Amber is a petrified sap that has the unique property of hardening into a stone-like substance so strong that it can withstand millions of years of life in the environment without being destroyed. A steel beam may last 300 years but Amber lasts for millions. This fact of its nature has led us to some fun scientific finds, in the form of insects that got stuck when the sap was liquid, entombed in the amber and now, millenea later unearthed by humans. We can extract their DNA and compare the life of a million years ago with the descendants of those creatures today! So amber is pretty useful in that way.
When we turn our lives into amber, however, its not so useful. When we trap some part of our experience in sap and try to freeze it in place for all time only suffering can result. Sadly most of us do this to some degree or another. One of the harder concepts for me in Buddhism was the idea that the universe is born and extinguished in each and every moment. There isn’t any other moment you can find, you cant go to the past or future by even a millisecond. its all here and now. Some part of my mind rebelled at this idea immediately. “I know that I used to have no tattoos and now I have tattoos, so obviously there was a past.” I would think, so how could there by ‘only’ this moment. What I failed to notice for the longest time was that there was a lot of ‘I”‘s in that thought. . .in most thoughts really!
Who was this “I” that had no tattoos? Is that person me? did that person think the way i do now, look the way i do now, poop as much as I did this morning? The fact is that every single cell in that persons body is different than in my body this moment. The fact is that every single thought in that persons body is different too. Jason is only Jason because I decide to call THIS momentary collection of ideas and cells “Jason”. Its easier to get along in society if we all pretend to be the same from day to day and that’s ok, we just need to remember not to get TOO hung up on the fiction!
But we do. Like Cop shoot cop said in their awesome song “Nowhere”
If your lover used to beat you with his anger
If your mother used to tie you to a rock
Observe your former life preserved in amber
Like someone pulled the power on the clock
Even if our ‘former lives’ are horrible and tragic we hat the idea of losing them! Some people, sadly, even make their entire lives the reliving and experiencing of the horrible things of their childhood or traumatic experiences. They become agitated and upset if their past isnt given the proper due by the rest of society. Their pain is real, but the experience is no longer, the pattern so fully dug into their concept of ‘who they are’ that it is impossible to dislodge. However the world is also filled with people who had the exact same experiences of abuse or horror and who have not ‘preserved it’. I don’t now what leads one survivor to cling to their pain and another to let it go, but I pray that those who cling can find the peace to leave it behind for their own sake.
Most of the time the issue isn’t as clear cut as this though, the grasping at our past is more subtle and insidious. I cant tell you how many friends and acquaintances I have that still cling to the concept of their youths. “Im still punk rock” they insist and this is then followed by all the reasons that other guy isnt really’ punk. In the same way I know TONS of tattooers who cling to the idea that their vision of tattooing is the “right one” and that anything outside of that is not just wrong, but heretical! And these guys don’t just use their own amber-bound experience to back it up, they love to trot out the frozen corpse past of even older tattooers! “Well Sailor Bobo in 1934 said that tattooers who wear gloves are fags!” as if Sailor Bobo’s experience has anything to do with what we are doing this moment.
In his amazing and inspirational (and funny as shit) book “Heft on Wheels”, Mike Magnuson describes his experience of being a 39 year old overweight alcoholic to a sober, sane and happy person by his obsession with bikes and bike racing (ha! you knew Id find a way to bring bikes into this!) As a university writing teacher he has ‘rules’ he gives his students to try to help them unlock the potential within themselves. As I read the book for the first time I got to this part and stopped.
“In order for learning to occur, a person needs to reach this understanding: Who you have been is not who you have to be. You are free to change your thinking.“
Two things immediately occurred to me when i ran across this line. First, that might be the most Zen Buddhist thing that wasn’t in a book about zen buddhism I have ever read. And Second, he didn’t say “You can change your thinking” or “you should change your thinking” he said “You are free to change your thinking.” Consider how powerful that statement is.
No really, think about it.
So you had a horrible childhood (and my sincere condolences if you have), but you are free to change your thinking. So you grew up the punkest dude ever, but you are free to change your thinking. So you hated broccoli as a kid, but you are free to change your thinking. How often do we hear that? We like to think that we ARE our thinking or that our thinking controls us, but the reality is that we are not our brains, thoughts, or feelings. Our thinking is not fact, and we are free to change it. Not clinging to your past isnt losing anything, its actually gaining freedom from dragging a dead-weight corpse around with you everywhere!
There is no amber in our lives unless we bring it. Nothing requires us to think, feel, behave, or live the way we have in the past In fact, if you want to get all Buddha-y about it, there isnt even a real past to live like. If you are an old dude, you dont need your punk rock credentials to justify your life. If you are a tattooer you dont need tradition or history to justify your way of doing things. If you are a zen dude you dont need old dead zen dudes to justify what you do. You are free.