Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Journal of a Soul 15

The Transitoriness of Life

All things are passing.  The twelfth century Persian and Sufi poet, Attar of Nishapur, is reputed to have told his followers the fable of a powerful king who asked the assembled wise men of his court to create a ring that would make him happy when he was sad, and sad when he was happy.  After much deliberation the sages procured for him a simple ring inscribed with the words "This too will pass."  Needless to relate, the ring had the desired effect.

Abraham Lincoln in a speech delivered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on September 30, 1859, a year before he was inaugurated as president of America, ended his speech to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society with the words:

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: "And this, too, shall pass away." How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! -- how consoling in the depths of affliction! "And this, too, shall pass away." And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.
Pondering on the transitoriness of life is something that chastens us all too well and all too effectively as Abraham Lincoln so wisely points out.  We poor sad souls often try to make the  achievements of this life somewhat permanent.  Indeed, we possibly need to imagine and to hope that there is meaning in our little lives; that some sort of heaven exists; that there is some comfort even in culture and civilisation which we believe will outlive us for many thousands of years to come.  (And yet civilisations and cultures have come and gone, have ascended to the seeming pinnacle of human achievement only to end in disaster of dusty extinction.)

We try to capture the passing moments in this or that picture or video we may choose to take of special occasions as our families grow up; in this or that picture or video we may choose to take on our holidays in this, that or other exotic or less exotic place which we are wont to visit.  Just recently, I ended up for some reason deleting all the photographs of Italy I had painstakingly taken over the past four or five years.  On reflection, I just did something stupid, having uploaded them to Dropbox.  Be that as it may, the lesson was a good one for me.  I simply cannot hang on to the past, whether I record it on digital camera or video or not.  Those shots were mere images, mere dim representations of life as it passes.  Truly we cannot hang onto our experiences.  The past flits away and the future lies ever beyond us.  The now is all we have.  The NOW.  Let us write it in capitals to emphasise the point.   The first century BC Latin poet Horace was surely correct when he declared in one of his famous Odes which some of us learned at school that we should "carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero" or "seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the next."    Or again, I think of poor John Keats, that wonderfully talented poet of the English Romantic Era who perished all too young at age 25 and whose epitaph reads somewhat depressingly:  "Here lies one whose name was writ on water."  He understood all too well the transitoriness of life.  Indeed, he knew he was going to die when he began coughing arterial blood on his pillow some few years before his demise.  (He had also studied medicine before becoming a full time poet)   In other words our little lives are inexorably swallowed up by the great maw of passing time.   

Arranmore cliffs, July 2010 - there from the beginning...
And yet the Easterns are right.  It is our attachments to the things and, indeed, the people of this world that ensnares us, that captivates us, that enchants us, that tricks us into believing in their seeming permanence and imperishability. This was the essential teaching of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, that all our suffering in this world is caused by our attachments to the impermanence or temporariness of everything and everybody around us.  Hence we suffer much and indeed grievously when we lose them to either misfortune or inevitable death.  The Buddhists teach us that meditation on our own dying and death is very effective as it teaches us to value our very living; to value every breath we breathe; to seize the day as Horace so poetically puts it; to live in the freedom of the NOW and not to be enslaved by regrets from the past or fears of the future.

SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI!!                                                                               

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