This page serves as an archive for the original c. 500 WillSpirit entries published between May 2009 & March 2014.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
In this society, we are raised to make our way in the world. We learn to socialize, produce, and reproduce in culturally lauded ways. While there’s no doubt these tasks are important, we are seldom encouraged to examine what the conventional approach promises and whether or not it delivers. We are offered this formula: build a good life so you will feel good. But does it work?
More and more, I’m realizing the strategy is flawed. Although pleasures are many, so are displeasures. We win the promotion but lose the girl. We buy a nice car, but our house burns down. We travel to exotic locales, but obsess about problems at home. Building a good life doesn’t create security; it may stack the deck so we enjoy some good hands in life’s casino, but loss, illness, and death remain inevitable.
The jaggedness of our human terrain is familiar, and society-at-large insists we have but one option: strive toward the peaks and hope to avoid the chasms. But believing this our sole hope depends on the implicit assumption that inner feelings must inevitably track outer topography, so as life goes well or poorly, in lockstep we feel well or poorly. In my experience, bad times have–rather reliably–caused bad feelings, but good times haven’t always engendered good ones. What’s more, as I’ve grown adept at managing my mind, it has proven possible to feel rather well despite discouraging circumstances. So the widespread belief that outer conditions construct inner feelings appears mistaken.
Of course, meditative traditions of the East and contemplative ones of the West provide an alternate perspective. Wisdom practice trains us to feel less enslaved by circumstance and more empowered to take charge of our minds. We need not, it turns out, feel devastated by loss and elated by gain. It is possible to travel life’s hilly ways with equanimity.
Note that even as wisdom traditions call us to find solace inside, they also encourage us to behave helpfully and ethically outside. We might retire for long periods to develop our mental capacities, to build steadiness and faith, but sooner or later we return to teach, assist, or reform. Otherwise, we have merely escaped the growling chaos of conventional experience; we haven’t transcended it. So it isn’t about turning our backs on conventional life; rather, we live within the workaday world but relate to it differently.
My ability to remain steady–independent of circumstance–is increasing month-by-month. Although I suffered a brief (but intense) collapse two weeks ago, I learned from it. As the last post implied, I came out of that crevasse more convinced than ever that my best chance for happiness depends on my progress along wisdom paths, particularly the one mapped by Buddhism but with shadings from Yogic, Christian, and Taoist traditions. This doesn’t mean I believe the freeway of conventionality to be evil (though it paves over much beauty on this earth), but I am certain it will never lead me to peace. To find ease of mind, I must follow an offramp to the road less traveled.
What are the steps on this less trammeled path?
- First: learn to both tune and befriend consciousness. I’m finding it ever easier to adjust my levels of anxiety, sorrow, and longing. When I notice that my feeling state is agitated by fear, grief, or desire, I deliberately turn the dial toward neutrality. And if some of the angst remains, I do my best to experience it with an open heart.
There are a number of ways to tune mental tone, but the most obvious is to use imagination. Just thinking of a beautiful landscape or a beloved friend or pet can feel settling. The richer the image we develop, the more grounded and peaceful we feel. With practice, tuning experience becomes rather easy. These days, I can simply decide to settle my mind, and after a few slow breaths, it settles.
The capacity to accept, without resistance, whatever discomfort remains can be developed through mindfulness meditation. Since so much instruction in mindful practice is available, it seems superfluous to go into detail here. Let’s just stipulate that it works.
You might wonder: if it’s possible to generate neutral feelings, can we generate ecstatic ones? It certainly can be done, and sometimes that feels helpful. I’m learning, however, that a state of ecstasy feels less necessary as I feel more contented. The desire for rapture is born from dread of its opposite: the less dread, the less desire. Further, wanting rapture perpetuates the cycle of anxiety, longing, frustration, and lament.
- Second: enlarge your perspective. One of the surest methods for sidestepping angst is to focus on the Big Picture. We are products of long histories, both evolutionary and cultural. The prior two essays on this site discuss how genetic and historical factors determine our behaviors, and how we are offered only occasional choice points. Plus, even when we seem to make decisions, our selections remain strongly conditioned. Contrary to widespread belief, life trajectories are not constructed by personalities; they’re imposed by history and circumstance. Rather than individuals acting in the world, humans look more like world processes proffering illusions of individuality. Recognizing this, we feel less judgmental of ourselves and others.
We can also consider that multicellular life has been evolving for hundreds of millions of years in a cosmos that’s been expanding for billions. The scale of the universe truly defies visualization. No matter how tiny you imagine yourself in the face of that expanse, you’re tinier. It simply isn’t possible to grasp the full scope of our situation. But it seems obvious that our individuality must be less important than we imagine, adrift as we are in all that space. Hardly more secure than our ancestors on some forgotten African Landscape, five thousand generations ago, we do well to huddle together for warmth and support.
What’s more, suffering is all around us. We aren’t alone in our pain. Many people are struggling, and it’s likely that our situation, however bad, would be preferred by someone, somewhere, who lives in worse circumstances.
Enlarging the perspective in all these ways tends to keep us from contracting in our loneliness, grief, and worry. We feel less guilty, less serious, and less alone.
- Third: help other beings. Note that the term ‘other beings’ actually includes one’s own body and mind. After all, we routinely judge the soma and psyche as if we stand apart from them. We bemoan bodily ‘defects’ and berate ourselves for past ‘mistakes.’ If it makes sense to criticize the the body-mind complex as other, then it is equally (or more) sensible to help this other by eating well, exercising, and meditating. But just as it would be unwise to devote all our efforts to helping only one family member, it is not optimal to focus on personal bodily and mental wellbeing without also also nurturing the wellbeing of those around us.
At the same time, people differ in their capacities. If we’ve been badly traumatized, we may feel so exhausted that we are able to do only a bit, here and there, to help out. Maybe watering houseplants and feeding pets is all we can manage. That’s okay. There’s nothing to be gained by judging our limitations harshly. Yet as we spend more time situated in a broad outlook, with affective tone tuned toward neutrality, we waste less energy climbing up and down emotional hills. This frees up resources that can be used to assist others; we gradually–and automatically–take on more.
In many of my writings I’ve made the point that transcendent states of consciousness tend to be flavored with three qualities: Rightness, Unity, and Love.
- The sense of Rightness is expressed by this line of The Desiderata: “Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the Universe is unfolding as it should.” Neutrality, the first step listed above, is a natural outgrowth. Why get entangled in rises and falls, pleasures and pains, gains and losses, etc., when these are small and transient fluctuations on the surface of a thriving ocean of life? Rightness gives us license to tune our consciousness independent of externals.
- Unity is obvious from many perspectives, not least the scientific. Considering the broad perspective outlined above, it seems obvious that we are not isolated individuals in any meaningful sense. We arise from the whole and we return to it; what’s more, our life story isn’t our own, but is merely a subplot in a much larger tome written by forces beyond our control. Whether we see those forces as blind contingencies or guiding hands is irrelevant.
- Helpfulness grows organically from Love, which rises automatically from the sense of unity. If we recognize the dilemma faced by other beings, their vulnerability and suffering, connection with all other beings, we feel called to altruism. What’s more, the quality of choosing to assist drops away; we do so without deliberation, without striving (provided we don’t force our system beyond its capacities).
Thus, the three steps to ease follow directly from the three qualities of elevated states of awareness. Those higher states, in turn, blossom (in varying profusion) inside any mind that chooses to move toward freedom while abandoning self-seeking. It’s a healthful positive feedback cycle that leads to fulfillment. All we need do is quit judging, grasping, and resisting while simply living with openness and curiosity. Of course, this is easier said than done. But it is possible, and the wisdom traditions (including some recently devised Western psychologies) offer advice on how to proceed. We can take heart and follow the reliable trails they have mapped.Share on Facebook
As mentioned in recent posts, I’m going in for major surgery tomorrow. If it feels comfortable to you, please offer a prayer, wish, or thought to support me and my surgical team. Anyone who has read my writing of late knows I believe in mysterious currents flowing through creation. It’s possible that prayers/wishes/thoughts will favor a smooth and successful procedure. And they can’t hurt! Thank you, in advance, for this gesture.
As also mentioned, I’m using this turning point in my life to bring the WillSpirit project to an end. There is a chance I’ll polish and then re-post some of my better pieces, but whatever new writing I do will be in some different context: maybe offline working on a manuscript, or maybe on a new site with a specific focus. Time will tell.
So anyone interested can check back to find out how things turned out following my procedure, after a few weeks of healing I’ll change the wording in this entry to provide a brief update. And if I launch a new site, I’ll post a brief announcement.
Let’s close down this project with a poem I wrote a few months ago, one that manages to summarize insights that have come to me in the process of writing this blog. My aunt, who has always been one of my most important sages, liked it enough to show it to her minister. To me, that suggests the piece manages to say something worthwhile.
To all who have read my writing and/or communicated with me, I offer my love and gratitude. Please feel free to reach out via email, anytime.
And now, one last image and then WillSpirit’s final words:
We are not
born and do not die
No, we begin as innocents
hanging loosely over the land
like garments gripping a clothesline,
dripping with ignorance, sometimes flapping
upward toward a waxing yet faded moon like tethered
wings but mostly freezing, bit by bit, in the desert dawn
until late morning, or just after, when we awake
rigid with terror in the midst of life.
If we are lucky,
the elements melt our frosted casings.
The sun and sky whisper to us until we understand
how to burn with age and embrace our whipping and shredding
by time and its dispassionate winds.
By afternoon, nothing is left
but our feathers. Our downy fragments
circling, we become aimless, almost thoughtless,
dancing like sparks sputtering out of God’s galactic campfire,
or the stout candle of love, or whatever we imagine ignites us. Or maybe,
tired of rising, we fall, dropping through opaque clouds as brisk and fluid as spring
rain that moistens and reshapes a sterile, hardened landscape
until it lies blanketed under thick, wet loam.
We have come to this.
We could have predicted some of this,
but who, when young, can foretell such odysseys
of up and down, or so many visits to heaven and hell, or all of it
woven together into a single nest? Yes, yes, we all wish we had learned
sooner, but in the beginning we can’t see our true forms. Only those strings
binding and choking us seem obvious, and then our decay, our slow disappearing.
But one day we remember everything someone told us to forget,
and our doubts drop away like duff from a redwood
more ancient and enduring than anything
we have known.
long after the luminous sunset,
perched on some craggy ridge top, we begin
to see. We were not born and will not die,
not like this.
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Don’t be alarmed. Although my body will be undergoing major surgery in less than a week, this post’s title does not reflect a morbid fear. I’m confident the outcome will be successful, and I look forward to freedom from the chronic, deep, and exhausting ache in my belly that has plagued me for three years.
No, the “end” that might be approaching is a transition. This is entry number 499 since WillSpirit started five years ago. With just one more contribution, I’ll have uploaded exactly 500 pieces, or close to 2,000 pages of text. Admittedly, a couple dozen entries were poems, not essays. Also, fourteen were removed from public access when I decided they were too personal (which, given my usual abandon in disclosure, should tell you something about their content), and a few are still in reserve as ‘drafts’ because by the time of completion they no longer seemed relevant. But since I could make up the shortfall with fifty or more commentaries posted on other sites, it’s easy to conclude I’ve done enough blogging. Not only that, but blogs no longer serve as community builders the way they once did, due to the rise of more sophisticated social media. A few sentences on Facebook generate broader and quicker social cohesion than lengthy essays on a blog.
More to the point, when I write what’s on my mind these days, the text focuses on arcane topics that don’t engage readers the way my visceral descriptions of emotional life once did. My mood swings are milder and they bother me less, so I don’t feel compelled to explore them. The philosophical writing is fun, but since others aren’t too interested, and since I’ve worked out all the major questions that intrigued me, there doesn’t seem much purpose in continuing. I now feel possessed of a reasonably clear vision of both the cosmos and our human place within it. Sure, I could keep penciling in details, but the big picture is sketched and satisfying. It seems, therefore, time for something new.
That might mean going back and reworking some of the better WillSpirit essays and then either reposting them, or collecting them into a manuscript, or both. (An assistant would make this a lot easier–know anyone who might be interested?) It could mean finally writing one of the many books I’ve contemplated. Or perhaps I’ll do more teaching locally; through my yoga work, I’m beginning to see some possibilities in that direction. Regardless of what comes next, blogging feels complete for now.
As I prepare to go into the hospital, and before I put WillSpirit to bed, perhaps it makes sense to summarize the vision of reality this site has helped me develop. Obviously, the full picture is too large to fit in one post, but what follows is the rough outline, drawn from my education in the sciences, what I’ve learned from spiritual traditions, and direct mystical experience. If you, like most visitors, tire of my speculations, you might want to skip the text between the horizontal rules and proceed to the conclusion.
We are embedded in a sea of space and time. The processes that currently surround us evolved out of a much smaller, denser, and more homogeneous system that underwent some sort of explosive event nearly 14 billion years ago. What preceded this ‘Big Bang,’ if anything, is uncertain. Since the onset of expansion, causes and conditions have flowed forward seamlessly, with much elaboration of complexity. The most intricately structured matter we know of resides in human nervous system.
The motive energy behind cosmic evolution goes by many names. Although the words used lead to intense disagreement, it is interesting to remember that most mature philosophies identify a fundamental quality undergirding the multifaceted reality we know today. For instance, physicists recognize that ‘energy’ manifests as all the light, matter, and motion in the universe and that it influences the space-time matrix in surprising ways.
While the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition offers superficial modes that appeal to the masses with the notion of an all-too-human deity, its more mystical strains (such as Kabalism, Sufism, and contemplative Christianity) point to a deeply embedded essence in the cosmos that manifests in and as all that we see. This source principle animates creation but does not share our human weaknesses of judgment, vengeance, etc. There are obvious parallels between the physical view and the mystical one; though different in their implications, they’re similar in form.
Eastern philosophies, such as Vedanta and Taoism, map even more smoothly onto the physical view. Yes, there is God-language in Vedanta that would alarm material atheists, but if you look beyond that, you find a picture of reality that is quite similar to the one theoretical and experimental physics have painted: an initial and underlying unity of composition diversifying into a multitude of ever-changing forms.
The controversy that separates material and spiritual perspectives comes down to this: does the cosmos as a whole accommodate its own internal, living experience? Or is the system mechanical at its core, with sentience available only to humans and other recently evolved lifeforms?
Science has postulated (not proven) the latter position; the tremendous descriptive success of the empirical method provides the mechanical view authority but not verification. Spiritual traditions are equally confident of cosmic sentience and cite the messages of introspective journeys: prophetic visions, meditative insights, and so on. Thus the question is really this: do purely interior mystical and/or meditative states tell us anything valid about the exterior world? Or are they simply wishes that appear as perceptions?
We can’t be sure, but I believe the evidence allows us to cautiously trust the insights of transcendent awareness. First, (based on personal experience as well as written reports) resonant states generally share some combination of the following features: a felt sense of universal love, an understanding that the cosmos is unfolding in the way it must, and a realization that the innumerable diverse forms are united at the most profound level. This uniformity of spiritual experience is a kind of repeatability, the hallmark of valid research. Second, we can recall that mathematical structures developed by purely interior means guide physicists to profound insights about exterior reality; so there is a well-established precedent in the occident for believing the mind can be used a sort of sense organ. (In the East there are many other precedents, and even in the West the Greeks and others believed it possible to discover Truth using thought alone, though empiricism later challenged that position.) If the mind is capable of directly perceiving important features of reality, as mathematics suggests, we can–with a little creative license–categorize skilled meditation as empirical (sense-based) investigation and trust its conclusions. Third, the insights that resonant awareness offers are consistent with what we know about nature on the quantum and relativistic planes. That introspective efforts in past millennia led sages to inferences that sound remarkably like modern high-energy and cosmological physics suggests, to me and many others, that we should take meditative exploration seriously. (This was not merely inevitable; the Newtonian model–which still influences Western thought in subtle ways–postulated a universe with static gross features and comprised of distinct and unrelated elements rather than one with a life cycle and diversifying from a unitive quality.)
If we accept interior work as valid and line it up with scientific findings, we understand the cosmos and human consciousness through a lens shared by many seekers from different traditions: the so-called Non-Dual perspective. This outlook informs us that despite our neurotic sense of isolation, we are united in a deep way. When this knowing penetrates deeply and is experienced in a visceral, non-verbal fashion, we approach what has been referred to as direct realization, or awakening.
To draw an analogy, we can liken ourselves to cells in a great organism. Through semi-permeable boundaries, we interact continuously with all the other cells (i.e., other processes and life forms). We congress most intensively with those processes nearby but depend indirectly on all. Only when taken as a collective do we form a whole. Our personal trajectory affects the trajectory of this whole, and vice verse. We are continuous with and inseparable from a grand, living universe. If we believe this on the basis of science and reason, we understand the truth. If we feel it in our marrow, we realize the Truth.
In my opinion (other non-dualists see things differently), there isn’t a world of awareness that manufactures a world of matter as a sort of dream. Nor (as materialists believe) is there a world of matter that generates awareness as a byproduct. Rather, the two are united and interdependent from the very start.
I summed this up in a series last autumn by suggesting: “the universe is mind.” If you read the post prior to this one, you’ll recall that in describing our mental life, I used this definition for the word mind: “[something] that takes sensation, drive, and emotion as input and generates perceptions and responses as output.” That’s the word in the human sense. In the cosmic sense I would revise the phrasing: “[something] that takes all preceding processes and conditions as input and generates subsequent processes and conditions as output.”
Such a definition is superfluous if the universe is not aware, as material atheists have taken as axiomatic. Past leads to future–so what? But if there is sentience at the core of reality, as mystical states suggest, then this process of transformation takes on a potent significance: the universe may be participating in its own evolution. It may even be shaping itself on the fly.
There would be a number of important implications if the cosmos operates with a core of sentience, but the one that most interests me is that a participatory universe is an invested one. The flow of events matters to it. This doesn’t necessarily imply any universal standards, values, or preferences, (although these might evolve with time, if only as a consequence of orderly unfoldment) but it does mean there is a witnessed quality to all this flow.
The possibility of the universe shaping itself is also significant, but there’s an important caveat: to suggest the cosmos might respond dynamically to influence its own development is very different from saying it is designed. Referring again to the prior essay, deliberative planning would require intellect. Drawing from my own mystical experiences as well as a synthesis of much scientific and philosophical material, I believe that internal model building followed by external implementation (the intellect’s mode of operation) does not occur in the universe as a whole, but only in those portions of it with sufficient complexity to accommodate a symbolic representation of reality. Such pre-planning is available to brains, and perhaps someday it will be found in highly advanced computers, but there is no indication that the cosmos as a whole has a conceptual workspace. In other words, the universe is mind, but not intellect.
SIDEBAR: If there exist units of consciousness that can move through time and space independent of material bodies, this would give the appearance, at times, of planning. Such autonomous entities would equate to the gods, angels, spirits, etc., that people have seen or imagined through the ages. Even if such disembodied (and disputed) agents exist, however, this would still be different from saying the entire cosmos plans evolution in advance. Instead, it would be akin to recognizing that humans construct visions of future unfoldment and then attempt to implement them, but that we operate within a cosmos that is evolving moment-by-moment in a contingent way.
(I can’t resist the temptation to put a sidebar within this sidebar in order to discuss the possibility of consciousness that isn’t anchored in a body. Since so many cultures and traditions believe in spirits and the like, I think we need to consider how they might occur, without necessarily concluding that they do. Disembodied agents are almost always described as involved in the affairs of organic beings–usually human but sometimes animal. My suspicion is that if they possess independence and aren’t purely the products of the mind of the person who encounters them, they may nevertheless depend on the mental resources of nervous systems. Otherwise there would be little reason to expect them to be so tied to human enterprise. I can imagine these entities running like software in brain hardware alongside single minds and/or the minds of a group in a shared and/or distributed way. The only other alternative–besides dismissing spirits altogether–is to conclude that complex conscious behavior can occur without any material substrate, which I consider very unlikely for reasons that would require more text than this speculative topic deserves.)
As another possibility besides the influence of disembodied agents, if future features of the cosmos could feed back and influence past ones we might also see something that looked like planning, but in this case it would actually be a kind of recursion. That future might affect past isn’t completely excluded by physical models, but at present we have no evidence for such looping.
The point is, there are ways in which the cosmos could appear to plan that might explain the occasional sense we have that events are occurring that were ‘designed’ to promote growth, wellbeing, or collective action.
Personally, I suspect most evolution happens as a sort of intuitive process, whereby events align in an organic and contingent way without responding to any anterior intent (whether through disembodied spirits or future recursion), and that it’s only our own human bias that leads us to infer premeditation. At its core, the universe seems to function like an ecosphere: the whole undergoing structural changes as circumstances affect individual processes, moment-by-moment.
(I realize no one bothering to read my writing is likely to need the following explanation, but I include it for completeness: There are a number of reasons to suspect that the cosmos as a whole is unplanned, even if disembodied agents or recursion occasionally intervene. The most obvious problem is that the universe displays no evidence of prior intent. Biological life, for all its splendor, presents us with countless adaptations that can only be understood as having evolved from prior forms that served completely different purposes. The result is often so inefficient and ad hoc as to make advance engineering seem very unlikely. For example, the human lumbar spine is vulnerable to failure in large part because it holds up an entire half of the body that quadrupeds support with their forelimbs. Since our spine appears very similar to that of four-legged mammals, and since it is poorly suited to our upright gait, we can readily envision step-by-step evolution from earlier mammalian forms, but not so-called intelligent design.)
Those of us who love this remarkable experience we call “living” may feel convinced the cosmos is heart as well as mind. As indicated above, the resonant mental state reveals universal love, holistic rightness, and cosmic unity as the base features of reality. While all paths to transcendence offer glimpses of all three, unity is the hallmark of meditative disciplines, while the sense of love shines out most clearly in traditions that emphasize worship.
Which brings up the point that although the non-dual way of seeing things is quite healing, it is only part of a bigger picture. It often lacks the affectionate, radiant quality revealed when one doesn’t simply detach in meditation but plunges into Reality with abandon (read Sufi mystical poetry if you desire a good sense of this). Such loving arises most reliably when we admit our individual vulnerability and surrender to the greater Whole. This liberating act imposes at least some duality on our worldview: there is a person who surrenders to something larger.
It seems important to honor our personal nature as much as the unified quality it builds upon. We are, after all, partially independent beings, and our agency has value, too. We can operate as free-living organisms while remaining aware of our deeper unity. At times we enjoy the theater, even as we know that actors who seem to be competing with one another form a loving team behind the scenes. This is not error; it’s appreciation.
Particulate nature is present, and so is holism; not one or the other, but both. I describe this as a kind of wave-particle duality: reality can appear either continuous or discrete. At times one view fits experience better than the other. But as circumstances change, so must the description, if we are to be skillful actors in the world. Of course, regardless of which picture we emphasize at a given moment, as we mature we learn to treat everything around us as we should wish to be treated ourselves.
While in all times and places, the universe hums on, at once witnessing and invested in its own production.
So where does all this leave me, after five years of groping toward a global appreciation of life in hundreds of essays on WillSpirit? Do these insights make any difference?
Oh yes. When I started, I defined myself as the psychiatric casualty of a traumatic upbringing. I felt isolated and afraid. It seemed the world was bearing on down on me, and I feared myself incapable of holding up under the pressure of fate.
Now, all is transformed, at least a good part of the time. Sure, my current condition is the result of past causes, including my childhood. But I no longer believe historical events ruined me. Rather, they shaped me into an interesting feature of this vast, evolving whole. I don’t feel alone, because by simply slowing down and drawing within, I sense my roots extending downward and connecting with the ground of all Creation. And I am not afraid, because what happens to this single cell of the Great Body doesn’t strike me as terribly important. All cells develop and then disappear. Every one of us feels joy and pain. What difference could the details make in any ultimate sense? Finally, I no longer feel fate bearing down on me. Rather, it is the tide upon which all rises and falls.
If all these cool insights fail to calm me in times of high stress, I can settle into my heart and feel a warmth flowing inward and outward around that sweet, throbbing organ that keeps the blood, and life, flowing. This I believe to be the Great Adoration that pervades the entire flow of Creation.
Granted, much of this could be in error. But who can say what’s “true” with any finality? Won’t there always be someone arguing a different opinion? Why not choose the world view that most heals?
With such insights, when I can remain centered in them, I am freed of my prior narrow concerns. I feel interwoven with other people and all other life forms. Indeed, I feel kinship with the most distant galaxies I can imagine, while all that I perceive reverberates with love.
WillSpirit has been one of the supports that helped me reach this latest plateau which, let’s be clear, is a place generations of spiritually motivated people have found as a step on the path. I am grateful to this blog and to the small but nurturing readership that has embraced me over the years. But I believe it is time for me to begin a new climb, and possibly a more public one. So just one more post, and then we’ll see…
In the meantime, of course, I’ll be undergoing an abdominal surgical procedure. On Friday I was helped by a very wise yoga therapist. She pointed out that my vascular problem lies in the region of my solar plexus, the site of much ‘gut instinct.’ The arterial compression that is to be corrected results from an inward heaviness that presses down and stops the flow. If we wanted to think symbolically, we could suspect the aberration developed because in the past I felt so much pressure to find my way in the world (including during this blog’s pitched battle to work out a coherent worldview). I staggered from one idea to the next burdened with anxious concerns. It seemed neither safe nor possible to relax into the organic flow that draws everything forth. Perhaps this surgery will restore my gut to its full potency. With a nice, healthy vascular supply, maybe my instincts–grounded as they are in the Great Whole–will lead me to blossom without such straining, rooted ever more deeply in the cosmic mind and heart.Share on Facebook
For years I’ve suffered abdominal pain and fatigue, which in recent months have been getting worse. The pain, at least, is traceable to a vascular anomaly near my pancreas. Surgery could correct this faulty pattern of blood flow. Since the aching feels so deep and ominous, blunts my appetite, and is getting worse, it seems time to take the step I’ve been avoiding. A week from today I’ll be going in for the procedure. Soon, a surgeon will be cutting me open.
But is that an accurate description of the coming event? Will “I” be cut open? Or will there merely be a dissection into this body while “I” go along for the ride?
A reader on the other side of the planet from me, Graeme, has been reading my posts and occasionally asking about my use of language. After plowing through a number of recent essays he asks me to explain my “current take on the nature of ‘will,’ ‘spirit,’ ‘soul,’ ‘mind,’ and ‘self.'” As I prepare to go under the knife, this seems like an appropriate line of inquiry. What parts of “me” will be affected? What parts will remain detached and simply observe?
The body grounds us in our lives. Its hormones and neural impulses determine much of our experience. But we all have the sense of observing the body from a place that’s a little apart. If I stub my toe, there’s a part of me that seems to ‘own’ the toe that gets stubbed. As my abdomen undergoes surgery, there will be a part of me that observes the surgical suite, lapses into the unconsciousness of anesthesia, then awakens in a haze of disorientation. But that part will feel separate from the abdominal region, which the observing ‘self’ will feel as a site of pain after the operation.
What is this ‘self?’ Buddhism and modern neurobehavioral studies tell us there is no central unit that remains stable. Neither through introspection nor neural imaging can we locate a ‘self’ module that holds up under scrutiny. This is considered a key insight of the Buddhist path. I suspect it’s one that comes easier to those of us with so-called bipolar disorder, who realize early on that our ‘self’ is not consistent.
Over the course of days or even hours, my ‘self’ can switch from confident excitement to defeated despair. It might pursue a project ambitiously one moment and abandon it the next. It can feel in love with life in the morning, then look longingly toward death in the afternoon. If the ‘self’ can change so quickly, how can it be considered a fixed and continuous entity?
My personality is coherent in only a few senses: 1. It is centered in a particular body. 2. It constructs an ongoing narrative that links historical experiences. 3. It displays a characteristic set of behavioral, emotional, and cognitive qualities that alternate in strength of expression over time and lend repeatability, if not consistency, to the picture.
The ‘self,’ then, is a set of patterns, linked to events via a narrative, and centered in a body.
Is that all? Just a dynamic mishmash of elements vying with one another in a material organism? What about ‘spirit?’ What about ‘soul?’ Don’t they anchor things more securely?
The Buddha saw no evidence for a ‘soul,’ or essence, that provides a fixed axis about which our personalities revolve. Hinduism, on the other hand, believes the ‘soul’ exists, but not in the way we usually think. If the Buddha was correct, and there is no ‘soul,’ then we don’t need to define the term. But the Hindu notion of ‘soul’ is worth exploring. From that perspective, there is an inner light of consciousness that is built up with layers of mental and physical structure. Working, as is traditional, from the gross to the subtle, some of these layers are: the material body itself, the energy that moves the body, the sensations, emotions and drives the body generates, the mind that builds perceptions and responds to circumstance, the intellect that interprets and guides experience, and the blissful quality that motivates and permeates the whole as pure, nonjudgmental presence.
That presence, then, is the ‘soul.’ But since it is not bound to intellect, mind, and all the rest, it is impersonal. In fact, according to the tradition, it is identical in all beings and pervades the entire cosmos. The traditional way of saying this is: Atman equals Brahman. The individual soul is identical to the universal one. If we wanted to quibble (and why shouldn’t we?) we might wonder if this is very different from saying the individual soul simply doesn’t exist. Which, of course, brings us back to the Buddhist perspective.
No ‘self?’ No ‘soul?’ Doesn’t this paint a bleak picture?
Not at all. What we conclude, if we believe this line of reasoning, is that we are not atomic units of humanity that need to battle it out with all the other atoms. Rather, we are molecules built up of many pieces that connect to a vast (for all practical purposes, infinite) matrix of other molecules. Where the individual starts and stops is not so easy to define. For instance, we think we know the edges of our bodies: but what happens when we eat a meal? When does ‘food’ become ‘body?’ After it is swallowed? After it is absorbed from the intestine? After it is incorporated into cells? Boundaries are blurry and changeable. Or consider our thoughts, over which we claim ownership, but which always derive from language and concepts we absorbed from others. The human being is a small and changeable aggregate, continuous with all the other aggregated processes within the larger whole. We are nothing more and nothing less.
What then of ‘mind’ and ‘will?’ I already defined ‘mind’ in one way above (there are many other possibilities): it is the structural layer that takes sensation, drive, and emotion as input and generates perceptions and responses as output. Sticking with the terminology already laid out, ‘will’ can be viewed as a component of ‘intellect.’ If the latter “interprets and guides experience,” then the ‘will’ is that part which makes decisions about how to interpret and guide. Here’s an example of how this might work in practice:
A married man converses with an attractive single woman who smiles warmly as the two face one another. The man’s ‘mind’ is receiving sensory input in the form of facial and bodily movements, scents, vocalizations, etc. It also feels the bubbling of sexual attraction. It processes all this input in the context of a particular emotional state, perhaps sadness. It builds a percept: attractive, flirtatious, potentially available woman who might offer intimacy that would ease the sorrow. In very short order, the ‘mind’ responds to its perception and generates a subtle deepening of the voice, a warm smile, and a slight shift of posture that brings the man a half inch closer to his companion. The ‘intellect,’ meanwhile, is watching this unfold, taking a bit longer to form opinions and intervene. Recognizing that overt flirtation is considered inappropriate behavior for a married man, the ‘intellect’ weighs the benefits and risks. If it is committed to mainstream values and maintains a grip on the situation (i.e., if it doesn’t allow drives to take over), the ‘intellect’ looks at the long term consequences of an affair and realizes they would not be worth the short term thrill of pursuing a romance. The intellect (rather, the ‘willful’ subunit of the intellect) begins to influence the outcome in a variety of ways. It picks out indicators that the woman might be insecure and needy. It looks for flaws in her appearance. It calls on memories of the wife and imagines how she’d feel if this dance went further. Such cognition then feeds back into mind and colors the percept and response. In this indirect way, the man’s attitude and behavior are changed: the woman begins to look a little less appealing; posture stiffens; eyes glance into the distance. On a more deliberate plane (i.e., under the direct influence of the ‘will’), the man looks at his watch and says he needs to head off to an appointment.
Obviously, all this happens in a way that feels seamless. Unless we take time to tease apart the levels and influences, we aren’t aware of them as we go through life. But the model works reasonably well and can be used to explain variations. The ‘intellect’ could decide to throw caution to the winds. Or it could downplay the situation by considering it harmless fun. It’s even possible for the interpretative function of the ‘intellect’ to feel guilty about errant behavior, while the guiding function plots frank seduction. (That this sort of disconnect can occur is strong evidence, I believe, that the solid, stable ‘self’ is an illusion.)
So if ‘soul’ and ‘self’ are illusory, ‘mind’ a device that constructs experience and actions, and ‘intellect’ an executive interpreter that may or may not intervene, what is a human being?
As outlined above, a human is merely an aggregate. Here we see it comprised of body, mind, intellect, and all their subunits (in other formulations we might pick out brain regions, emotional and cognitive domains, etc.). Somehow this collection of properties arises from that which is most fundamental in the cosmos. With regard to this fundamental substance or quality, scientists might point to physical energy that manifests in various ways (including as matter), while the mystically inclined might speak of ‘spirit.’ The terminology doesn’t matter. If one looks objectively, one recognizes that all systems tell us the same thing: we see a diversity of form that, in reality, reflects a deeper unity of composition. Most importantly, this unity is universal, not individual.
During my upcoming surgery, my body will be physically altered. This will affect how energy moves through it (perhaps simply the kinetic energy of flowing blood, or possibly more subtle currents). My emotions and sensations will no doubt feel dramatic at times, and my mind will use these to build up a sort of ‘movie’ that will make the entire experience feel of one piece. My intellect will be watching, interpreting, and occasionally using its will to effect decisions as needed.
Throughout it all, there will be a part of me that is simply present, resonant and wise. This deepest layer of my human aggregate, if I can keep awareness of it active in the more superficial strata, will help me get my entire composite through the ordeal calmly and, perhaps, with curiosity and gratitude.
So am “I” to be cut open? In some sense, all parts of me will be affected: body, energy, mind, intellect, and spirit. But remember that every human is integrally connected to a web of air, food, water, light, sound, touch, language, gesture, ideas, culture, history, etc., plus whatever fundamental source drives them all. A surgeon’s instruments will reach deep into my abdomen, but “I” am already open.Share on Facebook
Fourteen years ago my mind broke, though I prefer to say it broke open. In my nearly five hundred WillSpirit essays, I’ve often discussed that mental shattering. As its fourteenth anniversary approaches, I find myself living the consequences in the best way. To make this clear, let me review the basic history of what happened.
In my so-called psychotic mania back in 2000, my mind expanded but so did my ego. Unfamiliar with transcendent states, part of me believed the opening a sign of worthiness. It felt chosen for a salvational mission: to combine my long education in the sciences with my newfound awareness of spiritual realms, and thus return sanity to the world. Odd as it sounds, I believed myself a prophet. In the mental hospital, thankfully, a dietician granted me a key insight that tempered my grandiosity. In the midst of a lecture about the nervous system’s nutritional needs, she turned toward me in my radiant madness and said: “the brain can communicate with God, but it is not God.” That rebuke to my egotism may have saved me. How she knew to challenge me, and why the warning popped up in the middle of an otherwise mundane talk, remains a mystery.
It’s been a long time since I felt more special than anyone else. On the other hand, I do believe myself possessed of a unique constellation of abilities, as we all should in our own ways. Thus, I still feel myself called to use science as a lens to magnify the subtle (‘spiritual’) fabric of eternity. My work teaching anatomy and physiology at Niroga Yoga Institute is a direct consequence of this leading. After decades of struggle, I now apply myself to work that fits both my skill set and my values.
This comes up because today I’m writing this WillSpirit post for two reasons. First, to get something new on the site; second, to satisfy a requirement for the yoga therapy training that I am involved in as both faculty member and student. As a teacher I deliver slide presentations that explain human biology with an eye toward the mystical, or (when that seems too far afield) toward mapping Western biomedicine into Eastern practices. As a student, I simply fulfill the requirements, one of which is to spell out my thoughts about ahimsa.
What is ahimsa? It can be translated as ‘non-harming.’ It’s one of the yamas, or ethical precepts, that guide yogis toward liberation. For example, many Eastern traditions discourage eating meat on the reasonable assumption that killing animals constitutes harming them. While such a mindset is quite supportable, there are many complicating factors in this and every choice meant to avoid injury to other beings.
Problems begin to arise as soon as we realize the highest goal of meditative practice and directly apprehend the unitary nature of reality. Although Buddhism, Taoism, Vedanta and others differ in their characterization of this ‘ground of being,’ all traditions developed in the East see divisions in Creation as superficial and illusory. Separation is only partial and is not reflective of the actual Nature of the world.
We look around and seem to see distinct entities interacting: people, animals, plants, rocks, machinery, etc. But Eastern paths encourage us to recognize that all of these spring from a single unnameable source. In Western religions the same principle is often called the Godhead. Science upholds this view in the fields of ecology, evolution, cosmology, and so on (though conventional researchers decry the use of empirical findings of interdependence to bolster spiritual beliefs). Whatever the terminology, with such holistic sensibility we comprehend that all ‘entities’ are merely transient processes in a vast whole: like eddies in an ocean, they are ever forming and fading, combining and parting. Always changing, they are at once generated by and expressive of the ground of reality itself.
What does this mean in terms of ahimsa? Well, it complicates things.
If I see myself as separate from other beings, then ‘harming’ is easy to define. It means hurting one of those distinct creatures beyond the boundaries of myself. And although ahimsa would stay my hand from hurting my own body, we generally agree that harming one’s own self is less serious an offense than harming another’s.
But what if there is nothing truly separate and distinct from my own process? What if the cosmos is a seamless whole that only appears fragmented? Wouldn’t harming another always mean Self injuring Self? Furthermore, since change and transience are built in, does ending a single life alter anything? Why should prematurely stopping a temporary process concern us at all? Why worry about disrupting a tiny whirlpool in a vast sea?
The ‘non dual’ perspective, which sees all as One, cannot provide moral guidance for those hoping to live by ahimsa because it makes no distinctions and establishes no hierarchies. The murderer is no less a part of the Whole than the saint. Killing is just another event that arises as time and space evolve. We cannot find fixed and reliable rules of action when we see everything as inseparably interwoven and ultimately uniform.
So where does this leave us with regard to ahimsa? Do we give up on it? Do we refuse to believe in universal standards of right and wrong? Do we become moral relativists and deny that some behaviors can be viewed as less worthy than others?
Yes and no. There are no universal standards of right and wrong, but we can choose to pursue ahimsa in order to engage the world in as compassionate way, which begins to feel more and more vital as we increasingly recognize our essential unity with everyone and everything around us. Once we make a choice to care for others (and the world at large) as we would wish to be cared for, we can come up with workable strategies that keep us in line with ahimsa. But these tactics won’t (and can’t) depend on predefined moral standards. Rather, we must find a more reliable guide.
To begin to see how this works, it’s necessary to recognize that harming is impossible to avoid. Unlike plants, animals must eat other organisms. We could, I suppose, chose to live only as scavengers, eating what has already died by other causes. There isn’t nearly enough spontaneously dead material to support seven billion people, however, so this is not only a distasteful solution, but an impractical one. And it overlooks the countless bacteria and other microbes that would still perish in our stomachs.
We could be vegetarians, but that requires either that we eat only what plants produce as enticements (i.e., fruits) or else disregard whatever discomfort vegetation might feel when cut and harvested as leaf crops, roots, and grains. People comfort themselves by believing that plants lack feelings, but that seems like a copout to me. As a series of WillSpirit posts outlined not long ago, matter may well have sentience built in from the very start, at the level of subatomic particles. And complex assemblies of matter, such as lifeforms, are even more aware. So while plants don’t suffer in the same way as animals, it seems to me they may well experience distress when their lives are cut short. The many defenses plants have evolved (thorns, toxins, and the like) tell us plants do not live to freely give their hard-earned resources to animals. They struggle to survive and reproduce, just like us. On some level, they may well experience harvests as holocausts.
So is ahimsa-motivated vegetarianism merely a form of harm reduction? Killing plants gets deemed permissible because (we hope) they feel less pain than we do? I think this is an inescapable conclusion, but the problems don’t stop here.
Things get even more complicated, because in modern society nearly everything we do degrades the biosphere. Agriculture rips up vegetation we don’t like and replaces it with crops we do. Very often insects and other so-called pests are killed to protect yields (even organic farmers destroy caterpillars). Every time we flush a toilet we discharge waste into a nearby ecosystem that we can assume is overburdened by human effluent. Even the simple act of breathing adds molecules of carbon dioxide to an atmosphere already destabilized by too much of it. If we buy food from a store, we end up discarding packaging that requires resources for its production and leads to problems in its disposal. We drive on roads that were paved on top of habitats. Every plane flight chews up the ozone layer. And on, and on, and on.
In our social interactions, we seek success but very often this demands someone else’s failure. If we choose to spend time with one acquaintance, we may hurt the feelings of another. And on, and on, and on.
So if harming is inevitable, do we become nihilists? Do we simply quit caring?
No. And this brings me to the key point: ahimsa is best understood not as a principle about harming, but about caring. If we know that living demands hurting other life forms, then we can at least choose to be careful about how much and in what spirit we harm. We can decide to be mindful, in other words.
With that shift in perspective, the task become easier. Now we can pick out a behavioral hierarchy that isn’t built on universal moral standards, which non dual awareness makes impossible. Instead, we use degree and intent as our guides.
At the most corrosive end of the spectrum is deliberate injury inflicted for the pleasure that comes from tormenting innocents. That an awful glee arises when people abandon empathy and behave cruelly is known to all, though few feel comfortable speaking of it. But sadists can be found throughout human history, and there seems little doubt that they enjoy torturing children and other blameless souls unfortunate enough to fall into their grasp.
Only slightly less repugnant is the pleasure that comes from hurting someone hated. Think of patriots cheering as bombs fall on enemy cities.
Related to applauding the suffering of rivals is revenge and retributive punishment. Retribution feels satisfying because we believe the harm a criminal caused has now come home to roost. Pain inflicted on a wrongdoer seems just. But the principle is hardly different from the one that drives pure sadism: we feel pleasure at another’s pain. And there are both hazards and consequences. What if we accuse wrongly? What if one vengeful act leads to another delivered in return?
Considerably less ugly, but still troubling, is harm that results as a byproduct of seeking personal pleasure. The tycoon who spends a hundred million dollars on a gigantic yacht probably thinks only of the fun life such a craft permits: cruising from one exotic port to the next. But those dollars would feed millions of starving children, or build thousands of homes, or fund dozens of schools. This is the harm that flows from selfishness. Of course, recognizing such quasi-passive injury raises questions we might prefer to avoid. For instance, can we feel innocent driving through the countryside, enjoying the scenery, knowing we’re burning fuel and increasing our carbon footprint?
Next comes harm that is necessary, but excessive. Do we eat more than we need to survive? Do we buy new clothing (which might have been sewn by children in some desperate land) when we are already clothed? If we were honest, we would have to admit that much of what we do undermines the world’s wellbeing in exactly this way.
Although I have skipped a number of levels in the hierarchy of injury, I’ll end by pointing out that even when harm is essential for survival, and we are careful to consume or destroy no more than absolutely necessary, we still need to ask why our lives should take precedence over those of other beings. Do humans truly deserve existence more than schools of tuna surging through the sea? Does our survival warrant leveling forests to create agricultural land? In the end, we must admit that even when we harm in order to survive, we do so not because it’s morally justifiable, but because we can.
So what’s the answer? To minimize harming and to remain mindful of what we’re doing. Thus, we reject seeking pleasure in another’s pain. Hopefully we aren’t frankly sadistic, but perhaps we should check ourselves before rejoicing when a criminal gets sent to some desolate prison where he is likely to get beaten and sexually assaulted, or (if he is strong enough) feel compelled to brutalize others. Maybe we should even question the excitement that arises when our favored team soundly defeats our rivals.
We should be aware when we’re causing harm merely for moments of pleasure. I’m not saying we shouldn’t savor drives to the country, but perhaps we should feel more grateful. And we should notice when we’re consuming more than is vital to our basic needs, and in that noticing we should honor the fact that we are fortunate to enjoy such surplus.
Once in a while, perhaps, we should even consider the circumstances under which we’d be willing to sacrifice our own wellbeing, or even our own lives, in favor of other life forms, including nonhuman ones.
Long ago, before my mental explosion, I put this bumper sticker on my car:
No one is free when others are oppressed.
I thought of it then in terms of political oppression, but now I see it as a statement of cosmic unity. We share our pleasures and pains with the entire universe. When we act sadistically, or vindictively, or wastefully, or selfishly, we are instilling those negative qualities into the entire world, and sooner or later the toxicity flows back into our own lives.
Wouldn’t we rather do the opposite? Wouldn’t we rather pour gentleness, forgiveness, conservation, and generosity into this infinite sea of experience? This, to me, is the gist of ahimsa.
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Humanity builds its monuments at the expense of the natural world. Our cities suck resources from the countryside. Our pleasures come strip-mined from the earth, or pumped out with aid of poisons injected underground. We engineer plants that generate their own insecticides, so our crops grow pre-poisoned. Species that thrived for eons prior to civilization are daily lost to extinction. This depressing tableau comes up a lot in conversation.
The ongoing destruction of earth’s innate beauty used to demoralize me. It still saddens, but I don’t feel crushed any longer. Why not? Because of the long view.
More and more my answer to difficulties is to see them in context. Everything we fret about unfolds within our tiny human sphere of time and space. We tend to ignore the fact that we are newcomers on this planet. My paleontology classes in college used to point out that if the history of life on earth were compressed to a year, humanity would have emerged in something like the last 30 minutes, and civilization would have arisen only in the last two. We are but a recent ripple on a vast sea of time.
Time will flow extend far into the future. Can we imagine the world a hundred years from now? We make predictions about energy supplies, sea level changes, and so on, but these estimates are fraught with uncertainty. Can we imagine a thousand years hence? Our powers of prediction fail. A million years? Even imagination folds at such prospect. A billion does not begin to compute, and yet such spans of time will pass.
Humanity will not destroy life on earth. What we wreck is what matters most to us as sensitive, observant animals, which is perhaps a poetic justice. We will lose (or have lost) the virgin forests, the miles of wetlands, the great herds of grazing animals, the teeming, plunging schools of tuna, the flocks of shore birds rising with their collective wingbeats loud as thunder, and much more. Many of the large, stately creatures we display on calendars are disappearing, confined to zoos and aquaria, or entirely extinct. Unexplored, unsullied wilderness is mere memory, with each square meter photographed from on high and every life form tainted by our chemical concoctions.
It’s sad, I grant. Tragic. But it’s also limited and temporary. The insect world thrives as ever. If some species of flies or bees have been lost, we hardly care, and millions of others continue to do just fine. Bacteria barely notice us. Perhaps we’ve even done them a favor by hastening their attainment of immunity to fungal antimicrobials. And while fungi might be damaged a bit by resistant germs, they aren’t going to disappear.
Life in the small proceeds apace, and that is the life upon which the biosphere rests. Humanity and all other large organisms are optional adornments. Life begins and ends with microbes.
We could ruin practically everything we adore: wetlands, forests, herds, schools, and flocks, but life would continue. Absent civilization-sustaining elements, humanity would certainly dwindle and possibly disappear. And what would happen then? The same thing that has happened after all the other catastrophic events in the history of life. Sixty-five million years ago an asteroid impact left the earth in darkness so long that the largest animals of the era (aka dinosaurs), went extinct due to the chill climate and cessation of photosynthesis, which meant an absence of food. Afterward, mammals grew ascendent on the earth, and eventually so did we. But apes can be replaced as easily as sauropods. Perhaps not with another species of equal ingenuity, but with something beautiful we can be sure.
The entire human adventure is temporary. If there were a God watching us wreak havoc, it would likely consider the flames of our creativity worth the ashes of our destructiveness. After all, there are probably other planets in this near-infinite cosmos carrying on experiments in life, and not all will evolve technologically competent species bent on ruin. And even here on earth, our impact will not last. So why wouldn’t that God watch with amusement rather than horror?
OK. That paints a rather dismal, uncaring picture of this putative God, but since I don’t believe in anthropomorphic deities anyway, that doesn’t strike me as a major concern. The point is that despite our strident insistence that we are vitally important, as individuals and as a species, we are not. Humankind is merely another facet of the evolving jewel that is life on earth. We have risen and someday we will fall. Life will continue to adapt as it always has.
Our defacement of natural beauty is a tragedy that stands at our own door, and so it should. It is the inevitable harvest of gluttony. Just as obesity follows overeating, a barren planet follows over-consumption.
My suspicion is that our species will continue. We are just clever enough that some small number will survive the coming crises. And just as humanity began to deal more seriously with the problem of conflict between major powers following World War II, we will awaken to the problem of unchecked resource exploitation after ecological collapse.
Ideally, of course, we would like to see civilization learn its lessons before erasing so much of Earth’s splendor, before consigning billions to climate change and all the other looming hardships. We should work toward that goal. But whether we achieve it or not, the laws of action and reaction will restore balance, sooner or later.
It’s a small comfort, I admit, to imagine the world recovering long after civilization as we know it has fallen. But one of the lessons on the path of maturity is that life isn’t personal, it’s collective. We aren’t especially important as individuals, as societies, or even as a species. Life itself is all that matters and all that truly endures.
I’ll close with the ending lines from the poem Credo, by Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962):
The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself, the heart-breaking beauty
Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.
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We commit when we see our situation in context and when, seeing all the treasures and terrors life promises, we embrace the whole of it.
Easy to say, but gaining such clarity can be a challenge. For decades I resisted the simple act of acceptance, and for decades I endured needless torment. Part of me knew my own attitudes rooted me in my suffering, but it seemed impossible to change.
Looking back on those struggles from my current perspective, it’s not clear what made the difference. Why did I finally transform? Partly, it was the guidance of a wise counselor trained in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Partly, it took spiritual practice which, for me, meant dabbling in Buddhism, Vedanta, Yoga, Quakerism, Catholicism, Taoism, and so on. Simple aging also played a role. I gave up my youthful dreams (or at least the ones that demanded release) in favor of wiser, quieter intentions.
Easy enough to cite reasonable explanations, but I suspect the transformation unfolded organically. As a form of growth, the maturing of consciousness doesn’t require much more than fertile ground. From my own experience and that of others, I’ve come to believe the decision to try suffices. The intention is all that’s needed to moisten and germinate the seeds of new awareness. If we choose to pursue health, even when we have only vague notions about what health truly means, we eventually find it. Resources appear. Fellow seekers enter our lives. We gradually stumble on a path through the shadows and discover light.
So if the key is making a choice and committing to growth, perhaps we can find some guidance by looking at another type of commitment: marriage.
My wife and I have lived together for twenty-three years and have been married eighteen. A man my age can’t claim this to be a particularly long time, but it’s enough for me to have learned something about the wedded state. Lately I’ve been looking at the ways committing to life and committing to a spouse seem similar.
In marriage, there are moments of bliss. The wedding day. The tender, intimate cuddling. The mind-blowing copulations. These ecstatic times serve to strengthen the bond between partners. They are analogous to peak moments, those times when we feel the grandeur of being alive. I think here of potent transcendent experiences, such as came to me during my recent meditation retreat.
In marriage and in life, there are also milder flavors of bliss: the shared meals and quiet walks, or the lovely sunsets and the enthusiasm of dogs. These subtler highlights are more numerous and play an equal role in binding us to lovers and life itself.
Of course, there are hard times, too. Married couples disappoint one another, hurt one another, and sometimes even betray one another. Likewise, life serves up loss, illness, and ruin. Some marriages are more troubled than others. Some lives are more arduous, some less.
A partner can let us down by forgetting an important anniversary, by never looking up from the computer, by speaking cruelly, or by choosing the arms of another. There’s a spectrum of severity. Longstanding marriages survive not because lapses don’t occur, or even because the lapses remain small. They survive because of forgiveness and, most of all, because of commitment. Sure, divorce is an option. But if the partners honor their vows, they work things out. Even great wounds have been healed in this way.
Life disappoints us when we have to wait a long time at a red light when we’re in a hurry, when we lose the career to which we devoted our youth, when we contract a painful, disabling illness, and when those closest to us die. All of us confront a range of adversity that spreads from mild irritation to devastating grief. Given this, how do we remain appreciative of life? By committing to the journey.
We can and do reject life. Some commit suicide, but many more get lost in substance abuse, obsessive thought, empty entertainments, and sullen refusal to enjoy whatever blessings fate does provide. For instance, we might find ourselves in a town we don’t like, separated from the city we adored. Rather than noticing the peaceful beauty of the new location, we mourn the excitement of the old. We keep ourselves locked in regret, wishing things were different.
We criticize continually, when we could just as easily praise. We reject when we could embrace.
What keeps us trapped in misery? Go back to the marriage analogy. One can divorce, but one can also withdraw. A couple can live together and interact only in the most superficial or (worse) hurtful ways. Each withholds affection and admiration from the other. The marriage continues, but its heart withers.
Only when the couple learns to fully commit to the process of marriage does the relationship blossom to its full, miraculous extent. With total commitment, small annoyances seem humorous and big failures seem forgivable. We cease trying to change our partners and instead honor them for who they are. We see them as startling wholes, at once heroic and fallible.
We can do the same with life. As I’ve suggested in many posts of recent years, we do well to expand our perspective. We can see the hardship life inflicts alongside the pleasure it provides. We can see evil alongside good. Decay next to growth. Death balanced by birth. We admire the drama of evolution playing out over millions of years and the turmoil of human culture unfolding over thousands. We open to the big picture and we become less sure of our opinions. Are we really qualified to criticize this ancient, chaotic, self-correcting whole? We begin to wonder, in both senses of the word. We wonder if our judgments are reliable. We wonder at the complexity and beauty of this surging process we call a universe.
To commit to wonder is all it takes. To remain curious, appreciative, and open-hearted is to remain married, whether to another person or an entire cosmos. The longer one engages in a committed fashion, the easier and more remarkable such marriage seems.
We don’t need to feel alone when we are married to life. We have a partner who will remain with us to our last moment, without fail. We can watch it with fascination and affection. We can embrace it with tenderness and care, and occasionally with passion and ecstasy.
What does this mean, in practice? It means tending the body, mind, heart, and soul. Not just our own aggregation of these properties, but that of our partner which, if our partner is life itself, means caring for the people and organisms all around us and the biosphere itself. We commit to doing our best to treat others and ourselves with gentleness when possible and firmness when necessary. We recognize that we will fail, as all fails, from time to time, but we commit to forgiving ourselves and everything else for not living up to our expectations. We begin to accept the world and all it contains as a delightful whole. We no longer wish this universe were different; we admire what it is.
At which point, we realize life always knew best. As if reconciling with a spouse who made the right choice despite our vigorous objection, we admit that the cosmos was wiser all along.
Was that career really right for us? Did the old neighborhood provide the resources needed for personal growth? Do we really know what’s best? We begin to wonder. And in wonder, we find love.
And it all begins with a choice: the choice to commit wholeheartedly to living, come what may.
In keeping with the theme of adoring life, the following is a love poem written to whatever it is that makes living possible, here referred to as ‘Soul.’
In Praise of the Soul
You are the ocean that remains after a puddle has dried.
You are the stillness that follows our last breath.
You are the single word infants know
prior to birth
And the song
that is never heard, though forever sung.
You are what opened the first eye
and the spark that made our heart start beating.
You are what lifts the sail on a windless day and what stands
after an army has fallen.
You are the birds that fly
between planets, their wings stirring the vacuum.
And you are the breath
that fills the lungs of a stone.
Ah dear soul
you are as old as tomorrow.
We listen for you
as a mother listens for her sleeping child.
We hear you whisper
as we dream in your womb.
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For the person who is blessed with such a vision, it seems so, at least for a time. In 2000 a series of mystical experiences left me transformed. How could I doubt God’s existence when I’d felt Its presence in every cell of my being and in every particle of Creation? How could I reject Christ when I’d spoken with Him? In the early years following these openings, I converted to Roman Catholicism and attended mass several times a week.
But as the years passed, doubts crept in, their advance fueled by the sorry state of my life, which was plagued by failed career attempts, deteriorating health, and chronic depression. Every once in a while a new transcendent awakening would come my way, either spontaneously or as the result of some spiritual practice or another. Each time I’d recover my sense of conviction, but each time it would again fade. Why was it so hard to maintain faith?
Partly, it was because I was looking for solutions to worldly problems in otherworldly sensations. No matter how elevated a state feels, it does not pay the bills, win friendships, or relieve pain. If material benefits follow mental states, they follow because the states enhance skillful action in the world. The loving presence felt during peak moments does not translate into an omnipotent parent figure guarding one’s wellbeing.
As long as our contentment depends on external gratification (e.g., sensual pleasures, material possessions, meaningful occupation, social relations, etc.), no state of mind can resolve our angst. Peak states allow us to see our craving as futile and/or destructive, but they don’t sate hunger or horniness.
This mismatch between inner states and outer reality explains, I believe, some of the confusions that arise around religion and spirituality. People appreciate the felt experience of cosmic love; that’s natural and healthy. But they aren’t satisfied with love as a purely internal state; they want to see its efficacy in their day-to-day lives, where love usually implies tangible exchange. Husband and wife pledge support “in sickness and in health” as a sign of their bond. Children feel the love of their parents when housed and nurtured with kindness. Friends help each other and so show affection. If the Cosmos (God) loves us, shouldn’t It (Him/Her) save us from illness and ruin?
By this reasoning, if bad things happen they need to be explained. Maybe difficulties result from original sin, or flow from the mistakes of past lives, or teach us valuable lessons, or stem from demonic forces bent against the divine plan. We feel compelled to reconcile the hardship of material life with the utter contentment that arises during elevated states, so we elaborate explanations. Since the explanations of different religions differ, there is bound to be confusion and disagreement.
(Another source of contention, that I’ll only mention in passing, is the way elevated states generate idiosyncratic imagery relevant to the individual. The Christian is visited by Christ, the Muslim by Mohammed. Such details obscure the underlying similarity of the two experiences; immature minds will insist on specifics rather than agree on generalities.)
All such contention is error. The message of the highest states is that the universe is a beautiful, sustaining presence that can be embraced on its own terms. We don’t need to justify all the terror in the world; we simply need to see things from a broader perspective. From the highest states of being, we become aware of the scale and duration of the universe and the diversity it contains. Yes, we see murder, abuse, molestation, torment, and destruction. But we also see marriage, affection, mothering, tenderness, and delight. It’s all flux, it’s all transient, and (seen from the broadest perspective) it’s all magnificent.
In the last post I tried to describe how the universe presented to me, in full panorama, during a meditation retreat. From that perspective the cosmos appeared sublime, but might the whole experience have been an illusion? After all, states suffused with feelings of oceanic unity are considered delusional by psychiatrists and academics, since they contradict establishment science and can’t be measured. But consider that according to Eastern philosophies the idea that we are separate individuals battling in isolation is likewise seen as delusional. We can’t bow to accepted wisdom of any sort; we need to find our own way.
Partly it’s a question of choice, or faith. For reasons of aesthetics and contentment, I choose the unitive viewpoint over narrower, personal perspectives. But elevated states of mind also feel convincing, as indicated above. Should I accept this feeling as proof?
Not in isolation. A single episode of expanded consciousness doesn’t prove anything. Near death experiences, drug-induced states, spontaneous openings and the like all feel very powerful, but what makes them compelling is that they are relatively common phenomena that share important features. By themselves, they mean little, but in aggregate they demand respect. Consistently attainable states equate to experimental repeatability, which is what validates theory of any sort. Ken Wilbur has made this point, and it holds despite the fact that conventional scientists remain deeply suspicious of subjective experience.
Over the years, I’ve come to see the shared elements of transcendent states as unity, rightness, and love. I’ve also read them described as truth, justice, and beauty. Or, for that matter, Holy Spirit, Father, and Son. Many phrasings have been proposed over the millennia. The point is, behind transient and idiosyncratic peak experiences there appear to be stable, shared, and profound qualities, and these seem to flow outward and inward from Creation at large. We may not appreciate these sustaining factors in day-to-day life, but they intrude in more or less subtle ways when we see the smile of a loved one, or a spectacular sunrise, or survive a harrowing illness.
The repeatable quality of heightened awareness brings up the notion of The Perennial Philosophy, as outlined (for example) by Aldous Huxley in his book by the same name. According to this view all religious experiences point to a single truth. Indeed, one must imagine that science and philosophy point the same direction, if the word truth has any deep meaning. Beneath all our notions there is one reality. When we approach a singularity of understanding, we feel impressed by the pervasive sense of unity, rightness, and love. No longer do the details feel troubling; we see them as essential parts of a lovely, properly flowing whole.
Can we remain united with these qualities over the long run? Probably not completely. The fully resonant state is not compatible with much ordinary activity. To build a house or raise a family, we need to take many mundane details seriously. We can’t simply assume that all is well and not attend to structural integrity or material sustenance. But we can retain a subtle sense of unity, rightness, and love, even while drawing plans and shopping for dinner.
As I get more familiar with the enlarged perspective, I’m more often able to summon these healing qualities. The key is practice, a word the Buddhist community likes a lot. Through practice of various sorts (yoga, meditation, Quaker meetings, and simple receptiveness), I find it’s easier to accept pain and difficulty. It takes a combination of viewing my situation in context, as a minuscule vortex in an exquisite, unitive cosmos, and focusing on the tender quality of love that pervades all experience. Eventually, I might get to the point where such openness will nearly always be available to me. That would truly be a transformation!
One needs to slow down to allow these gentle, curative appreciations to emerge. They remain hidden as long as we are preoccupied and moving fast. But in still moments, with sweet intention, we can invite them in. If we did this often and consistently enough, we would attain the next best thing to “enlightenment.”
If we could live that freely, we would no longer worry about whether a God exists in one conceptual way or another. It would be enough to feel connected with this eternal, living cosmos.
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When one travels into the depths of creation, how does one describe where one has gone? Prose will fail. But before moving to poetry, I want to write an essay about what’s happened. This will solidify my memory and share something momentous with those interested enough to read on.
Begin by understanding that earlier today I returned from a ten-day Buddhist meditation retreat. That may be all you need to know. Perhaps you can predict what follows.
But it would not have been possible for me to predict. This was by no means my first retreat. I expected to come home feeling blissful, as I usually do after such events. What I did not expect was… How to describe it?
Let’s start by quoting something I wrote years ago about events that happened after my surgical career ended due to neck disease. Crushed by that loss and several other weighty setbacks, my psyche collapsed. Longterm readers of WillSpirit are familiar with the story. Suicidally depressed, I was hospitalized for twelve days. Less than a week after discharge, I was again placed on a mental ward under the diagnosis of “manic psychosis” which, from my perspective, manifested as a series of profound mystical experiences. Here’s my description of one of those, quoted from a 2009 blog post:
For a brief period all time (from the first infinitesimal fraction of a second after big bang until the present moment) and all space (from an impossibly small subatomic scale out through the full span of the universe) seemed to hover in my awareness simultaneously, like an instantaneous glimpse of … creation.
What doesn’t come across in this particular rendering (chosen for its simplicity from several attempts at capturing the episode) was how shattering the experience felt at the time. Coming as it did with a rush of light, a chorus of angelic voices, a piercing sense of divine appointment, and amidst a pervasive radiance of cosmic love, the state scrambled me. As the hours passed and further openings flowed through my awareness, some small, reasonable part of myself watched in utter bewilderment.
In another time or place a shaman might have helped me organize around these occurrences. Here in the USA during the earliest years of this millennium, however, psychiatrists took charge. Doctors sent me to a hospital and started me on mind-numbing pills. I was left to work out the deeper implications (which the clinicians denied, or ignored) on my own. Most likely, the psychiatrists would have preferred me to forget the anomalous perceptions and move on. Take my ruined brain, get a job bagging groceries, and quit talking about stuff that makes materialists uncomfortable.
Well, I kept seeking. More than a decade passed as my life drifted ever further from the ideal future I’d planned in my twenties and thirties. Whole years went by with minimal productivity while I grappled with awful depressions and occasional soaring ecstasies. Gradually, gradually, I began to find my way. Readers who have followed this blog from the beginning, if there are any, have watched the final stages of this process.
What does this have to do with the meditation retreat? Well, after the first few days the exact same perspective on the cosmos presented itself. I saw Creation as a simultaneous whole, from earliest moment to present day, from subatomic to intergalactic scales, from here to the farthest reaches. It was as if the entire procession of Nature appeared before me as a single work of multimedia sculpture. I was free to hold it and turn it as I wished. I could watch mountains at once on the rise and fall, inch by inch over thousands, millions of years. I could feel far into my tangle of neurons, my pulsing organism, my momentary vortex of matter, life, personality, and percept. I could sense the inexorable push of history, as if it were a wave on which we all ride through time. Corridors of awareness extended in all directions. I could detect the resonance of loved ones now dead. My memories of them seemed to interdigitate in subtle ways with their deepest essence, reaching forward to me from the living past. I felt our human components: body, mind, heart, movement, growth, decay, all swaying in the long slow dance that connects birth with death. Genes flowing through generations, language transmitted from parent to child, to child, to child. And on, and on, and on.
This wasn’t just a momentary glimpse. By clock time it lasted a good part of an hour during each of perhaps five separate sessions of meditation. And there were briefer openings into the same space that were less sustained but just as consistent in their quality. It was like a repeated experiment, again and again leading to the same result. And unlike the spontaneous experience in 2000, this felt completely natural, peaceful, and healing. It did not shatter me, it enlarged me.
After some of the sessions, for a brief time, the very walls seemed alive with history. It was as if the building that housed our meditations existed simultaneous with the land before construction and also the ruins to come; the sequence from vacant terrain, to religious center, to broken shell shimmered before me. The gypsum in the walls whispered of long vanished oceans. The studs spoke of forests since felled.
I knew and felt the tendrils of awareness permeating everything, every atom watching time roll onward, each with its own minuscule sentience. Organized arrangements of particles–in oaks, in finches, in brains, in those people walking the grounds in silence–were merely higher level aggregates of this interior Nature that reaches into each tiny recess of our universe.
Ahhh… words seem so inadequate. But believe me, much seems clear. Last autumn I wrote more than a dozen posts after the realization that ‘universe is mind’ came to me on a vision fast in the desert. This time things went further. Universe is indeed mind. But it is also heart, and soul, and matter, and time, and well, everything. But most of all it is alive, deeply and fully and unstoppably alive.
And I feel more attuned with my surroundings than ever before. Even while “I” as a concept appears impossibly tiny, absurd in its limitations.
Am “I” now “enlightened?” The word is wrongly used. A person doesn’t become enlightened. A person is a window through which enlightenment can shine, for a time. We are told some humans can sustain clarity and carry it full force into the workaday world. Not me. I feel a penetrating understanding. The universal heart/soul/mind is very present and real for me right now. But I am still moody, unstable, and prone to onslaughts of language. Vulnerable to despair as much as ecstasy. My mood immediately upon arriving home was sullen and exhausted. But after a nap, I rallied. The sense of an organic, compassionate cosmos restored me. But I don’t doubt the suicide birds will wing in again, some day.
The clarity helps, but it does not erase my personality. Perhaps that’s just as well. Maybe my quirks serve some purpose. Maybe, in my case, instability promotes insight. Enlightened? Not. But a crazy mystic with a taste for nirvana? Quite possibly.
I am still the damaged child who grew up neglected, bereaved, and abused. I am still the shattered surgeon trying to rebuild a sense of himself after losing career, house, reputation, and sanity. I am still the lonely soul with few friends and little family who, truth be told, feels uncomfortable with most human interaction. But (and let’s be clear how valuable this is, how much it outweighs the habitual complaints) I am now convinced that reality doesn’t begin and end in our day-to-day experience.
The life that occupies moderns is just a little hut. Imagine a one-room blockhouse perched on the edge of the grand canyon. Inside, we pursue professions, engage society and family, file lawsuits, and basically make a hash of things.
We barely peek outside. We may even elaborate philosophies to insist there’s no world beyond the door. But some of us, perhaps those hopelessly inept at life within the walls of our culture, feel no choice but to step across the threshold. And what do we see? Oh my…Share on Facebook
The first poem below might alarm. Please rest assured that it is merely my way of working through the feelings of darkness that sometimes descend upon me. I have grappled with suicidal thoughts much of my adult life and commit to resisting them. Rather than pretend they don’t afflict me, I choose to write about them. Yesterday was a lot like this first poem. Today feels better.
The second poem offers one antidote to despair: foolish hope. It’s about purchasing a lottery ticket, but it’s even more relevant to my application for the poetry fellowship. It is healthy to play life’s game even in the face of likely defeat. Better to give our startling possibilities a chance rather than yield without effort.
I keep trying, as do we all. And that is the secret to survival in the face of fear, worry, and exhaustion.
The suicide birds migrate in from the past,
Honking like geese in formation,
Fleeing those bitter winter storms.
“So Damaging!” They complain, again and again.
I find it hard to argue with them.
I have been frostbitten just that many times.
The suicide birds soar here from tomorrow
And circle above like buzzards.
They don’t say anything.
They don’t need to. They know
What awaits, and their dark silence
Makes the promise of it all the more desolate.
But the suicide birds of today,
They’re the ones that terrify me.
Like phoenixes they rise, inexorably
Flapping their smoky wings.
Just when I thought they’d been incinerated, permanently
They return, as reliable as robins.
I shoo away the geese. Let them keep flying south!
I ignore the vultures. Let them circle!
But I hear every phoenix screech, again and again: “Burn! Burn!”
And I’m tempted to obey, sometimes,
When spring fails to arrive,
And all the world’s feathers fall like ashes from the sky.
That’s The Ticket!
A lottery ticket
A slip of paper
Ticking with numbers
A veritable bomb
Or lost chances
The first I ever bought
Worth 636 million
Or, more likely,
Bought and paid for
With small change
Such vain dreams
Keep us trying
Against all odds
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