By Celia Coates
Having to go to the bank in these pandemic times means finding a drive-through teller.
I sat in my car after I had sent in my documents using that pneumatic canister that reminds me of the way money was moved overhead from counter to cashier in department stores long-ago. It was a complicated transaction and I had to wait a few minutes for my papers to come back. A large car pulled into line behind me, waited for a very short while and then the driver began honking. What was she thinking? That I was sitting there for my amusement? She became so impatient that she backed up and drove off. Only four minutes later the canister came back down the vacuum tube, I collected my papers, and I was on my way.
One of the unexpected gifts from these difficult days is that my sense of time has changed. The days are blurring together and it takes a deliberate effort to remember what day of the week it is. I’ve had to pause and reflect about the hours and days that seem to be passing by both very fast and very slowly. Here are two stories about different ways to use time, two different choices about what to focus on as we experience the moment.
Louis Agassiz was born in Switzerland in 1807 and became an extraordinary student and then an extraordinary teacher. He studied at several schools and universities in Europe and earned degrees in philosophy and medicine and also became expert in geology, biology, zoology, and finally ichthyology (the study of fish). In 1849 he travelled to America and joined the faculty of Harvard University where he became a professor who was in great demand. (www.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Agassiz)
There are stories from several of his students about their introduction to his approach, one of which I remembered when I was reflecting on the use of time.
A young man approached the prestigious professor and asked to become his student. Agassiz handed the student a preserved fish and left him alone to observe it closely. After 10 minutes the student thought he had noted all there was to see. Then, as Piero Ferrucci * tells the story,
“After an hour he is bored with the glassy stare of the fish, and the professor is nowhere to be seen, so he decides to go home. In the afternoon he goes back to the fish. As there is nothing else to do, he starts looking at it again – he studies the teeth, the scales. Then he draws it, and in drawing it he finds new details he had not noticed before. The professor returns and asks the student to describe what he has observed: the holes on the head, the eyes without lids, the fringed gills, the mobile operculum, the forked tail, etc. But the professor is unsatisfied. ‘You have not noticed the most important item,’ he says. The student is again left alone with his fish.”
The story goes on that the young man discovers a series of details he had not noticed before. But once again the professor is not satisfied and tells him to come back the next morning.
“During the night the student wakes up with an intuition: the most important characteristic of the fish is that its structure has symmetrical, paired organs. Conscientious observation has borne fruits. Now the student believes he has finished – but no, he is just at the beginning. The professor asks him to keep studying the subject for another three days. The fourth day he gives him another specimen of the same kind of fish – a Haemulon – and tells him to study the differences between the two. The study then continues for the next eight months, broadening to other fish, and what the student previously loathed is now arousing his interest.”
The student has learned the best lesson – “Now he is able to see; he knows how to observe and study. When you plunge into the depths, any subject becomes fascinating. Even a dead fish.” I don’t think I could have spent so much time learning that lesson, but then again, I am not driven by a wish to study with Agassiz.
What is a waste of time? Meditation can teach us that there is no empty time.
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “Each minute, each second of life is a miracle.” You can use each moment, no matter how ordinary, to focus on the wonder of experiencing life.
He taught that,
“…you don’t have to spend years on a mountain top to benefit from Buddhist wisdom. Instead, he says, just become aware of your breath, and through that come into the present moment, where everyday activities can take on a joyful, miraculous quality. If you are mindful, or fully present in the here and now, anxiety disappears and a sense of timelessness takes hold, allowing your highest qualities, such as kindness and compassion, to emerge.”
( https://time.com/5511729/monk-mindfulness-art-of-dying/ )
Direct observation in science and direct observation in meditation both take a great deal of time, discipline, and patience. The difference between them is the object of observation – what we focus our attention on. Agassiz’s lesson was about how to thoroughly and deeply notice and learn from external observation, what we see outside of ourselves in the material world. Thich Nhat Hanh’s lesson is about the inner observation that begins with paying attention to the breath as we expand our ability to pay attention to our experience of being alive and aware. Both Agassiz and Thich Nhat Hanh teach lessons in what to notice and why. Scientific observation helps us to gain knowledge and meditative observation helps us gain wisdom.
Here, in 2020, we have trouble taking the time to notice, to really see, in both areas of attention. We’ve been captured by instant gratification. We are accustomed to getting what we want almost instantly, with one click. I wonder if the woman behind me at the drive-through teller was treating her horn like the button on a computer. But I didn’t move.
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* Piero Ferrucci – THE INNER WILL: Finding Personal Strength in Critical Times, translated by Vivien Reid Ferrucci, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2014.
The image that leads this post is from The New York Public Library collection, and is in the public domain. It’s a goldfish, not the kind of fish Agassiz handed his students, but I liked the drawing.