Journey into Hamlet's Pause


Katherine Hauswirth


Agatha Christie said, “Everything that has existed, lingers in the Eternity.” Both books I read this week would argue that human life does more than just “linger” beyond this earthly realm; it gets its chance to thrive only when our finite mortality is no longer the pivotal concern. “Shuffling off this mortal coil,” the famous expression derived from Hamlet, can have an appealing ring, the sound of being free of all those pesky concerns that riddle our days, like a fallible body and mind, time, money, and countless distractions, major and minor, that insist on popping up unbidden.

Author Lama Surya Das says his mother calls him “the deli Lama.” This reflects his down-to-earth, New York roots, but it’s also a good nickname for someone with a pragmatic perspective on concepts that might otherwise remain annoyingly nebulous. In Buddha Standard Time, Lama Surya Das is responding with a practical approach to the “daunting acceleration of life” that nearly knocked him over when he returned from a long period in the East. Western life is a wild ride that seems to be tumbling into overdrive. There’s a reason the “slow food” and “slow sex” movements have a loyal and growing band of followers.

But the author expounds on more than just better use of time, or gratitude for life’s simple pleasures. He quotes the Buddha in describing what can happen when you can let go of a perspective bounded by past, present, and future—“with your mind free in every direction, you will not return to birth and aging.”

This is an intriguing promise, and although part of me was drawn to “the infinite possibilities of now” promised in the subtitle, another part wondered if there is any real way to vault the fence that time creates. I open books in this genre a bit reluctantly because I crave tangible illustrations and eschew the sloppy embrace of an abstract promise. I view self-help books in the same way that I view presidential candidates—lay it all out for me, give me specifics, and maybe I’ll listen. Don’t waste my time, Buddha Standard or otherwise.

Lama Surya Das puts forth an outline in the book’s introduction and goes on to provide concrete examples for the concepts he reviews. With that box checked, I found it satisfying to read about turning time on its ear, sometimes with very simple strategies. Take the anecdote in the “Creating Space in the Pace” chapter. The author talks about how people regularly standing in long lines in the former Soviet Union had the chance to craft finer versions of themselves. They read widely as they waited; they formed groups to deal with the unavoidable lines efficiently, taking turns running errands and getting to know each other better in the process.

Although I am sure these same people would point out the obvious down sides of the ubiquitous lines, I might try the Lama’s advice to pick the longest line at the checkout counter when I can, because there is possibility here: “By just walking to the back of the longest line, you can transform the atmosphere in the room, slow down the pace, and change peoples’ perception of time.” Parlaying frustration into freedom is a bit like spinning straw into gold, but the Lama makes it sound much more accessible than a fairy tale. In a similar vein, he talks about using those very same distractions than can just about tip us over the brink on a hectic day (doorbells, phones, e-mail chimes) as calls to pause or at least shift down to a slower gear, making our reformed Pavlovian response something in which we can rejoice.

We know instinctively that life is more than just the sum of our errand lists. Buddha Standard Time helps us take baby steps toward “befriending time,” which can in turn grant us at the very least an occasional relief from the march of the schedule and its associated expectations. At most, we might begin to recognize a dimension that lives outside our usually time- and space-oriented vision.

In the novel What Dreams May Come, author Richard Matheson takes a flying leap off the time-space continuum and into the afterlife. Protagonist Chris Nielsen tells a tale about his life and his love, as well as his gradual orientation to the hereafter. He’s died in a car accident, having only made it to middle age. Chris has trouble pulling away from his earthly life, and he wanders in a dark limbo for what seems forever. When he does separate, although he begins to appreciate the possibilities of immortality, he misses and worries about his wife Annie desperately. When will she join him, and can she go on alone in the meantime?

Chris meets his favorite cousin, who has been able to fashion his ideal home in heaven. He’s reunited with the family dog that died years earlier. He encounters stunning vistas, beauties familiar from the worldly realm but exponentially more vivid and pristine. He learns that bodies aren’t needed, nor are clothes, speech, or motion, but we get to keep all of our touchstones of mortal life as long as we want and need them. He learns that our minds create our reality, every detail of it. What pleasure it must have given Matheson to conjure his heaven in words—a creation of the mind within a creation of the mind.

Despite the seemingly limitless power of thought and intention that Chris is just beginning to grasp, it certainly isn’t all fluffy clouds and harp music (although it turns out everyone has an aura, arguably akin to a halo). Annie’s afterlife is the vehicle by which we get to see some form of hell, although it isn’t labeled explicitly as such. She can’t handle Chris’ sudden death and she preempts her predestined time to die, at her own hand. Her troubled mind has created her afterlife, and there’s an awful dimness, an engulfing shabbiness that surrounds her. It seems she can’t be reached. But as with love stories set in the earthly realm, there is the hope that love will ultimately conquer all. And as with the spiritual stories told in our earthly realm, there is the hope that starting over will allow us to get it right, at long last.

What Dreams is named for the famous lines from Hamlet:

For in the sleep of death, what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

Each book I read this week was, in a sense, a journey into Hamlet’s pause, a place where “reality” is looked at critically and “dreams” are seriously reconsidered as within our reach. The books ask “what if?” and “why not?” regarding conventional perceptions of time and mortality. Matheson wonders what it would be like if we could control our reality with our thoughts, if not in this life, then in the next (or even the one after that). Lama Surya Das seems to be saying, “why wait; why not start now?” Soon it will be time to move the hands (or pixels) of our clocks back an hour, once again reinventing time to suit our daily schedules. Perhaps that hour we gain can be used to indulge in Hamlet’s pause, considering what dreams (or should I say realities) we can create for ourselves.

Books mentioned in this column:
Buddha Standard Time, by Lama Surya Das (HarperCollins, 2011)
Hamlet, by William Shakespeare (Shakespeare Online)
What Dreams May Come, by Richard Matheson (Tor Books, 1998)

Katherine Hauswirth is a medical writer by day and a creative writer by stolen moments. She writes creative nonfiction and poetry. She is the author of the book Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey and contributed to the anthology Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough. Katherine has been published in many venues including The Writer, Byline, The Christian Science Monitor, Pregnancy, The Writer's Handbook, The Writer's Guide to Fiction, Chronogram, Women of Spirit, Wilderness House Literary Review, Poetry Kit, Eat a Peach, Lutheran Digest, and Pilgrimage. A Long Island native, Katherine lives with her husband and son in Deep River, Connecticut. Harriet’s Voice: Home Base for Writing Mothers is her personal website. Contact Katherine.



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