When we think and speak in conceptual terms, the language we use has more of an effect on our perception of the world around us than we realize. A common Zen aphorism cautions one not to mistake a finger pointing at the moon (or a reflection of it on a still surface of water) for the actual chunk of rock that orbits the Earth. Regardless, this is what we do from moment to moment as we allow our incessant speech to lead our emotions rather than allowing for a natural reaction to stimuli. We mistake our words, prejudices and past experiences with similar objects, people and situations for the real things. Have you ever stopped to think about how much this ingrained species-wide habit has solidified opinions into facts? Or how it perpetually reinforces false notions of reality?
Worry not: I’m not fixing to compose a dissertation on the myriad examples of problems this fealty to language and concepts has caused humanity since we first settled in caves and started scratching messages on the wall. Suffice it to say that infants and animals live a much richer life of unfiltered experience than any of us who are addicted to our own words and points of view. I would like to discuss one word in particular that seems to cause so much suffering due to its distortative effects on our understanding of reality. That word is forever.
We in the West are obsessed with the notion of eternity: eternal life, eternal soul, eternal love, eternal reward, eternal punishment. It’s as though we’ve convinced ourselves that since we always discuss things in infinite terminology, it somehow follows that our souls, our personalities, our loved ones and their ties to us must be everlasting. I’ve got some bad news: they’re not. There is no such thing as an inherently existing, independent life form. Similarly, if love is an energy, there is no such thing as static energy. By definition, it is ever-changing and amorphous.
Since the earliest humans began to communicate in hieroglyphics and other ancient linguistic forms, mankind has become increasingly obsessed with eternalizing its loftier emotions. “I will love you forever.” “We’ll be together until the end of time.” To these sentiments, I must once again play the role of a fly in the ointment of love and tender an unwavering reply of NO and NO. I’ve many times taken to my blog to refute the notion of an eternal soul (at least in the Judeo-Christian understanding), but even those who insist on grasping at this idea of eternal life would be well advised to stop picturing such enduring existence as anything even remotely like the body-bound lives of a social animal that we live for a century or so in the phenomenal realm.
We suffer because we harbor erroneous views. Of such views, the one that clearly causes the most confusion and ignorant expectation is the idea of forever. When I speak of the eternal moment, I am not talking about a person, place, thing or situation frozen in time. I am trying to express through inadequate language the idea that past and future are concepts with no actual meaning other than as convenient communicative contrivances. We are eternal only insofar as the energy of which we’re composed is constantly recycling and this process of creation and destruction of which we are a part never begins or ends. But simple logic tells us that the energy will not continue to coagulate into human beings indefinitely, nor has it done so up to this point, obviously. So why are we hung up on this idea that our personalities are too precious to expire? That some vital core within each of us is somehow immune to entropy? Even odder, how did intelligent, reasoning creatures start believing that their very emotions are eternal?
We in the West need to do a much better job of coming to terms with our mortality. The concept of an eternal soul identical in its virtues and aspirations to an individual ego is at the heart of our selfish arrogance. Tibetan monks often choose to meditate in charnal grounds — the Himalayan equivalent of a graveyard — while envisioning their own bodies as the corpses that they will inevitably become. While this may sound morbid to our sensibilities, such practices account for why people like the Dalai Lama seem to always be smiling and at peace. One must understand reality as it is, not as we would wish it to be, in order to evolve spiritually. Spirituality is not religion. Religion posits eternity. Spirituality doesn’t need theology — it is really nothing more than the natural compassion that arises from accepting our condition as it is: interdependent and impermanent.
At the risk of bursting many fantastical bubbles, I want to remind myself and others of some truths that are only uncomfortable due to our state of ignorance. Your deceased loved ones are not looking down on you or holding your place on a cloud in some ethereal paradise. It is impossible to love someone forever. Likewise, it is impossible to be loved forever. The most horrible people alive will not see justice served through unending torture at the end of their days. If the human notion of justice cannot be exacted in a lifetime, the Universe will not take care of it for you. But please don’t view these truths as depressing or cruel; they are simply facts that we all must embrace if we are to truly value our time in the realm of experience. Life is beautiful even when it’s ugly and if we can view what we consider the ugliness as nothing more than an inevitable part of the dance of shifting polarities, it will become far more palatable. Religious and secular wedding vows almost always include the phrase “till death do us part”. That is beautiful and if the parties joining in matrimony are sincere in that sentiment, then it might very well come to fruition. It’s when we find tradition inadequate to our idealism and insist on writing our own vows replete with words like “forever” and “until the end of time” that we start introducing ignorance and wrong views into the ceremony. Everyone tends to ooh and aah and cry emotional tears at such sentiments, but there is really nothing positive about grasping at fantasy. It’s enough to occupy our imaginations and stir our hearts to acknowledge that we are alive — for now. And because I am not a heartless and stoic philosopher, I would also like to point out that I love you. For now. That’s as good as it gets and to me, that seems pretty fucking good.