A few days ago, I spent a couple of hours in a little forest with a friend. There was no sign of civilization – no buildings, no cars, no mechanical noises, not even other human beings. We saw trees all around, tall grasses – lush from the recent rains, the sun glaring at us, an antelope watchfully observing us from a distance, an insect softly buzzing in the bush nearby. We are in 2011 AD, but I thought to myself that this scene could be from 2000 BC, or 20,000 BC, or 2,00,000 BC, or even 2 million BC. Scientists tell us that man, in his earliest form, first appeared on earth 2 million years ago, a time span that is hard to imagine. In the forest, perhaps there was nothing that was marked by the notions of civilization, development, or technology that man has built up since then.
Surely, in this long history, other men and women have sat in the middle of nature, with the sun shining on their faces, admiring the beauty around them. Like my friend and me, they too had their worries about the future as also the happiness of having an understanding friend by their side. Yet, all these emotions seem so insignificant when one imagines oneself to be only one human being with a few decades to live, in a history of 2 million years of the human race.
Even these 2 million years are little when seen in the context of the life span of the Earth. The astronomer Carl Sagan once said that if the life span of the Earth until the present is imagined as a year, human life emerges at 11:59 PM on the 31st of December. The Earth has existed for 6 billion years and the universe, in its current version, for 14 billion. We do not know if there were other universes before this one.
These are objective, humbling facts which make one ask, what is the significance of my actions? What value do my often overwhelming concerns about work, studies and family have? In a way, to consider one’s actions important is absurd. Yet, one has to act. One cannot escape the consciousness of being a being that can reflect, choose to act in a particular way, and be aware of that action. We intuitively feel that what we do is important, and we cannot live life absentmindedly, perhaps like a plant or an ant do.
A central element of Acem Meditation is action or volition. Why repeat the meditation sound? On a physical level, it may induce the ‘relaxation response’. On a psychological level, it may induce opening up to feelings we have been putting aside. On yet another level, it may reflect our basic attitude towards the experience of life, as life is given to us from the outside and as it manifests within us. The simple repetition may reflect what is important to us in life and make our values more apparent to ourselves than they usually are.
What is the significance of our actions is if we take the perspective of the unimaginably large scales of time and space of the universe? This is a question whose answer eludes me. At other times in my meditation history, the answer has been clearer, while at yet other times, the question did not even occur to me. Perhaps meditation is yet another tool to reflect on this question and evolve an answer that is always new and changing, and never the same. It may evoke a sense of wonder, awe and humility at the mysteries of existence, which probably can never be answered totally.