A good time to feel alive

Opinion: Columns

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Well, my time went so quickly, I went lickety-splitly, out to my old '55.

And I pulled away slowly, feeling so holy,

God knows I was feeling alive …

                                               Tom Waits 

When do you feel alive? The adrenaline-fueled excitement of sports? Losing yourself in sexual intimacy? Being in the presence of awe-inspiring beauty?

Just as I know beauty when I see it, I know alive when I feel it.

At the very least the purpose of life is learning how to live. It takes a lifetime to learn how to live. Some never learn. Some have the knack.

Mostly, we think too much. "The human condition: lost in thought," writes Eckhart Tolle, in Stillness Speaks, excerpted in the latest issue of Sun magazine. "Most people spend their entire life imprisoned within the confines of their own thoughts. They never go beyond a narrow, mind-made, personalized sense of self that is conditioned by the past."

The antidote isn't "mindlessness." Indeed, he writes, "the thinking mind is a useful and powerful tool, but it is also very limiting when it takes over your life completely, when you don't realize that it is only a small aspect of the consciousness that you are."

David Foster Wallace in his Kenyon College commencement address, talked about the mind being "an excellent servant, but a terrible master." Look around and you will see a world built by human beings who, for the most part, were, or are, mastered by thought and/or emotion.

Not by wisdom, which, according to Tolle, "is not a product of thought. The deep knowing that is wisdom arises through the simple act of giving someone or something your full attention. Attention is primordial intelligence, consciousness itself. It dissolves the barriers created by conceptual thought, and with this comes the recognition that nothing exists in and by itself. It joins the perceiver and the perceived in a unifying field of awareness. It is the healer of separation."

Martin Buber called this mystical union, "speaking the sacred word I-Thou." It is a form of ecstasy, which literally means, "to stand outside yourself." Another word for it would be "love." When the perceiver and perceived withdraw from that unifying field, they re-enter the world of "I-It," Buber said, where we experience the illusion of being separate from everything else. Where everything becomes an object, which we may be tempted to exploit. Where we too often lose our sense of holiness. No wonder human beings don't demonstrate enough respect for life. The greater our separation, the greater the unhappiness, and the less we feel alive.

Living in the world of "I-It," Buber said, is "the melancholy of our fate." We spend most of our lives there. But if we never enter the world of "I-Thou, we are the poorer for it.

It can't be a coincidence that "evil" is the word "live" spelled backward. Evil is the consequence of living backward, living separated, living alienated. Not really living at all.

In his recent column, "Pope Francis and the Art of Joy," New York Times columnist Timothy Egan reports that when the pope was asked last year about the secret to happiness, "He said slow down. Take time off. Live and let live. Don't proselytize. Work for peace. Work at a job that offers basic human dignity. Don't hold onto negative feelings. Move calmly through life. Enjoy art, books and playfulness."

My grandsons have reintroduced me to playfulness. I sit on the floor with them and play with their toys. Once I entered their world, they relaxed and resumed playing — sometimes with me, sometimes with each other, sometimes on their own. They required that I be present, not separate and overseeing. They won't leave me alone until I join them. They won't let me lose myself in thought.

The opposite of being lost in thought is "mindfulness," a popular word among meditators — or, as the title of a recent book conveys it, the state of "Now. Here. This." 

Living now, living here, living this. Living meaningfully.

Summer is a good time for living now, which is the only way to escape the tyranny of time: i.e. momentarily. Ironically, cultivating the knack has taken me a very long time. Mastering it takes even longer. 

Finding my way back into the present, fortunately, seems to get easier as I get older. When I was younger, I spent more time thinking about "someday." Now that I'm older, I have less of it — and I'm forgetting most of "once upon a time" — so the present looks more and more accessible and appealing.

As Robin Williams' TV character, Mork, used to say, "Be here now … or get there later." Only we never get "there." We only have "here." Living in the moment, life reveals its beauty and meaning. It's such a cliché — stop and smell the roses — until you start doing it, clichés being the latch on a door just waiting to be opened.

Now hear this: Now. Here. This.

As Buber would say, "All real living is meeting."

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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