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Dancing with fate and freedom

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Dancing with fate and freedom

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of self-help books (and self-appointed gurus touting them) that promise us the moon and the stars on a platter, in ten easy steps, for $19.99! It all looks so easy… fantasize, keep your focus on that Red Ferrari, or on that tumor shrinking and disappearing… do not let any negative thoughts break through… and before you know it, your wish will be manifested! With prayer, with positive thinking, with gratitude practice – you will cure your cancer, your child’s autism, lose those twenty extra pounds, and find your neighbor’s lost cat while at it!

And then, when after weeks and months of focusing and fantasizing and praying, you do not manifest your goal – you start to feel like a failure, a good-for-nothing who can’t even get ten easy steps right! You are sure you are the only one who read that book who couldn’t manifest what you desired. It’s all your fault; you are essentially and fundamentally defective – unlike everyone else around you!

So goes our self-narrative, in myriad variations of this stock story.

The problem with this brand of positive thinking is just that – it is relentlessly positive, with no space whatsoever allowed for what the ancient Greeks would have called the “tragic vision.” Or what a teacher aptly calls a “terminally cheerful” attitude! John O’Donohue used to urge people to move away from the “neon glare” of bite-sized spirituality, and to sit instead in a space illuminated by moonlight, or candlelight – the types of light which, in his words, have a “hospitality for the shadows.”

Like it or not, life teaches us soon enough that it is not all party and pink balloons!

Importantly, too, we can learn that it is also not all doom and gloom. Miracles do happen. Tumors do go into unexplained remission, and lost pets are found and joyfully reunited with their loving families.

How do we, then, inhabit our real lived lives, with its exquisite interweaving of what we can do and what we need to accept?

The twelve-step Serenity Prayer says it best:

“Grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”

Let us explore our relationship to fate (and destiny), and the freedom we may find within the limits of fate.

Encountering Fate

In this day and age, when we are daily promised that a “cure” for every known ailment is just around the corner, we have come to hate the word “fate.” It sounds so old-fashioned, so fatalistic! Surely “they” will find a cure for my cancer before it is too late. And if they can’t, surely “they” can cryopreserve my body and wake me up when the cure becomes available…

What a letdown, then, when death stares down at us in its final victory!

Or maybe we don’t have to be that extreme. It may simply be that we do not get the job or the promotion we crave, the beauty or the life partner we feel we deserve, or the fame that should be rightfully ours, because we have worked so hard to achieve it!

At these times, we suffer.

But what is it that we are really suffering from?

The loss of myth and story in our times

I posit that our real suffering comes from the fact that we are telling ourselves an impoverished story.  A story based solely on our experience of the moment, rather than laying it on the altar of something larger, something grander than ourselves. We have forgotten the hero’s journey – the journey that individuals from all cultures have undertaken. We forget that this journey includes a period of being in the belly of the whale, or rotting in the underworld, as an essential ingredient. The myths of all peoples from all times and places tell us that we do not get to the prize until we have negotiated our passage with the gods that guard the doors at the thresholds.

And even with the blessings of these threshold guardians, we only get, at least in this lifetime, what we are destined to get!

Meeting the Fates

The concept of fate is found in most cultures. In Greek Homeric poems, one encounters Moira or Aisa meaning limit or end of life; in the Hindu Vedas, we find many references to Ṛta, meaning order, rule, truth; in Egypt we find Maat or Ma'at, meaning truth, balance, order, harmony, law, morality, and justice; and in Islam, we encounter Kismet, meaning the predetermined course of events.

In ancient Greece, there was not one, but three Moirai (plural of Moira).  Their story is rather delightful. The three moirai are sisters, who together determine our fate as follows:  

  • Clotho (the "spinner"), spins the thread of life from her distaff onto her spindle. Her Roman equivalent is Nona, (the “Ninth”), who was originally a goddess called upon in the ninth month of pregnancy.

  • Lachesis (the "allotter" or drawer of lots), measures the thread of life allotted to each person with her measuring rod. Her Roman equivalent was Decima (the 'Tenth').

  • Atropos (the "inexorable" or "inevitable", literally one who is "unturning", sometimes also called Aisa), is the cutter of the thread of life. She chooses the manner of each person's death; and when their time has come, she cuts their life-thread with her “abhorred shears". Her Roman equivalent was Morta (the 'Dead One').

There are many versions of the parentage of the moirai, but the one that is most apropos to our discussion here is that they are the daughters of Chronos (Father Time) and Ananke (meaning “necessaity”). Interestingly, too, the moirai in some versions of the myth have three other sisters who compensate for their roles. These sisters are: Eunomia (“lawfulness,” “order”), Dike (“Justice”), and Eirene (“Peace”). Thus, if we acknowledge and act according to the dictates of the moirai, we also invite in order, justice and peace!

The three  Moirai , or the triumph of death (Flemish tapestry c. 1520, Victoria and Albert Museum, London). Note how the thread of life is being spun by  Clotho , measured by  Lachesis , and finally cut off by  Atropos .

The three Moirai, or the triumph of death (Flemish tapestry c. 1520, Victoria and Albert Museum, London). Note how the thread of life is being spun by Clotho, measured by Lachesis, and finally cut off by Atropos.

Fate vs. Destiny

The contemporary Jungian analyst and writer, James Hollis, has written extensively about fate and freedom. He writes in the Parabola magazine issue entitled “Free Will and Destiny” (Winter 2015-2016):

“Etymologically our word fate derives from the Latin fatum, meaning “to speak,” in the sense of something spoken or decreed by a god. That something has been spoken does not mean it is inevitable. One may have a tendency to depression, for example, and that genetic probability will surely be experienced in the course of one’s life. But how that plays out is strung along a broad spectrum of chance and choice.”

The word destiny, on the other hand, derives from Latin destinare, which means “to make firm, establish."

This is where I see the difference between Fate and Destiny. Fate is what is decreed by “the gods.” It is the limitations of life – the conditions imposed on us either internally (e.g., tendency to certain illnesses, or even the psychological “inferior function”) or externally (e.g., accidents, wars). Astrologically speaking, Fate is the rings of Saturn; it is limitations imposed by Chronos. Fate is the given, the spoken.

But within those limits, we can make concrete and significant choices that allow us to not only live out our destiny to its most positive manifestation – fulfilling the reason we are on this planet – but to live it out with joy and élan.

How do we embrace our fate? By practicing Amor Fati

Here, we come to the Greek philosophical idea of Amor Fati (literally meaning "loving fate"). Contemporary new age discourse has taken a lot from ancient Greece, but has, for the most part, carefully sidestepped the idea of Amor Fati.

Amor Fati is about loving the Fate we have been assigned – the length of the thread of life that has been cut off for us by the three moirai.

So how do we love our Fate?

According to James Hollis, we do so by taking charge of our story. By owning all of who we are – which includes our limitations – internal and external.

As an example of Amor Fati in practice, Hollis cites Albert Camus’s take on The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus takes the well-known story of Sisyphus, the “lonely prophet” who is fated to forever roll the boulder up the hill, only to watch it roll back down again, ad infinitum.

But, here Camus adds a genius twist! To quote Hollis, again from his article in Parabola magazine:

Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain (Image courtesy Gerard Van der Leun)

Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain (Image courtesy Gerard Van der Leun)

“Yet Camus adds a radical defiance, a cri de Coeur, a hope. He imagines that at that moment when Sisyphus descends the hill once again, forever once again, he pauses and smiles before pushing that stone back up. In that smile, Camus fantasizes, is our existential revolt against fate. In that moment, rather than being doomed, fated, Sisyphus chooses to push the stone. In his choice he takes the autonomous power away from the gods; he reacquires his freedom, and his dignity.”

Hollis continues:

“Camus is on to something more than revolt, a gesture which may remain forever futile in the face of fate. In that mysterious, inexplicable smile, Sisyphus says yes to his life, a condition he cannot choose, but an attitude which is entirely his. This yes is the achievement of amor fati, the love of one’s fate.”

Thus, in that inexplicable smile on the face of Sisyphus, his Fate turns into his Destiny, and creates for him a life well-lived.

Kairomancy: the dance partner of Amor Fati

In my previous post, Befriending Time, I briefly mentioned the contemporary dream teacher, Robert Moss, and his concept of Kairomancy. Here is a closer look at this idea.

In our previous essay, we explored how we live in “chronic” time, under the dictates of the god Chronos, who rules our lives and the time allotted to us, using the tools of the clock and the calendar. Chronic time is linear and finite – forever moving from past, through present, to future – until it runs out for each one of us.

But we also spoke about how, within this chronic time, we are often graced with another kind of time – the time that is under the auspices of the god Kairos. We said that Kairos represents the "right, critical or opportune time." It is the time when something can be done, or done well. It is “time out of time,” it is nonlinear and infinite.

Here is a passage from James Hollis's book, What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life, that beautifully describes a Kairos moment:

"One African dawn, while on safari, Carl Jung slipped away from his tent and walked out into the veldt. He heard the sound of scavengers pursuing and eating their prey; he saw in the crepuscular dim great, gray streams of beasts sliding by before his astonished eyes. He knew that at that instant he had stepped from chronos to kairos and had entered a timeless moment... The Swiss psychiatrist stepped out of ordinary time and, for a moment, became the first human once again, staring on nascent brutish nature but bringing consciousness to it, recording it, observing it, conferring on it a reality (as Rilke also concluded) it could never have achieved on its own. So in that moment the unique gifts of our transient tribe are celebrated: an endowment of recognition, a conference of consciousness upon brute being, and the grant of enhanced, reflective awareness."

Robert Moss teaches a practice where we develop a discipline to invite in Kairos into our lives on a frequent basis. He calls this practice, Kairomancy. It is about seizing the special moments that drop into our lives, and really taking advantage of these gifts from the beyond – thus “making magic!”

Here are Robert Moss’s twelve rules of Kairomancy, and if this idea fascinates you, I strongly urge you to read his book, Sidewalk Oracles: Playing with Signs, Symbols, and Synchronicity in Everyday Life.

Robert Moss’s twelve rules of Kairomancy

  1. Whatever you think or feel, the Universe says yes. In this rule, the idea is to be very aware of what we are carrying, what we are thinking and feeling, and what we are projecting onto others or onto circumstances. It is much more than wishing and praying for that red Ferrai – it is about exploring what is it that we are inviting into our lives through our thoughts and our actions.

  2. Chance favors the prepared mind. I think it is clear enough so as not to need further elaboration.

  3. Your own will come to you. This rule states that we will receive unexpected support from within and without, once we start investing our psychic energy into our passions and activities. When we “show up” and take our seat in the round of life, we draw powers far greater than ourselves to manifest our tasks at hand.

  4. You live in the speaking land. We live in an interconnected web – a conscious Universe, where everything is alive, connected and ensouled. Once we truly internalize this perspective, everything “mundane” becomes an oracle. The crack on the wall, the bird on the lamp post, a snatch of overheard conversation – brings us new understanding and insight, and provides concrete guidance on steps to take, and steps to avoid.

  5. Grow your poetic health. We are encouraged here to take life as poetry rather than mere prose; to hear for the unspoken cradled between words, to hear the multiple layers of meaning in ordinary life and ordinary conversation. This rule invites us to find home in ambiguity and paradox, and in stories with many possible endings.

  6. Coincidence multiplies on the road. Again, this is quite self-explanatory. When we are ready, strange things assist our journey in apparently coincidental ways. Joseph Campbell had this to say about positive coincidences: “When you follow your bliss...doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors, and where there wouldn't be a door for anyone else.”

  7. By what you fall, you may rise. Every setback is an opportunity to start anew, with new knowledge and wisdom.

  8. Invoked or uninvoked, gods are present. Moss takes this from Carl Jung, who had this line carved at the entrance of his home by the lake: “Vocatus atqua non vocatus deus aderit” (meaning “called or not called, god is present"). For Jung, these gods were the archetypes of the collective unconscious – the dynamic forces deep in our collective psyche that periodically rise up to consciousness. The less we are aware of these gods of the deep, the more likely are we to be “possessed” by them, and being drawn completely off course (which, incidentally, may be exactly where we need to go)!

  9. You walk in many worlds. This rule posits that we do not live in this world alone, but in many worlds. It is up to each one of us how we would like to image this diversity of worlds. Some may consider this purely psychologically (we have many inner personalities and even our inner “family systems”). Others may think of a world populated by gods, ancestors, fairies or spirit beings. Still others may take refuge in the scientific possibility of a multiverse. The bottom line, though, is that it is a very helpful philosophy if we can authentically inhabit it – a philosophy that tells us that we are not alone and adrift in a dead Universe, hurtling towards eventual oblivion!

  10. Marry your field. Here, by “field,” Moss does not mean field of expertise, or what we “do.” Rather, our field is what enlivens us, brings a spark in our eyes, makes us wake up excited for yet another opportunity to engage in it! Our field is what we do for the sheer joy of doing it! The entreaty here is to commit to this field.

  11. Dance with the trickster. The trickster is the keeper of the crossroads – the threshold guardian. A trickster is not always easy to engage with, but is a necessary ally if we are to move from one territory to the next. The trickster asks us to pause as we begin a new venture – to really examine our motives – to clarify our reasons for taking that step. It is a great place to be confronted with agendas that are not in the province of Kairos, but are rather ego-driven, and are thus doomed for failure in the long run! Every culture has its own flavor of the trickster – which I will explore in another essay.

  12. The way will show the way. When we become a Kairomancer, and navigate our life based on synchronicity, we cannot rely on any pre-drawn map. We may start with a map, but very soon, we will be called to either throw away the map and follow the new synchronicities, or continue to follow the map and thus move farther and father away from the territory we wished to enter in the first place!

In the end, a dance between Amor Fati and Kairomancy

Just like everything in life that truly matters, we end here with a paradox. Fate is real. We come into this world with limitations – of time, space, power, ability. But we also come into this world to create something that has never existed before, and that can never exist without us doing our part.

How do we find this freedom to create while limited by fate?

I believe we do it by learning the dance of Amor Fati (loving what is given to us) and Kairomancy (navigating our lives through synchronicity).

At the end, I leave you with a message from Martha Graham, given to a fellow dancer, Agnes de Mille:

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.”

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Befriending Time

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Befriending Time

Who among us has not, at least on occasion, looked at a clock and felt a sense of dread? Heard the approaching footsteps of the inevitable? The clock in those moments feels cruel, uncaring – tick-tocking away merrily – with complete disregard to our terror of the impending end… of a life, a career, a love… or just the end of a work deadline! We quake in our proverbial boots, as we watch those moving hands of doom, or choose to look away and pretend it is not happening…

It may be safe to say that we live under the tyranny of Time.

More precisely, though, what we live under the tyranny of is what we perceive as the inevitability of the linear progression of time - from birth to death, from beginning to end, without us having much input into how, and how fast, it progresses.

We live under the tyranny of the clock and the calendar.

But, it was not always so. And it is still not so in many indigenous cultures today.

Time was circular before it became linear

To our ancestors, before the advent of modern technology and lifestyle, time likely felt quite different from how it feels to us today. Time, back then, was less linear. The sun came up, only to go down, and come up again the next day. The tides rose and fell. The seasons came, and went, only to come again. Animals had babies, the adults grew older, the adults died, the babies grew into adults, had babies, and the cycle continued. Same with people. We humans, before becoming “civilized,” lived in the “round” with other beings. We experienced time as circular rather than linear.

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the summer solstice

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the summer solstice

This deep intuition, about time being circular, was most likely present in our far ancestors, as evidenced by megalithic stone circles all over Northern Europe and Great Britain, some of which date back to the Neolithic times. Many of these, such as the famous Stonehenge, were laid out precisely such that specific stones and structures would be illuminated at sunrise or sunset at the solstices and the equinoxes. Such precision is very unlikely to be purely coincidental.

The ouroboros

The ouroboros

Kalachakra sand mandala constructed by Tibetan artist, Lobsang Samten

Kalachakra sand mandala constructed by Tibetan artist, Lobsang Samten

Both Gnostic and Hermetic alchemical traditions speak of the ouroboros (or uroboros)  as a symbol of eternity. The symbol represents a serpent (or a dragon) eating its own tail, and refers to a circular notion of time and existence. It illustrates poignantly the worldview: "what was at the beginning is also at the end." 

This reverence for circular time is still seen in almost every indigenous culture. Most Native American tribes utilize some variation of the Medicine Wheel as a central symbol and tool for spiritual practice. We are all familiar with the circular Navajo sand paintings. Mandalas – again circular paintings – whether temporary or more permanent, constitute a central device (a yantra) in the spiritual practice of many Hindus and Tibetan Buddhists. In fact, a very important teaching in the Tibetan tantric path is called Kalachakra, meaning the “Wheel of Time.” The Kalachakra is the basis of an entire tradition, the so-called Kalachakra tantra.

The Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark (formerly known as the Bighorn Medicine Wheel)

The Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark (formerly known as the Bighorn Medicine Wheel)

A brief history of time in the West

Plato (427 – 347 BCE) understood time as divinely meaningful – a result of mathematical harmonies derived from the movement of the sun, the moon, and the five planets then known. Interestingly, it is this movement of the celestial bodies that lie at the root of music theory – as musica universalis (universal music), also known as the “song of the spheres.” Plato also understood this dance of the seven heavenly bodies as happening in relation to an eighth supraplanetary sphere – the Aion (or Aeon; in American English, eon) – who can be understood as the God of Eternity.

Thus, for the ancients, time was divine, and it was meaningful.

This understanding continued in the writings of Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE), who differed from Plato in many respects, but still believed time to have a telos, i.e., a purpose. Thus for Aristotle, the apple fell to the ground not because it was divinely ordained (thus disagreeing with Plato), but still, for Aristotle, the apple fell to the ground because it was the apple’s purpose to fall to the ground. The apple, in Aristotle’s scheme, had an intimate relationship with the earth, which made it fall to the earth, instead of, say, rising up to the sky.

This sense of time as circular, and purposive, lasted many centuries. It was not until the time of Galileo (1564 – 1642), and later Newton (1643 – 1727), that our conception of time changed drastically. Now, we were taught that time was in fact linear, and followed unalterable mechanical laws. From then on, the apple did not fall to the ground because the earth was its natural home, nor because it was ordained to do so by a divinity; it fell thus because of the purely secular laws of gravity.

With these mechanical laws, we moved firmly into the domain of Dawkins's Blind Watchmaker. 

From Plato and Aristotle to Galileo and Newton, Time (or more correctly, our conception thereof) moved from the realm of Aion (eternal time) to the realm of Chronos (linear clock time).

The Gods of Time in Greek Mythology

In Greek mythology, one encounters Time in three different forms. Or, if we want to use mythopoetic language, we can say that different types of time were under the dominion of different Gods.

Let us now briefly meet these Gods.

1.       Chronos: From the Greek word Chronos comes our word “chronic.” Chronos is “Father Time,” seen astrologically as the planet Saturn with all those rings (limitations, rules) around it. Mythology of Chronos is complex and many-layered. Chronos is often conflated (and with good reason) with the Titan Chronus, who was Zeus’s father. Chronus's claim to fame is that he ate up all his children as soon as they were born – in order to hold back (in Time) a prophecy that he would die by the hands of one of his offsprings! Chronos represents linear time – with a past, present and future – a time officiated by the clock and the calendar. It is our “consensus time,” which provides us social cues. Interestingly, though, our concept of second and minute, of months and years, quickly falls apart as soon as we leave planet Earth!

2.       Kairos: Kairos, for the Greeks, represented another divinity who also has to do with time, but this is a very different kind of time. Kairos represents the "right, critical or opportune time." It is the time when something can be done, or done well. For example, in archery, kairos denotes the moment in which an arrow may be fired with sufficient force to penetrate a target. In weaving, kairos is the moment when the shuttle can be passed through threads on the loom. Kairos is also an alternate spelling of the Greek deity Caerus, the God of luck and opportunity. Thus, whereas Chronos time is linear and quantitative, Kairos is qualitative, and may be understood as “time out of time.” Here is a beautiful obeisance to the God Kairos by the poet, William Blake:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”

3.       Aion: Aion is yet another Greek deity associated with time, but this time representing the orb or circle encompassing the universe, and the entire zodiac. Aionic time is unbounded, and may be best understood as eternity. To my knowledge, the comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell, gave one of the best definitions of eternity (although he did not use the name Aion when he talked about this idea of time):

“Eternity isn't some later time. Eternity isn't even a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time. Eternity is that dimension of here and now that all thinking in temporal terms cuts off.... the experience of eternity right here and now, in all things, whether thought of as good or as evil, is the function of life.”

Synchronicity: an effort to understand the experience of nonlinear time in lived life

In recent times, Carl Jung was instrumental in reimagining time in a manner much more akin to the ancient Greeks. Granted, we live in Chronos time. But every once in a while, as if by magic, another type of time seems to fall into our experience of time. Jung was specifically interested in what he called synchronicity, or "meaningful coincidences." Synchronicity occurs when events occur with no causal relationship (you can't demonstrate a linear cause, leading to an effect), yet seem to be meaningfully related. An example would be dreaming about an event that later comes to pass, but the dreamer could not have predicted the event from the information available to them at the time of the dream.

Jung was brought to an intimation of the presence of such mixing of times by his own dreams, as well as those of his patients. Here is an excerpt from Jung's memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, that describes a series of dreams he had that presaged World War I, without him having any way of knowing that a world catastrophe of such magnitude was just about to unfold:

"In October (1913), while I was alone on a journey, I was suddenly seized by an overpowering vision: I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps. When it came up to Switzerland I saw that the mountains grew higher and higher to protect our country. I realized that a frightful catastrophe was in progress. I saw the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilization, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood. This vision last about one hour. I was perplexed and nauseated, and ashamed of my weakness.

Two weeks passed; then the vision recurred, under the same conditions, even more vividly than before, and the blood was more emphasized. An inner voice spoke. "Look at it well; it is wholly real and it will be so. You cannot doubt it." That winter someone asked me what I thought were the political prospects of the world in the near future. I replied that I had no thoughts on the matter, but that I saw rivers of blood.

I asked myself whether these visions pointed to a revolution, but could not really imagine anything of the sort. And so I drew the conclusion that they had to do with me myself, and decided that I was menaced by a psychosis. The idea of war did not occur to me at all.

Soon afterward, in the spring and early summer of 1914, I had a thrice-repeated dream that in the middle of summer an Arctic cold wave descended and froze the land to ice. I saw, for example, the whole of Lorraine and its canals frozen and the entire region totally deserted by human beings. All living green things were killed by frost. This dream came in April and May, and for the last time in June, 1914.

In the third dream frightful cold had again descended from out of the cosmos. This dream, however, had an unexpected end. There stood a leaf-bearing tree, but without fruit (my tree of life, I thought), whose leaves had been transformed by the effects of the frost into sweet grapes full of healing juices. I plucked the grapes and gave them to a large, waiting crowd...

On August 1 the world war (World War I) broke out."

Although almost everyone experiences such events (albeit most often on a smaller scale) at some point in their lives, synchronicity is a notoriously difficult concept to define using our common logical language (logos). Jung struggled for many decades to find an expression that would describe its essence, without him being dismissed as a romantic or a mystic by his scientific colleagues (he was deeply invested in his identity as a scientist and a doctor). The best he could come up with, as a definition of synchronicity, was an "acausal connecting principle," which of course does not make things any clearer! Many people have further elaborated and amplified on this idea, including the contemporary dream teacher, Robert Moss, who has coined the term "kairomancy" to describe a practice of navigating life by being attentive to, and taking advantage of, synchronistic events. 

Synchronicity (and kairomancy) is a vast subject area, and a detailed discussion is beyond the scope of this post. I hope to speak more to this subject in a future post.

Time in other cultures

Most ancient cultures, when looked at mythologically, have ideas of time that differ significantly from our current linear, mechanical and chronic conception of time.

The Universe as Vishnu’s dream

Vishnu (with his consort Lakshmi) sleeping on the serpent Adishesha, with Brahma meditating on a lotus growing out of Vishmu's navel, thus creating time

Vishnu (with his consort Lakshmi) sleeping on the serpent Adishesha, with Brahma meditating on a lotus growing out of Vishmu's navel, thus creating time

In Hindu mythology, what we know as manifest Universe, is seen as the dream of Vishnu. Vishnu lies asleep on the serpent Adisesha Ananta (Timeless Time, without beginning or end). Adishesha floats for all eternity on the waters of the Ksheer Sagar (the ocean of Cosmic Consciousness). From the navel of the sleeping Vishnu grows out a lotus, on which sits a Brahma – the creator of the Universe! Brahma sits on the lotus of the world in meditation. Every time he opens his eyes, a world comes into being. When he closes his eyes, the world is annihilated. He opens his eyes, another Universe comes into being. This happens for many millennia. Then, the lotus retracts. A new lotus blooms, on which sits a new Brahma, opening and closing his eyes...

What a different concept of time from one where we rush about to meet deadlines by the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the month!

Kali (Kālī), Kaal or Kālá, and the tantric concept of SpaceTime

Kali, our Mother, who is both primordial Darkness and Time

Kali, our Mother, who is both primordial Darkness and Time

The name of the Hindu Goddess Kali has two meanings: one who is Dark (black), and one who is Time. She is not one or the other, she is both. She is the womb and the tomb. Both are places of undifferentiated SpaceTime. The darkness refers to a primordial condition – before space and time separate – before they separate for each of us at birth, and collapse again as we breathe out for the last time. Kali is thus the fullness of time and space – or Space pregnant with Time – or maybe Time pregnant with Space!

A name for the God of death, Yama, is also Kaal or Kālá. He is the keeper of time and timelessness. In this understanding, Kali, as the feminine manifestation, is understood as the changing aspect of time – the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

 

Dreamtime: Australian Aboriginal concept of Time

Francis Gillen (1855- 1912), an Australian anthropologist and ethnologist, coined the term “Dreamtime” to understand the religio-cultural worldview attributed to Australian Aboriginal beliefs. This idea of “dreamtime” or “dreaming” is a complex one, and is so different from the Western conception of time that it cannot be properly translated, and still maintain its original meaning. I have done some reading on the Dreaming, but certainly not enough to write anything comprehensive at this time. Thus, rather than give incorrect information brimming with cultural colonial bias, I offer you another word, also coined by Gillen, to try and capture this conception of time that cannot be neatly divided into past, present and future. That word is “Everywhen.”

Here is an excerpt from an article in the journal, Australian Psychiatry, written in 2003 by Aleksandar Janca, Professor of Psychiatry, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia:

“The Aboriginal view of time differs from the JudeoChristian linear approach in a number of ways. For Aboriginal people, time is multidimensional and can be described: ‘as a pond you can swim through – up, down, around’. The same notion can also be illustrated as follows: ‘Time is around you at every moment. You can’t pull time apart or separate it – in the abstract or when talking about it – from living, nor can it be viewed as purely functional groups of seconds, minutes and hours’."

Time contains no innate or inherent importance as such to an Aboriginal person; it is not adhered to and rarely directs an Aboriginal person but rather works for the person, family or community. In general, the units of time are not part of discrete or absolute systems, but are specific, concrete and contextual to what is being measured. The extraction of time from the environmental system as a whole is a foreign notion to most Aboriginal people, even to those who work and live within mainstream Australian society.”

Rather than trying to understand what an Australian aborigine might mean by the equivalent of the word "Everywhen" in their language and through their worldview, for our purposes here, it may be more useful for us to meditate on that word might mean for ourselves – in our daily lived lives. What if we, living our lives in “Chronic time,” can take a break – every once in a while – to sample the experience of being in the EveryWhen? How might our lives, and the experience of living, change as a consequence?

The Sacred Pause: an access ramp to Kairos (and/or the Everywhen)?

Contemporary Buddhist teacher and psychologist, Tara Brach, offers us a tool that may help us change our experience of time, and especially, the tyranny of time. She calls it the “Sacred Pause.” Here is the Sacred Pause described in her own words:

“In our lives we often find ourselves in situations we can’t control, circumstances in which none of our strategies work. Helpless and distraught, we frantically try to manage what is happening. Our child takes a downward turn in academics and we issue one threat after another to get him in line. Someone says something hurtful to us and we strike back quickly or retreat. We make a mistake at work and we scramble to cover it up or go out of our way to make up for it. We head into emotionally charged confrontations nervously rehearsing and strategizing.

The more we fear failure the more frenetically our bodies and minds work. We fill our days with continual movement: mental planning and worrying, habitual talking, fixing, scratching, adjusting, phoning, snacking, discarding, buying, looking in the mirror.

What would it be like if, right in the midst of this busyness, we were to consciously take our hands off the controls? What if we were to intentionally stop our mental computations and our rushing around and, for a minute or two, simply pause and notice our inner experience?

Learning to pause is the first step in the practice of Radical Acceptance. A pause is a suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving towards any goal. The pause can occur in the midst of almost any activity and can last for an instant, for hours or for seasons of our life.

Through the sacred art of pausing, we develop the capacity to stop hiding, to stop running away from our experience. We begin to trust in our natural intelligence, in our naturally wise heart, in our capacity to open to whatever arises. Like awakening from a dream, in the moment of pausing our trance recedes and Radical Acceptance becomes possible.”

Using the language of the Greeks, we can say that the practice of Sacred Pause can create a pathway for Kairos to enter into our unmitigated experience of Chronos. Or, we can say that the Sacred Pause may offer us an experience of being in the Everywhen. This may be experienced as an easing of "time pressure," and/or a renewed sense of freedom and joy!

An afterthought

Just as a last teaser... look closely at the image of Chronos above (in the section about the Greek deities of Time). Do you notice what the old patriarch is up to? He is chopping off the wings of Cupid, the God of desire and newborn lust for life! This indeed is our fate if we let our lives be ruled by Chronos and Chronos alone. To live a meaningful life, we need to drink deeply from the well of Kairos, at least from time to time. And as we deepen our spiritual lives, if we are lucky, we learn to trust that we are indeed held within the overarching circle of Aion!

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