There are the trivial questions in life, and then there are the big questions.
What is the meaning of life? What are we all here for? What will I leave to the world when I’m gone? Will there be a moment, however brief, when I will understand it all?
Faust, according to the legend, exchanged his soul with the devil (Mephistopheles) so that he could have a moment, just one moment, in which he would experience the highest, most amazing pleasure attainable by man. A moment so special, that he would want it to last for ever.
Faust is however, a difficult customer; no matter what Mephistopheles offers him – wealth, youth, knowledge, the love of no other than Helen of Troy, he remains unsatisfied. Finally, when he is an old man in his eighties, he finds his ‘moment’ without Mephistopheles’ help, when he stops looking for his own happiness and finds a way to give happiness to others.
Like Faust, I often found myself searching for that transcendental experience that would change my life. I spent decades overlooking the present, waiting for that momentous revelation. In an effort to focus on the here and now, I tried a number of techniques, including meditation and yoga. But my mind always raced ahead, worrying, searching, working things out, dealing with issues and scenarios that may never come to be.
Recently I was introduced to the practice of mindfulness, defined by Jon Kabat-Zin as ‘Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.’ This sounds too simple, and it is. For the past few weeks, whenever I can, I have been paying attention to everything around me – focusing on what I can hear, what I can see, what I can feel, what I can smell, what I can taste, trying to discover things in ordinary situations that I haven’t noticed before. If I have stray thoughts, I observe them without judgement, and let them go.
A walk in the rain, an hour (or three) spent cleaning, or the drive to work have suddenly transformed into special moments since I have been paying attention. Music has always had a way of heightening experiences for me; I now switch it off, so I can listen to the sounds around me: so many different birds chirping, the wind among the leaves, a plane in the distance, the constant flow of traffic on the busy road nearby, which after a while begins to sound like a river. Sometimes I even switch the light off when I am at home – it is amazing how much you need to concentrate in the present moment when you don’t have the luxury of sight.
On Easter Friday, Mark and I watched the 1957 movie ‘The Seventh Seal’, which takes place at Easter, during the Black Death plague. Death is going around, having a field day, taking people right, left and centre. When he tries to sneak upon a knight who is returning from the crusades, the knight challenges him to a game of chess, in an effort to prolong his life for a while. Knowing that all he has done is buy a little time, the knight wants to know that his life has had meaning; that all the years spent at the crusades fighting for his God have been worth it, that there is something waiting for him after death – heaven or hell, it doesn’t matter, as long as there is something. He asks these questions to a priest, to death, to his God, to a witch about to be burnt at the stake for consorting with the devil, but the answers don’t come.
He then meets a couple of itinerant artists, who are travelling with their baby. They offer him all they have – some music, freshly picked strawberries and a bowl of milk. Casting his internal struggle aside, the knight rejoices in that moment. ‘I shall remember this hour of peace: the strawberries, the bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lute. I shall remember our words, and shall bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk.’
I have now realised that I don’t want to wait until I’m eighty to experience ‘my moment’. I don’t want to sell my soul to the devil or bargain with death in exchange for that transcendental experience. If there’s one thing I am beginning to understand, is that I no longer want to understand the meaning of life. I want instead to understand the meaning of each moment in my life. Because the secret is not in that one momentous revelation, that might never come, but in each single moment that makes our life, and which we so often dismiss as inconsequential.
I remember, for instance, the sense of satisfaction felt a few days ago, after finishing a ten kilometre walk with a friend. We were sitting at a café overlooking a beautiful lake, with sore muscles and gratified hearts, rewarding ourselves with a well-deserved meal. It was that ‘in-between’ time, too late for lunch and too early for dinner, and the place, usually busy, had a relaxed atmosphere enhanced by the laid back music emanating from their sound system. From my viewpoint, I could see the light of the afternoon sun reflected on the surface of the lake, kayakers floating peacefully on the water, bikes zooming past, couples strolling, children laughing as they fed the ducks. And I thought – this is what life is all about: this moment.
Yesterday my ‘moment’ presented itself while I was driving to the movies to meet with friends, when I witnessed a glorious sunset amidst clouds of countless hues of pink and orange.
Today my moment starts right here, right now, sharing my innermost thoughts with you, my reader. And to you, I say… let this moment linger!
Bel Vidal - Débutante novelist (author of Exuberance), blogger,