I am 64 years old.
I’ve gotten here so fast, I’m almost certain that some of me isn’t here yet, hasn’t caught up to the here and now.
Wasn’t I in Magnolia High School last month, radicalizing the student body during the ’68 presidential campaign? Back then, looking forward, I didn’t even know what 64 years old was. I’m sure I never thought about it; I never thought about time. I believed I had forever: time was like an endlessly moving horizon I would never reach.
Now, I can hold an entire decade in the palm of one hand, like a glass.
But a glass that somehow has within it 10 years of moments, real and imagined. Ten years of seconds that passed without much notice.
Did you know there are 31,536,000 seconds in a year? There are 315,360,000 seconds in ten years. That’s how many seconds are in the glass I can hold in my hand, the one with the decade in it. What have I done with my life? What has life done with me? Good questions.
Good to ask, good to contemplate.
What have I done with my life? Did I just spray seconds all over the place, randomly using up my time in helter-skelter scattershot fashion? Or was there some focus, some purposeful, intentional coherence that bonded the moments together into something significant?
What would an audit of my use of time show me? How much time did I spend judging whether I was doing the right thing or the wrong thing, living in regret or anticipation?
How many seconds did I throw away listening to myself and others recycle our insecurities and inadequacies, our unfulfilled desires and ambitions, our frustrations and disappointments?
How much time did I spend trying to earn more money, or make things happen, and how much time bathing in the pride of having risen above it all? How many seconds given to helping people, to being kind, to making a difference, all the while being angry and frustrated, or afraid of those true things that I was too afraid to acknowledge and express?
How much time did I spend sleeping, eating, commuting, standing in line, opening boxes, petting dogs, combing my hair, brushing my teeth, surfing the net?
How much time trying to understand the “how to” instructions of a new appliance, or a “some assembly required” piece of furniture? How much time did I spend actually experiencing life—the energy, color, and surprise of it—and how much time did I squander merely thinking about life?
I wonder what an audit, an honest audit, would show me about what I’ve done with my life. I think I’ll spend some time doing just that.
Post audit: I know exactly what I’ve done with my life, though I may not be able to account for all the seconds and every hour and day. But in terms of a theme, of a unifying principle of attention and focus, I know that I’ve become aware. That’s what I’ve done with my life. I have become aware. On balance and throughout the day, that is my achievement and accomplishment, though it sounds funny to say achievement and accomplishment.
What does that mean? What is awareness, and how did I become aware?
A simple definition of awareness is “waking up to notice the fullness of life outside of the thought stream.” We can’t take this for granted, can we? When we open our eyes in the morning, we wake up, yes, but to what? Do we awake to life outside the thought stream, or to the pressing thoughts that almost immediately imprisons us in a snow dome of smallness?
Do we awake to the fullness of life, or to our habitual patterns of seeing and believing? Do we awake to the depth and breadth of life, or to our limited identity based on our past experiences and hopes for the future?
Do we awake to the magic and mystery of the vast universe, the very body of life, or do we awake with anxiety and doubt about our place in the world? Do we open our eyes knowing and realizing we are a part of life, a part of all that is, or do we awake with fear that we won’t have enough, or do enough, or be enough?
Awareness is an awakening beyond our thoughts and beliefs, our identities and fears, our dreams and wishes—opening beyond these to the greater, larger, wider world that goes on and on and on—forever. It’s there all the time, whether we notice it or not.
We open from within to take it all in. All of it.
Awareness means to expand the self that we are, until our self includes all that is. In this way, we close the distance between ourselves and others, and the distance between our self and the world.
There is nothing to hold on to, nowhere to stand in a fixed position, and nothing to fear. Suddenly, we can love, because there is no reason not to. This just happens by itself. When there is no separation, no distance, between us and others, between us and life, love pours from everywhere. Love, in this sense, is connection.
I am aware. I don’t often get fooled by my thoughts, and when I do it is for a mere moment or two. I know when and how and why I get defensive, or afraid, or contracted. I am aware of all that. I am aware of my motivations. I know when I am telling the truth, and I know when I am hiding. I know if I am following the life of this Brian or that, hoping that if I imitate them well enough, parrot their words precisely enough, then I will be saved from my doubts and confusion. I am aware of this foolishness.
I am aware of what I say and how I say it, while I say it; which is why I am not fooled by my own opinions, nor by what I think I know or don’t know. When we become aware, the moments don’t matter, and they matter more than ever. Paradox. Yes, I’m aware of that.
It may not seem like a significant achievement, learning to be aware. For me, it is. It is everything. It is the difference between the word, or the picture, and the thing itself.
It is the difference between living with life and living outside of it, in thoughts about it. Being aware is living in a Technicolor, surround-sound world, instead of the soundless, black and white movies of the early 20th century.
The main value of being aware is the quality of one’s experience of being alive.
To be sure, there are numerous subsidiary benefits, but they are secondary. The primary gift of awareness is authenticity, the life that only we can live. The secondary gifts are many, and will likely be different from one person to the next. The application of awareness in a person’s life determines the implications of being aware. I hazard to say that many people will benefit from one person who is aware, who is living from awareness, even if those people receive different gifts. Blessings flow between people.
How did I do it, how did I become aware, how did I break free from being overwhelmed by my thought stream, how did I escape being defined and determined by thoughts and beliefs?
I hung around someone who was aware. For more than ten years, I absorbed his challenges to be aware, to be present. I didn’t learn anything else that helped. I didn’t read books or take courses; I didn’t gather information. I emptied. Then I practiced. I practiced paying attention to the part of myself that notices thinking, that notices how I construct beliefs, that notices how I build up, brick by brick, an edifice of images and ideas that I would then call “me.” I noticed that. I noticed how I held on to things that were meant to simply live for an instant and than pass away. The more I noticed, the more I found myself in the noticing, in the awareness.
Awareness did the rest.
Awareness was a tide that slowly but surely took everything I thought into itself. Within this sea of awareness, nothing except awareness is visible. The fish no longer speak of the sea in which they swim; they’ve become the sea itself.
Now, I don’t have doubts or regrets about my life. I know what I’ve done with my life, and what life has done with me. Learned markers of success and failure, happiness and sadness, meaning and purpose—these have dissolved.
The only “marker” is the simplicity of being true to our self, telling the truth and living the truth of our self, but not the self concocted by thoughts and beliefs, the self of awareness. Telling the truth that shines from within awareness beyond the thoughtstream, is what keeps us whole. The basic impulse of awareness is to be alive, open, expansive, creative, connected.
We could use many other words to give expression and color and texture to awareness, but I tend toward one word: silence. Silence does not indicate a passive, withdrawn life; rather silence, or awareness, frees us from doubt and distractions so we can be focused, active, and dynamic—but wisely so, no crazily so.
This is why I know that, even with stage 4 lung cancer, I cannot die. Whatever could have died, already died into awareness. This is why I am not disappointed or sad or happy or elated about the more measurable metrics of my life. I am not at war with myself or others, though much of the world is awash in wasteful wars.
An audit of my life, to date.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: Alexander Boden/Flickr