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The other night I had the dreadful sensation that time stopped. I woke up twice during the night, not so unusual, but the first time I woke I misread the clock. I woke up a couple of hours later, looking at the clock with the horrifying realization that it was exactly the same time: 2:38. My body had the internal sensation that hours had passed yet it was still 2:38. The experience might not have been so dreadful, just fleetingly strange or something, if time had “stopped” at benevolent 11:38 or 5:38, instead of the deepest, darkest, loneliest time of night. An interesting old friend once told me that she was sure the territory around 3 a.m. was the time Judas found the terrible will to betray Christ. And that aside, 3 a.m. is “too late and too early,” she said. No moon, no sun, just stillness. Just you there alone in the wilderness.
Some monks and nuns wake to pray around this time, of course. I have a very worldly friend who habitually gets up at 3 a.m. to meditate. Inspired by his example, I once in a blue moon rally the will to sit up and meditate myself. But more often than not I lie there like a fretful sloth, too tired to get up, too restless to sleep. Still, there is something about this time of night that commands the attention. No matter how hard you try to distract yourself, it impossible not to see the true state of things, the body undisciplined, the mind wandering restlessly in circles, and the spirit—that part of us capable of willing, of sacrificing our own immediate pleasures and needs to align ourselves with something greater—neglected, left to its own devices, a feral child.
What if you thought you were stuck in that place forever? What if you believed for a few moments that time stopped and nothing would ever change? You would know how much we long for change. You would know there is something built into us and the whole of life that longs to move on, to grow, to develop, that knows that standstill is not life. You would see very clearly and that the nature of life is change. And the deep personal question that might toll like a bell is…what change?
I watched the digital clock move from 2:38 to 2:39, and just to be sure, to 2:40. With a wave a relief, I vowed to be more aware of this process of change, to be a more mindful mother to my lazy body, restless mind, and especially my wild, feckless, underachieving will. There was still time! Like Scrooge waking up on Christmas morning, I realized I didn’t have to be carried along passively by every changing thought, every random purpose, every impulse to, say, internet surf instead of work.
I could learn to change for the good. It was suddenly clear that a human life includes the possibility of choice, and I mean tiny, humble moment-by-moment choices to go with this stream of self-absorbed thought or, say, get up and sit…or pray…or take some other action that breaks us out of the little circle of self and opens us towards something larger.