Q: How much “ego” do you need?
A: Just enough so that you don’t step in front of a bus.
—Shunryu Suzuki

As many readers have pointed out, we are in a time of transition, faced with the results of past deeds whose waves have rippled across the ocean of time, bounced off a distant shore, and returned in equal force. This is a peak in the intensity of our collective life together, a time that stirs conscience, and we awaken, if only a little, to some of the absurdities and injustices of our collective life as a society, and perhaps individually as well. 

Collective and personal histories are characterized by these peaks and troughs, like the waves. Life follows cycles, though our great difficulty is in remembering the trough at the height of the peak. How easily we forget the challenges of an intense period and become complacent during times of habit-impelled ease.

This is the essence of meditation—to be both present in, and impartial to, the state of the moment. Whether I’m feeling good, up, strong, shitty, depressed, or ineffectual, the task of meditation is to stay with the technique as a gateway to a capacity for clear and impartial awareness. Technique, in meditation, is like the long, heavy keel of a sailboat, holding the vessel upright and providing stability as it cuts across the waves. 

As in meditation, so in life. How do I allow myself the freedom to stay present, alert, and aware? How do I stay whole whilst receiving what comes: the buffeting of injustices, shocking events, divided politics and opinions, the many wrongs of a society founded in ignorance? How do I keep a sense of the long body, recognizing the cyclical nature of a society with its ups and downs? How can I recognize and remember how reliably things become their opposite while retaining the same name?

In my personal inquiry into the cyclical nature of time, I revisited some journals from seven years ago. I found a passage that jumped out as instructive for this particular time. It is a record of a conversation with my son, then six years old. The context is a walk along a country road on a warm night in June. 

Look, dad, fireflies!
Yes, Ezra, beautiful.
Everything has meaning, dad.
Yes, everything has meaning… Ezra, what do you mean “everything has meaning”?
It’s too much to say in words, dad.

I recall the beauty of the evening, the pleasure of walking in the darkness with my son, seeing a large concentration of fireflies blinking and tracing over a hayfield. I recall the impact of his insight, and how there was nothing to say for a long time afterward. 

On a recent June evening, I again saw fireflies over the same field, and a possible meaning came to me. Despite Ezra’s admonition that it’s too much to say in words, I will try. 

The fireflies are like my presence. I blink on and off. Sometimes I am here and more often I am simply not here. Instead, I get lost in fantasies and fixations about past and future events, my opinions, and resentments. But occasionally I remember myself. When I wake up, I come into contact with a more immediate world. The world I wake up into is the world where I see, and I am aware that I am seeing. This is the world where, like Ezra said, everything has meaning. 

In this world of being awake, I see that all beings are equally precious and part of the larger body of life. I let the perception of a tree, or a sunset, or a cat, or the human being in front of me touch me, and I recognize the presence of something deeper behind the names and preconceptions that overlay appearance. When I am awake, I understand what things have been and what they may become, and how past, present, and future are simultaneous.

This presence in a more substantial and sensitive world blinks on and off like the fireflies. Sometimes there is a dot, sometimes a long arc of presence, like firefly Morse Code. And sometimes there is a long arc in which I stay with myself for a duration I experience as profoundly long. 

Contact with this finer world, which interpenetrates the world of objects and appearances and politics, is the ballast that can hold the vessel upright. It is here that we have, both collectively and individually, the chance to make a change that is not just reactive but may actually transform.

—Jason Stern