectual activity like reading or solving mathematical problems. Very often they also want to just relax, alone or hanging out with friends or family. Anything that puts them into a state of flow. I think I have to say something about what I have understood to be the requirements for a flow state. In order to experience flow you have to do something that gives your mind a direction, a goal, something that, to sound very theoretical, decreases the state of entropy / chaos in the mind. A goal that is realistic is perfect to decrease entropy and achieve flow. Our minds are constantly looking for such goals, and it’s only natural when you wait in a line at the local Pharmacy to create a goal that can be formulated – get out of here as fast as possible. But is that goal really working? My experience is that it doesn’t work very well. It doesn’t make you enter the flow state. Why? You could say that it’s because of the way you interpret the situation. If you interpret the waiting experience as something you have to endure it becomes something you have to endure. But it’s not that simple. I don’t think it is only a matter of interpretation.

Let me change perspective here and introduce the grim and unpleasant factor that is called Death. Because what is it that is waiting for all of us somewhere in the future? Isn’t it Death? That is one way of looking at it but not a very interesting one. Not an uplifting way either. I think we are all waiting for The End of Waiting. We are waiting for the experience of finally having arrived. Arrived at something we hardly can put into words. For the religiously inclined it might be worded as Salvation. For the ones hungry for power or wealth it might be worded as Security. For the ones hungry for love it might be true love. For the ones hungry for ecstasy it might be – well, ecstasy… and so on …
We all have some unclear picture of what “the end of waiting” might be like. Some would say that they actually enjoy waiting, they like the struggle for a goal and as soon as they arrive at any goal they would immediately find or invent a new goal. We could call them warriors, they want war, they don’t want peace. War makes them feel alive. I don’t know if these people, the warriors, could be said to wait for “the end of waiting”, but my guess is that they long for eternal life, for them meaning eternal war. They are probably waiting for some kind of promise that teh war/life will go on for ever. But they can never be at peace because how can they know that the war will go on for ever? What if one day there is peace? What if there is suddenly no more goals to fight for, to strive for? What a terrible fate! I think this last category is the most interesting one. We think we want peace but what if peace is the scariest thing there is? What if harmony will be unbearably boring? What if this life with all it’s chaos, confusion and war after all is what we want most of all?
I would say that then we would really have a reason to be worried. Because how can we know for sure that peace and harmony doesn’t exist?

Another thing that often crosses my mind when watching people waiting in line is that waiting to arrive at some kind of Goal might be the driving force of our whole existence. But I wouldn’t say for sure that it’s the driving force for our WHOLE existence, only the part that eastern spirituality often calls Samsara or Maya or in English, - ILLUSION - .
But what is it that is a illusion? I always come to the same conclusion – Illusion / Samsara / Maya – is Time. The driving force of our whole existence is time. But what if time isn’t something that exists out there, just like that, like some objective truth, what if time is like a dream that we create in our minds in order to make the whole show running? What if time is a fantasy, a fantastic invention, something to play with?

Ram Dass, the famous American Guru, once told of an event that became a major spiritual breakthrough for him. As I remember it he was sitting in a train in India. The trip got delayed for different reasons, over and over again and he started to feel as if this train trip would never end. That filled him with anxiety and he felt more and more intensely how he longed for the traintrip to end. But then, suddenly he thought, okay, what if it never ends? What if I would be stuck on this train for eternity? And suddenly he was filled with immense peace. Maybe it was the acceptance that brought about this sudden shift. Maybe it was something else. I think it was something more than acceptance because to accept such an alternative would be rather bizarre and theoretical, would it not? I think he suddenly broke through the veil of time, the illusion of time. Like he had done so many times before both when meditating and when being on LSD.

Maybe a way to free ourselves from the dream of time is to draw situations to an extreme. I think a way out of time into the timeless is to see our time, our life in an increasingly bigger perspective. Our brain has that amazing capacity. And maybe that is only natural. If it can create time it can destroy it. It’s not impossible for us to get to an intellectual understanding of how our sun has life of it’s own, a birth and a death. Thanks to modern science we know that. But do we feel it? Can we look at our own lives from the perspective of the life of our Sun? That is to say, without panicking, or spacing out? Dare we feel how vast the universe is both in time and space?
I would say that is much less likely. But if we do, I think it’s a way to unravel the mystery of time, so to say – destroy our own creation, our own fantasy. But that takes a lot of courage. I don’t say I am more courageous than anybody else since I spend so much time contemplating on these issues. It’s more like I am forced to do it! I’m kind of spellbound with the project of trying to look through our collective spell. It scares the hell out of me every time but I can’t stop myself. I am like a person who can’t stop watching horror movies even if it makes him/her unable to sleep at night.

And with this in mind it can’t be anything but great humour to hear a customer be upset about waiting for 45 minutes and finding that totally unacceptable. Sometimes I have a hard time not bursting out in laughter when people complain over having to wait in line. But the laughter bubbling up inside me can very easily flip over and turn into crying. It’s something that is so painful about meeting people entirely contracted in an extremely narrow time perspective. How painful it must be being unable to shift between different time perspectives.
It’s a tragedy to experience 45 minutes like an eternity in a negative sense but it’s an even bigger tragedy to believe that our lives last for an eternity. Why?
Isn’t that obvious? It gives us an excuse to postpone every good intention we ever have. – Oh, that I can do tomorrow, we think.
But the tragedy can also be seen the other way round. As everybody have experienced time tends to move slower or almost stop when we have an peak experience. This is true for both positive and negative peak experiences. An extremely dangerous situations like a car accident can slow down time and fill it out with a sensory richness you seldom experience, but even extremely pleasurable experiences like a first kiss can affect time in the same way. Film makers tries to create this effect by playing certain scenes in slow motion which comes pretty close to how we actually experience these situations. Instead of calling them peak experiences we can call them Slow Motion Experiences.

If have now introduced a few different ways to attack the veil of obvious facts that is hiding the great secret revealed by a waiting human being.
Are we waiting for death to come?
Are we waiting for the end of waiting,
for our dreams to come true,
for true love,
for ecstasy,
for passion,
for final security,
for peace or for life to be an eternal war?

Remember, some people love peace and some love war, only that the lovers of war probably won’t tell you about it when they are sober. But why do you think there are so many wars going on if there were no lovers of war. There are even people who call themselves spiritual warriors.

But don’t let us get stuck here in speculations about polarities being dependent on each other. That’s not our aim. Our aim is to explore the waiting experience and see if it can in fact be one of the most elegant doorways into another dimension of reality. A reality that we often call a mystery because our language is unable to encompass it. But there is actually nothing mysterious about this dimension as soon as we let go of our attempts to capture it in language. As soon as we see words as they do in the Zen tradition, like pointers, or as they say, like a finger pointing to the moon. The trap is our fascination with language, a fascination that is very understandable, I guess that never before have any organisms been able to use such sophisticated means of communication. How can we not get stuck in that trap?

Well there are many ways, but let us here focus on one that I find to be one of the most brilliant – diving into the waiting experience by breaking through the veil of obvious facts. And let us start at the local Pharmacy where I work.

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