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HELLO GOODBYE: Living in the Kali Yuga with a Little Help from the Beatles

HELLO GOODBYE: Living in the Kali Yuga with a Little Help from the Beatles December 29, 2021

 

 

 

“Hello Goodbye”
Living in the Kali Yuga with a Little Help from the Beatles

Silvio Nardoni

(My friend Silvio Nardoni is a Unitarian Universalist minister as well as a practicing attorney. He shared this with me and I thought it a perfect New Year’s reflection. I asked for permission to share it, and he graciously agreed.)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . . .” — Charles Dickens

I’m fortunate to have friends and family who inhabit both ends of the political spectrum. While they obviously disagree on many issues, I’ve recently noticed that the ones with the most extreme positions, nevertheless agree on this: the world is in terrible shape, the worst it has ever been. I’ve learned not to try to talk anyone out of such a strongly professed opinion, but still, I’d like to offer a perspective that might soften their views or provide some consolation (if nothing else, at least for the listener).

In order to do that, I need to talk about time.

Broadly speaking, there are two descriptions of how human beings have experienced (or tried explain the experience of) time. One is the “linear” or “historical” notion of time, in which the direction is one-way from the past to the future. Again, speaking generally, this attitude about time is characteristic of Western thought. From the God of the Hebrew Scriptures who acts in history, to the cosmic evolutionary story told by modern astrophysics, which posits a beginning with the superheated “Big Bang” and perhaps some entropic endpoint (“The Big Chill”), the linear model has demonstrated remarkable explanatory and pragmatic power.

The other approach to describing our relationship to time is the “cyclical” or “non-historic” worldview. Agricultural societies all adhere to a prime paradigm based on the seasonal fluctuations of the vegetal cycle. First the Spring seeding, then the Summer of burgeoning growth, the Fall harvest, and the fallow season of Winter. For agriculturalists, orienting oneself to these apparently unchanging rhythms was key to survival. The reliability of the sun’s orientation to the planting fields from year to year allowed for advances in art, written literature, and social organization.

But not all cyclical temporal schemes use the year as the interval of greatest significance. Ancient Hindu thinkers wrote of a dimension of much greater magnitude in their description of the “Yuga Cycle.” According to these texts, the cycle consists of four eras, the longest lasting 1,440,000 solar years and the shortest (the “Kali Yuga”) expiring after “only” 360,000 years. According to Hindu philosophy/cosmology, we are currently in the Kali Yuga, which began in 3102 BCE. If we take these writings literally, that means we are at the “dawn” of this age.  The remarkable fertility of their imagination introduced enormous spans of time, far beyond what any historical record could have intimated (assuming they kept or considered “historical” records at all).

Of course, not only Hindu writers have mused about vast spans of time. In “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” James Joyce gives an agonizingly detailed description of “eternity,” in which a bird appears once every million years to carry away a single grain of sand from a beach of immense proportions. According to Joyce when the bird has carried away the last grain, only a single instant of eternity has elapsed.

The significance of the Kali Yuga lies not its length, but in its “moral qualities.” Although it is the shortest era, it is the “worst” of times. The current era is named after the demon Kali (perhaps not to be confused with the goddess Kali).

So much for the hippie astrology of the 1960’s which claimed we were at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the polar opposite of the Kali Yuga. In the Kali Yuga human consciousness is at a low point; rulers become unreasonable and a danger to the world, rather than protecting the subjects of their governance.

Even while contemplating stages of history on such a grand scale, these sages still manifested a concern for and consciousness of the current state of the political or social dimension of life. As with much of Hindu thought, they resolved the perceived tension between the opposites of the “eternal” and the “now” by including both perspectives.

This concern with the immediate mirrors my own quandary in trying to reconcile other experiences in the political and social dimension of my own life. In “The Second Coming,” a dystopian and apocalyptic description of the modern age, W.B. Yeats opined that the “center will not hold.” If Yeats is right, what does someone who rests somewhere in the “center” of the political spectrum use as a roadmap through the morass of the Kali Yuga, which has hundreds of thousands of years yet to run? (Full disclosure:  I expect friends and others on the left might employ the epithet “weak-kneed liberal” to describe my views while those on the right possibly resort to ”high-minded (read: naive) progressive.” Or perhaps more visceral epithets not worthy of repetition.

To bridge this gap I propose that we consult the Fab Four to counteract the influence of the Four Horsemen. And while many of the Beatles songs speak more expansively on timely or timeless concerns, I’ve chosen one of the more lyrically sparse chapters in their songbook.  With the prospect of hundreds of thousands of years yet to run until the expiration of the Kali Yuga, what comfort or consolation can one find in “Hello Goodbye?”

Despite (or maybe because of) the simplicity of its lyrics, this song neatly summarizes the interpersonal dynamics of the Kali Yuga. “You say yes, I say no/ You say stop and I say go go go.” If the “worst of times” emerges when deep polarization occurs, we hear the essence of diametric opposition in this simple phrase. What sliver of psychological or political “space” lies between the affirmation of “yes” and the negation of “no?” How can we remain at rest in “stop” position, when so many are saying “go go go” (apparently three measures of “go” are needed to overcome the inertia of “stop”)?

The tension between the initiation (“hello”) and termination (“goodbye”) of relationships also speaks of our times. In describing the Kali Yuga, the Mahabharata prophesies that “avarice and wrath” will be common, and that “truthfulness. . .tolerance and mercy” will continuously diminish. I need not look far to find vivid and current examples of all these human failings.

The isolation born of the pandemic has made starting or maintaining friendships much harder, and frankly left many of them in a kind of limbo between hello and goodbye. Even so, the emergence of quarantine “pods” during the most intense interval of the pandemic testifies to the enduring need for the “hello” of social connection. At the same time, more workers than ever (especially in fields where labor is poorly paid or treated) are saying “goodbye” to their jobs, even when the next one is unknown.

What happens in these deeply meaningful dimensions of our lives pales in comparison to the ferocity of the “hellos” and “goodbyes” unleashed by political affiliations or differences: Bands of aroused citizens bond with one another in physical or virtual space; volunteer teams arise spontaneously to meet hitherto unrecognized needs. We cannot know whether these enactments of “hello” mentality will issue in ill or good, but the existential reality is impossible to escape. On the flip side, we hear of families riven by drastically different world views; friendships foundering on the rocks of overheated rhetoric. The “goodbyes” are often unspoken, but real nevertheless.

In the end, maybe both Dickens and the Hindus are right:  it is the best of times, it is the worst of times, and we’ve only a few hundred thousand years to go until things turn again for the better. For the Yuga Cycle, as long as it is, is not eternal. Joyce’s bird eventually gets all the sand off the beach and the cycle starts again. And following the Kali Yuga, the cycle reverts to the the Satya Yuga, a sort of Golden Age.

But it’s pretty cold comfort to think that our distant (about 12,000 generations) descendants will emerge from this vale of tears as the Kali Yuga phases out. Of course, that’s if we take these scriptures literally.

And that’s a leap I’m not prepared to take. We see where that technique leads when applied to the Bible. According to Bishop Ussher, his reading of the Hebrew Scriptures yields a view the Earth was created in 4004 B.C., which according to the geological record means that dinosaurs and humans co-existed on the planet at about the same time as the Exodus. This and other contradictions of the historical record lead me to conclude that whether divinely inspired or not, religious writings are at their most dangerous when viewed through the cramped lens of literalism.

It is common to note that modern life proceeds at a much faster pace than earlier times. When I was in high school, stopwatches used at track meets were calibrated in tenths of a second. We now commonly use hundredths of a second to establish records, and the mechanisms providing this information actually have an even greater degree of precision.

The ubiquitous smart phone operates at a clock speed in the gigahertz range, meaning that each cycle lasts less than one billionth of a second (a so-called nanosecond). And beyond that, we have atomic clocks and other more sophisticated devices which can slice each second into a quadrillion pieces (the femtosecond).

Since I feel no compunction to evaluate the lengthy cycles of the Kali Yuga in a literal way, perhaps it’s time to turn things on their head and imagine that the cycles move a bit more quickly in modern times.  Borrowing from the language of computer processors, maybe we should increase the “clock speed” when interpreting these writings. For those familiar with speed-reading techniques, this approach resonates with the admonition to keep the eyes always moving forward through the text.

Equating one second with one year in the Yuga Cycle leads to a projection that the Kali Yuga results in a cycle last 100 hours, a little more than four days. But I find even four days spent in that kind of dispiriting environment a daunting prospect. Moving to the millisecond yields a cycle of six minutes. But anyone in pain will readily testify that six minutes can seem a lifetime. And the smartphone clock rate reduces the Kali Yuga to 0.36 seconds (or less, depending on the model), what A. N. Whitehead might call a “droplet of experience.”

Scaling it down this way sounds comforting, since the Kali Yuga claims such a short stretch of time. But it also means that it returns again in another few seconds. It’s as if we would be saying “Hello” and “Goodbye” nearly simultaneously.

For me anyway, that’s the comfort offered by this song:  We are always saying (singing) “Hello Goodbye” in every moment, not only to the Kali Yuga, but to the other components of the cycle as well.  Each part of the cycle has something to teach. Even the bleak atmosphere of the Kali Yuga gives clear warnings about the consequences of disregard of moral duty. Even Winter allows for “down time” as part of the cycle.

But we have a choice on which part of the cycle we tap into. We are not merely passengers strapped into assigned seats on the whirling mandala of existence (or to put it in “linear” terms, strapped into our seats on the wide-body jet hurling us and a cohort of a few hundred souls into the future). We have within us both the power to say “Stop” and simultaneously “Go, go, go.” Resolving these apparent contradictions is the existential work given to all who seek to “suck the marrow of life” as Thoreau aptly put it.

Of course, none of us experience time using a frame of reference of 360,000 years nor can we distinguish one femtosecond from another. Our lives unfold in the context of and relation to the milestone events and formative relationships that undergird the narrative of our journey from birth to death.

Both the historical and cyclical conceptions of time can comfortably address this narrative framework. The historical dimension gives length and perspective to the passage of time. The cyclical view allows for celebrating  (or observing) the recurring moments in the domains of the  personal (birthdays, anniversaries, etc.), social (tax “season”, the “election cycle”), and natural (the great migrations of birds and insects, the accumulation and melting of the snowpack).

But here we encounter the limits of both the linear and cyclical notions of time. The presentational immediacy (to borrow from A.N. Whitehead) of the flow of time seems to reside in neither camp. As we live in the moment, everything that we are is brought to bear on whatever confronts us, so the notion of a “past” seems “anachronistic.” And that immediacy similarly diminishes the contemplation of cycles, no matter how finely woven into the tapestry of our existence they might be.

It is a precisely this point where “Hello Goodbye” brings me both relief and consolation. In each moment I feel the “Hello” to both the familiar and unknown as well as the “Goodbye” to the distressing and delightful.  Each droplet of existence is one of excitement and dread.

The humorous adage of physicists (often wrongly attributed to Einstein) that “Time is Nature’s way of making sure that everything doesn’t happen at once” might be necessary for explaining in lay terms the need of a fourth dimension to the physical world. But “Hello Goodbye” says quite the opposite:  everything is happening at once, at least from my interior experience of time. It is, in that sense, prophesying that each moment contains the “best of times and the worst of times.” It’s not a neat solution to my encounters with friends and acquaintances on the political extremes, but life is a messy thing and sometimes “good enough” is the good I can embody.

In closing, I offer the wisdom of William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

© Silvio Nardoni 2021

You say yes, I say no
You say stop and I say go go go, oh no
You say goodbye and I say hello
Hello hello
I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello
Hello hello
I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello

I say high, you say low
You say why and I say I don’t know, oh no
You say goodbye and I say hello
(Hello goodbye hello goodbye) Hello hello
(Hello goodbye) I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello
(Hello goodbye hello goodbye) Hello hello
(Hello goodbye) I don’t know why you say goodbye
(Hello goodbye) I say hello/goodbye

Why why why why why why do you say goodbye goodbye, oh no?

You say goodbye and I say hello
Hello hello
I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello
Hello hello
I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello

You say yes (I say yes) I say no (But I may mean no)
You say stop (I can stay) and I say go go go (Till it’s time to go), oh
Oh no
You say goodbye and I say hello
Hello hello
I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello
Hello hello
I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello
Hello hello
I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello hello

Hela heba helloa
Hela heba helloa, cha cha cha
Hela heba helloa, wooo
Hela heba helloa, hela
Hela heba helloa, cha cha cha
Hela heba helloa, wooo
Hela heba helloa, cha cah cah [fade out]

 

 

 

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