Life, a verbal noun
What is life?
When we speak of life as a noun, we make it a thing: something contained and containable, an object, a subject of conversation, something bounded and marked, even if remarkable, we perceive ownership. Our life.
We make life into an adjective, reducing it further into a description, a part of another whole: a life span, a life force, a life’s work. We use it to measure time: life long.
But we don’t know, really, what life long means until the living is done. And that is where the word life takes on life: as a verb. Live, to live. The verb objectifies the one who is alive, turns us from owner of the thing, life, to the recipient of the verb, life, which flows through us even as we perceive/claim control.
To feel life as both noun and verb is to open the English speaking mind.
And the mind is the perceiver. The citta, the stuff of the mind, creates what we think and see and make of life. It is, necessarily, only part of the whole.
But which part? Ancient wisdoms and myths talk of the veil, the maya, the illusion that covers our eyes, mind, perception. The stories tell of humans being blinded by a whole perception of life, of divinity, and yet we are always seeking to see more: travel, psychedelics, consciousness-expanding practices change the mindset, the setting of the mind.
And there are the sudden shifts in life that come upon us, which move the veil or lift it for a moment, radically changing what we know and perceive of life, of living.
These moments, and these seekings, create the magic of life: how people change, and when, for what purpose, in what direction, and what happens thereafter. We embody the shifts that began out in the world, and we have the will to create inner changes that manifest, ripple through the world around us.
Then the mystery becomes overwhelming, we want to exert our free will, to explain why people come and go from our lives, why they change, why we change, what life is and is there a meaning. We play with the balance between stability and volatility, creating and upholding habits that keep the veil steady, until those definitive moments, the points of transformation.
How we direct our own transformation is the story of how we make life, the noun, into life, the verb.
Transformation, as change, requires a baseline: the resting point from which we began, or repeatedly return to, either as a fall back, as a safe space, or a working point from which to raise the barre. For that baseline to exist, we need memory.
Memory, still mysterious to neuroscience, is infamously unreliable, and this is its gift to the one who uses it with skill. The malleability, the volatility of memories are invitations for self awareness, and highlight the misperception that we make choices afresh. Because as long as our memories are stable, intact, reliable, we hold a frozen image of the past within us. With the staleness/stability of past sitting within the mind, we cannot be purely responsive to the present moment; we are bound to repeat or avoid our past actions.
We live with the illusion that memories are beyond our control: that they are real, and that they arise unbidden, like pop up windows we auto-block online. And just like pop-ups, memories that come up are often triggered by our present actions, and can be the surface indication of a malfunction in the hardware.
When we slip into the past, into memories of life as it was, and fantasies of life as it could/should be (based on what we liked in the past) we escape the present moment. Without full presence, we are reactive— especially when we are accustomed to energizing our memories.
Why is that? The memories that do come to us are the ones that are most salient: meaningfully charged with emotion. Sometimes they are informative, as in learning, but can also reinforce trauma-based or pleasure-seeking habits. When we are attached to our past, we hold ourselves back from seeing the potential within the present, within ourselves, within the life that is to be lived right here, right now.
So we learn to shape our memories. When memories arise, unbidden, we resist the urge to repress or forget but rather embrace, look lovingly at what the mind is presenting of the past, and we process that to release it. Perhaps we learn more about our life, or about our mind.
This processing allows the mind to release the past, the burden of what has already happened and the expectations of what should happen. Free from weight, life expands from an inevitable expression of what has already happened and unfolds into its most inspiring state: a verb, the current that moves us, who are awake, alive.