Sunday, May 12, 2013

Good Timing

We say that timing is everything. And sometimes, it feels just so. When we arrive at the bus stop just as the bus is coming into view, we can feel in snyc with the day and ready to take on a challenge. But if we arrive just as that bus is disappearing around the corner, there may be the temptation to turn around and go back home.

I had a small but interesting bit of synchonicity a few days ago. When I went out of town to my meditation retreat, I decided to leave lots of things at home, including my pocketwatch. It's a Molnija, an old style, Russian army, wind-up watch, bought from a merchant in an Old Havana courtyard last year. They make new pocketwatches with batteries these days, and have them produce a totally unnecessary "tick" to suggest authenticity. But the old ones, with all the springs and cogs and wheels inside, they make a richer, layered sound. Instead of the single tick per second, my Molnija produces at least eight. There's a steady beat on every half second, and underneath it is a triplet of beats that suggests a gallop. It keeps decent time if I remember to wind it regularly. When I don't, the galloping will gradually slow, and ultimately come to a halting stop, as it did over the day or so after I stashed it away in a drawer.

When I got back last Friday, I didn't think of it right away. In fact, it was Monday morning before I pulled it out. I put the watch to my ear without looking at it, not expecting any sound, of course - its absence just whetting my anticipation. Then I put my fingers to the stem, finding it totally without resistence as I began to twist, and I wound it up tight. I now had to reset the time, but when I glanced at the kitchen clock, ready to pull up on the watch stem so that I could adjust the hands, I hesitated. I looked from watch to clock again, then simply hefted the watch in my hand. It was already set. I didn't have to adjust it by a single minute.

How likely is that? Some days ago, the spring in the watch had gradually lost all of its tension, and the hands had stopped their movement across the clockface. It had been 7:23, but who can say whether it was morning or evening. But, a week later, when I picked up the watch to wind it, it happened to be that very time.  Not within five minutes, or two, or even one, but exactly 7:23. Yes, it made me smile. Made me feel that it was going to be a good day, that I was just where I was supposed to be, doing just what I was supposed to do.

How about one more of those, on a broader scale? I first tried to meditate when I was about thirteen, on the suggestion of Bill, a security guard for the building I lived in, and probably my first mentor. I didn't get far with it, or much out of it, during the following decades, but there must have been something, because I never gave up the determination that eventually I'd get something from it.

Fast forward more than thirty years. I'd ended a marriage, was living by myself and exploring possibilities again. I gave meditation another shot, sitting on cushions on my living room floor a few times a week. And finally it seemed to be taking me somewhere. That is, I wasn't falling asleep, or slipping deep into some fantasy, or merely sitting bored while trying to slow my breathing. Rather, I was having brief experiences of feeling entranced, or feeling energy coursing through my body. Sometimes I'd have the sensation of my body being enormous, like the size of a building. I was pleased that something was happening, and decided that it would now be the perfect time to get some instruction.

I had taken to scouring NOW magazine every week, to find interesting things to do, and whatdoyaknow, I come across a tiny ad with the prompt, "Learn how to Meditate." It gave a time and place, a room in a school in North Toronto. I expected to find a presenter and a handful of curious people. Instead, I arrived to find several hundred people murmuring excitedly about someone named Goenkaji. It turned out that S.N. Goenka of Burma was a master teacher of an ancient technique, and that he was on his first tour of North America in decades.

The slightly rotund and elderly man sat on the stage beside his silent wife, and in conversational tones, began to describe my own experience of meditating: the wandering mind, the struggle with distractions, the moments of focus. Then he described what meditation might offer: balance, a sharper mind and self awareness, equanimity, a happier and less reactive life. And ultimately, he issued the invitation: to commit ten days and learn the technique. Which I did, just a few months later. It was my perfect experience of being the ready student, and the teacher appearing.

I just heard a talk by Dr. Martin Seligman about positive psychology, discussing the science's new focus on happiness. He posits three kinds of happiness: that which comes from pleasureable experience, that which comes from meaningful activity, and that which comes from engagement or flow. One of the ways he describes being in flow is being so engaged in an activity that the world disappears and time stops.

Yes...time stopping. Another mysterious aspect of time, this magical ingredient of life. It works on us in so many ways. These effects: finding ourselves in sync, having need and opportunity meet in a common moment, or having time seem to disappear altogether, all suggest the opening of possibility. If we are each part of some enormous clockwork, all connected in the same rhythmed music, well, at least it is malleable in the ways we experience it. So perhaps time is more a mirror than a measure, reflecting back at us something about how we have - or have not - attuned ourselves to the world around us. When time disappears for awhile, it suggests an ultimate freedom. If time is still, then Einstein would suggest that speed in infinite, and there is nowhere that one cannot travel.

So even if we never escape time altogether, even in flow, it needn't be a harsh and rigid master. It needn't be the stingy force that always keeps us lagging behind, falling short. It can remind us, like our breath and our heartbeat, that what's ours is ours. My time can only be short or long by some external standard. In my own life, it will be the only infinity that ever matters. Synchronous clocks and appointments with buses are small things, but even infinity is made up of seconds. And in the end, it's only those seconds, and what they make available, that matter at all.