What I Believe and Why, Part 6

comments 25
Christ / Course Ideas

[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5]

I want to close this series by stating that I believe Love, and expressions of Love, are all that truly exist. When I say that expressions of Love truly exist, I mean that they endure, they are timeless in a sense, they add unto the eternal fabric of being, they open pathways to new modes of being, and they enrich all aspects of being simultaneously.

What might be said is that this doesn’t square with our experience.

Most ideas we’ve had of God and man have been incorrect, often disastrously so, but they’ve simply been concepts. They’re easily shown to be inconsistent and conflicted, and more importantly, I think these represent a superficial dilemma as compared to the one with which we all must grapple: the fact that how we perceive of ourselves and the world in which we find ourselves directly influences the nature of our experience. Not only that, it influences the type of world we create. The real challenge I see is that it is impossible for a mind with a perceptual orientation to find logical fault with the integrity of the subsequent experience. This is the nature of a mind. It constructs its reality.

We don’t give ourselves nearly enough credit for our ability to shape experience into a consistent structure. This has nothing to do with ideas of God and man, or any philosophy whatsoever; nor does it have anything to do with being disingenuous, or with intelligence, or with any vice or characteristic we know we possess. This simply has to do with the way we assign meaning to experience, and the way those assignments create closed systems of evidence-based perception. Those who would manipulate facts and those who would uphold an integrity of scholarship are equally subject to the conditions of the mind and its inherent ability to form self-referencing structures of experience and perception. Our minds, in essence, are projection engines.

I watched the movie My Cousin Rachel this weekend and it’s an interesting study in this regard. It’s one of those movies in which the evidence seems to be stacking up in one direction, but then a single insight changes everything, and then all the evidence seems to point in the opposite direction. Back and forth it goes without any final resolution, and this, at a much more powerful scale, is what I mean. It is impossible to make a final determination about which perception is correct—even when the two perceptions could not be more diametrically opposed—without more information, but the core perception (or worldview) at work engenders evidence only of itself.

I could suggest that only Love and its expressions are truly real, but then we would look together upon an instance of suffering and say that it cannot be so. If Love is real and it leads to this, then we must have been wrong about Love entirely. And if Love isn’t what we thought, of what value is it then? The other alternative is that our perception of suffering was incorrect. But if this isn’t suffering that I look upon, then I don’t know what is… Call it what you will, it’s a terrible thing.

When we look upon suffering it is not so easy as it is in fiction to introduce a new insight, a flash of evidence, that changes everything. We can’t imagine a reinterpretation of the Holocaust that leaves us all relieved. I will not try. But I will say this: there is a condition of perception that must exist for minds to enact such an event, and in such a condition it is not possible to experience the reality of Love’s presence. And that same condition of perception applies to children fighting over a toy, or adults fighting over the price of a car, foreign trade deals, or the primacy of ideas that populate our scientific publications. If these examples are different, it is only by degree, and we are mistaken when we think that difference by degree is real difference. Difference by degree has a stranglehold on our world.

There are really only two forms of perception—one that is based on the idea we are each fundamentally separate beings, that each us can truly gain even as another loses, and one that is based on the idea that we are fundamentally joined, or unified. Only one of them can be true, and I’ll suggest it is the sort of distinction we cannot make on the basis of external evidence alone:  principally because the world we occupy—the closed loop of mental interpretation—can return the experience of either one; and second, because one cannot choose both at once.

So what I believe is that the suffering we experience in our world is the product of our perception of, (and belief in), our separateness. This perception is very real (in the sense that it is available to be experienced). Its logic is crystal clear and self-reinforcing with the world as evidence, and it informs choices and conditions whose ramifications are far more reaching in their extents than we would guess. That this mode of perception lies at the root of suffering is not, in my opinion, because of the whim or failure of some God, but because it is the closest thing to a natural law that I can imagine. Let me be clear: this law is not the idea that a belief in separation is met with suffering for any whimsical or moral or consciously elected reason, but simply because separateness is the condition of suffering. The perception of separateness produces all of the conditions and inner orientations that are necessary for suffering to occur.

What is amazing to me—miraculous really—is that the world can also return the experience of unity. And what I have faith in, because I have experienced it in various microcosmic ways in my own life, is that as we make this choice together, new conditions arise that will allow us to experience the world in a new way. Most importantly, suffering will be relieved, if not eradicated completely.

I want to work towards an ending here by saying this is the wisdom I perceive in the myth of Jesus’ life. For me the stories of Jesus are probably as much or more mythical than factual, but in a world whose fundamental nature lies in the eye of the beholder, myth and fact are interwoven. It’s a distinction that doesn’t ultimately matter. The world is our story as we’ve chosen to perceive it. And what I see in Jesus is a person making the ultimate point about unity to those he loves: take my body if you wish, take what you perceive my life to be, and observe that there is nothing I will lose. I will still be with you. I will still love you. I stand here, though you know not what you do, to keep the way open, so that no being will forever be caught in the web of their misperception. It is a beautiful and complete giving, or relinquishing, of what is perceived as most valuable in the perception of separateness.

The bottom line is this: if separateness and the conditions it engenders are an accurate reflection of reality, and not merely a perceptual choice, then suffering cannot be overcome. It is built-in. In this case forgiveness is a futile, ineffectual practice and the world forever belongs to the strong. Kindness is perhaps a collective management strategy, a productive meme. We may manage this world by degrees, by patrolling carefully its position on the slope, by herding ourselves towards niceties and conventions that establish a “civilized” cultural position, but its fundamental nature is and will be one of strife, of difference, of scarcity and of fear. There will always be those at the margins, those we leave behind that our civilized ship might proceed. Those we would keep out of sight, out of mind, over there somewhere. In the world that separateness engenders, this isn’t a moral choice, it’s in many ways a necessary one. It arises from the limits of what is known. I believe unity offers a completely different proposition. But if unity, on the other hand, is a valid alternative, what prevents us from choosing it? What must be given up?

I’ve found the gap between these two perceptions is both razor thin and almost inconceivably difficult to cross, for what a person must give up to cross the gap is everything of value in the prevailing worldview. To leave the shores of separateness a person must consider an orientation in which the suffering that was previously perceived is reframed as a temporary sand-shifting backstopped by a higher condition of timeless unity. A person must consider an orientation in which suffering may be truly forgiven, and is logically and rightfully forgiven, because nothing is lost at the physical level—only enacted. I believe this is the illusion spoken of throughout ancient times and in various spiritual traditions today: the illusion is that the world we perceive in separateness is the root of our identity, and of value. We are finite, temporal phenomena in the illusion. We must grab hold of this world while we can. But unity transcends the temporal and material order, and anchors all that exists in Love itself. This perceptual shift therefore requires a complete reorientation of identity and of value.

The good news I think is that we each have a heart, a heart that has never forgotten unity, a heart that knows the way. And as our hearts and minds wrestle within us, and as events wash over us and we respond to them, as circumstance churns us up anew, as we cling to the known and subsist on what we find there, and as we gain or lose little by little over the course of our lives and watch those around us gain and lose, still the heart does not forget. I’ve heard people say that if God and the Judgment Day and all of that aren’t real, then nobody really loses by having gotten on board with the idea. But if it’s all real, then look how much is gained: an eternal life on the good side of the line. But this is separateness talking. It’s hogwash, bunk, and bluster. I don’t believe there is a God who requests or demands our allegiance, or that the lives we seek are anywhere but here. We seek to heal the world that is here now, the one we live in today, and that our children live in, and the reason to step across the gap is not that it will be good for you, but that it’s conceivable you do it for everyone. You are everyone, in a sense. You are more powerful than you thought. You carry the hopes of everyone within you. You do it not for your personal self, but for your unified self—for the identity in which we all share, for every mind that still suffers.

So what I believe is quite simple. I believe that Love and unity are real, that the choice for Love is possible, that the world need not be as it is, and that you and I will do this–that we have done this, and that we are here now, to remember what we’ve done.

(And lastly, many thanks to all who’ve stuck around to read these absurdly long posts!)

What I Believe and Why, Part 5

comments 26
Course Ideas / Reflections

[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4]

When I was a boy who needed to be in nearly continuous motion on long summer days, lest I become bored and try to rappel off the porch using a clothesline, or hitch the family dog to my bicycle so we could pretend we lived in a Jack London novel, I went (briefly) to a summer camp about thirty miles east of Birmingham. I was dropped off at the YMCA and a beat-up yellow bus scooped us up and took us out to the country. I always thought there was nothing at that exit except for this camp and its bad pimento cheese sandwiches, but it turned out there was a church on a hill, and down the street and around the corner, a ranch style house where a decade and change later I’d sit around a fire and listen to a Native American elder give teachings.

I don’t remember too many of the stories now, but I do remember some of this elder’s hanbleceya (vision quest) stories, one when a rattlesnake came shortly after he was put up and laid just at the edge of his prayer ties (the boundary of his site) until just before his mentor came to pick him up (several days later), when it slithered away. Another when, after nearly five days without food or water, when he was weakened and slipping away, prayers were made in camp that lifted him back to his feet. There were stories of being taken places and shown things, of receiving gifts and visions that mattered not only to the individual, but to the community. The most important aspect of the event was the feeling it engendered within me: the sensation that this person was in some sort of relationship with the world, with what he described as “the spirits”, with the Creator, and the Earth. I knew nothing about these things but felt a hunger for this call and response with the unknown. Jesus clearly had this, in the stories that were told of his life, and I was excited to find a living example of this type of connection, in the present, and not just in historical accounts.

A few years later I ended up in this elder’s camp up in Maine, where several people were doing hanbleceya, and a year or two later, after being in camp and tending fire and participating in a support role, my heart got the better of me, and I jumped in the frying pan, too. My first experiences in ceremony in general, and with hanbleceya in particular, were intensely difficult. It is impossible, I think, to explain the way that ceremony works, but it is a little like putting your life beneath a magnifying glass. You hardly realize it is happening. What you experience is a heightening of all your inner conditions, a graceful unfolding of your being. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and this process of being peeled open remains in many ways the most “real” thing I ever experienced. It was completely invisible, and yet, it was a subtle accentuation of my desires, withholdings, doubts and dreams that lifted them to the fore where they could be seen consciously and examined.

Instead of being greeted by affirming mystical experiences of the type I’d heard others having, or that I’d read about, my initial encounters were marked by tremendous uncertainty and doubt. By silence. I felt my own cowardice. At times I felt shattered—confused and incapable. While my heart was profoundly committed, my mind couldn’t make sense of it. I had these ideas of Jesus, of Buddhism, of ceremony, of things that felt good and true, and of myself all swirling around. But they didn’t quite align in my head, and I didn’t know, intellectually, if I could give complete trust to the process.

There were a lot of traditions in the hanbleceya ceremony that I initially resisted, and there were some experiences people shared I really couldn’t square with. They felt a little too self-aggrandizing, or fantastic. But there were also people who were close to me that shared beautiful experiences that nearly overwhelmed me with their grace. One person, who was not raised Christian, had a couple of encounters with Jesus while doing vision quest that echoed profoundly in his life. Jesus didn’t want this person to become a Christian; he wanted to help him care for his son while he navigated a difficult divorce. He wanted him to live a little easier, a little fuller, a little less afraid.

Each year that I participated in ceremony the distinctions between the sorts of experiences and encounters that sacred space could hold and those of the world to which I returned afterwards, became increasingly stark. Returning home was literally like moving from a world of color to black-and-white, and the feeling lasted sometimes for several weeks. It was marked by grief, by a strange idleness, by intense dreams, until the doorway closed and the day-to-day returned to prominence. All the most intense dreams of my life that I remember came while this doorway was open.

While I participated in ceremony there was this tension between giving myself as fully as possible, and trying to remain in control of things. What happened is the tension would build to almost a fever pitch prior to the time of ceremony, and then once you were in it you had no choice but to surrender. It was only then that the beauty and love imbued in the entire process would step forward to carry you. Eventually I realized it was there the entire time, every moment of every day, but prior to the moment of complete surrender my mind had this tremendous power to paint over the top of it. That is our daily life for the most part—a mental encrustation, a self-spun narrative overlaid upon what is really active within us. It is really difficult to assess this on our own. I’m not sure we can assess this on our own, really. Not that we need another person necessarily, or a guru or anything, but we need the relationship of heart and mind together. We need what comes through the doorway of commitment and surrender, through a genuine desire to know, and a willingness to be taught. It emerges in its own way, but we must be listening.

The power of the hanbleceya experience for me was the cure it provided to this inner conflict. You can’t really bring yourself to spend two, three, four days at a time, alone in a fixed location in the woods without food or water, if you’re heart isn’t in it. What I discovered was that I instinctively found myself making the time a devotion to everything, to everyone. It was the only approach that felt pure and unselfish in any way, and I needed that purity to summon complete commitment. I think at some level the prayer that is for everything and everyone at once is the only true prayer there is. There are certainly personal prayers, but I found the most fluid encounters with Love, with giving and receiving, came from letting go of everything. In a way I set my life aside for that time; in other ways I never felt more alive than when I did so. When you give of yourself completely, the suffering just fades. You are met with your response. You are carried.

The first year I was put up, it was for one day and one night. It should have been easy, but it was the most difficult of the years that I participated in this ceremony. I had a lot of big ideas for myself. When I came back into camp, utterly defeated and a little shell-shocked, I knew there was no way I would be able to keep my commitment and come back the next three years, building up to four days and four nights of fasting. I knew there were conflicts within myself I didn’t know how to resolve. There were fears and doubts and difficulties I couldn’t see through on my own, and that I wouldn’t be able to endure for such durations. I could hardly stand being alone with myself for more than a few seconds at a time as it was. It was a little like being haunted by my own ghost, by this daunting corona of falsehood that encumbered my persona. In some ways it would be fair to say I hated myself, for getting myself into this pickle in the first place, for not living up to some ideal, for not having taken my foot off the damn gas and just surfed along the top of life with a little lighter touch.

A month later I was in a bookstore and I picked up A Course in Miracles. I recognized immediately the sort of wisdom that would allow my mind to embrace this new experience, and to align with my heart, though I wouldn’t have used such words at the time. Our minds are not wrong in their quest for order and for logic, but without the heart they cannot discern the true from the false. Every perception seems equivalent when weighed by the intellect alone, including those that lead to darkness and isolation. A Course in Miracles was about observing the attachments, meanings and perceptions that we overlay on things, and how they block our ability to connect with the presence of Love.

So for the next three or four years I practiced the teachings of the Course almost daily, and somehow they merged effortlessly with my experiences in the sacred space of ceremony. I discovered a holiness vast enough to hold all of the ideas I’d encountered along the way. It was as if all the technicalities of the various paths or teachings simply lost their attraction, and the purity of each one emerged together. I’m not sure this can be accomplished intellectually; it was more of a melting down in the root of experience that occurred. Much of the mind’s difficulty is with definition, with taxonomy and concepts. These entangle us.

Intellectually I found the principles of the Course held up effortlessly with what I had briefly experienced of Buddhism, and with my ideas of Jesus as a loving being with a non-judgmental and all-embracing view of humanity, and with the Native American teachings into which I’d immersed myself. I felt I had something real in my hands, in my heart, in my mind. Something that could answer any question. But at the same time it was something nearly incommunicable. It’s like you discover a great treasure, but it has no liquidity.

In the closing piece of this series I want to talk about the one core idea that I think puts each of our journeys into perspective, and also gives a rational doorway, or point of entry, into the possibility that Love is real. (I may even say what I believe! Ha!)

A Writing Update: The Wheel Turns

comments 40
Fiction

I’m taking a brief break from the What I Believe series to announce that my short story entitled On a Night in Shelby County was named as an Editor’s Pick in this year’s Literary Contest at Solstice Literary Magazine, and was posted this weekend. I also learned a couple of weeks ago that a story I wrote this spring was a named finalist in this year’s Fiction Contest at Salamander Magazine. So little by little, the wheel turns.

The editors at Solstice were a joy to work with, and really helped bring the most out of this piece. I’ve read all the stories from the last two issues of Solstice over the past month and enjoyed them very much. The stories really are diverse, imaginative and insightful. I feel very fortunate my story found a home there.

Because it is not possible to submit work for review after publishing it on a blog (or any platform really), I’ve been unable to share publicly the writing I’ve been working on this past year and a half or so. So I’m really excited to have the chance to do so now, at least with this one piece. I hope if you have the time you’ll check it out, (and some others, too!), and if you do, I hope you enjoy.

What I Believe and Why, Part 4

comments 36
Course Ideas / Reflections

[Part 1]

[Part 2]

[Part 3]

I realize I’ve been slow in getting to the point. About what I believe. You’ll want a point to all this, I know. Three, four, five parts. At least. You’d be crazy to read it all. It’s clearly a little self-indulgent, but on the other hand I don’t think the what matters so much as the how or why, maybe. The process. The route.

I probably can’t actually tell you what I believe, which is pretty much the same thing as saying, this… this is who I am. I can only try and bring you up to speed with the passing train, so we can have a moment gliding along together that isn’t too herky-jerky. Then you can at least say you have an idea what it’s like on that train. Inside that one car. At least you can say you’ve seen what’s hidden in the corners—the empty wrappers, the broken bottles, the notebooks and scraps of paper piled in heaps, bathed in slatted light. The stranger standing in the doorway, his pitch black profile against the passing world.

Then you’ll get off, the train’ll chug along. I might die believing something a little different than I do today. I might be someone different entirely by then. Belief is dynamic, like gusts of wind swirling around a canyon. But what I’m interested in is the canyon, I think.

I’m listening to my first RL Burnside album while I write this; it’s good train music. The chords are clapping their hands and stomping their feet; the faces inside them are turned up to the sun; the odd cloud is moving perpendicular to the train. Crosswise. The train moves crosswise to the ties, parallel to the rails. Crosswise music drives it along.

I just realized the Black Keys song “Gone So Long” that I love, from their first album, was a recreation of the RL Burnside song “Skinny Woman.” I never knew that, but it’s indisputable. I thought I heard something similar here. Does that mean the Black Keys believe in RL Burnside? I don’t know.

I believe in them both. Check them out. Give them each about 70 seconds and it pretty much comes into focus…

When you hear a thing from several different sources, it tends to lend a little validity to the idea put forth. It’s hard to know sometimes, though, if people are just copying one another and getting nowhere fast. Another thing that happens is a whole system of perception gets built around a core idea or two, and that system becomes as big as the world, and then when something comes along that doesn’t fit you have to try and make sense of the whole thing all over again. Sometimes the system comes down. Rarely. Sometimes you develop a way of explaining a thing that’s different than you originally thought. It’s because you need consistency. You need a view that isn’t fractured and discontinuous.

The idea that Jesus was a good person who meant something good for everyone never left me. But there’s a whole lotta’ crap that got piled on later that doesn’t compute. And then there was this Buddhist idea of illusions. I got myself wrapped around the axle pretty good some days.

I went to the Auburn University swimming pool one afternoon because I thought swimming would be an interesting way to remind my vascular system I was depending on it. My parents had just gotten divorced, within the last year or so, and my father had hit a brick wall when it came to the Church’s compassion. You give your life to an institution and then you wind up an outsider. I remember this moment because I was riding back from the pool thinking swimming wasn’t really going to be my thing, and I was going through some inner philosophical turmoil of sorts, and I was driving past the building where I attend physics class every morning, next to the wooden building that burned down once while we were across the street in the football stadium, and I thought of the line “What God has joined together, let no man separate.” The next thing I thought was that maybe this meant we were truly inseparable, regardless of the shenanigans we pull on Earth. Maybe we were joined from the beginning and any notion of joining or separating here on Earth was a little hokey on our part. I thought maybe we viewed things at the wrong level, somehow.

It was kind of an aha moment for me. A taste of seeing deeply. But it was foggy, too. The thing was, it felt right. Profoundly right. And I decided then and there that my heart was a compass somehow. There were areas its direction broke down, like trying to figure out which interpretation of quantum mechanics made the most sense, but in other areas it gave repeatable results. You can dress a thing up with words any number of ways, but if deep down it rests on an idea that’s in conflict with your heart, you know it. So I decided the truth was true, that it could be dressed up any number of ways on the outside without changing what it really was, that the level at which we viewed things was most often too shallow to be the real thing, and that the heart had some kind of magnetic attraction for the center.

When I was at the water heater plant riding the electric-powered cart through the factory to pick up parts from one of the assembly lines and take them back to the lab, I tried to figure out what else Jesus may have said or done that had been misinterpreted. Somewhere around this time I picked up a book called Return of the Bird Tribes, and it made a big impression on me. I typed up the opening passage once before here , and it’s worth a quick read I think. It might help in terms of synchronizing speeds.

I’m leaving out major tracts here, of course. But I know your good graces are not infinite.

Around this time, either before or after, my mother invited me to a talk that was going to be given back in Birmingham by a Native American teacher. My mother had met a few women at her place of work who traveled each summer to South Dakota to participate in something called a Sun Dance. I had no idea what that was. I decided to attend the talk, and met someone there who quickly became one of those people I deeply admired. And in keeping with my spirit of discovery through immersion, I decided I wanted to know more about what lay inside this person’s stories.

The thing about riding box cars is things fly in through the opening. Sometimes it’s nothing. A dead insect, a blown leaf, or a brochure for a classical music recital where students you didn’t know existed are playing Steve Reich on the marimbas, and you’re there, alone, a little mesmerized. Looking for a date. Steve Reich’s music is like whipping through an alien village. And other times it’s an arrow that flies in. It whistles past and buries itself in the wood behind you. The arrow is followed by a hawk. The bird swoops in so fast you don’t have time to react, perches on the arrow and looks over to the corner of the car at that pile of tattered thoughts. Then looks right at you. It can be hard to meet its eye. Hard to give the accounting of yourself it wants. It has this raw, visceral style of intelligence that’s impossible to ignore, that is disinterested in all your reasons.

That’s kind of what I want to talk about next.

What I Believe and Why, Part 3

comments 31
Reflections

[Part 1]

[Part 2]

When I went to college I entered a time of considerable personal flux. Psychological pressures I’d held at bay by focusing on specific goals came to the fore as the goals themselves began to dissolve. There was a gnawing uneasiness in me that I felt had to be settled before I could state what kind of person I wanted to be, or determine what I wanted to do with my life. But I was also at the time of life in which we were to be enamored of our own potential, aware of all the possibilities. It was a strange and compelling time.

Things happened quickly in my sophomore year. My first truly serious girlfriend and I broke up, I quit the club soccer team, I shifted from physics to engineering, enrolled in the coop program and got a job at a water heater factory where I would work full time every other academic quarter for the next two years to help pay for my education. I spent considerable time in the water heater test lab, tuning natural gas burners for commercial water heaters while trying to convince my new buddy, the Southern Baptist lab technician—a concerned father, husband and provider who skipped the annual strip club outings his other technicians made once in a while—that God would permit homosexuals into heaven. And do so gladly. We had some great discussions. And while all of that was going on, what I was really trying to do was make sense of things. I wanted to know what was truly true.

I met another man at the water heater plant who was kind, a little timid, always willing to help. He steered clear of our philosophical discussions, and once when we talked he warned me you just can’t really know what’s true. He killed himself a year or two later. He was a father. Divorced. He was a good man, obviously dealing with a clinical depression, and it was a sad day for me.

Meanwhile the receptionist to the Engineering group was suspected of having an affair with the VP. There were two other women in the Engineering group, both assistants of some sort. They each listened to their respective boss bemoan certain aspects of his domestic life, and then they compared notes. Several engineers and designers played role playing games on the server during lunch–it was the advent of 3D-like games that offered perspective and firsthand obliteration of zombies with pump action shotguns. Another person I met thought engineers in general were a paragon of entitlement and virtue, particularly the white male ones; he was very obviously bigoted. He was my boss.

My starting point was the awareness that my life had been fairly insular, and that if I was going to learn what was truly true, I had to take into account the ideas people in other cultures, religions and philosophies held dear. I was certainly no better than they were; my past offered no particular or special insights or vantage points. In fact, perhaps the opposite was true. In addition I felt it was necessary to continue expanding my knowledge of what we’d discovered scientifically as well. Science remained thrilling to me, and weighed strongly in my thinking. It was beautiful and profound.

I needed some way to navigate this stage, to process information and understand what was true for me, and I settled on a few core notions. If what was true was true, and no culture or society had a privileged perspective, then clearly the truth was not on the surface. My hypothesis, if you will, was that something was true–(interestingly I once heard a physicist years later state this as Einstein’s premise, that truth must be true, and therefore there must be a consistent way of reframing observations from one vantage point to another). If something was true, it stood to reason that through the filter of human experience differing aspects of that truth must have risen to the fore in various philosophies and cultures. So to put together a picture of what was truly true, I’d have to consider a variety of words and sources, often in a fresh light. I needed to free myself from dogmatic viewpoints so that interpretations were fluid enough to see how things aligned. I reasoned that what science had discovered was universal, but that there were boundaries on the sorts of questions science could test. Science as I understood it had little to say about the validity of an inner life.

A corollary to my thinking was that people were basically good, and intelligent. People in modern times were not more intelligent than people in past times. People had a bad habit of taking things literally when such conclusions weren’t warranted, of becoming close-minded, of needing others to think and believe the way they did. People had a bad habit of fearing differences, of believing they were right and others wrong. The people I most admired were those who were capable of spontaneous kindness and warmth, who were able to explore ideas without becoming defensive and close-minded, without feeling threatened, and who showed genuine concern for others and the world around them. People with confidence and humility at the same time.

The ones I met were lifelines. They came from all sorts of backgrounds and orientations.

I felt that I needed to call my dearest ideas into question. It was easy and enthralling to accept that life on Earth had evolved; easy and good to discount any notion of a God that would condemn homosexuals, or the entire Eastern world, or a divorced person, or the member of any other tribe or persuasion. Easy to discount any notion of a God that would reward violence with treasures in the afterlife. But it was more difficult for me to understand what was left. I knew that millions of people found meaning in systems of thought that didn’t have any God at all, and I decided I wanted to explore that. How did such people orient themselves?

I went to the Auburn University Library and checked out some introductory books on Buddhism. I read them and began to meditate every day. It was difficult at first, particularly as my closet metamorphosis was occurring in full view of a roommate with whom I shared a one bedroom apartment. I sat on the cheap, scratchy carpeting of our living room early in the morning and breathed. My roommate awoke and sidestepped me to chomp on a bowl of cereal at our kitchen table, five feet away. Police sirens went past and the neighbor’s stereo played through the walls. I wanted to understand what was being discussed—this idea of emptiness, of not wanting, of mindfulness. I was struck in particular by a book that described the world as illusory.

What did that really mean?

I rose from the floor and hurried off to my Thermodynamics II lectures. We learned the universe has a direction to it. It wound down, but it never wound up. I read about those guys who measured the blueshift of gamma rays shot down a stairwell at Harvard University, proving Einstein was right, about the cosmic background radiation and the microwave telescopes and the Big Bang and Weinberg’s First Three Minutes, about the way straight lines always followed curves except in our minds, about particles interfering with themselves in quantum physics experiments. The next morning I sat down quietly again and tried to think of nothing at all.

Was there any way to tie these tendrils together? Any way to make sense of my own being? What was a person? A scattershot of DNA? Did a person have a meaningful relationship to the whole, as I’d been taught? What sort of meaning was it? How could our broken world be repaired, so that people didn’t feel obligated to manipulate or deceive one another? To exert power over others? To feel the need to injure or kill those who were different, or threatened an idea?

What I Believe and Why, Part 2

comments 28
Course Ideas / Reflections / Science

[Part 1]

The biggest challenge of my young life was finding my way to a meaningful existence. Like all children I wanted to enjoy myself and have fun, but something about this desire required companions, and from an early age I discovered true companions were hard to come by. My settings as a being have always been oriented towards introspection, and because I was gifted intellectually and also fairly athletic, and perhaps because of other factors, it was not easy to find friends whose own proclivities and sensibilities dovetailed with my own. At any time in my life, my close friends could typically be counted on one hand. And it’s true, of course: at times I was lonely.

In the third grade, after my family moved from Anniston, Alabama to Birmingham, at one point my mother put me on a train to travel back to Anniston to spend three or four days with a good friend I’d made there. My friend David and I did this all through elementary school and into high school—we got together for large chunks of time at one or the other’s house and did everything together, nonstop, for days on end. We invented our own D&D style dice games. We snuck onto the golf course across the street from his house and played frisbee in the morning dew. Sprinting full speed down an open fairway with your head focused on the sky, knowing you could run until your lungs burst without hitting a single obstacle, was an ecstatic experience. We’d go from playing frisbee to playing video games on floppy discs to writing computer programs to conducting mad experiments with those childhood chemistry sets you could get through the mail to playing basketball to whatever.

Those times were precious, but overall a life of meaning was difficult to sustain, and I insulated myself from a strange and uncertain world by focusing most of my attention on playing soccer. That became my identity. I trained nearly every day in my driveway, learned to pass and shoot accurately with either foot, traveled to tournaments, read snippets of all the leagues around the world, went to camps in the summer, watched older kids play, splattered the walls of my room with posters of European stars. I immersed myself in it and soon my handful of friends were those with whom I played soccer. My teachers saw potential in me, and used to encourage me to do different projects at school—they thought I was languishing or something by doing well but not applying myself—but I wasn’t interested at all. I could have given two hoots about DNA. Chemistry and biology were painful, but necessary parts of the curriculum.

And then I took physics in high school, and I loved it.

It was probably the first science class I took that wasn’t about memorization, first of all. It was about problem-solving. Physics was about the regularity of the universe. You typically start out with the study of dynamics: cannon ball flight, bouncing balls, balls traveling around curved tracks and spinning wheels. What you discover is that by following the energy content of a given projectile, you can predict with sublime accuracy what it will do next. You discover the universe behaves as if it is able to maintain an astoundingly complex energy accounting system, active simultaneously and instantaneously at all points and upon every physical interaction at every scale. Energy can transform from one type into another–a thrown ball can scuff the ground and slow down, but some of the energy associated with that lost velocity will become a spinning motion, and some will become heat–but the energy itself cannot be created or destroyed. This was incredible to me. I loved it.

I tried to think in writing this piece what the big deal about that was, and I think at its most essential and most visceral, it was the realization that the universe exhibits a particular type of causeless order. The rules that allow us to perform the energy accounting of moving objects are not reducible to other physical necessities, meaning, the universe is clearly the way that it is but there is no obvious reason it should be that way and not some other way. That is what I mean by suggesting its nature is causeless. It’s most essential qualities cannot be explained. So while our universe exhibits a particular type of order, I could certainly imagine others.

Consider a universe consisting of twenty bouncy balls in a box. Because the balls have consistent properties, they bounce reliably and consistently. That is the universe in which we live. We do not think it strange, for instance, that a bouncy ball doesn’t suddenly change its mass or its elasticity. All the bouncy balls in the universe you and I live in have the mass that they have, except for what off-gases into the atmosphere when the sun shines on them, or what smears onto the concrete when we throw them as hard as we can against the pavement. They don’t spontaneously get more or less dense while they’re sitting on the shelf. And the conservation of energy applies in our universe applies to each bouncy ball, individually and collectively, and instantaneously, all the time. Because bouncy balls don’t change their intrinsic properties, and because the energy accounting of the universe applies to all bouncy balls, wherever they go, we can predict exactly how they will behave. When two balls collide, there is one and only one outcome possible, and we can predict exactly what it will be if we know enough about the velocity, elasticity, spin, texture and weight of the balls before they collide.

Appropriate responses are awe, fascination, getting up from your chair and shouting “Eureka!”—“Hot Damn!” being a reasonable alternative—or shrugging your shoulders. Some people don’t find this all that remarkable really. I thought it was astounding. What if, in another world, the conservation of energy only applied to the set of bouncy balls, and not to each one individually? What if, for instance, bouncy balls randomly became heavier or lighter without changing their velocity when this change happened. That would mean they suddenly had more or less energy essentially. So, all of a sudden a bouncy ball traveling at 60 miles per hour (roughly 30 meters per second) goes from an inertial weight of 1 ounce to 1 pound. What if it did this randomly? That would be a little beguiling. What if at the instant this occurred all the other nineteen balls in the box went from weighing an ounce to weighing a fraction of an ounce, so that the energy accounting was always and instantaneously preserved for the set?

Such a universe would also exhibit a conservation of energy, only it would do so a little differently than ours. That’s just not how our universe works, but there’s no reason it couldn’t. So physics for me was a revelation: we could see the character of our universe. And our universe was remarkably, astoundingly consistent and reliable. That tickled my fancy pretty good.

Hot damn!

You either grasp this moment of awe, or you don’t. Either existence itself is mind-blowing when you stop to think about it, or it is not. The notion that things all around us—obvious things, things we take for granted because they are the given properties of this world—are utterly incredible and incomprehensible even as they are perfectly ordered and consistent, is not a notion that fries everyone’s circuits. As I progressed through adolescence, it fried mine.

But physics had little to offer when it came to living a meaningful life. Physics, in fact, could not be used to derive meaning at all. At least for me. If I said, maybe this unique type of order is evidence of a loving God, and I tried to stitch together the givens of my childhood with the givens of my adolescence, I found I was trespassing in both directions. I was reading into things suppositions that simply weren’t there, that weren’t supported. And I could understand why.

Science, as much as I loved it, and dragged myself out of bed for a 7:30 AM Physics lecture for five days a week for each week of my freshman year of college–talk about a ridiculous freshman year–had nothing to offer when it came to feeling split down the middle, or overcoming my depression, or understanding how people of various beliefs could ever achieve a peaceful world. It had nothing to say about the psychology of empire-building, or racism, or the sexual objectifying of persons, or having an internship at a water heater factory that left me with the distinct feeling of being a rat in a cage, turning that little wheel. The things the world valued were hollow. The world felt magnificent at its core, but sick at every point. An indulgent wasteland. A trap that you couldn’t escape. A vortex of shortsightedness and selfishness in which a single person was futile.

I didn’t really belong to any of the worlds I was in. I was out of place, uncertain, and confused. I had little choice but to formulate and seek to answer a deeper set of questions.

What I Believe and Why, Part 1

comments 46
Reflections

I’ve decided to embark on a series of posts in which I explore what I believe, and why, and in which I will do my best to make an honest accounting of my perspectives on things, as well as describe the experiences that have led to the formation and solidification of particular views to which I ascribe. I’ve had a number of discussions with bloggers online in which I’ve attempted to offer what I feel is, in some ways, a unique viewpoint, but it is simply too difficult to offer much in a few comments to a particular post. So I thought it may be interesting to take a somewhat more thoughtful look at where I am, and how I’ve gotten there.

At the time of my conception my parents were Catholic. I believe that my mother was involved in a Cursillo group, which I do not know much about, other than to say that I sense it is a somewhat mystical and perhaps marginalized movement within the church to transcend rote dogma and morality, and focus on the sanctity of personhood, and of living a life of Love. My father grew up in a small town in rural Nebraska in which the church served as far more than an instrument of morality; it was the communication network that stitched the farming community together, one of the primary means by which persons in a small community understood the needs of others and how best to meet them, and so it was at least in part an aspect of citizenry almost. The church provided aid to those who needed it, linked those who could afford to help with those who needed it, and provided a certain global orientation to the community that kept folks rowing in a common direction.

I offer this to note that I was born into a Christian family, but also to note that it was a unique one. My mother could not have children after nearly dying when I was born, and my parents chose to adopt to expand our family. One of my sisters is an African American from a family in Ohio that likely had been on welfare for multiple generations. My other sister is from South Korea, and her mother was a pianist who for various social pressures could not keep a child. So we were a family of many races, and we lived in the deep south of the United States, in Alabama, from when I was a first grader until I graduated from college. As a child you think what you know is perfectly normal, but we were far from it.

So the idea of God was present in my life from my earliest memories. I have memories of being a three year old and saying nighttime prayers with my father in which I was encouraged to ask the guardian angels to position themselves around the house. I always asked that one take a station on the roof, one occupy the backyard, and one keep an eye on the front door. I also asked how they could be protecting other people, too, if they were at our house, and was told that angels can be everywhere they are needed, and they can answer everyone’s prayers at once. I thought that was pretty awesome. I never felt awkward asking for their guardianship after that. It felt pretty natural, like hanging out with friends.

Three decades later when my wife and I were take a tai chi class together, in a private session with the instructor, the instructor said to me once, “There is a really big angel who is near you often. He has a big sword. He watches over you.” I was an adult of close to thirty years old at the time, and it was one of those unsolicited moments when time collapses, and of course, I felt it was one of those angels I had spoken to every night when I was little. Since my name is Michael, I always felt a kindredness with Archangel Michael, but who is to say? Is this real? My tai chi teacher didn’t know anything about me when she offered this vision of hers. We’d never talked about angels, and I seldom thought about them save for certain times when I was in difficulty and remembered the idea of asking for help. I thought it was interesting, though, that this person would come up with this out of the blue.

When I was probably seven or eight years old I was in the car once, riding somewhere with my mother, when I asked: would God really send people to hell? She immediately told me no. God would never do that. God loves every person, she said, and she felt that human beings often projected their fears and judgments onto God, and that the church had many ideas inside of it that were flat out wrong. So I learned from an early age to think for myself, and that it was okay to question anything I was told and to square it with the findings of my own heart. I learned that some Christians have a very simplistic view of things—e.g. they believe the Bible literally—and there are other Christians who don’t believe that at all.

My parents chose to send me to Catholic grade school for most of my elementary education, although I did spent three or four years in public schools as well. They felt that the quality of education in the Catholic schools was good, and it was important to them that I learn the Christian catechism, even though I wasn’t obligated to believe in particular ideas that did not square with the idea of a loving God.

When I was in the eighth grade, Catholic children spent the year preparing for the sacrament of Confirmation, which is when you make a decision to affirm your upbringing and say that, yes, you would like to be a member of the Catholic church. My father told me I didn’t have to do it and that it was important that I truly felt within my own heart it was something I wanted to do. He felt that really it was probably too early in my life to make a decision like that, so he wanted me to know that he and my mother wouldn’t put pressure on me to move forward. But I thought about it a little, and I felt I wanted to do it. I think he was glad of my choice, and of course there was an unspoken pressure. It was one of those moments when I wasn’t certain I wanted to be Catholic, per se, but I did want to commit to being connected to a loving God somehow. So it was a choice that I made.

That said, I never enjoyed going to church each Sunday. As soon as I left for college, and was living more or less on my own, I chose not to attend mass anymore, but I did continue to yearn for a deeper understanding of what it meant to be a human being, in a world supposedly created by a loving God.

I had many, many questions. Of course I did, I was a physics major.

The Ultimate Act of Generosity

comments 30
Course Ideas / Reflections

What I value most in the present time is the willingness to understand one another, in the absence of value judgments, efficacy assessments and deconstructions of validity, and I find this is an increasingly precious commodity. I see a lot of derision with respect to those who are different, a lot of over-simplistic explanations for another person’s views that allow for ready dismissal, and a lot of opinion masquerading as obvious fact or truth.

The human interaction that pains me is when I witness one human being scoff at the mention of another, as if to say, “He’s one of those types.”

In suggesting not only that there are reasons worth understanding at work in the hearts and minds of people who voted for President Trump, but that without understanding and honoring them we are stating a willingness to lose another human being—to accept and perhaps even embrace a drawn battle line—the tables are quite frequently turned and I’m made into a supporter of President Trump. The retort is that if you don’t draw the line somewhere, you’re sort of a fool. There is always something so valuable, so sacred, so necessary on the line that a concession cannot be made. Not for that. Or the assertion is made that a particular viewpoint is so ignorant, so hateful, so ridiculous, the people who share it don’t matter. They’re actually the problem.

It works the other way, too. I use President Trump as an example because it is currently applicable. But the precise same statements could be made about some who harbor a contemptuous dislike of supporters of the Progressive movement, or of the libertarians, or the greens. Or of those who believe in a particular religion, or of those who do not. Or of those who think a particular policy at the office is a good one, or of those who do not. Or of those who lobby for a particular subsidy, law, tariff, right-of-way, public good, or what have you.

What is lost in the shuffle here is whether or not the loss of a person matters—because I make no mistake about this, the closure of one heart to another human is an attempt to notch a person out of the world. It is a profound rift, a scar that cuts through all of us. This statement doesn’t compute in every worldview, and is not necessarily defensible, but it exists at the heart of who I am. I wouldn’t be the same person without this understanding.

The root of the difficulty I see is that most people are afraid of experiencing what it would be like to be different than they are. Most of us have a core belief or two from which we cannot depart without strenuous effort and the overcoming of considerable inner difficulties. Everything about it feels wrong. We feel that if we let go of this particular view and take on another’s, we might not come back. We’d expose ourselves to extreme vulnerability. We’d have to brain wash ourselves, and we don’t want to do that.

And this gets us to what I think is the crux of the matter: we are all profoundly conscious of our ability to be deceived, or of having been deceived, or of seeing another’s self-deception in plain view. The innermost, core stance from which we are unwilling to waiver is our selected defense against deceit. Without it, we would truly be lost. And what value could possibly come from opening ourselves to such recklessness as becoming deceivable once again? In fact, seeing that it is the others who are deceived, we can feel pity for them, or anger at their inability to think and assess courageously, or we can distrust those whose trustworthiness has been broken by the fact they are so obviously deceived to begin with.

What I wish to suggest is that so long as our personal protections against the idea of deception prevent the ultimate act of generosity, we will continue to labor within a broken world. The belief in the efficacy of deception ties into a system of ideas that is difficult to capture in a single blog post—to misplaced notions of what power is, of what value is, of what is at stake in any moment, and of who we ourselves are—but I believe it all stems from the fundamental conceit that we are truly separate. This idea is the plague that has touched us all. In separateness I can win at your expense. In separateness it is reasonable to conclude the world would be better without certain elements in it. In separateness, what is valuable is temporary and unstable. I can’t prove these beliefs are arbitrary, because the world as we know it is based upon them, and reinforces their validity.

But the world is fluid.

What I can offer is the notion that in unity, deception simply does not exist. Not only does it have no efficacy or power to secure a desired outcome, it simply is not possible. Examples to the contrary may arise in each of us, in our thoughts and feelings, in our past experience, in the inventory of suppositions and interpretations that collectively give rise to the idea of who we are. We may resist this idea, but if I was to ask one thing of anyone in these times, it would be this: would you give the ultimate gift of generosity to the person next to you? Would you give yourself for even an instant, with the whole of your being—in a wholehearted way—to the possibility that our safety lies only in our defenselessness?

It will be difficult, I know. I know. Shit. I am scared, too.

These are the X Games of the Heart. We all fall down. What can we do? Pick the person next to you up. Tell them you need them there beside you when you point the tip of your board over the edge. Tell them you can’t do this without them.

As In Writing, So in Life

comments 31
Course Ideas / Reflections

Writing fiction well is intractably difficult.

You begin with maybe one or two bricks at the ready, stand facing an unruly forest that is neither for nor against you, but possesses all the density and might of any previously uncontested wilderness, and you are armed only with the vague feeling that a Taj Mahal-like structure of beauty and possibility is alive inside you. There really is no way to know where to place the first brick, but you must place it so that another is given to you. So you look down, and you place it, noting you have just interrupted the path of an ant.

After the first day’s work you have a knee-height wall snaking between the trees but going nowhere just yet. In truth, it has gotten away from you. The first brick led naturally to a second, which led to a third, and one thing led to the next, and it all felt wonderful—just laying brick felt majestic—but you can see now you must really take stock of things. Your wall is headed towards a copse of three trees that surprise you with their beauty, but also are quite simply in your way.

But in the way of what?

You will have to grapple with the relation of your wall to the land, you realize. Not just to those three particular trees, but to all of the trees. They are ideas and possibilities. You will have to uproot a few of them, incorporate others into your wall perhaps, prune a few and leave still others untouched, but you will have to do so with some intelligence. The truth is that you couldn’t have known even this until you took a few bricks out of thin air and laid them down, let them combine their finite parcels of being into something new, a something imbued with the suggestion of something even more. You can stand on that wall and look around now, and see this forest differently than ever before, but the wall is not good enough as of yet. It has served its purpose, and led you forward, shown you what before was not possible to see.

But now you must begin anew. You may keep a particular section, but overall it must yield to the flux of discovery.

In his book The Art of Fiction John Gardner wrote that, “What the beginning writer needs, discouraging as it may be to hear, is not a set of rules but mastery…” Mastery is the power of getting everything right at once, and doing so naturally, as if it could not have been any other way. What I’ve described as intelligence in the paragraph above is not intelligence at all, but feeling. According to Gardner, “Art depends heavily on feeling, intuition, taste. It is feeling, not some rule, that tells the abstract painter to put his yellow here and there, not there, and may later tells him that it should have been brown or purple or pea-green… his instinct touches every thread of his fabric, even the murkiest fringes of symbolic structure.”

Can it be, when we are beginning, that our feelings are wrong? If masterful work does not flow from our pens, is it because our instincts are inadequate? It may seem this way, but it is a false and debilitating conclusion.

This same difficulty overtakes in our lives all the time. We sense we must trust our hearts—that we cannot navigate by logic alone—but this path leads us so often into difficulty. We find ourselves in moments that are prickly with doubt, that awaken forgotten pain, that do not possess the grace and wonder of our beginning. We find ourselves in moments in which we seem to be losing. It is as if we are inspired, and we dash forth in heed of the call, only to find ourselves caught in a cauldron of despair.

When I sit down to write, this happens on recurring basis. At least once or twice during the process of writing every story I’ve written in the past year, I’ve reached a point at which I simply had no way to proceed, no idea how to proceed, and no hope of having one. The joy that brought me to the paper has vanished. And we cannot produce beautiful art by thinking our way through it, any more than we can lead a great life by following all the rules.

Gardner wrote that, “[t]he first and last important rule for the creative writer, then, is that though there may be rules (formulas) for ordinary, easily publishable fiction—imitation fiction—there are no rules for real fiction, any more than there are rules for serious visual art or musical composition.”

I’ve realized recently how similar the processes of writing and life are for me. We sense the Taj Mahal of goodness, beauty and peace within us, but the process of bringing it forth in the world—the process of being in the world in a way that allows these wondrous instincts of ours to flourish—is intransigent to our will and our rational efforting. We so often feel we are denied. And every effort on our part to reduce this act of living to rules and strategies—to technique essentially—results only in imitation, which is lifeless. Imitation is not living at all, really—nor is it what will move our world into what A Course of Love describes as “the New.”

The New as described in A Course of Love is what I would equate, metaphorically, with masterful writing. According to ACOL, “The new is not that which has always existed. It is not that which can be predicted. It is not that which can be formed and held inviolate. The new is creation’s unfolding love. The new is love’s expression. The new is the true replacement of the false, illusion’s demise, joy birthed amongst sorrow. The new is yet to be created, One Heart to One Heart.” The New is masterful, wholehearted expression.

But how are we to learn what cannot be taught or copied?

The answer in both cases is to trust. A core idea of A Course of Love is that we do not learn to be who we are. We cannot, in fact. Who we are is revealed to us as we build our walls through the forest, and as we, and others, respond to what we’ve done. Trust allows us to witness creation without the false premise of dead ends. With trust we are freed to shift naturally, to pull the wall up and try again, and to discover the wall we built has led us to a place we hadn’t known existed before.

Gardner says simply that a writer must practice. She must read, write and repeat. She must be immersed in the art of it and care for what she is doing. But he also says that trust in one’s own creative instincts is one of the two most important factors to a writer’s creative authority. We need this trust to overcome the difficulty that arises when a moment of inspiration produces a structure that is untenable. We need this trust because it implies the way forward already exists, and is already within us. Our feelings and instincts are not wrong. They do not lead us astray, but we don’t live, or create, or dream in straight lines. The process of creating something from nothing depends on our ability to respond artfully to what is, to let our feelings guide us from yellow, to purple, to pea-green. And back to yellow. We cannot do this while we think any change to what we’ve done implies we were wrong about something.

To experience the power and wonder of who we are, and to give the Taj Mahal of grace and truth within us to the world, we have to trust. And I think this simple truth can be found in every sort of creative practice there is, including the art of life itself.

The Same, Only Different

comments 33
Course Ideas / Creative / Flash Fiction

What do you think the future will be like, Hafiz?

I was thinking about fusion-powered hovercrafts and molecular sequencing technologies that could produce cheeseburgers from a teaspoon of good dirt. Redrawn political borders, bullet trains that crossed the ocean, and ways to download skills and information directly into your brain. I was thinking about teleportation and glass condominiums floating in the clouds. Something you drank that allowed your body to look whatever age you desired.

Hafiz listened to all these thoughts. I am thinking about beings being in relationship to beings, he said. And gardens full of flowers! It is very exciting indeed.

Yeah, but Hafiz, think how different it could be!

I don’t understand this difference you seek, he said, but I think maybe it is already here. You will see it easily once you realize how every time and every moment is the same.

I just shook my head. Hafiz the Buzz Killer! I said as I punched him in the shoulder. I laughed. Jeez! Can’t you give me one moment to dream my own dream. You’re always on me with this stuff. What’s wrong with hovercrafts?

Hafiz laughed with me then. Like one of those guys in the martial arts movies you know is about to unleash a shit storm of chi on you with an unwavering smile on his face. Ha ha ha ha ha. Ha ha ha. Ha-hah-hah-hah ha ha. Then you keel over and blood trickles out of one nostril.

You done there, big guy? What’s wrong with hovercrafts, Hafiz? Answer the question.

Nothing, he said. What’s wrong with beings being in relationship to beings?

I sighed. You know I hate it when you do this, Hafiz.

I am sorry, my friend. It is just that sometimes I feel awkward when we talk about fashion. But I know you love it. Let me try again. I am picturing many, many beings with beautiful faces and colors. These beings are seated in a tremendous gallery of fusion-powered space suits on the dark side of an asteroid, each one of them enjoying his or her most idyllic garden of virtual reality, unique in every way to their personal predilections and glandular desires. They each picture one another in the setting of their choice. They are able to converse in this way, but they can become any species of being and any form of consciousness they would like while meeting one another in these virtual realms. Their suits have built-in aromatherapy generators that turn starlight and space dust into warm tea and the scent of geraniums. How am I doing, my friend?

Don’t take this the wrong way, Hafiz. But I don’t think you’re getting it.

No, he replied. I guess I’m probably not.