If only I had known, I would have become a watchmaker.
Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
It is the same every day—alarm sounds, struggle for some minutes, and eventually get the protesting body to sit up. Then to the duties of the morning, ablutions, some yoga practice, rousing and dressing children, breakfast, and on to work. But on a recent morning as I reached for the snooze button I remembered Ivan Osokin.
Strange Life of Ivan Osokin is a novelette written at the turn of the century that is loosely the basis of the movie Groundhog Day. It tells the story of a man who, having reached a dark and miserable season of his life, meets a magician-teacher. In desperation he swears that if only he could live his life again, he would make none of the same mistakes. He wouldn't get expelled from school; he wouldn't lose the favor of his beloved; he wouldn't make the same errors in business.
The teacher says, "Well, let's see," and in that moment Ivan is born again, to the same parents, at the same time, and into the identical life. After reliving the same, mostly painful, 40 or so years, he understands that even with full knowledge of the outcomes, he can not do a single thing differently. The same circumstances, and more importantly the same level of consciousness, produced identical outcomes in his life—even though he knew precisely what they would be.
"But this is simply turning round on a wheel!" says Osokin. "It is a trap!"
The old man smiles.
"My dear friend," he says, "this trap is called life. You must realize that you yourself can change nothing and that you must seek help. And to live with this realization means to sacrifice something big for it. A man can be given only what he can use; and he can use only that for which he has sacrificed something. This is the law of human nature."
After Osokin's second interview with the teacher, he sees his helplessness. He is fully humbled, and ready to receive help.
The author of the book, Peter Ouspensky, was a philosopher obsessed with the idea of eternal recurrence. This Nietzschean alternative to the Eastern concept of reincarnation suggests that the same life is relived again and again—the circle of life completes at death and resumes in the next moment with the same birth, in the same body, and in the same conditions—until the life is gotten right.
The implications of the concept of eternal recurrence are overwhelming—until we consider that our lives are in fact a series of innumerable recurrences. A life is macrocycle comprised of a multitude of concentrically encompassing cycles—the phases of childhood, maturation, adulthood, and old age; made up of events or processes lasting years, months, days, and finally breaths, and moments. Though we are accustomed to seeing a linear procession of events, there are really only repeating processes, with slight variation. These represent the doorways to refinement, both personally and within our communities.
For instance, each morning I make breakfast for my family. The event has a specific set of requirements—people need to be fed and finished eating in time to go out the door for work and school. Within those outer conditions there is the inward need to refine the experience—to create an atmosphere in which we hear and appreciate one another, we eat our food with attention and gratitude, and we sound a conscious first note of the day. Each morning the process unfolds, and each morning I have the opportunity to refine and serve the highest possibilities of the event.
These mundane repetitions are like the routine of the figure skater preparing for competition—polishing and perfecting the performance, rubbing off the burrs of unproductive habits, striving for the unmanifest and even unattainable possibility of perfection.
Of course these processes do not repeat identically, and so it is not the form that is perfected, but the spirit of practice. This requires a kind of discipline that has a light and nimble touch.
Says Castaneda's Don Juan to his apprentice: "Sorcerers understand discipline as the capacity to face with serenity odds that are not included in our expectations. For sorcerers, discipline is an art; the art of facing infinity without flinching; not because they are strong and tough, but because they are filled with awe."
In approaching each event as a unique repetition, we can wake up to its real possibility and meaning. And in sacrificing our self-importance and unnecessary suffering, we are given the gift of the opportunity to refine the spiraling cycles of our lives, and ourselves in the process.