Tuesday, 10 May 2016

William Blake. Death’s Door, 1793.

(...) And thence retire me to my Milan, where every third thought shall be my grave.1

As I grow older, there can be little doubt that death occupies my thoughts more than it used to. Keeping pace with me in my journey through life is my mortality, the thought of my death. To be sure, the inevitability of death has always been a fact of life - albeit mostly a distant one - but quickening years tend to tint the mental fact with a cold, empirical certainty.

The great psychologist, Carl Jung, observed that as people enter old age they tend to carry on with everyday life just as before, as if their lives would never end. In his opinion, this is entirely natural and normal; and he speculated that it perhaps indicates an intuition given to human beings by Nature that life is - in many respects - without end, and that by continuing to live as normal we are fulfilling our natural role. After all, he said, if a person is afraid of death, he (sic) becomes petrified with regard to his life: in effect, “he dies before his time”.2

I would say that my own life has been fairly consistent, in that fundamentally I have now the same problems, the same difficulties, the same ups and downs, the same joys and sorrows, the same inclinations, desires, temperament, and general character that I had when younger, or even as a child. In that regard little appears to have changed with the passing of time. But on the other hand, I also have a sense of some slight progress overall. Moreover, whenever a joyful epiphany occurs, it somehow transports me - whilst in time - out of time: those rare events seem to be connected intervals where familiar concepts of beginning and end fall away. It is as if the corridor of time leads on and on, while at any moment one might open a door into a world beyond time, beyond beginning and end, that does not only lead out of life, but - curiously and amazingly - further in. Here - it seems to me - beckons the promise of something that the ancients ascribed only to the gods, and for which we mortals do have a word, however apt or inept: immortality.3

Even more strangely, those moments are typically full of whatever otherwise mundane or everyday circumstance might surround them: spots of rain upon a window; the coolness of fresh air and the scents it might carry - of plants, sunshine, wet earth; the sounds of people, traffic, daily work; the singing of birds; the wonder of thought and feeling. Above all, they have this in common: they are apt to occur within an inner calm that seems always silently present, but finds itself in those odd instances at one with itself, and with myself. Or perhaps it is the other way around. Anyway, most often they are as surprising as they are profoundly and intimately beautiful, as if life itself were actually a flow of poetry, and poetry merely its outward expression.

... my eternal days are found in speeding time ...4

My lifelong engagement with meditation has taught me that we can encourage these rare moments: we don’t have to rely solely on their spontaneous occurrence. But there are other ways that can lead to that kind of consciousness. One of these is art.

Not all art, it has to be said - at least not for me. But when art fulfils itself by doing what it is best at doing, it has the power to arrest the mind and senses in that silent calm: a stillness profound yet full of life, containing past, present and future in infinite measure.


1 Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, scene I. The words are Prospero’s.

2 BBC / A-B Films (Zurich), “Professor Jung” in: Face to Face, interviewer: John Freeman, producer: Hugh Burnett, 1959, section 32:15 to 37:05. The entire interview is available here .

3 Somehow, it seems that the assumed facts of ‘being’ are transcended. Jacques Derrida has expressed what might be happening here, with regard to our concept of time and how it is enmeshed in our notion of being, and even in our language. From these he observes that there may  be “a different type of temporality, that’s even older than the past, and that is beyond the future” (from a filmed interview, also referenced in note 6 of my previous article “In Time”).

4 Sri Chinmoy Kumar Ghose, “Immortality” in: My Flute (New York: Sri Chinmoy Lighthouse, 1972), p. 10.

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