I’m 14 days into this silent Buddhist retreat, with 72 more to go. It’s my second Thursday. Last night was the fourth dharma talk. That’s four of 24 scheduled while I’m here.
I wonder if some people completely lose track of time while on retreat. I don’t. Life at silent meditation centers is radically less scheduled than anywhere else I know, yet still tethered to inescapable rhythms.
The daily “clock” here at the Forest Refuge is shaped by an optional early morning metta chant, specific meal hours, and one daily bell that tolls at noon. Weekly life is anchored by two evening talks, two required 15-minute meetings with a teacher, and teacher-led reflections on designated mornings. Months, I will come to learn, are the Forest Refuge’s most emphatic cycle: they herald the change of the teaching staff, and more yogis arrive or leave as the month changes than at any other time.
No additional schedule is offered. From this loose weave I stitch a personal one: Daily practice begins around 4:00a.m. The block of time between breakfast and lunch coheres into one long meditation session; so does the afternoon.
Late in the afternoon, I walk in the woods, or wander the quiet rural roads around the meditation center, or practice yoga. I go to bed before nine. Sometimes I wake up at 2 a.m. and sit for a few additional hours in the middle of the night, my favorite time to meditate.
Small personal habits also anchor the day: brushing and flossing my teeth, washing, napping, my required morning yogi job.
In my single dorm room, I create two makeshift calendars. To track the flow of days into weeks, I stack seven of my daily vitamin packets on the rim of the small sink, and watch the stack dwindle as I remove one each morning. I intend to replenish the weekly stack each Friday. To chart the weeks into months, I fashion a timeline, with 12 small stones I gathered in the woods. At the end of each week I will place a new stone along the length of the upper lip of the sink, estimating another twelfth of the distance. Week by week, I will watch the line grow until it spans the entire length of the sink.
Why these homespun rituals? I am trying to get the idea of “time” into my bones. Each of these routines is designed as a cue for mindful awareness in itself, but more deeply as a probe into the ineluctable and unidirectional passage of our days.
Each time I place a stone on the lip of the sink, or remove a vitamin packet and watch the pile shrink, I ask myself: Can I “feel” this? How much has already been lost from the previous day or week or hour that seemed so urgent in the moment? What does a day, a week, a month, feel like – is it ever the same? Can I watch as this one wildly vivid spark of “now” fades, its fullness turned to dream, like all the rest?
Annica. Impermanence. In Buddhism, it’s one of the three great marks of all existence, a cornerstone of the dharma. Everything is impermanent. All that is born dies. Some sages teach that to know this, not as a superficial fact but deep in its essence, is itself enough to awaken.
One of the great gifts of a long retreat is meditating on annica. This specific moment may be filled with emotional torture: it ends. This afternoon sings with delight: it ends. This boring dharma talk, this peaceful twilight walk, this day, this week, this retreat, this youth, this life: all of it ends.
How much time do we waste fretting over things that will inevitably change on their own, whether we want them to or not? Four minutes have passed. Fourteen days. Two years. I’m 57 years old. Everything passes.
Other pillars of Buddhist philosophy are more intellectually challenging. Take emptiness, for example, or non-self: these ideas are neither superficially logical nor readily apparent. Exploring them requires some mental gymnastics. But impermanence is not difficult to grasp. It is not counterintuitive. We all know it.
Yet to live as if we know it? There’s the rub.
For me, annica is not just about how everything constantly changes. It also points to how slippery the very notion of “time” is. In everyday usage, we conflate three different meanings of the word. This is a failure of language: Each merits its own concept.
The first “time” is linear: the arrow of yesterday, today and tomorrow; past, present and future; then, now, and next. On the everyday plane, this is the glue that holds consensual reality together. It cannot be unstuck. It moves in one direction only and is beyond change.
Second is cyclical “time”: all in our lives, personal and global, that repeats in rhythm. Seasons. Cycles of the sun, the moon, the earth, the stars. Birthdays, anniversaries, commemorations. Ebbing and flowing, waxing and waning. All the ways in which reliable repetition is the most prominent feature.
These two “times” relate to one another. But the third stands alone: our personal sense of moment-by-moment experience.
We assume this “time” should map onto the other two, but does it? We assume a day, a minute, a year should feel a certain way — but by what yardstick, what heuristic? It exists only in the artificial, constant flux of personal moment-by-moment awareness. It has no external anchor, no tether. It is only vapor, a concept, a feeling.
A few years back, as my grandmother celebrated her 100th birthday, I asked her to reflect on her life. She looked out in front of us as if her eyes, blind with macular degeneration, still worked, as if she could scan a reel of highlights from the great narrative arc of her one hundred years. After a few moments’ reflection, she shrugged her shoulders and whispered to me with a quick snap of her fingers, “it goes like that.”
One hundred years. It goes like that.
Annica. Impermanence. It’s not difficult for most of us to grasp the truth of this – intellectually. The perplexity is that we persist in living as if it were an inconvenient, even incidental, falsehood.