Vertical Time


The experience of aging is an exercise in comparison that happens inside of horizontal time. What I mean is that we tell ourselves a story. I am 61 years old. I have sixty-one years of memories. I am older than I was a year ago. Ten years ago I could do X but now I can’t, I’m older. And so on. We picture ourselves somewhere on the timeline of a life, and begin to see more of that timeline in the rear view mirror than out the front windshield. This leads, inevitably, to a sense of loss, and perhaps sorrow or regret.

There is a whole other way to experience aging and time, and that is through vertical time. Vertical time is the time of this moment. This kind of time is what we experience through zazen practice, through meditation. As Suzuki Roshi says, “Our way is to live fully in each moment in time.” The most direct way to experience vertical time is in our breathing, particularly on our exhale. We breathe out, and we are here. If there is a before and an after, these are just thoughts in our mind, just stories we tell ourselves. The breath itself is not part of that story. It is finished, ended. It ends in the bottom of our belly, in our guts, and it has only one story to convey: we are here, just now. With the next breath, an old life ends, and a new life begins. We are refreshed and renewed.

This is vertical time, absolute time. We are always living in this time as an ever-renewing eternal moment. There is no progress in this kind of time, no development, no aging. There is no chance for sorrow or regret, or if there is, it vanishes along with our complete exhaling. Vertical time is the essence of Buddhist practice, and of meditation. It is itself liberation.

And yet we worry; it is the condition of human life. Some research has shown that older people don’t worry as much as younger ones, but I just think the worries are different. I know my friends worry about health quite a bit, both their own and others’. These days, they also worry about money. We know so many more people when we are older, we have so many established relationships. Even if our life is good, we share our concerns about those we care about.

There is a way to worry in vertical time too, a method I call “Worry Dogs and Spirit Guides.” But that is for next Blog. – Until then!

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