His grandfather was giving thanks to the water when suddenly my father said to him, "Grandfather, I know that these ways are good and this is well... but if I went around giving thanks to everything that there is all the time, I would never get anything done." The wise old man smiled as he continued and said, "That's right" (Michael T. Garrett in Walking on the Wind: Cherokee Teachings for Harmony and Balance).How many times have you been asked by someone you just met, "So what do you do?" Perhaps, it doesn't mean anything--it's just a way of making conversation to avoid an awkward silence and to find in another something to relate to. But on a deeper level, what does the question say about us? About our culture? About our priorities?
Mainstream North American or Western culture measures a person's worth according to his/ her accomplishments, potential, and ambition in life. The more a person does, the more worthy he/she is of respect and admiration. Life is all about doing. Since we are born, we are taught that we must reach certain milestones in life--first walking, then talking, riding a bike, reading, graduating from various schools, getting a license, getting a job, getting married, having kids, etc. We live our lives, it seems, from one milestone to another. We wait for things to happen. We are taught that "good things come to those who wait." But while we are waiting to achieve that next rung on the ladder to success--which incidentally has no end because as soon as we reach one goal, we immediately set another--we are not living. By looking too far into the future we forget about the present.
And so time in Western tradition has become a commodity. The forth dimension has taken over our lives: we live according to the clock. Since Newton, time and space are absolute, highly deterministic measures of all motion in the material world. Time moves evenly on a past > present > future continuum that's linear and sequential. We cannot escape time. We consider it a condition or a form, a structure, that allows us to do things but also that limits us, binds us. We always have no time to do things. We wish we had more time. We constantly run out of time. We budget our time. We save time. Sometimes we even kill time. It contributes to our identity because we know who we are through memories: our personalities are shaped by our past experiences. Time gives us a scientific, precise measurement of "success." And when we get old, since we have little time remaining for all the doing, we become worthless to society.
The Native American view of time is quite different. Time is merely a point of reference. It is energy, and the present is where all life happens. The past is important only as far as it helps us be in the present. The future receives no special privilege. If there is no future, there is no waiting. And if we do not wait, we live in the moment. So if the white man's understanding of time is like a river--it flows from the past to the present and into the future--, then the Native American way is to think of time as a lake. The geometric relation is that of a line to a circle. To a Native, past, present, and the future are all part of the same reality; they happen at the same time in the current moment. Linearity and determinism disappear in this view, and life consists of being rather than doing or becoming. The symbol of the circle, the Circle of Life, reflects not only the relationship between all living things but also the progression of life.
Circles are not only revered and honored in Native American tradition, ceremony, and ritual but also in other traditions. They are recognized as the primary, life-giving figure in the natural world. The Native American circle, "the Sacred Hoop" is not much different from the Chinese Yin-Yang. Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, "The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end." It is a symbol of interconnectedness of everything in the universe, harmony, balance, and eternity. It is the concept of the Nietzschean "eternal recurrence" and the embracement of amor fati: complete acceptance and love of who you are at this time: "that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity." Because if we accept things as they are and love everything in every moment of our lives, we will be happy.