Saturday, July 17, 2010

Thinking backwards

It was in a book on meditation I read over twenty years ago. It recommended that at the end of a day, you review your day in reverse, putting events in reverse order. Like putting the movie of your day into reverse, rewinding from actually laying down, to what you did before bed, sucking back the toothpaste-laden spittle ad laying it back onto the brush, and so forth. You’re to do this all the way through your day, finally ending with your waking up that morning, your entire day ahead of you and behind you at once. In essence, it was and exercise in thinking backwards. The book acknowledged that it would be difficult at first, but promised that (with regular daily practice) it would get easier.

And now, twenty plus years later, I still try to practice this exercise in frustration from time to time, with the same lackluster result. I can go over the past five minutes with no problem, but my mind wants to jump back to getting up that morning, and go forward from there. The author of the book noted that this would be your natural inclination; to move backwards to a point and then go forward from there—but that you were to resist this temporal temptation. But I find it’s like walking backwards while trying to resist the urge to peek back over your shoulder to see where you’re going. It’s cheating and defeats the whole purpose.

The idea is personified in the legend of Merlin. Part of the Arthurian legend was that Merlin lived his life in reverse, so that Merlin met the child Arthur when he was an old man. The longer Arthur knew him, the younger Merlin became. This anachronistic idea baffles me. For, if you met someone that lived their life in reverse, they would know you before you met them, having seen you and known you already in your old age, and being already aware of everything that would happen to you. But the day would come, years into your future, on your last day of knowing your dear old friend, when he. Looking younger than you have ever known him, would not know you. This would be the day when, living in reverse, he would be first meeting you. And while in the present the wise old man would seem sage and knowledgeable, having lived through everything that will happen to you, the longer you know the man, the less he would know about you, and in fact, the less he would know. You’d have no shared memories, save those either you or he has not lived yet. It would therefore seem less a basis for a lasting relationship, and more like a basis for an Alzheimer's diagnosis.

And that’s the frustration of looking at life in reverse. It’s against our view of time, of our relationship to the universe, to the world, and to each other. Yet it’s supposed to be a good basis, meditatively speaking, method of reviewing your life. Maybe it’s only expanding the experience to greater than a one day that’s problematic, and makes it too big for me to wrap my head around. But, at the same time, there seems a compunction to stretch the exercise into larger, Merlin-esque, perspective. I think it was Socrates who said “A life unexamined is not worth living.” Or something of the sort. Yet everyday we make life out of overcoming our mistakes, and putting them behind us. And, to some lesser degree, forgetting, erasing and burying them as if they never happened.

In that sense, a life examined in a meaningful way is a life you have to live, in some ways, in reverse. A life examined is one that requires you to imagine not only spitting the toothpaste back onto the brush, but also squeeze it back into the tube. And that’s hard as hell to do. And, at the end of the day, it’s not a lot of fun.

Okay, so thinking backwards can be an interesting, albeit difficult, exercise. It can be frustrating. But I still feel like there’s something worthwhile in that exercise. That’s why I keep working at it, from time to time. When I remember to try. I’m trying to get better at it, certain (for some odd reason) hat there is somewhere to go with it; that there is some “there” there. But it’s something I don’t know, really, how to do.

No comments: