Past and future vision. The ability of mental flight through time–to remember the past and model alternative futures–is our evolutionary superpower as a species. These past and forward-looking capacities help us navigate the world really, really well.
We are the owls of time. Like the owl that reigns over its spacial territory as the animal with the best night vision, we reign over the territory of time as the animal with the best recall and future-modeling vision.
It’s a great survival advantage to be the sort of animal we are, with the power to range in memory and imagination over time past and time in potentia. It’s why we have big brains: to register incoming data in the present, and act on it with the assistance of recollection and imagination.
Anxiety. Brains support bodily movement. That’s why we have them. With the brain’s support, we efficiently block and avoid the alternative futures we don’t want, and assist into existence the alternative futures we do want.
But this blessing of past and future vision supporting bodily movement is also our curse, for it’s accompanied by anxiety. Past and future vision constitute the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil from which we eat and fall. These forms of vision deliver us from the instinctual innocence of animals into the cogito and experience of human anguish and decision-making. Imagine here Milton’s Adam and Eve, driven from Paradise, accompanied by the angel with the flaming sword.
Cast from the Garden of Instinct, there are so many things we can choose; so many enticements; so many things that can go wrong–and we see it. Like the owl that surveys the landscape of night, we survey the logically possible landscapes of time. We scrutinize and navigate these potential landscapes anxiously. We are not innocent.
So meditation returns us to the innocence of the metaphorical Garden; it brings the anxiety surrounding our gnosis of good and evil, past and future, down by bringing us back to this present moment–not channeled this time through animal instinct, but through meta-cognitive attention. Meditation is the dimmer switch on time vision, training us to get a bit of distance going in our relation to instinctual reactivity, memory, incoming data, and the terrors and enticements of those futures that we can imagine.
Calm abiding. That’s meditation. Calm abiding in the present.
Rising, ripening, rotting. In calm abiding, one notices a recurrent pattern that one comes to expect and accept: all things change. Whether as present to awareness, or in themselves, things are on the move; impermanent. All things in time are mortal, residing, as on a bell curve, in various and individual stages of rising, ripening, rotting. This is insight, what the Buddhists call vipassana. Existence is mortal existence in time; the world is on fire; “all that is solid melts into air” (Shakespeare).
And you can abide this dissolution calmly. That’s the wisdom bestowed by meditation practice. You don’t need to run away from what’s present in the moment, either into time past or time future. Rather than choosing to be elsewhere, you can choose to be in this now, content as Alan Ginsberg’s empty-eyed sheep in his poem, “Wales Visitation”:
No imperfection in the budded mountain,
Valleys breathe, heaven and earth move together,
daisies push inches of yellow air, vegetables tremble,
grass shimmers green
sheep speckle the mountainside, revolving their jaws with empty eyes,
horses dance in the warm rain,
tree-lined canals network live farmland,
blueberries fringe stone walls on hawthorn’d hills,
pheasants croak on meadows haired with fern—
What did I notice? Particulars! The
vision of the great One is myriad—
smoke curls upward from ashtray,
house fire burned low, […]
That’s insight into the nature of things from the vantage of calm abiding. “The / vision of the great One is myriad–” and on fire; “smoke curls upward from ashtray, / house fire burned low,…” If there’s a Buddhist version of the biblical fall, it’s in fighting this fire, trying to make things stay; mistaking what is impermanent and non-dual for permanent and dual.
So the instant you start thinking–“I mean to be permanent over here, and keep you permanent over there”–you’re pretty much done for. Buddhists call this sort of essentialist and dualistic thinking the beginning of ignorance (avidya). In Buddhism, dukkha (suffering) and avidya are intimately linked. If you’re dwelling in ignorance, you’ve mistaken the self that is non-dual, empty, impersonal, contingent, impermanent, and interdependent for dual, essential, personal, permanent, and disconnected. You’ve mistaken a rope for a snake.
And once you’ve mistaken yourself to be this sort of self (a self demarcated by a skin, ultimately separate from the cosmos and the ravages of time), you’re headed for a world of anxiety, anguish, and hurt, for now you’ve set the ongoing survival of you against the great big world that is not you.
So one of the insights gained in the practice of calm observing and abiding is that suffering begins at the point where self and nonself get distinguished in this manner. From an evolutionary perspective, this existential fall into duality begins with the first cell. The skin of the alpha cell–its boundary layer–was the beginning of all individual troubles in the cosmos. The first time something distinguished itself from everything else (became a “self”), the wheel of samsara (the wheel of birth and death; of rising, ripening, and rotting) started to turn, as a drama, for that organism. The shit hit the fan.
Of course, cells don’t have minds that worry about the outcomes of dramas, but we do. Though a cell functions dualistically, it isn’t thinking dualistically, but when we do, we purchase into the game of suffering and the ten thousand things, which is samsara.
The laughing, ironic Buddha. So meditation is not a tragic practice, akin to Greek theater, but an ironic one; a comic one. It’s seeing the dance of existence, and letting what’s actually here in this moment move along without one’s agitated and over-serious interference. Meditation stills the anxious dash of body and mind to avert, grasp, and hold.
The irony of calm abiding is illustrated in this haiku by Masahide:
My house burned down.
Now it’s easier
To see the rising moon.
One thing leaves, another rises, and one’s attitude can be, not uh oh, nor oh no, but ah so. The qualities, after all, of the next Big Thing will likely prove to be very much akin to what has your attention now. Something over there, in some future space and time, will arise, ripen, and rot to your awareness. No need to run to it. Like Polonius’s corpse in Hamlet, it “will stay till you come” (4.3.38). Be here now. Meditation is an island of calm. Let this time and place have its moment in you to arise, ripen, and rot–with your witness, but without regret or anxiety.
Here and now vision replaces past and future vision. Meditation is thus Oedipus-like, a kind of putting out of one’s eyes to the nightmare visions of past and future time so that you can experience, without an excess of static, what’s going on in the present. It’s losing the eyes of regret and anxious future vision, so as to be guided into the warm hand of this present Antigone, the daughter that is actually here and now.
And what’s going on here and now? This is where the levels of irony can get really thicket-wild, for in meditation you may come to realize that even this present is not actually present to you whole, but arrives as fragments colored by memory and imagination. Think of T.S Eliot’s line from The Wasteland: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” (line 431).
As a being in time, you cannot be unmediated, nor wholly present to yourself–and that’s okay. One trick of meditation is in letting the fragmentary nature of your present state of affairs be, accepting that even in this present moment you can never be wholly present to yourself, or experience the present as unmediated by memory, language, anticipation, thought, emotion. Your brain is always schematizing you, and in meditation you’re not trying to chase that fact away, but just, rather, noticing it.
So what a comic situation our pitiful species is in! Alan Watts once named one of his books, The Wisdom of No Escape. No rest for the
wicked big-brained apes that we are.
But this gnosis of our predicament–of our mediated, fragmentary, uncertain, and mortal lives–can also give us permission to lay down our arms, at least in the hour we meditate, and make love, not war, to this present cosmos. In lingering contemplation on our experience of now, we can see the world, and ourselves, with renewed curiosity and attention–and even sensuality–wondering and deriving pleasure from the beauty and oddness that presents itself now. Now.