Is Life a Circle or a Line?
On a summer day in 1988, I was consumed by one question, “Is life a line or a circle?” Is birth the beginning of the line with death at the other end of the line, or do birth and death come together at the same point in a circle of life? Are old age and childhood more similar than different? I wasn’t sure why I had to answer that question on that particular day or why the question seemed so important at the time.
I suppose I wondered whether life had a beginning and an end or whether we go through life repeating similar cycles. Maybe a circle is not the appropriate image. Maybe life is a sphere where movement is continuous in a three-dimensional framework. I drove around in search of a place for my discovery and found a desolate beach where I could be alone with my thoughts. I then noticed a beautiful park that was next to the beach so I wandered over to the gardens and sat down. An old man was sitting next to me and he turned to me without saying hello and said just one thing, “you must know that everything is a circle.” I was in shock that this man seemed to read my mind and answered my question without any prior information. I was speechless in response to his statement. For the next hour, I just listened to everything he had to say. He eloquently expressed his philosophies, which were shockingly similar to my private thoughts -- even my view that all religions were just different paths to reach the same goal. He then told me that I was studying and I thought he was asking whether I was in school. I told him that I had graduated a few months ago but he said that wasn’t the kind of studying he was referring to. He seemed to know about all my obsession for spiritual study even though I never told him. When I left, he told me that it was his 80th birthday. I’ve never forgotten the conversation because I felt so peaceful in his presence and it was extremely coincidental that he seemed to know my thoughts when I hadn’t revealed any information. It felt like I was listening to a mythical mentor who had knowledge that was difficult to find elsewhere. I knew he was wise the minute he started talking and it is rare in life to be exposed to such wisdom. For many years I tried to find that park again but I was always unsuccessful. I often wonder whether this man existed at all or if he was just an extension of my own imagination.
Later I found out that the philosophy of “life as a circle” was not a new concept at all. In the book, Everyday Karma, world renown psychic, Carmen Harra states, “We are all interconnected and part of the greater circle of life. None of us an escape the circle of life, which the Buddhists and Hindus call ‘Samsara’ or the ‘Wheel of Life.’ Everything in the Universe is made of energy and all this energy is contained within this circle. This circle has no end, and since energy can’t be static, it’s in constant, perpetual motion. Everything is in motion; everything is constantly transforming; everything is in a constant state of transition. Since we are all energy and energy doesn’t die, we all share in this condition of perpetual evolution and transformation.” In The History of God, Karen Armstrong says, “the most perfect motion, therefore, was the circle because it was perpetually turning and returning to its original point: the circling celestial spheres imitate the divine world as best they can.”
The Circle’s Symbolism
Life is frequently represented as a circle in ancient religions and myths. Jung said that “one of the most powerful religious symbols is the circle. The circle is one of the great primordial images of mankind and in considering the symbol of the circle, we are analyzing the self.” Joseph Campbell agrees with this analogy and says, “The whole world is a circle. All of these circular images reflect the psyche, so there may be some relationship between these architectural designs and the actual structuring of our spiritual functions. When a magician wants to work magic, he puts a circle around himself, and it is within this bounded circle, this hermetically sealed-off area, that the powers can be brought into play that are lost outside the circle… The circle…represents totality. Everything within the circle is one thing, which is encircled, enframed. That would be the spatial aspect. But the temporal aspect of the circle is that you leave, go somewhere, and always come back. God is the alpha and the omega, the source and the end. The circle suggests immediately a completed totality, whether in time or in space.”
In essence, the circle represents the continuity of life because the circle has no end. Shamans stated that the circle represented the passage from the natural to the supernatural world and circles are frequently seen in cave paintings all over the world. Surprisingly, these similar images were drawn by cultures that had no connection to one another. Plato also wrote that our “original state” was a perfect circle that was eventually split into two separate beings. Unexplained mysteries also appear as circles. Originally,
Running and Returning
The interesting concept of the circle is that the farther we travel from its beginning, the closer we come to it. The act of traveling away actually brings us nearer. In the Kabbalah, they frequently refer to “running and returning.” The farther you run, the closer you come to where you started. The farther we travel from the Source, the closer we come to it. Searching for wisdom is similar to this analogy. After years of complex thinking, we arrive back at simplicity. To unite with others, we may first have to become very different in order to recognize our similarities. At some point, we travel farther than the midpoint of the circle and then we begin our journey home (like the concept of birth and death).
Even Einstein proved that infinite travel is actually circular. In The Celestine Vision, Redfield explains Einstein’s theories by saying, “The overall universe is curved by the entirety of the matter within it in an incredibly mysterious way. This means if we were to travel in a perfectly straight line in one direction long enough, over a great enough distance, we would return to the exact same place where we began.”
Is a Circle Nothing or Everything?
It’s also not surprising that oo represents infinity. The symbol flows continuously and it is more appropriate than a circle because mathematically, the circle is interpreted as zero or nothing. When two zero’s flow together, we create the symbol for infinity. Nothing is just part of an image that reflects everything.
This concept is prevalent in meditation. At the point that you find nothingness, you find everything. The objective is to clear the mind of thoughts and external influences so that it can be an effective receiver for knowledge and insights. If the mind is full, it cannot take in new information (just as a full glass of liquid cannot take in any more substance). In essence, the person who meditates is seeking a state of “nothingness” and at this point of emptiness comes totality. In other words, by reaching emptiness, there is an infinite connection to the universal energy that envelops us in perfect harmony.
According to Fritjof Capra in his book, The Tao of Physics, he explains that the Brahman of the Hindus, the Dharmakaya of the Buddhists and the Tao of the Taoists all describe the ultimate reality as formless, empty or void. “But this emptiness is not to be taken for mere nothingness. It is, on the contrary, the essence of all forms and the source of all life.” Lao Tzu “often compares the Tao to a hollow valley, or to vessel which is forever empty and thus has the potential of containing an infinity of things.” He also says, “We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move. We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable. We work with being, but non-being is what we use.”
Emptiness as totality is at the basis of physics. If you imagine an orange and then you blow up the orange in your mind to the size of the earth, an orange’s atom would be the size of a cherry. Now take this cherry (that conceptualizes the atom) and blow it up to the size of the dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral. The nucleus of this atom is the size of a grain of sand. The rest of the atom is just empty space. Thus, these atoms that define the totality of physical objects are primarily composed of empty space. According to Einstein, 99.999% of all solid matter is actually empty space. The “O” that mathematically represents “nothing” is actually symbolic of a geometric shape that represents totality.
The Interconnection of Birth and Death
I have always wondered why we mourn death and celebrate life since both events are so intertwined. Are these changes within “being” rather than changes to “being?” Do these events just create different manifestations of the same energy force? Why don’t we celebrate a person’s life on the day they die instead of grieving because we can no longer interact with this person in the physical world? Every day we celebrate one more day of our lives when in fact, we are one day closer to death. Death doesn’t just happen on one particular day. Every day that came before led up to the event. As stated by the Dalai Lama in An Open Heart, “Before we can renounce cyclic existence, we must first recognize that we shall all inevitably die. We are born with the seed of our own death. From the moment of birth, we are approaching this inevitable demise.”
The body prepares itself for death during life. As we get older, the functions of the body slowly break down so that death can occur. This may seem like a warped way of looking at life -- similar to viewing the glass as half empty -- but that is only because we view death as a negative event. The person “disappears” so it cannot be positive; yet, how do we know whether death is positive or negative if we have no memory of experiencing it ourselves?
The only real certainty in life is that we will eventually die, so why would we avoid thinking about it? Shouldn’t we prepare ourselves for the event so that we can accept it gracefully, without fear? We wouldn’t walk into battle unprepared, so why is it acceptable to die without preparation? The Tibetan Book of the Dead prepares people for death in the same way that education prepares people for life or the way an expectant mother prepares for birth. Joseph Campbell says, “One can experience an unconditional affirmation of life only when one has accepted death, not as contrary to life but as an aspect of life. Life in its becoming is always shedding death, and on the point of death… We must constantly die one way or another to the selfhood already achieved.”
According to Michael Newton in his book, Destiny of Souls, he states “In our culture, we do not prepare properly for death during life because it is something we cannot fix or change… In discussing life after death on my lecture tours, I was surprised to find that many people who held very traditional religious views seemed to be the most fearful of death. The fear for most of us comes from the unknown. Unless we have had a near-death experience or undergone a past life regression where we remember what death felt like in a former life, death is a mystery… Thus, our culture views death as an abhorrence.”
In Phaedo, Plato describes that opposites are generated from one another or for something to be greater means that something has to be less; the stronger is derived from the weaker; the swifter from the slower. He writes, “then there is a new way in which we arrive at the inference that the living come from the dead, just as the dead come from the living; and if this is true, then the souls of the dead must be in some place out of which they come again… if generation were in a straight line only, and there were no compensation or circle in nature, no turn or return into one another, then you know that all things would at last have the same form and pass into the same state and there would be no more generation of them… if all things which partook of life were to die, and after they were dead remained in the form of death, and did not come to life again, all would at last die, and nothing would be alive.”
Death actually happens every day of our lives. Our cells die at the same time that there is new cell growth. Physically, life and death happen simultaneously. In The Tao of Physics, it is stated, “Like the subatomic world of the physicist, the phenomenal world of the Eastern mystic is a world of samsura – of continuous birth and death.”
In French, the word for orgasm is “petite mort,” or little death. In essence, the interpretation is that at the height of ecstasy or at the point we find spiritual and physical exaltation, we must let go of something else. A part of us must die as we succumb to the emotional release that allows us to experience bliss; and since an orgasm also produces the seed for new life, the implication is that the creation of life requires the death of something else.
In Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled, he states, “it is abundantly clear that this lifetime is a series of simultaneous deaths and births. ‘Throughout the whole of life one must continue to learn to live,’ said Seneca two millennia ago, ‘and what will amaze you even more, throughout life one must learn to die.’ It is also clear that the farther one travels on the journey of life, the more births one will experience and therefore the more deaths – the more joy and the more pain.” In his book, Further Along the Road Less Traveled, he explains that the journey in life is not a straight line, “it is, rather, like a series of concentric circles expanding out from the core, and there is nothing simple or straightforward about it.”
In nature we constantly see a circular motion of “birth” and “death.” After snow falls and the air warms, we see the “death” of snow and the “birth” of water. If the water hits the cold air as the snow melts, we see the death of water and the birth of ice (in the form of icicles). When the air becomes warmer, we then see the death of ice and the birth of water again. Eventually, this water turns into the air, which is used to create the next round of snow.
Constant death and birth also apply subjectively. Our childhood dreams die as we walk down the path of life and other dreams are born in their place. For example, some people are forced to let their dreams about having children die due to circumstances or nature. If the dream must die then something else must live – an alternative path or a new way of accomplishing the same dream. We can adopt children or become foster parents. With advancements in medical science, the dream of children can be accomplished with fertilization treatments or by adopting an egg, buying some sperm or hiring a surrogate. If childbirth is still impossible, a different path for accomplishing similar benefits is to become Big Brothers or Big Sisters for children who are struggling to get through life. Or we can devote our time and love to our nieces and nephews. In
The Similarity of Childhood and Old Age
Life also resembles a circle because childhood and old age have similarities. After being independent since childhood, old age can force similar dependencies. It may be difficult to get dressed alone and it may be extremely fulfilling to have someone read to us. The frightening part of this repetition is that the support network we had as children is gone. We also aren’t adorable anymore so the attention feels different. It can feel more like pity than love. We may be forced to rely on strangers if our parents are dead and our children are busy with their own lives (or we may not have children to rely on).
In addition, our childhood dreams are gone. Hopes are replaced with regret and guilt. Innocence is replaced with wisdom. In this dependency state, we are at the end of our path instead of the beginning. What are our dreams during old age? Sometimes, the only dream is to avoid the pain of old age. How do we accomplish the dream of enjoying the journey when the day-to-day existence can be unbearable? What if we feel there is no love in our lives, including a love for ourselves? We wait for the only fate ahead of us and our lives are filled with the visions of death. Painfully, we are extremely aware of death because our contemporaries are passing away. Instead of childhood anticipation, there is fear of the unknown.
Old age gives us the time that we never had when we were young. Yet, this time may not be very desirable if a person doesn’t know what to with it. If self-worth is compromised, the time may feel like a curse. Maybe nursing homes should be more like camp. Maybe we should recognize the similarity between old age and childhood by encouraging playtime. There could be crafts classes and recreation time. We can teach the elderly how to play again. Children can even join in the fun. By recognizing the similarity between these two phases of life, we may be able to increase daily fulfillment for the elderly.
Often a negative attitude is the only barrier to fun. My grandmother was an artist her entire life but since her stroke, she has no desire to draw, paint or make sculptures. Her attitude has shifted because she is no longer fulfilled by her craft. She has decided to become unhappy. Her only pleasure comes from watching movies. This activity is similar to childhood too. When we are children, we are glued to the TV. This same desire can return during old age.
Maybe we should have puppies and kittens in nursing homes while they wait for adoption. Why should they be imprisoned at the pound instead of loved by the elderly? In my mind, the ultimate nursing home would incorporate childlike elements. We could celebrate the child that lives in older individuals instead of pitying them because some of their adult independence is gone.
Two years ago at Christmas I bought 50 little stuffed animals and I gave them away to children that I saw during my flight home. Parents were first suspicious of my behavior because it was unusual to receive free stuffed animals from a stranger, but the children that accepted my gift gave me great joy. I brought some of the stuffed animals to the nursing home when we went to visit my grandmother because I thought some children might be there. To my surprise, my grandmother’s face lit up when she saw the stuffed animals. I gave her two of them and they made her extremely happy. I was so shocked at the time. I never knew that stuffed animals gave her such pleasure.
At the time, I did not understand the similarities between old age and childhood so I was confused by her reaction. Now it makes sense to me. Maybe there needs to be more toys in her life. Why are toys only created for children? Couldn’t there be toys for older adults? We need to recognize that playtime can be fun our entire lives. In the middle of life, playtime is often achieved through sports. At an older age when sports are no longer an option, we may just need different kinds of toys.
A difference between childhood and old age is that graduation from school is replaced with graduation from this physical life. Yet we believe that academic graduation is commencement -- we see it as a beginning rather than as an end. Graduation from earth may be the same. Though we may not look forward to it in the same way because we don’t know what is waiting for us.
The Continuity of Life
If life is a circle then physical death is only the birth to a new existence -- life is continuous eternally. Some people may interpret this as a way of saying that our lives continue through the people we have loved, or the things that we have said or the words that we have written. Actors are immortal through their movies and politicians are immortal through history. It could also mean that the life force never ends. Mary T. Browne says, “The circle is a symbol of the universal God force, which has neither beginning nor end.” We may see a two-dimensional circle that seems to be defined through birth and death but if the circle is a multi-dimensional sphere it just means that we can’t see the other dimensions right now. If life is continuous, we should not be afraid of the end of this particular existence. We should just prepare ourselves for the journey that lies ahead. As Karlfried Graf Durckheim says, “When you’re on a journey, and the end keeps getting further and further away, then you realize that the real end is the journey.”
If the wise man I met was right, then in an objective reality, everything in life has a circular flow. We already know that the earth rotates in a circle, our journey around the sun is circular and the moon’s journey around the earth is circular. Even our clocks and watches are circular. If one morning to the next is a circle and one year to the next is a circle, and seasonal flows are circular, then why wouldn’t our lives be a circle as well?
The circle seems to be the natural movement of life and it is possible that reincarnation provides a circle for an existence that transcends from one dimension to the next. The circle is the perfect representation of continual flow. The unknown is the known and the future and past flow continuously into the present.
If life is a circle, then tomorrow always comes. It may not be a tomorrow on the physical plane but it means that the future can never die. Lao Tzu says, “If you stay in the center and embrace death with your whole heart, you will endure forever.” Some may believe that at death the future turns into a state of “nothingness” but perhaps this image of “nothing” is only a part of an entity that represents everything. Just like mathematical symbols, perhaps the circle we see on the physical plane connects to another circle in a different dimension. At the point of connection, our circular flow is no longer a circle. Instead, the unification of circles transcends from a 0to oo and thus, we transcend from “nothing” to infinity. Perhaps the circular connection between this life and the next transforms our perceived emptiness into an image of totality. This would mean that from one we become all, and correspondingly our individuality becomes interconnected to the natural flow of the infinite universe.