The Momentary Man
by John Maberry
Who am I then, as I change in time? The smarta** that still resurfaces from time to time, occasionally causing myself problems as a result? The doper who once smoked it if he had it, escaping the day or the night for the high time? The seeker of a way to make the world a better place? The spider who casts a seductive web to ensnare his prey? The organizer, the intellectual, the analyst, the philosopher, the activist, the guy who could have been a lawyer but gave up on it despite the JD, the lover, the Buddhist—or the writer? Change, so much change. The body changing. The mind changing. Experiences piling upon experiences, creating memories of so many selves. What remains the same? The core of me? Are there only the memories of prior selves that links to my changing self? Would looking at myself from afar, as if I were a character in a book, movie or play provide an answer? I cannot say; I cannot be that objective or dispassionate. Looking at myself from another way, is the whole of me greater than the sum of—not my parts, but my life events, my experiences? No, I can never know that either. Perhaps it’s as simple as Descartes’s famous conclusion, “I think, therefore I am.”
Time doesn’t move; we move—through time. Physically, absent invention of a time machine, we can move only one direction through time—forward. Our mind, however, has within it a working time machine called memory. It returns to the past at will, so long as it functions in a healthy fashion. In fact, it can enable us to change the past—by altering our recollection of it. Buddhism posits that there is another form of time travel of sorts. The time machine offered by the Buddhist practice is one that can eradicate karma.
What is karma? It could be described as the algebraic sum of good and bad causes one has made not only through this, but also through prior existence. There can be no scientific proof of that of course. Here is the thesis: karma is created by one’s thoughts, one’s actions and one’s words. It’s stored in a repository of one’s entity—not just corporeal but incorporeal, else it could not survive death and rebirth. That entity, with its karma, is what is passed into a new life upon rebirth. Karma may be thought by some to be a form of destiny. That one’s life is ruled by karma. But Buddhism is not Calvinism; there is no essential predestination in Buddhism. Rather, karma is part of the current carrying one along the river of life. It is constantly changing, by virtue of new thoughts, words and deeds. Simply by existing, one passes through life being presented with events, situations and interactions with the human and physical environment. One always has the choice, when traveling, to take one path or another. While one’s karma may push one to go to the right, one can choose to go to the left. If negative karma created in the past presents an opportunity to break a leg tripping over an obstruction, one could lessen that karmic retribution and instead receive only a stubbed toe. Otherwise required by karma to die at a young age, one could eradicate that karma and live to old age by extraordinary efforts—specifically by tapping the inherent Buddha nature that connects to the universe. This is not entirely unlike the concept of the Force, which is part of the fictional world of Star Wars.
All this discussion of karma can be somewhat theoretical. Yet there can be little doubt that we can acquiesce in what life throws at us or we can actively engage in self-awareness and self-direction. We can recall our youth with regret or with satisfaction. This, despite what accomplishments or failures may have been the reality. The reality is whatever it is; our response to it makes the difference. Whether one accepts the notion of karma and the ability to change it or not, we all have the capacity to alter our perception of the past and our intentions toward the future if we choose to exercise it. We did what we did, said what we did, and thought what we did—THEN. We can’t eradicate those things. What we can do is forgive our own transgressions and celebrate our own good choices from then. From that perspective, we can accept ourselves not only for who we were but also for who we are and who we will be. In any case, we are momentary men and women. We live in the moment. The past is gone and the future yet to be. We are who we are moment by moment. We can plan for the future and remember the past but we must exist and exert ourselves in the present moment.