Medium 9781576752517

Time and the Soul

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In Time and the Soul Jacob Needleman uses stories-of a middle-aged psychiatrist going back in time to encounter his younger self; of a mysterious meeting in the Central Asian desert; of the mystic master Hermes Trimegistus; as well as stories from the Bhagavad-Gita, the Bible, and other wisdom traditions-to illuminate the great mystery of time and to help us resolve our increasingly dysfunctional relationship to it.
Nearly everyone feels stress and anxiety over what's become known as time poverty. "Time management" techniques treat these symptoms by making our busyness more efficient, but not the underlying cause. Needleman shows that we can get more out of time by breaking free of our illusions about it. He helps us experience time more purposefully and meaningfully. He provides parables, reflections, and a unique mental exercise to give us a new understanding of time. By transforming the way we understand and experience time, this powerful book gives us the equanimity and perspective we need to make the most of the time we are given. "A tranquil heart," Needleman writes,"is never defeated by time."

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8 Chapters

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Chapter 1: The Man with the Soft Brown Eyes

ePub

25

There is a novel I want to write. The hero is a man of fifty, which was my age when I began dreaming of this story. His life is in crisis, as was my own then, and through magic he is sent back in time to meet himself at the age of sixteen. The hero’s name is Eliot: Eliot Appleman. My name is Jacob: Jacob Needleman.

I speak of this as a fiction, but in my heart I don’t think of it that way. Doesn’t the sixteen-year-old Jacob (or Jerry, as I am called) still exist? And isn’t it possible to go back and be with him? Time? Surely, time is not what we think it is. We are wrong about so many lesser things; how could we imagine we understand the greatest of all mysteries, time?

26

The hero of my story, Eliot Appleman, is a psychiatrist. As for myself, I am a professor of philosophy. Both Eliot and I presume to an ability to see beneath the surface of human affairs. He has been trained to look into the psyche for hidden patterns and I, the philosopher, regard the whole world as a tissue of appearances, behind which there operate great laws that can be discerned only through what the ancient teachers called wisdom.

 

Chapter 2: Time: A New Question

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43

Do we have the courage to approach the question of time from the depths of our heart? Before we try to face the question of time as a problem, the problem of how to manage our lives, can we stay with it long enough to hear it calling to us purely and simply as a question, the question of who we are and why we are alive at all? It takes courage to stay with it as a question when all around us, with ever more insistence, our culture treats it as a problem, and makes it into a problem. A problem is something we are supposed to deal with; a problem demands that we do something, change something. A problem is something we are suppose to solve.

But time is more than a problem; it is a question, perhaps the greatest question that a man or woman can face and perhaps the most important one. Such great questions cannot be answered with the part of the mind that solves problems. They need to be deeply felt and experienced long, long before they can begin to be answered. We need to feel the question of time much more deeply and simply than we do. We agitate about the problem of time, but we seldom feel what it means.

 

Chapter 3: Time: Problem, Question and Mystery

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51

If we listen to the teachings of the ancient wisdom, we will hear them telling us that none of our methods for mastering time can work. The reason they cannot work is that we do not feel that we exist, we do not see ourselves with the soft eyes of the heart. One of the central texts of the Buddhist tradition tells us, from the very first sentence:

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.3

52

And having told us this, the text goes on to show us the need to come to an entirely new kind of feeling about ourselves and a new way of seeing ourselves that is informed by this feeling. We need to feel our mortality, and not just know it with our thought. What the ancient teachings mean by mind is not what we mean by the word. When they speak of mind they are speaking of a capacity of understanding that blends intellect and heart and instinct. What is the point, they tell us, of managing our day more efficiently if we don’t understand what our days are for, where they are meant to lead us? But when we begin to feel the importance of the question of why we exist at all, our obsessions begin to weaken their hold. When obsessiveness recedes, even if only slightly, a crowded day contains more time. But we cannot use tricks and techniques that serve only to make our obsessiveness more “efficient.” There are no tricks or techniques that can make us feel that we exist. And it is only at such levels of feeling—and far beyond such levels—that time begins to “breathe” in our life. Only with such feeling do we begin to breathe differently, literally and figuratively. According to the ancient wisdom, when a human being breathes differently the passage of time takes on new properties. There is a new feeling of self that appears when a man or woman truly and genuinely steps back from himself, looks at himself and then . . . ? And then: enters himself.

 

Chapter 4: Time and the Great Self

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65

When I dream of how the old teacher speaks to Eliot Appleman, I can’t help thinking as well of one of the greatest examples in world literature of a teacher of wisdom speaking to a troubled seeker. In the Bhagavad Gita, the most widely revered sacred text of India, the warrior Arjuna stands before a field of battle. The enemies arrayed before him are his own kinsmen and teachers. Thousands stand on either side: horses, chariots and great warrior elephants are poised to advance; bronze shields and drawn swords catch the first rays of the morning sun; the rising wind lifts a thousand terrifying banners and the urgent cry of the ancient conch pierces the air; ten thousand arrows are poised to fly.

When the warrior realizes whom he must fight, when he deeply feels what he only knew in his mind, that he is called to do battle with his own kinsmen, he draws his chariot to a halt. His blood is chilled. He cannot move.

The warrior is overcome by grief and despair and speaks to his charioteer, who is none other than Krishna, God, Lord of the Universe.

 

Chapter 5: From Fiction to Reality

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There is a life I wish to live. It is not a life with different events or different people than make up the life I am now living. It is not a life where things have come out differently, with fewer defeats or greater triumphs. It is not a life with fewer mistakes. No. It is this life, my actual life. It is this life that I wish to live, the same life I am living, but with one great difference: a difference in the experience of time.

The fact is that I am not now living my life—it is living me. I am not—as used to be said—conducting my affairs; they are conducting me, driving me. And with ever increasing acceleration and tempo.

74

I am having dinner with a brilliant and devoted doctor. He is well known for having introduced revolutionary patient-care procedures in one of the country’s most prestigious medical centers. When I remark about the success of his work and ask about its future, his dark eyes suddenly well up with tears! Is he becoming emotional because of the deep feeling he has for his work or his patients? Not exactly. He puts down his cup and in an unsteady voice that is part desperation and part anger he says:

 

Chapter 6: What to Do?

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91

What to do? It is that question that sends Eliot back in time to accompany himself as an adolescent at the threshold of manhood. In no way can he understand what Max means by remembering. Like the ancient pupil Tat standing before his teacher Hermes, Eliot finally bows his head in sorrow. “Max,” he says softly, “I can’t understand. What you’re asking is completely beyond my power.” And just as Hermes replies to Tat, Max answers, in his own idiom: “Cut it out, Appleman! Try . . . try. . . .”Wasn’t it Krishna himself, lord of the universe, who rebuked the warrior Arjuna for his sadness and his unwillingness to engage in a struggle he does not yet understand: “Why this lifeless dejection, Arjuna? . . . Fall not into this degrading weakness. . . . Fight, Arjuna!”

The emotional reactions that devour our time are only the most obvious evidence that our relationship to time depends primarily on our inner state and not on any objective characteristics of time itself. We are called to a struggle we do not yet understand; and therefore our first task is to try to see why, in spite of this, we must begin this incomprehensible work, this effort to remember the Self. When man is closer to the Self, time is no longer the enemy, so we are told by the ancient wisdom. It is the man who is less than Man whom time mercilessly destroys. It is the self that is less than the Self that is devoured by time.

 

Chapter 7: A Modest Exercise

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115

Here is something to try. It may or may not be of help to everyone. Its sole purpose is to provide the mind with a quieter space within which we may find a first approach to the search for the Self. There are many such first approaches. I have found this modest exercise of help in verifying, actually witnessing, how the habit of worrying wastes the attention and therefore the time needed for finding one’s inner life. Practiced with some degree of diligence and relaxation, and with some advance guidance, it can also show us that there is in each of us a natural attraction of the attention toward another sense of time and the Self. This natural attraction toward the Self is an important part of that which our ordinary mind cannot comprehend.

One word of warning: it is only an exercise, an experiment, something to try for a little while and then let go.

116

However, although it is only a modest exercise, it echoes some powerful metaphysical ideas—namely, the idea, the strangest of all ideas about time, that everything that happens to us in this life has all happened before, and not only once but many times. This idea of recurrence may be found in the myths and philosophies of numerous traditions—in India, in the teachings of Plato and in many other doctrines throughout the world. It was of great interest to Nietzsche and was developed with considerable power in the writings of P. D. Ouspensky.12 In other forms, we encounter the experiential equivalent of this idea in the doctrine of destiny and fate as it is expressed throughout the Middle East and in Teutonic legend. The future already exists; your life has already been lived; you have only to inhabit this life as it “unreels”—inhabit it from moment to moment with faith in the Creator of all lives. This moment-to-moment faith in the Creator of destiny is the experiential equivalent of the moment-to-moment search for contact with one’s Self.

 

Chapter 8: The Other Door

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129

No matter what we say or think, no matter what we do, what we try, time is passing. We will grow old, we will die. If we live long enough to experience the process of growing old, we will very likely begin to look very differently at the things we desired most, the goals that seemed so important when we were younger. This is obvious in the case of desires that depend on biological age, but it is also true, and perhaps much more important, with respect to things that have nothing to do with the biological condition of our bodies. The goals of fame, wealth and power, for example, which are not necessarily biologically determined, look very different when death, or—as it has been called—“the other door,” becomes more visible.

A younger person who is driven by ambition is one thing; often it may even be admirable, up to a certain point, as an expression of energy. But an older man or woman with the same kind of personal ambition evokes pity in us or even fear. A younger person accumulating money or material goods, establishing his or her personal identity in a career or business, is one thing. An older person ardently driven in the same way seems to be foolish. And so it is with many of the things we crave and seek in our lives. As death gradually becomes more visible, more real, as the passage of time is felt in its metaphysical significance, our perception of every person, every object and every situation in our lives begins to change—at least for some of us and at some moments.

 

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