Impermanence Revisited

Tulips and Bluebells
Tulips and Bluebells

Here in Pennsylvania the tulips are in various stages of maturity. The beautiful yellow ones in front of my house dried up and blew away, while the others are somewhere near the end of their life cycle.

I found these in a local park and they seem to be in their prime, but in a few weeks they will be gone forever-dust to dust. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m getting older or maybe I just notice it more, but things seem to move a lot faster now.

Watching the flowers come and go is also watching the days speed by, and I know I’m running out of time. Of course this is how life works; we’re here for a while and then we’re gone. And whether we acknowledge it or not, suffering comes from wanting things to be different than they are.

W. Somerset Maugham, author of The Razor’s Edge has a great perspective on impermanence: “Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it.”

Along the way, take time to smell the flowers, in as many ways as you can for as long as you can.

Don’t Fear the Sunset

Pequea Marina
Pequea Marina

“There are those who fear the sunset, worried they will never see light again. There are those who ignore the sunrise, squandering dawn, believing they will never run out of daylight.

And then there are those who have learned to live in the sun’s warmth, gauging time by its positions, thankful at night that the day happened. Be aware of time. Use it wisely. Be thankful for the light allotted.” Richelle E. Goodrich

The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses

National Watch and Clock Museum
National Watch and Clock Museum

I remember the first time I heard someone say that there weren’t enough hours in the day. It was my friend Terry, a normal teenager like the rest of us, but with a lot more money, the hottest girl in high school, and the largest drug business in town.

I’ve never felt that way because like Albert Einstein, I believe that time is an illusion. But the world runs on time, our days are based on hours, minutes and seconds. And whether you believe in it or not, if you don’t show up to class or work people get upset.

There are 86,400 seconds in a day, and if you manage to sleep for eight hours a third of those are spent unconscious. It may still seem like a lot of time when you’re young, but as you get older you see how it slips away.

Charles Bukowski wrote a book of poems called The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills, a beautiful way to say what we all know but sometimes try to ignore. One of his many brilliant quotes is: “We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”

For those of you that would like a more clinical view from one of the most famous doctors of all time, I give you this from Dr. Seuss: “How did it get so late so soon? Its night before its afternoon. December is here before its June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?”

Being and Nothingness

Being and Nothingness
Being and Nothingness

Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre has been called the bible of existentialism. It’s a long, difficult book to read, and depending on who you ask, it’s either a work of pure genius, complete nonsense or both.

It might be worthwhile to look at some other things that Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in order to understand existentialism and his perspective in general.

For example, he said: “All I really want to do is go to the book store, drink coffee and read.” Back in his day book stores didn’t even have Wi-Fi, so you know he was serious.

Another thing that’s crucial to understanding the man and his philosophy is this: “I do not think therefore I am a mustache.” Well, obviously.

And possibly the most important thing he ever said is: “Three o’clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do.”

This is especially true of most outdoor photography unless you plan to shoot wide open, convert to black and white, and call it something obscure like being and nothingness.

A Tale Told By an Idiot?

Bleeding hearts
Bleeding hearts

In Macbeth Shakespeare writes: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

I have to admit that I’ve felt that way before, as most people probably have when they realize that they aren’t going to live forever. A tale told by an idiot seems a bit strong though, and if Shakespeare were around today he would probably get a prescription for Prozac, but I digress.

After a light rain I went to a garden full of flowers and trees in a nearby park, which in itself is something very special, and I noticed that the bleeding hearts were starting to bloom.

Walking down to a small pond with a waterfall, I looked at them as if they were something new to me, because they were. In a few weeks they will be completely gone, and they will come back next spring whether I’m there to see them or not.

Watching these absolutely amazing flowers I remembered the feeling I used to get after washing down a couple of Xanax with a glass of Vodka. It was a feeling of calmness, and I knew that even though the tale doesn’t last, I like to be here when I can.

I no longer need drugs and alcohol to get that feeling, a walk in the garden can do it in a heartbeat. If life signifies nothing, so be it, its only going to be a short walk anyway.

No Easy Way to be Free

No Easy Way to be Free
No Easy Way to be Free

I wrote this for a creative writing class in 2008, a couple of years after my third rehab. It’s about making new friends in a place known as The Ranch House on the grounds of the Norristown State Hospital. The guests call it what it is, a looney bin.

Peggy, the oldest, forever in her tattered robe, hopscotching down the hall when she’s not talking to herself or crying.

Adrian, the young, spoiled wannabe junkie, whining about not getting strong enough meds.

Stacy, fresh from the pizza shop, smiling and stumbling around on Seroquel.

Steve, the happy criminal, acting like he’s at summer camp.

Victor, a child in a forty year old body, slipping into schizophrenic rants about hidden cameras in the vents.

Donna, the large breasted, healthy looking nurse, explaining her addiction to Vicodin.

Sara, the stuck up prostitute, waltzing through the cafeteria like a queen.

Susan, the tough, freckled, career alcoholic trying to play bouncer.

Carl, his laces taken away, flapping down the hall all night in oversized shoes, driving everyone crazy.

Lucas, the seasoned gang member with the bitten off ear, bragging about his tragic childhood.

Tom, lanky and pale, trying to beat himself to death after a half-assed hanging attempt.

And me, a paragon of sanity, here with my friends.

From the Boat to the Box

Death
Death

One of the mind training slogans called Lojong, brought to Tibet by Buddhist teacher Atisha is: “Regard all dharma as dreams.” Well that’s nice isn’t it, it’s like rowing your boat gently down the stream, but what exactly does this mean?

Pema Chodron explains it like this: “Simply, regard everything as a dream. Life is a dream. Death is also a dream, for that matter; waking is a dream and sleeping is a dream.” As simply as she put it, we just went from the little man in the boat to the old man in the box.

Eckhart Tolle said: “Death is a stripping away of all that is not you. The secret of life is to die before you die-and find that there is no death.” This is the type of thing that every junkie will understand clearly, but what about those rare people that aren’t leading lives of quiet desperation?

The way I see it, at the end of our life we will realize that we could have done things differently, we could have done more with the time that we had. We don’t have to wait for that day.

Sh-boom, sh-boom, ya-da-da-da-da-da. Sh-boom, sh-boom, ya-da-da-da-da-da. Sh-boom, sh-boom, ya-da-da-da-da-da, Sh-boom.

Retirement-Now What?

Now What?
Now What?

Although I’m not officially retired, I haven’t worked in about nine years other than a very small online business. I get up every morning and ask myself the same question; now what? There are plenty of ways to fill your time but not all are equally satisfying.

Terri Guillemets once said that “Sometimes it’s hard to tell if retirement is a reward for a lifetime of hard work or a punishment.” I’m sure many people feel that way, especially if they’re struggling financially like myself, but it’s not only about the money.

I used to work for a guy that owned one of the largest restoration companies on Eastern Long Island. When he was well into his seventies he tried to retire and failed many times, preferring to work until he died.

I have a friend in Strasburg who is 78 years old and the best motorcycle mechanic in Pennsylvania. Until very recently, he worked six days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day by choice. The last time I saw him he told me he was retiring for good, but I have a feeling he’s back in his shop with a garage full of bikes and a smile on his face.

Both of these people had more money than they needed, but neither was the type to sit around and do nothing. When you retire you need a reason to get up in the morning, something to not only fill your time but to fill your life.

As hard as it may be to believe, especially if you’re nowhere near retirement age, doing nothing all day is not easy. Even Eckhart Tolle got tired of sitting around after a couple of years.

In Pooh’s Little Instruction Book, Pooh says: “Don’t underestimate the value of doing nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

When you’re three years old that may be great advice, but unless you drink heavily (not recommended) it’s not so great when you no longer have a job to go to and complain about for eight hours. Ah, those were the days…

Maybe Tomorrow, Maybe Someday

I'll quit tomorrow
I’ll quit tomorrow

“Maybe you can afford to wait. Maybe for you there’s a tomorrow. Maybe for you there’s one thousand tomorrows, or three thousand, or ten, so much time you can bathe in it, roll around it, let it slide like coins through you fingers. So much time you can waste it.

But for some of us there’s only today. And the truth is, you never really know.” Lauren Oliver-Before I Fall

All Mama’s Children

Haines Shoe House
Haines Shoe House

The rain had just stopped as dawn broke over the Haines Shoe House in York, Pennsylvania yesterday, and I remembered a song I heard years ago working on a much larger house in Southampton.

The lead carpenter was a former lawyer who found that chopping wood was more rewarding then Jurisprudence, and he listened to county music all day long.

The song was All Mama’s Children by Carl Perkins and it went like this:

“There was an old woman that lived in a shoe, had so many children, she didn’t know what to do. They were doin all right, til she took em to town, the kids started pickin em up and putting em down.

Now all your children wanna rock, mama, all your children want to roll. They wanna roll, wanna rock, wanna bop til they pop. All your children want to rock.”

The Haines Shoe House is now open for guided tours and they serve gourmet hand-dipped ice cream and Mellie’s Makery treats (it’s not just a bakery it’s a makery). Rocking and bopping are encouraged but only outside.

The Gateless Gate

The Gateless Gate?
The Gateless Gate?

The Gateless Gate is a collection of 48 Zen koans compiled in the 13th century by the Chinese Zen master Mumon Ekai. Pausha Foley, an amazing artist and self described strange creature that doesn’t exist, explains the gateless gate in a way that even a child like me of 58 can understand:

“The gate is a creation of the human mind. As long as one believes oneself to be one’s mind, the gate is as solid and real as the mind is. As soon as one cases to identify with one’s mind however, the mind and all its creations reveal themselves as what they are: a bunch of ideas, devoid of any substance. So, from within the mind the gate exists, from outside of the mind it does not.”

If this isn’t crystal clear by now I give you koan 7, Joshu Washes the Bowl:

A monk asked Zhaozhou to teach him.
Zhaozhou asked, “Have you eaten your meal?”
The monk replied, “Yes, I have.”
“Then go wash your bowl”, said Zhaozhou.
At that moment, the monk was enlightened.

Of course one very important point must be made; if you don’t rinse your bowl before putting it in the dishwasher, it will not get completely clean and you will not be enlightened. The cleaning lab at the Good Housekeeping Institute says otherwise, but they also say that pre-rinsing is a needless time suck. Obviously they’ve never heard of the theory of relativity.

Thoughts Are Not Real

Thoughts
Thoughts

You may have heard it said that our thoughts are not real, and you may have thought about it until you became as confused as Schrodinger’s cat. In Everyday Zen, Charlotte Joko Beck said that a thought in itself is just pure sensory input, an energy fragment. But wait, there’s more.

Eckhart Tolle spent almost two years sitting on park benches in what he says was a state of intense joy. So what was he thinking about all that time, and did he realize that his thoughts weren’t real?

Eventually he ran out of bird food or whatever and wrote an excellent book called The Power of Now, which began with a chapter called you are not your mind. He wrote: “To realize that you are not your thoughts is when you begin to awaken spiritually.”

But there is a difference between knowing that you are not your thoughts and knowing that thoughts are not real. A good example is when you see what looks like water on a hot road and you know that it’s not real, yet you still see it. You’re seeing an illusion; you can even take a photo of it, but it’s only an illusion.

The Buddha said: “A wise man, recognizing that the world is but an illusion, does not act as if it is real, so he escapes the suffering.” Yes, so tell me again about the imaginary cat in the box Erwin.

Maybe Albert Einstein had it figured out when he said: “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

So are some thoughts real and others only partially real? Are there good thoughts and bad thoughts? What is the sound of one hand clapping? What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow? Who’s on first?

Lao Tzu said: “Stop thinking, and end your problems. What difference between yes and no? What difference between success and failure? Must you value what others value, avoid what others avoid? How ridiculous!”

Think about that.

Contentment and Catnaps

Zen cat
Zen cat

The dictionary defines contentment as the state of being mentally or emotionally satisfied with things as they are.

Socrates said: “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” Yes, but I want more…

I was in a greenhouse yesterday looking at seeds and starter plants, it was really a beautiful place to be, and for almost three minutes I was content. A cat calmly strolled in and completely ignored me, or so I thought.

I remember Eckhart Tolle saying something about cats as Zen masters, so I asked this cat to teach me about contentment. Again he ignored me, but I watched him.

He walked carefully between the rows of flowers and herbs, and I wondered if he was telling me to take time to smell the flowers. Then he began eating them, and I wasn’t sure if this was a sign to eat healthier or to do whatever makes you happy.

After he finished destroying a basil plant he hopped off the table and headed to his favorite place, which was literally the best seat in the house. He lay down on some warm boards in front of a sunny window, and looked at me as if to say: take a picture it’ll last longer, and then went to sleep.

If he was trying to tell me something I missed it, and on the way home I thought about new motorcycles, mansions and yachts, just a few of the things I feel I need to be content.

But I had the whole day to do whatever I wanted, I had enough money for lunch, and I had a picture of a Zen cat.

Charles M. Schulz said: “Learn from yesterday, live for today, look to tomorrow, rest this afternoon.”

Maybe that was his message; maybe I simply needed a catnap. So I went home and took a nap in my warm bed in front of a sunny window, and it was good. Now all I need is to move into this greenhouse and start eating plants.

There’s a great shade tree to park my bike under, my yacht will be moored of course, and as Elmer J. Fudd taught us, nobody really needs a mansion.

The Illusion of Security

The Illusion of Security
The Illusion of Security

Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Theravada Buddhist monk wrote an article called The Search for Security on a website called Access to Insight. This is from the first paragraph:

“We only feel at ease when we are sealed off from manifest danger, comfortably at home with ourselves and with our world, snugly tucked into familiar territory where everything seems friendly and dependable.”

Probably the best perspective on this, as well as one of the most intelligent things anyone has ever said is by Helen Keller:

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

You cannot win, if you do not play.

Right Concentration on the Path

The Path
The Path

Sometimes the path is a soft cushion of grass on a warm sunny day, with birds landing on your shoulder and baby deer leading the way. And sometimes the path is a slippery downhill slope, covered with ice and snow on a cold winter morning. In both situations it’s important to concentrate.

Eve Adamson and/or Gary R. McClain, authors of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Zen Living said: “Concentration means working on achieving a one-pointed mind. If you are doing something, concentrate wholly on what you are doing.”

Now I’ve known many idiots but few were complete idiots, and fewer still were complete idiots interested in Zen living. So maybe a more practical quote might be easier to understand.

Serena Williams once said: “If you can keep playing tennis when somebody is shooting a gun down the street, that’s concentration.” I wonder if she’s the one that said you only live once, but you get to serve twice.