I assumed the group of students visiting our store here in Barnet were from a high school, but it turned out they were from Indiana Pennsylvania University. This is one way I’ve noticed the passage of time lately: college students are much younger now than when I was in college. However, photos recently posted to Facebook show that I and my classmates were just as young then as today’s college students are now. Curiously, when I see these photos there’s a lack of recognition: people look younger than I remember them. I haven’t seen them for twenty years, but often their current (“after”) photos look more like my memory of them than the 20-years-ago (“before”) photos do. (Except for those like myself with significant hair loss and weight gain.)
There was never a sense that I would age, and in fact I think I still don’t believe it. Life would continue for sure, but I would – will – continue always to be as pretty and as energetic as 20-year-old me. And since I don’t age, and death only happens to old people, that’s something else which never crossed/crosses my mind. But a surprising number of my friends from college are no longer living. People who were younger than me. A dear old friend of mine died of a heart attack a few months ago; she was 41. Can you see where I’m going with this?
Of course, whenever I really start to contemplate my own impermanence, thoughts begin flickering about things which I need to do before I die, and so I’d better get practicing to become a famous middle-aged bald rock musician, or getting in shape so I can experience the smells of Everest Base Camp first hand, or go bungee jumping in the Grand Canyon. But the thing is, these thoughts don’t stay with me for long. People usually apply the old saw “you can’t take it with you” to the accumulation of wealth or material objects, but it seems to apply equally well to the accumulation of thrilling, or entertaining, or mind-numbing, time-consuming, experiences. I can’t take them with me either. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with bungee jumping, or with owning a nice house, or watching Star Trek reruns on my laptop, or whatever. Certainly if one is engaged in what seems necessary, is doing what truly brings them joy, that joy will generally spread infectiously. If I can apply another old saw, it’s not what you do but how you do it.
So the question (besides “What is this thing called life and how do you do it?”) becomes, What is it that truly brings me joy? Which some days is easy enough to answer and some days is not. But the best way I’ve found of asking, or addressing, that question – both of those questions – is to sit down on my meditation cushion and simply look at this human life in this moment. Sitting here between heaven and earth, at, as I think Thoreau put it, “the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment.”
Now all I need to do is take my own advice and sit my butt down on my zafu…