The Dome of Time and Space

One of the most primary experiences of Earthly incarnation is that we are bound in time and space. But are we?

I recently reread the novel Siddhartha  by Herman Hesse, a novel that has intrigued me since I first discovered it long ago as a young student at the university.

Set in the time of the Buddha, it is the story of Siddhartha, a young Brahmin, and his search for enlightenment. After following many divergent paths, Siddhartha finally finds peace in his old age as a ferryman living by a river, listening to its voice.

In this reading, it was Siddhartha’s image of the river that stood out for me.Unknown He came to understand that the river was always now, its source, its passage through many landscapes, its return to the ocean, all one, all present at the same time. Then he realized that his life was like the river, always now from birth to death.

I have been thinking about this in relation to my own life. The concept bends my mind. As I age, memories long forgotten thrust forward unexpectedly from time to time, so real and clear they shake my sense of presence. Can it be that my long life is all now? The joys and griefs of my childhood, all the ways I’ve danced, all the spiritual paths I’ve followed, all the dance and yoga and Rolfing students I have taught, my marriages, my lovers, my children and grandchildren at all their ages and stages?

The not-yet-remembered unknown years that lie ahead? My death? All now? All present in this moment?

I can barely hold this realization for the length of a breath. But in that breath, I am free of time.

Then there is space.

Last week my husband and I spent the day in the high country.DSCN0309 We lingered long among the peaks, and, even as we descended, kept looking back to the snow-dappled mountains, the huge sky. We drove down through the canyon, ears popping with the change in altitude, and came into town. It always feels sudden, jarring, after a day in the mountains to emerge from the canyon onto the city streets of Boulder.

But this last time, I had the strange experience that all the streets and buildings were very small, tiny, like doll houses, like the streets and buildings of the elaborate model train layout my brother created when we were children. That it was only by some weird Alice-in-Wonderland trick that I could fit into them at all. That strange perception stayed with me all the way home, driving through the impossibly narrow streets between the teeny tiny buildings. It was as if the vastness of the high country had filled me and was the only true dimension.

stars on the dark

There is also the immensity of the starry sky.

If there is no time, if all the bliss and the anguish are now, how can there be suffering?

If the world we think is so important is actually rather insignificant in comparison with the dimensions of the cosmos, of even our own mountains, then perhaps we don’t need to take ourselves so seriously.

It is only a glimpse, a crack in the dome of three-dimensional reality, a whiff of possibility, hope. Yet in that glimpse is freedom.

Transcending Pain

On the planet of Eliria there is no pain. The Elirians are troubled by what they find here on Earth. Tirini says of the humans they have brought to their ship to heal, “They speak of pain. We feel their pain, but we of Eliria do not have pain of our own. We did not know of pain until we came here.”

And Clara, the human, exclaims, “What a blessed life you have!”

Indeed.

I believe that pain is probably the most difficult of the challenges of being incarnate on planet Earth.

Acute short-term pain can be intense, but it passes, we heal, and go on. Long- term pain is another matter.

It isolates. When we are in pain, we don’t have the energy and it hurts too much to go out and connect. Our pain can become so central in our consciousness that we find it difficult to speak of anything else, but complaining is a serious turn-off to those around us.

We find ourselves in survival mode. How can I get through this day? this night? Nights can be the hardest of all when pain denies us even the rest we so sorely need. We wonder, is it worth it to keep struggling?

I recently went through two years of acute sciatic pain. I am now gratefully functional again, but it was the toughest thing I’ve been through in my long life. During those two difficult years, I gradually crafted a survival code:

  1. Don’t complain. Ask for help only if I truly need it, and then be specific about exactly what help I need. Never dump the whole misery on anyone.
  2. Don’t freak out. Fear makes the pain worse, much worse.
  3. Show up. Keep all appointments and social engagements unless I truly can’t. Stay connected.

But that was only a survival code, and I am seeking to discover how we can transcend the challenges of Earthly incarnation. How can we live with pain in a sacred manner? How bring light out of such misery?

I confess I don’t know. I made it out the end of the tunnel, and I do believe I am wiser for the experience, but I’m not sure exactly how. I have only a few clues.

One is to keep hope alive. Change is the only constant. Miracles do happen. A year and a half ago, in the depths of my pain, I never dreamed I would walk in the high country or dance the tango again. And now I can.

Another is to live in gratitude. I learned to give thanks for the most basic gifts of my life—a comfortable chair, a hot bath, a warm bed, a roof over my head, food—and most of all for the friends who stood by me even before I learned not to complain. Every time we stop and give thanks, there is less space in our consciousness for pain.

Perhaps most important is the discipline of staying present. The Buddhists make a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is a physical sensation. Simply that. Suffering happens when we fall into fear, exacerbating the physical pain with emotional freakout and mental anguish, projecting whole mess onto an infinite future.

When we stay with the present moment, there is only the sensation of pain. Then perhaps we can expand our awareness to include our breath. Then our surroundings. The softness of our bed, or if we can go outside—which always helped me—the color of the sky, the earth underfoot, the smell of the air, the feel of the wind. The more we include in our present moment awareness, the less space there is for pain.

What clues have you found that help you transcend pain? I would welcome your sharing.