Lessons from Lockers
A couple of days ago, I was walking down the long main corridor of the middle school where I serve as the principal. At this point in time, due to the coronavirus pandemic, school had not been in session for several weeks. However, I had continued working out of my office as the lone person in the building. This particular day would be my last day on campus, as the mayor of our city had just passed an executive "stay at home" order. As I walked down the hallway one last time on my way out, I turned and looked at a row of students' lockers. Suddenly, a wave of nausea quickly came over me. It looked as if time had stood still.
The row of lockers I perused on my way out the door were left in varying degrees of existence. It was if there were no rhyme or reason for this. Some were shut, and others were open. A few had stuff hanging out of them, while many had been completely cleaned out.
For some unknown reason, I knew in an instant that this skitter-scatter image of the lockers would be indelibly etched into my mind.
Just a couple of weeks ago, these same lockers were being opened and shut - often slammed - dozens of times per day. And these very hallways, where the lockers are housed, had been bustling with children. They were running around, joking, being dramatic, horse playing, and shuffling off to their classes. Bouncing off of one another and the walls like prepubescent pinballs, their young energy was frenetic.
In stark contrast, now it was eerily silent and still. There was no energy. I could actually hear the sound of my own footsteps on the marble floors. It was as if life had been drained from the building in the blink of an eye.
Similar to the snapshot of those lockers in my mind, we have all seen photographic images that give us the feeling that time has stood still. Some of the photos are of tragic historic events like the Chernobyl disaster or some of the horrific ground zero aftermath pictures of 911. Other types of images that convey this feeling are more benign, like pictures of old abandoned shopping malls from the 1980's or deserted amusement parks or old shut-down drive-in movie theaters. Even though in some of these types of pictures it is evident that the ravages of time has "had its way" with the physical environment, there still remains the feeling that the scene itself is somehow frozen in time.
These types of images are somewhat paradoxical by nature. While these pictures may convey to us an illusion that time has stood still, the truth is the exact opposite. Time stands still for nothing or no one. As Eckhart Tolle reminds us, "Even the sun will die."
As macabre as it may sound, if we can remember to remind ourselves from time to time that one day we will cease to exist, we can learn to live a much more robust life. I am not suggesting that we fixate on our own impending demise. Instead, I am suggesting that we can flip the scrip and use our fear of the unknown to live a more meaningful life by simply realizing that the only consistency in our world is inconsistency (change).
Using death as an occasional reminder can free us up from much of our mental suffering, as much of our pain is caused from us trying to cling to experiences and things in futile attempts to make them permanent. Guess what? Nothing is permanent. The law of impermanence teaches us that no physical or mental object is permanent. Trying to attach ourselves to them causes us self-inflicted suffering.
Through out history some cultures have used the symbolism of the human skull as a reminder that immortality for humans is unattainable. Examples of this include Hamlet speaking to the skull in Shakespeare's masterpiece play or the Day of the Dead skull masks in the Mexican culture. If you think about it, there is nothing static about our very nature of human existence. It is just the opposite. We are nothing more than ever-changing energy and matter. In fact, researchers say that our bodies replaces itself with a new set of cells about every seven to ten years. Isn't it ironic that we desire for everything to stay the same around us when we ourselves are in a constant process of change?
In retrospect, I believe the lockers symbolized to me that I was venturing into unchartered territory. Upon processing the image of the lockers, my mind instantly tried to cling to something familiar. It failed miserably. That is often what our thinking minds do. They try to convince us that time can stand still. This is a false illusion. Our minds have good intentions to keep us safe and insure our survival. However, this mindset does not work.
One thing we can practice to help us let go some of our clinging tendencies is to start "thinking about our thinking" (metacognition). It is helpful if we see ourselves as the observer of our thoughts, instead of viewing ourselves as our thoughts. In addition, we can get some liberation from detaching ourselves from our compulsive over-thinking by getting into the habit of seeing thoughts as mental activity instead of absolute truths. This lessens our longing to cling.
We are better off knowing that everything is in a constant state of flux. Instead of trying to grasp tightly to things and thoughts that are fleeting in nature, we can loosen our mental grip and be comforted by the fact that "this too shall pass" (as will everything).