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Eternal return and the unbearable lightness of paying attention

Last week Sensei gave a talk where he mentioned the idea of eternal return, an idea put forward by the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche. It is an idea that I find both fascinating and at the same time horrific, a bit like poor old Sisyphus rolling that rock up and down a hill for all eternity. He asks us to imagine everything that ever happens to us, great or small, good or bad, returning to us in the exact same sequence for all eternity, returning forever and ever, no change and not even hope for change. Sounds awful doesn’t it? The idea is of course older than Nietzsche and appears in the myths and ideas of many civilisations; literature to is full of this theme in works such as Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Robert Jordan’s fantasy The Wheel of Time, to name just a few, and also in a favourite film of mine starring Kevin Spacey, K-PAX, which I can highly recommend if you haven’t seen it.

Yet there have been moments in my life when I would gladly return to experience them again; the birth of children for instance, and most recently for me, the birth of a granddaughter. Nothing can compare such events and who wouldn’t want to repeat happy moments like this? And yet it is in simple moments that we can experience a profound sense of wonder and appreciation.

Travelling to the zendo by train the other day a man was standing by me with a border collie and beside him a man with his small daughter. I turned and looked at the dog and the dog looked at me, I patted its head and smiled, then the man patted its head and then the little girl did the same and giggled, as if it was the first time she had patted a dog’s head. The whole scene brought a smile to my face because of its simplicity and ordinariness and yet it was profound, just at that moment; and I realised it was so because I was paying attention and just letting things be what they where and experiencing what it was. Or the time I was riding my bike on a cycle path just after a downpour with the sun coming through cloud and a blackbird was beginning to sing and no one else was around and the moment just simply froze and I was just there in the moment, totally aware that I was alive and grateful for it. And so if I had to eternally return for moments like that then it wouldn’t be so bad would it? There must be so many of them and all I need to do is pay attention.

Keith Shingo Parr