Sunday, December 7, 2008

Tricycle Magazine: "Time & Again," Adam Frank

"Buddhism's essential insight on time's passage is it's fundamental lack of substance."

(Adam Frank, professor of astrophysics, University of Rochester)

It's rare when scientists contemplate the mysteries of spiritual belief in print (even during the Christmas season, when the approach of winter and year's end makes the idea of "time" and its "passing" loom large). Professor Adam Frank, whose aching knees in meditation are a constant marker of time's passing, gives it a try in "Time & Again," in the Winter issue of Tricycle magazine, the Buddhist quarterly. And though I'm still not sure what Einstein would have had said to Buddha about the concept of time, by article's end I'm more sure that the "here and now" is more important than yesterday's news or the future that always seems just out of reach.

Tricycle often offers some very heady reading, and usually does. It can be overwhelming to sample the constant, complex flow of ideas that run across its pages. While some may doubt even the value of bringing Buddhist concepts to the West, an old battle, there's generally a consensus in Tricycle's thoughtful writing that it's at least worth a try: as a ten-year subscriber I have read pieces outlining Buddhist concepts in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, the music of John Cage, Marilyn Nelson teaching poetry and meditation at West Point.

I'm not a practicing Buddhist by any stretch but it's human enough to think about the big ideas (like the nature of time) when I'm not caught up in the daily spin. It's a battle at year's end to contemplate, once again, where I misplaced an entire year. So I'm very comfortable in appreciating the smaller things, and even making the big things seem less daunting, usually expressed in some odd phrase that resounds like a koan: the beauty of time is that it's snowing. Let's leave it at that.

Of course, I miss a lot of the here and the now when I'm thinking in non-sequential ways, but it helps connect the dots of existence -- my own, at any rate. (That mystical conundrum about snow is from the great rock music philosopher, Steve Miller, circa 1968. See?) Another way of keeping time's track is the making of year-end lists, and I'm waiting for this year's share of ten-best and ten-worst of everything. As I said, I discover I'm missing a lot; generally speaking I'm missing the bests more than I'm hitting them, judging what's on the critical to-do lists. But I do like what I read, and that counts for much.

I soldier on bravely, though, reading and watching and listening to the things that increasingly have meaning to me as I get older. It's one of the curses of a liberal-arts education that the simple act of keeping an open mind about so many things means there's a lot of freight being moved about in the hold: that, say, Larry Rivers' 1992 "unauthorized autobiography" What Did I Do? (a friend's gift) and H.S. Bennett's 1947 study Chaucer and the Fifteenth Century (a library find) are next to one another on the bookshelf. On the next shelf, and a world away, is the Dover paperback of Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings by Edward Morse, first published in 1885.

Most of the time I look at lists to see what I'll be reading in the future, whenever those glorious days arrive. Magazines of course arrive with the weeks and months, and I depend on them to tell me what's happening now -- or maybe a month ago -- when I was busy catching up with the month (or the week) before that. I know the internet is a wonderful, instant source of the here and now; it's nearly the closest thing we have to spontaneous human combustion. But so much of the internet is wet with the fresh paint of people thinking. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but the opportunities are too great to launch an anonymous zinger at those with whom we disagree, or to enjoy instant self-congratulation when we discover a fellow traveler.

Calvin & Hobbes contemplate the universe (Bill Watterson, 1990)

And yet, and yet ... I'm learning that the hustle-and-flow spontaneity of the internet is more like real life than I care to admit, and its Buddhist here-now, real-time qualities are bending time and space for anyone with an internet connection from Fiji to Abu Dhabi. So I read Adam Frank's "Time & Again" to understand how the University of Rochester astrophysicist reconciled his Buddhist practice with scientific theories about the nature of time or, really, the complete lack of agreement on what "time" might be.

Like so many ideas, there are many approaches to describing time: "The presence of the present is the only time you have," which certainly seems Buddhist in it's nature, collided head-on with Frank's observation that "Einstein showed us time is malleable. It can bend and stretch." Then there is the continuing strangeness of something like quantum physics -- well, as the physicist Niels Bohr put it, "Anyone who is not shocked by quantum mechanics does not really understand it." Frank is certainly not out to settle any arguments here, or quiet any discussion. It did occur to me that Bohr's comment might frame a new kind of "quantum koan," but beyond that, Professor Frank is scientifically blunt about comparing science and spirituality:

"With a few notable exceptions -- B. Alan Wallace (no matter how much I may disagree with his conclusions), the astrophysicist Piet Hut, and the physicist Vic Mansfield, to name three -- most writings about Buddhism and science are at best misguided and at worst so deeply wrong that they drive practicing physicists like me to breathe into a paper bag to stay calm. Their failure is an attempt to substitute wishful thinking for the hard work of rigorous thinking.

... Making tidy claims about tidy connections between science (a la quantum physics) and Buddhism (or some version of 'Eastern mysticism') fails to do either one much justice. Indeed, such claims fail utterly to hit the essence of what makes both science and contemplative practice so dynamic, so interesting, and, ultimately, so worth our effort."

Well. Professor Frank might as well go ahead and use the achy knees as a scientific, and spiritual, marker. A year's end can certainly make us wonder if it's all so worth our effort. Yes, even the things that make nonsense seem to have a place somewhere. I'm reminded of this every time I run across It's a Wonderful Life when I see the upside-down world of Pottersville, the world that might be if Jimmy Stewart's character hasn't been born. And I haven't yet seen an article in Tricycle about Bill Murray's dilemma in the wonderful Groundhog Day, where he wakes up to the same day (and Sonny & Cher's "I Got You, Babe" on the radio) until he gets it right about love and life and caring for others. It's a great, Westernized allegory of Buddhist enlightenment.

I'll have to wait for Groundhog Day to come around again on my (non-cable, rabbit-eared) television, which is about to join time itself in its pre-DTV past. Or I could just watch the 24 hours of snow when the TV stops broadcasting analog signals in February -- now, that would indeed be the beauty of time in all of its non-sequential, bendable, quantum, or even string-theoried variety. Take your pick -- we've got all the time in the world. If only the FCC had a sense of humor and had selected February 2 for the conversion. Groundhog Day, when the TV stops: that would be perfectly Buddhist, in a Bill Murray sort of way.

(Art from Tricycle magazine by Steven P. Perkins)


The Lili Effect said...

Now-neighbors the Allgoods told me about your blog when I mentioned I once lived on Bellemeade. Small world!

Have you ventured into Dr. Fred Alan Wolf's "The Yoga of Time Travel"? It's along a similar vein.

Nice to read :-)

Anonymous said...

i really enjoyed reading your 12/7update and look forward to receiving my winter tricycle magazine. Your writing is really beautiful - thanks for including me on your correspondence.....Claire