The Pendulum of Life

If you’ve been on Google today then you have seen their interesting graphic of Leon Foucault’s Pendulum, saluting the physicist’s birth on this date 194 years ago.

One of my favorite places in Los Angeles is the Griffith Observatory, which I really think should be named the James Dean Memorial Observatory in honor of the fact that Rebel Without A Cause was shot there, but that’s beside the point, which is that one of the treasures of the observatory is the Foucault Pendulum in the Rotunda.

Foucault Pendulum at Griffith Observatory (
Foucault Pendulum at Griffith Observatory (

The pendulum has been a feature at the observatory since it opened in 1935, and it’s one of the largest pendulums in the world.  The device demonstrates the rotation of the Earth. It has a 240-pound brass ball, suspended by a cable 40 feet long, that swings in the same direction all the time. To an observer it appears that the ball changes direction, but it’s actually the earth that is moving. Every eight minutes the ball knocks over a dowel to illustrate the rotation.

Now, everyone knows that the Earth rotates once in about 24 hours. But that is from the point of view of the sun. From the point of view of the stars, it’s once every 23 hours 56 minutes and 4 seconds. And what you may not know is that the Earth’s rotation is slowing down. That means days are longer than they were in the past. Because of Los Angeles’ latitude, the rotation time for the Foucault Pendulum at the Griffith Observatory is 42 hours.

Recently, I blogged about Soyen Shaku, the first Zen master to visit the West. In 1906 he wrote a piece called “The Pendulum of Life”:

[People] want to live, and they do not know that their living is really their death. This contradiction causes them an immeasurable amount of suffering. Apparently they are living, that is, they are moving bodily in the world of contrasts and opposites, of pleasures and pains, of sorrows and joys, of good and evil; and yet they want to escape from this actual state of things, they want to enter into a region where they have only monotony, stagnation, and abeyance, and even extinction. For are they not trying to keep the pendulum of life always up on one side only? The pendulum owes its existence to a constant swinging from one side to the other. When this is stopped, it ceases to be itself and exists no more. To live is to move, to change, to walk up and down, to come in and out, to enjoy and to suffer, to -smile and to weep. To refuse to do so is simply courting death.”

This reminds me of the famous quote by Norman Cousins that the greatest tragedy is when something inside of you dies while you’re still living. Cousins was a American journalist who fought heart disease by taking large doses of Vitamin C and laughing. He claimed that Marx Brothers movies were a key factor in his healing, and he was no quack, but rather served for a time as Adjunct Professor of Medical Humanities for the UCLA School of Medicine. Another way to describe his struggle is to say that he beat death by learning how to live.

What Soyen Shaku meant when he wrote that so many people court death is that they don’t know how to live. And what Buddha meant when he taught that life is suffering was that there is a undeniable quality of suffering in life, a malaise, an ill-ness, and that its cause is that we live the wrong way, for the wrong things. We often feel we are seeking enjoyment, happiness, but the things that we think will make us happy, bring pain and unhappiness in the long run.

Bust of James Dean at Griffith Observatory
Bust of James Dean at Griffith Observatory

Later in his piece, Soyen Shaku says, “Life, according to Buddhism, is worth living, because it enables us to do something.” Is this “something” merely to live fast and die before our time like James Dean? Or to learn to live while we are alive?

There is suffering, and there is happiness, too. The Buddhist way of life is to cling to neither suffering nor happiness, to be like Foucault’s Pendulum, without changing direction in our plane of swing between the two extremes. Through the practice of equanimity, the state of psychological stability, we can learn to remain undisturbed by life’s rotations.

Evidently, the gunman in Monday’s Navy Yard rampage was a convert to Buddhism. His last known residence was in Fort Worth, TX where he shared a place with the owner of a restaurant whom he’d met at a nearby Thai Buddhist temple. According to the roomate, the gunman spent a great deal of time at the temple “meditating and chanting.”

It’s tempting to speculate on the depth of his Buddhist practice, to wonder if the teachers at his temple had ever mentioned equanimity. I doubt it would have made any difference. The gunman was a pendulum swinging wildly and his psychological problems were so severe that he needed the kind of help that only professionals can provide. We may never know exactly what was in this man’s mind, but it seems that such individuals reach a point where they feel there is nothing left for them except to kill others and be killed.

For the rest of us, or most of us at least, we can do something else, we can learn to live while we are alive.


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