Choice and Consequence Part 3: Reality vs Image

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Course Ideas / Reflections

Part 2 of the series is here.

When I was a child my parents had a painting that fascinated me. It depicted a dinner table with countless guests on either side that tapered to a point and disappeared into infinity. My parents were Roman Catholic at the time and I believe it was a metaphorical image of heaven. I remember asking, “How far does it go?” and being told, “Forever.” Which is all well and good until you actually do the math, and divide by zero, and try with the whole of your being to understand the idea of “forever.” If you do it right, this sort of thing can produce the visceral sensation of wonder—a certain flutter in the body.

This is a glimpse of truly abstract awareness, an awareness unbounded by particularity. We glimpse it after the fact, just as the effort to comprehend infinity cashes out into the palpable feeling of curiosity, mystery, and awe. What was that?

Years later I was driving home from college one afternoon and for whatever reason contemplating what it might be like to awaken from a field of absolutely nothing. First I tried to imagine nothing at all, which is a supreme challenge itself. No time. No space. And then a speck of awareness emerges from this nothing and realizes, I am. It’s another case where words cannot really convey the profundity. But if you spend time in contemplation on this, I think it is possible to experience that little heart-flutter of wonder that comes with the realization, I am real.

Imagine now this mote of awareness realizes it is all that is or will ever be. It is not isolated, or alone, or in one place and not another, because that would be to suggest there is something outside of it. And there’s not. This awareness is it, the beginning and the end, the content of everything. It is the whole. It has no needs, no lacks, no deficiencies. There is nothing, in fact, it could do to change the nature of what it is, a truth both astonishing and good. It is unassailable, unchanging, unaffected. It is nothing and everything. Just being—albeit with ever-deepening layers of self-discovery, for there’s quite a bit packed into everything and nothing.

These thought experiments are not intended to be decisive in any way. The primordial state of being is not one any of us can wholly grasp, parse intellectually, or come remotely close to experiencing in its fullness. But we are “of this” Source. We are extensions of the only existence there is. The pure potential of being, a reality that can never change or be changed or threatened, is the identity we ultimately partake of and share.

Next, imagine this pure field of existence one day becoming more of itself by giving and receiving itself. There are so many things that cannot be explained in mechanistic terms that I won’t try. But suppose the pure field of being discovered it could “recreate the experience” of discovering itself by becoming more of itself. This is not to be taken literally as these ideas can only be spoken of in a sort of mythical form, but we might imagine the primordial state of being could, for instance, have a child. This child would be a new sort of fullness within the whole. The primordial state of being is the child, of course. But also, the child is new, a new mind in perfect union with the whole and yet capable of its own thoughts, experiences, etc. There is paradox here that cannot be explained. There is relationship without division. This child is not the whole, but it is not separate from it either.

Each and every such “child” exists in perfect union with the whole of being. If you ask it who it is, it will reply that it is the primordial state of being, of course, for what else is there to be? There is nothing, for instance, this child keeps secret from the whole, nothing it knows or partakes of the whole does not, nothing held apart, and though there is a uniqueness to this child’s being, a “here” to another child’s “there,” these exist in a way of absolutely undiminished mutual knowing. And the whole experiences all of it simultaneously.

Something like this is the nature of reality, I believe. There is nothing yet for us to call “physical” and nothing with a particular “form.” Just a given and received mutuality of being that regenerates and expands the basic and utterly joyful moment of self-discovery: the moment when we discover the wild truth that existence exists, and we’re it.

So when I say consciousness is fundamental, I mean that some infinitely realized form of being holds every aspect of existence in and as itself. This purely abstract beingness extends perpetually into every aspect of existence and receives unto itself every aspect of existence in return. It is not susceptible to change, to threat, to cessation, to fatigue, or to any limit. And when I say that the starting point of our thought system is either reality or image, it is reality if the living presence of the one primordial state of being is felt and known to us as the beginning and end of who we are.

Turning now to the possibility of image, we have to look at the container of experience in which we find ourselves—this world and these bodies—and consider how it may have come to be. The basic change that took place somehow, somewhere along the way, was the movement of being into form. The Buddha, in his brilliance, elected not to speak of these things, largely because of how easily we become bogged down in digressions and mechanisms and hypothetical vehicles of experience when, really, none of this will ease our suffering. But I wish to continue with the story for one simple reason: the story may inspire an appreciation for what is possible. Things can be different than they are, in truly good and beneficent ways.

A few things are obvious about this movement into form. The first is that something went wrong. It helps to be honest about this. A lot of things going on are not so great and haven’t been for quite some time. It’s helpful to know that what causes us suffering is reversible, though, and also, that the reason suffering persists in the meanwhile is, paradoxically, a form of our protection, and one that will disappear the instant it is no longer required to protect us. (It’s hard to fathom that in a benign universe certain conditions conducive to our suffering might be allowed to subsist, as a form of protection, but this is so and will be the next post in the series I think.)

There’s a lot to unpack there and I probably got ahead of myself, but I want to explain “what happened” in two ways I believe are equally valid. The first is that moving from a formless, timeless, free-flowing primordial state of being into a concretized, constructed format of experience with rules and limitations was overwhelming. Imagine a virtual reality scenario where this effortless, never-before-threatened awareness achieves full immersion into a reality in which suddenly it seems there is the possibility of loss. If this awareness forgets to breathe it dies. If it scrapes its leg and gets an infection, it dies. Others die. It’s all-consuming to just stay warm, gather food, learn to communicate, wash, rest, etc., etc. This is an over-simplification, but the point is that somewhere along the way the virtual reality became so predominate the original reality was forgotten. It was dimmed. A shift occurred from identification with the primordial state of being to identification, by each “one” of us, with a particular biological form. And this changed everything.

We can consider this transformation through another lens: our choice to experience what it would be like to be “on our own.” Imagine you have Aladdin’s lamp, and you have the power to have any wish imaginable granted, and you said, “This primordial state of being is all I’ve known; I wonder what it would be like to be separate from it!?” And poof! The wish is granted. (The experience is given but not the reality of it). From our current vantage, we have near-zero concept of the power of our creative decision-making at the time of this choice, or of the intensity of the consequences. To go from a perfect and unassailable fluidity of being to a realm in which the unlimited communication with all existence that we’ve always and only ever known is just GONE, is a blow. It hurts. It’s very difficult to comprehend this sort of loss–just as hard as it is to see the perfection of this response to the request.

Let me circle back to something profoundly important: the experience of being separate was granted, but this did not change the nature of reality. It couldn’t because the heart of reality, the primordial state of being, is simply unchangeable. There is nothing that can arise outside of it, and nothing that can stand apart from it. So there is only one way to experience what is not real: it must be imagined.

Whether we consider it an innocent sensory overload that led to this, or a profoundly powerful (and innocent) choice that was instantly granted—both of which I think are right in a sense—we lost communication with the primordial state of being and found ourselves in an unprecedented situation: the virtual reality was all that appeared to exist. We were able to experience life apart, even if we could never truly be apart. But also . . . we inadvertently wandered into a room without an exit.

To be separate is to have no power but one’s own. You take Humpy-Dumpty and shatter him, and which piece is the one that gets to say, “Nah, let’s go back”? There isn’t one. The power of the original choice came from unity, and is not present in a mind that believes in the experience of separation. The choice to experience separateness comes with the consequence that the very power that made such a choice possible must be unavailable. If it was available, we wouldn’t be experiencing separateness! So it’s the original catch-22. To have an image at the root of one’s thought system is to believe in the experience one is having of what it’s like to be separate from the primordial state of reality.

The way out is to choose anew, of course, but this requires releasing our beliefs in the world we have made: this virtual reality we are experiencing. You see, this world is the product of our choice, and we’ve always believed in what we’ve made. We never had reason to do otherwise because prior to this experiment with form all that we felt or offered or gave was the timeless content of the primordial state of being. It was all there was. There were no perpetually changing forms, no dance of maya. The profound difficulty we face is that we must concede the world we’ve made isn’t the one we truly want, and that a return to awareness of our union with the primordial state of being offers all that has been lost.

But it’s a harrowing choice because from the near side it looks like the choice to be nothing. It looks like giving up the only life we know. That’s not what it is, however, and when I talk next time about the protections that have been extended to us, I’ll touch also on the transformation of form. Because what’s before us is not the choice to go back or not, but the choice to experience form in a new way—no longer as the vehicle of our choice for separation, but as the means of creating new avenues for the expression of the one reality we have always been and forever will be.

Choice and Consequence Part 2: Prelude to a Story

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Course Ideas / Reflections

Part 1 of this series is here.

I think I was a twinge unclear last time, so let me begin with a slight reset. We are each absolutely and without doubt unique. The network of capabilities, talents, inclinations, perspectives, beliefs, desires and experiences that make each of us who we are exist in no one else but us. This is so. What I’d hoped to convey is not that the possibilities for individual expression are constrained, but that the very root of any thought system—though the flowering of it may indeed be unique—can only and ever be one of two things. Ever.

(Period.)

(Full stop.)

The root of self-expression and perceptual processing is either reality or image.

Now, before attempting to unpack this in detail, let me assert one corollary: Ultimately—no if’s, and’s or but’s about it—there is only reality at the root of who we are, and there is nothing we can do about that. No choice, no thought, no action of ours can ever change our given nature, and this is the source of both our freedom and our eternal protection. We are free to imagine (and experience the consequences of) alternatives, but every alternative to the truth and reality of who we are is but an image. From this perspective there’s just one alternative—image—which can assume quite a varied array of forms.

So yes, choice is at the root of all that we experience, but this is not the sort of “conscious” choice we make every day, like the choice of what toppings to have on our pizza, or what clothes to wear, or what field of study to explore, or who to work for, or who to vote for, or any of the myriad other choices we generally think we’re making. The choice at the root of our experience is a very deep choice, an old choice, and I would like to suggest—at some level, even—an inherited choice. It is a choice most of us may never actually make unless we work with deliberate, truly conscious attention and heartfelt desire—both together—to make anew.

It’s almost time, now, for a story. Before I begin, though, let me clarify one point. I suggested last time that it’s simply not possible to have a neutral view on consciousness—a view without consequences—and by extension, I should add that it’s not possible to come to a view on consciousness “after the fact.” We can’t bring consciousness to bear on the set of facts we’ve assembled (through the vehicle of consciousness) to then make an objective determination of what consciousness is. It’s just not possible to make a study of consciousness that excludes the choice about what consciousness is at the outset, and I’m okay with this. It is simply our lot. We have to pick one: consciousness is the root of reality, or it isn’t.

There will not be much, if anything, that is truly new in this series of posts, except for the fact that what is said will be offered through the unique proposition that is me. As a result, it will be said in a unique way, and by extension, it may be heard in a unique way. This is my hope. I want us to be honest when we discuss these topics, because like I said last time, “the content of our consciousness is the single most decisive factor in the trajectory of human events, the conditions of the non-human world (at least presently), [and] the quality of life generally on this planet.” This stuff absolutely matters. And so before I tell a story that’s already been told (in my own way), I’d like to be frank about one more point: I have a goal in writing this series of posts. I do. I have a bias, a desire, a longing, a hope, and yes, a need.

I know that not everyone views themselves and the world the way that I do. At the level of “conscious” choices we make about food, capitalism, airlines, immigration, sexual orientation, entertainment, relationships, etc., I believe respect for all creeds and pathways is paramount. Along these lines, when it comes to the topic of consciousness, I would like us to admit one thing to one another: at the present time, with current knowledge, there is no objectively correct answer to the question of what consciousness is or how it originated. On the level of intellectual reasoning and phenomenological evidence alone there is no definitively provable “fact of the matter” about what consciousness is or how it began.

This isn’t to say there isn’t a reality of the matter. It’s just to say there isn’t an externally conveyable fact of the matter. To the point at the outset of this post: we have the freedom to experience what is not so, not the freedom to determine what is so. From here, in the next post, I am going to (re)tell a story—based on the notion that consciousness is the root of reality—about how we got into the predicament we’re in, and how we can move past it. This story will illumine the distinction between reality and illusion that I introduced above, and relate it to this notion of consciousness, and will introduce notions about free will and physical determinism that I think will clarify how both can be “true” together.

Choice and Consequence Part 1: An Introduction

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Each of us occupies a construct of memory, belief, identity and meaning that not only generates the sense of self we require to meaningfully function as individuals, but generates our picture of the external world as well. I often call this construct a worldview. It is an active perceptual process within each of us that works continuously to sustain, protect and strengthen the idea at its root. And while it may seem there are a great many such ideas possible—billions if we consider that each human being on planet Earth must have one—the reality is there are only two. Exploring this in detail will be one of the purposes of this series of posts.

“Worldview” is a term I often use that is central to how I think about things but that I’ve not taken the time to explore in detail. I also speak of “thought systems,” “the perceptual stance of separation,” and “unity,” as well as other similar terms with limited explanation. As I hope to show, a great deal hinges on them—everything, in fact. I don’t believe it’s hyperbole, for instance, to suggest that the content of our consciousness is the single most decisive factor in the trajectory of human events, the conditions of the non-human world (at least presently), or the quality of life generally on this planet. It thus behooves us to consider carefully what this extraordinary gestalt of awareness is and how it functions.

The future we create together not only depends upon the content of our consciousness, but the specific ranges of possibility that lie before us are tied to our interpretation of this natural aspect of our being. Meaning two things: there is ultimately no neutral perspective on the subject—no view of consciousness can be said to be free of causative implications to one’s life and the lives of those around them; and the experiential outcomes available to us depend upon our view of this subject. Views of consciousness, in other words, live at the very root of our individual and collective worldviews, and inform all the perceptual processes that follow.

This series will touch on perspectives I know others prefer to what I will ultimately suggest here, so let me say at the outset that while I think the subject matter here is of profound importance, the intent is to explore the possibility that largely hidden choices at the root of our self-constructions have consequences. It is not to deny the fact that other views may also be logically consistent, attractive and possessive of strong explanatory or predictive capabilities. In fact, part of what I wish to do is suggest that it is possible for us to collectively open up new, more constructive, nurturing and life-centered ways of being without discarding anything we may have encountered along the way that is truly valuable.

This series will in many ways tell a story, a narrative explanation for the way things are and the way they might be. Such expositions have the connotation of being false, fictitious, made-up. We’ve been trained to find out what really happened. But as we’ll see, even this insistence is an artifact of a particular worldview—a choice made about the nature of the world, what it is and how it unfolds, and who we are. There’s just no escaping the fact we cannot begin until we have chosen. Choice, in fact, is the beginning…

Taking It Lightly

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Course Ideas / Reflections / Science

Over time I’ve come to respect the fact that linking my wonder at scientific discoveries to the knowledge of my heart is risky business. It’s tantalizing, for instance, to imagine that some marvel of the natural world is related to, or evidence for, a proposition about the ultimate nature of being—but taken seriously it never quite works.

To “take it seriously” is to imagine that some stunning natural phenomena is the (ultimate) reality described in various wisdom traditions, and the problem is that this is a false equivalence. It misleads us: Not only is the ultimate reality of our wisdom traditions desiccated by its reduction to transient form, but the fact that a beguiling natural phenomenon reminds us of a principal claim about the nature of ultimate reality doesn’t mean the whole kit and kaboodle of a particular cultural or religious tradition goes with it. Experiments with entangled particles can be framed as evidence for the existence of a profound, underlying web of connections at the heart of reality, but does this vouch for the existence of the Hindu god Ganesh?

No, it doesn’t. And this is one problem with attempts at a working syncretism of scientific modalities with religious or spiritual traditions. Another is that interpretations of scientific findings in terms of what they suggest about the fundamental nature of reality can be confusing and paradoxical. Depending on the eye of the beholder, scientific facts can be used to support many arguments. I remember when nearly thirty years ago I read The Dancing Wu Li Masters, and was amazed at parallels drawn between experiments in quantum mechanics and ideas about reality in various Eastern traditions. I could be mistaken, because it’s been a while, but I remember a central theme being the idea that the quantum mechanics experiments pointed directly to a much deeper, underlying order or connection at the heart of nature. Entangled systems, for instance, were indissoluble wholes that transcended space and time.

But paradoxically, quantum mechanics also suggests that nature is random at her heart. We cannot predict the outcome of any particular quantum event because if the prevalent interpretations of quantum mechanics are correct, the outcomes of individual events are not specifically determined by their histories. We can know the outcome must be one of four states (let’s say), and even know the likelihood of a particular result as compared to another, but the actual outcome (if there is one) is the product of chance alone (again, depending on your interpretation, with this one being prevalent).

To add to this confusion, quantum mechanics is a theory of parts. We can study an entangled system and marvel at its apparent transcendence of time and space, but to do that we must split the universe into the system we are studying . . . and everything else. And because quantum mechanics always requires this split to be applied, we could argue it’s not in fact a theory of wholeness! It’s a theory of perception, perhaps. Further, it’s based ultimately on the notion the universe is made of myriad discrete units. The universe is not a smooth continuum—not one thing at all—but a composite of tiny pieces whose quasi-random movements construct the illusion of our classical world: the good old reliable realm we inhabit of courtside seats, tomahawk jams, and personal fouls.

So what does quantum mechanics really say about things? That they are deeply interconnected as the mystics and sages throughout history would tell us? Or that they are in essence random, discontinuous, and discrete?

The thing is, we don’t have to “take seriously” the idea that scientific discovery and ultimate reality are peers. We shouldn’t, in fact. There’s a much better way to do this, and that is to consider that phenomenal reality is a work of art that cannot help but contain patterns, artifacts, traces, and whispers of what truly is. When we open the page of the universe before us, we discover aspects of what is so—often aspects that paradoxically seem contradictory to one another—but we never encounter the fullness of reality itself. With this mindset, we can marvel at what our ability to interact with the natural world reveals. It’s a bit like sneaking into the house of someone famous when they’re not there, and encountering the myriad revelations encoded into the physical records of their existence.

This can free us from the need to determine if phenomenal reality is truly one thing or another. It may very well be both, without contradiction even, because it’s probably (in the ultimate sense) something more—something capable of subsuming and embodying all of it. The interpretations of quantum mechanics embrace a pretty interesting ensemble of conclusions about reality: that it is inherently random, that it is perfectly pre-determined, that every possible outcome happens somewhere, that only one thing ever truly happens but we can’t know it in advance, even that what one person observes in a given instance need not be what another does. Right now, all of these stand on firm scientific footing. They form, ironically, an intellectual superposition of possible truths that is delightfully similar to the physics itself.

But I think they’re all correct when we understand them as perceptual patterns—unique section cuts of the whole. They are views through different-colored glasses. Creation, quite simply, contains all of this. Can there be the appearance of truly profound interconnectedness in a universe incapable of portraying the truly random? I think not. Is the precious experiential cargo of the present undermined by the notion of infinite possibility? Negative. I think these opposing poles work hand-in-hand to anchor the spectrums of possibility in which we roam.

To “take it lightly” is to recognize that our questions determine our answers, and that within the fields of reality in which we roam, there are paths we’ve yet to try. There’s even one where we remember the possibility of new life—the life of genuine unity. This is the one (and the many) in which we become conduits of the ultimate reality that is reflected all around us. It is the life of reason and wonder interwoven, the life of possibility made real.

It is the life we’ve been so seriously working to attain.

The Power of Choice

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Course Ideas / Reflections

Sometimes I really enjoy discussing quantum physics, cosmology, or the nature of human consciousness, but these are largely pursuits of pleasure for my intellect, the way a great novel can be a pursuit of pleasure for the soul. There are fascinating adventures to be had. And while it’s good clean fun to wonder how what is observed fits into what I think deep down about how things work, at the end of the day . . .

I don’t know how things work . . . I just know they do.

But what does that mean, right? What does it mean to say that life “works”?

It means I’m already in over my head in this post, for one thing. But let me give it a go.

First, foremost, and perhaps completely, it means that the context or framework in which our experiential awareness arises is functional. The word functional provides no greater insight than to say that reality “works,” I know, but it offers a different vantage. We can talk about what this function is. And to that end, the first clarification I can offer is that I think this “realm” we live in (for lack of a better word) provides infallible experiential feedback on the consequences of our fundamental perceptual choices.

Of which there are two.

Choice A is the one we’ve been in for a very, very, very long time and are potentially graduating from. It is the choice to identify principally with a finite physical form. I am this body (and only this). I often call this the “mindset of separation” using language from A Course in Miracles, A Course of Love, etc., etc. Fundamental to this choice is the notion that the universe is basically an empty container, and even in religious views, that we are here, and heaven or God or what have you are “out there” somewhere.

Choice B is unity. This doesn’t mean we’re not specific individuals, but it does mean we’re intrinsically bound to one another and to the field of life itself in ways that transcend the limitations of our individuated physical expression. It also means we are fundamentally unified with all that exists eternally—meaning outside of time—which we can call the unknown. For those of religious orientation, it could mean there is no God “out there,” only the God we come to know “here” as the relationship within. Also, that “heaven” or the timeless are accessible and/or expressed through movements within time.

So, when I say that “I know things work,” I mean I trust that the conditions of life that we experience and are forced to navigate on a daily basis are perfect returns on the investment of our choice relative to the above. And I can’t say this with enough emphasis: this matters.

I think every last one of us has concerns about the nature of lived life: about the condition of the planet, of its people, and of all other forms of life. We would like, I think, to be part of transforming the nature of experience for the better, but we all face the same difficulties. The barriers are universal. If only, we say . . . If only I could get ahead, and could afford it, I’d put solar panels up. I’d buy different products. I’d stop driving to work and polluting the atmosphere. I’d stop eating food that is grown in a way that depletes the land. I’d stop depleting the oceans and the skies. I’d stop pumping rivers of water out of the ground that cannot be replaced. I’d stop using plastics. I’d stop using animals. I’d stop using wood. I’d stop using air conditioning. I’d stop using cobalt and lithium. I’d stop using computers. I’d stop taking strange medicines. I’d stop getting sick. We’d stop spending money on machineries of war. We’d fix inequality for good.

Sometimes this gets projected. If only “they” would stop [whatever, whatever, whatevering].

If only . . . if only . . . if only . . . .

The reason our fundamental choice (as described above) matters, is that all of the difficulties we face in their seemingly intractable forms are the naturally arising consequences of the choice for separation. And until this choice is made anew, every difficulty we solve will only lead to another. I submit that this is very much the way things work, and the most fundamental natural law there is.

I’m speaking globally here. Collectively. And I want to leave the individual experience aside for the moment, because while it’s true that each of us has a unique experience and path—some of which are easier or harder than others, some of which involve more physical pain and suffering than others, some of which involve differing hardships, journeys to overcome them, life lessons, talents or opportunities, moments of beauty and grace, etc., etc.—it’s also true (I believe) that having a “perfect” life while others suffer is not really what we’re after, even if we could. . . . Sometimes we make this an aim because it seems like the best choice among the only (bad) ones available, but if we had a blank sheet of paper, and perfect freedom, this isn’t what we’d draw.

Commitment to Choice A, to the experience of separation into which we were born—(as it is and has been the defining condition of the human experience since and prior to the dawn of recorded history)—is a commitment to the constraints that shackle us. It is a commitment to the zero sum game, to the scarcity of possibility, to one person’s loss being another’s gain, and to all the machinations of power, control, and tribalism that are the inherent outcomes of this fundamental choice.

I want this to sink in: make Choice A a million times on a million different planets with a million different forms of intelligent life, and a world akin to the one we have made will arise—a world riddled with problems to be solved, a world in which one person’s solution is another’s problem, a world gradually depleted of life, a world grinding slowly to dust. There is zero error band on this prediction, because as I noted above, this is the most fundamental natural law there is. If you bite into an apple, you will taste an apple. No matter what you do next, you cannot change the fact that you’re eating an apple. There is no malicious intent or judgment involved in this process: it is simply cause and effect.

The world—the vehicle of experiential awareness in which we reside—is functioning perfectly, and in some sense this could even be reassuring: it suggests that Choice B, a choice for unity, will lead with equal inevitability to different results. Make Choice B a million times on a million different planets with a million different forms of intelligent life, and the results will be the same: frameworks of experience will arise in which one person’s gain is indeed another’s, in which instruments of power and control are unnecessary, in which needs are met through processes that enrich and expand the very tapestry of life in its myriad expressions.

We don’t know exactly what this looks like—and it can probably look a million different ways—but as I touched upon in the previous post, we remember the feeling of it. What remains is to accept the possibility is quite real. It is as easy (and as difficult) as remembering who we are, in our heart of hearts.

A Course in Miracles says that a mind in unity “wills only to know.” I love this simple line. We need only will to know that in our every interaction, unity is being birthed. Will we make different choices? Sure. Will new actions born of a new choice be beneficial in ways that we can tabulate and quantify? Perhaps. But that’s not the real power in Choice B. The power is that the universe will move with us, as it always has, only instead of delivering the experience of separation we have sought, it will deliver us the experience of unity. Unity offers the mobilization of all that resides in the unknown, through our will to know it as the very substance and nature of our existence—to know it as the unity and relationship of all life.

The Power of Feeling

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Course Ideas / Reflections

When I began this blog I wrote about A Course in Miracles, and then, A Course of Love. And then there was a very interesting, and very fun poetry phase. After this I started working on fiction writing. Writing and rewriting (and rewriting) stories for submission to literary outlets took up much of the time previously available for blogging, and then I wrote a novel (which is still figuring out how to make its way into the world), and now I’m full of feelings. . . . But few words. (Not counting today, I guess!)

Feelings, though, are important. As Jesus said in A Course of Love, “When feelings are shown, or made visible, the new is created. This has always been the way of creation. Each blade of grass, each flower, each stone, is a creation of feelings. All you need do is look about you to know that feelings of love still abound. Beauty still reigns.” (ACOL D:Day18.11)

I believe this is so.

What is it then that our feelings are creating? And did our feelings create the stones, the trees, the rivers? Whose feelings are we talking about?

In addition to being a writer and a person of mystical persuasion, I am an engineer. I started college as a physics major, but when I was invited to sit in on a staff meeting at the tokamak fusion research laboratory I was doing some work-study hours in, and saw the professors laboring under the pressure of securing grant funding for their department, the sensation of being a highly educated subsistence farmer set in and I decided to do something that utilized physics and mathematics, but didn’t require a decade of training to begin competing for fickle government funding. I could always read about quantum mechanics and black holes on my own.

What’s interesting is that the part of me that relies on the profound integrity and reliability of natural phenomena does not feel threatened by the part of me that believes the universe and all it contains are the product of feeling(s). I suppose it’s interesting because to many, if not all of us, feelings are the very antithesis of repeatable, reliable phenomena. It seems profoundly unlikely a universe such as we occupy could be the product of feelings. And even if it is, there’s the far from trivial matter of observing in our own lives that how we feel—no matter how much we simply desire an outcome, or despise an individual, or wish some condition would change—the world doesn’t seem to respond in accordance to our whim.

So how does this all work?

While this could easily present as a bit of a conundrum, I don’t think the resolution is all that complicated. An essential component of my thought on this is that what we call the natural order—the stones and grass and trees and the star fields they rode in on—are the product of unity. And when I say “unity” I mean the timeless, dimensionless, solitary and undifferentiated manifold of Being in which all that manifests has its root. So this was not the creative outcome of how “I” felt or feel in a passing sense, or how “you” felt or feel, but of how the pervasive, progenitive, primordial unity felt (and feels). The Native Americans have this right, I think: They call this the Great Mystery. We’re all part of that Great Mystery, but how we feel when a traffic light turns yellow at the last second and someone dives in front of us with a right-on-red maneuver, and the very eager utility van riding our rear bumper is signaling with a series of threatening hitches that nothing but breaching the intersection will do—this is not the feeling I’m talking about. (These feelings do have creative effects, I think, but not of the magnitude I’m speaking about here.)

The second thing is that while I believe we are each integral to the unity whose initial creative feelings gave rise to the profoundly reproducible phenomena we enjoy today, I also think that in the process of occupying creation as individuals–i.e. coming into form–we lost touch with the fundamental unity that remains, to this day, our true nature. I think we fail to acknowledge how profoundly difficult the project of embodiment really was, or is, particularly when it had never been tried before. Let’s say you are taking scuba lessons and it’s not going well. It is a very different set of challenges to be in love with the fundamental nature of existence when you are experiencing unrelenting hypoxia in a body with which you have identified, than when you were enfolded in an undifferentiated sea of Love that contains no threats whatsoever, no time or place, and no particular needs.

As a brief aside, I also think that in the midst of our proverbial drowning in form, as we labored against the constraints of materiality, it only seems reasonable that certain protections were put in place. Love is very good at this. You don’t want beings in the throes of their own nightmares to be wielding unlimited creative power. (Reference the movie Sphere with Dustin Hoffman and Sharon Stone for a powerful modern proverb on just this very point.) (This—Love’s benevolence and response to the unexpected—is an interesting point to which I may return in the future.) 

That said, if A Course of Love is correct, we are reaching a time in which we are fairly proficient with our scuba gear, and the sensation of threat can largely be set aside. We can, in fact, become conscious embodiments of the very same sensations that produced mountains, kraken, and nebula, only not so that we can create mountains, kraken, and nebula—that’s already been done—but to create a new form of experience within this plane in which we reside. We can embody Love itself: the truth of who we are.

Jesus says in Day 22 of the Dialogues of ACOL that we are “the expression of the unknown, and the only means of the unknown becoming known.” As we discover the reality of unity within ourselves, he suggests it is as if we’ve discovered a great secret we long to share. But how do we do this?

He offers a suggestion:

“The simple answer is that you must express the unknown that you have touched, experienced, sensed, or felt with such intimacy that it is known to you because the knowing becomes real in the making known. It is the only way it remains real. You know union in order to sustain and create union by channeling the unknown reality of union into the known reality of separation. You realize that you know the unknown and you desire to make the unknown knowable. You realize that you have known a place where nothing but love exists, where there is no suffering, no death, no pain nor sorrow, no separation or alienation. You sense that if you could fully express this place of union, if you could abide there, if you could share this place in an aware and conscious state, that you would bring this state into existence in the reality in which you exist.” (ACOL D:Day22.7)

This, I believe, is the project in which we are all immersed. We live within the ongoing creative experiment whose aim is to manifest, in form, the reality we have all once known in which only love exists. That this world has not achieved this on a large scale before is plain to see, but our history is not a referendum on the possible.

The truth is that our feelings have created. The suffering and sorrow born of the feelings of separation—that moment of very bad scuba that created a not insubstantial wobbling of the continuous communication with the heart of our being on which the awareness of love relies—have created an experience of might makes right, or scarcity and division, of suffering, pain, and death. New feelings (revealed), born of our acceptance of unity with the unknown, have the power to reshape the form of what is.

Guided by Feeling, Not Feelings

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Book Reviews / Reflections

I recently finished George Saunders’ latest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. In it, he takes seven short stories by famous Russian authors and talks about what works in them—what’s going on at a deeper level than a cursory read might reveal and why he can’t stop reading them himself. He intersperses this with discussions of his realizations as a human being and a writer.

I loved it, but it’s taken me a little while to put my finger on why, and now that I have, my mind is zinging with connections that would take weeks, or months perhaps, to synthesize. But brevity must reign here in blogland, I know, so I’ll focus my enthusiasms accordingly, as best I can.

But first, a sweeping statement from yours truly:

Saunders’ writing in this book is insightful, clever and funny. He has a great ability to peel open the stories he’s chosen in a way that is meaningful to everyday life, and perhaps more importantly, to the everyday life of our hearts. This isn’t a text on how to read, or even how to write: it’s an observation of how we humans engage with art in general, why we need it in the first place, and how it’s profound enough, even through the offices of our bungling minds and hearts, to teach us about who we are.

That said, Saunders and I achieved our greatest resonance in his discussions of the creative process itself. There are things being said here I want to scream from the mountaintop. One in particular is that great art cannot be produced without accessing the spontaneous knowing that is embodied by our intuition and feeling(s). He explains this by example, in typical Saunders fashion:

A guy (Stan) constructs a model railroad town in his basement. Stan acquires a small hobo, places him under a plastic bridge, near that fake campfire, then notices that he’s arranged his hobo into a certain posture—the hobo seems to be gazing back at the town. Why is he looking over there? At that little blue Victorian house? Stan notes a plastic woman in the window, then turns her a little, so she’s gazing out. Over at the railroad bridge, actually. Huh. Suddenly, Stan has made a love story. (Oh, why can’t they be together? If only ‘Little Jack’ would just go home. To his wife. To ‘Linda.’)

What did Stan (the artist) just do? Well, first, surveying his little domain, he noticed which way his hobo was looking. Then he chose to change that little universe, by turning the plastic woman. Now, Stan didn’t exactly decide to turn her. It might be more accurate to say that it occurred to him to do so—in a split second, with no accompanying language, except maybe a very quiet internal ‘Yes.’

He just liked it better that way, for reasons he couldn’t articulate, and before he’d had the time or inclination to articulate them.

In my view, all art begins in that instant of intuitive preference. (emphasis added)

The creative process for Saunders is one of listening to this intuitive preference over and over and over again, through rain, hail, sleet or snow, until the final product is satisfactory. It sounds simple, but it’s not. This is because it cannot be contrived, it must unfold spontaneously. Art requires “…some moment-to-moment responsiveness to what [is] actually happening.”

About his process, he writes, “I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with P on this side (‘Positive’) and an N on that side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? If it drops into the N zone, admit it. And then, instantaneously, a fix might present itself—a cut, a rearrangement, an addition. There’s not an intellectual or analytical component to this: it’s more of an impulse, one that results in a feeling of ‘Ah, yes, that’s better.’ It’s akin to that hobo adjustment, above: by instinct, in that moment.”

Is this just Saunders’ method, though? Or something more universal? I very much think the latter. One of the greatest descriptions of this process I’ve ever encountered comes from the writing of Christopher Alexander. His four-book series The Nature of Order is a remarkable work: he begins with discussion of what makes any structure or artifact “living”beautiful, whole, nurturing, authenticand then turns to the processes (both external and internal) that are capable of extending this life into the world. Like Saunders, he feels this can only be accomplished when we are guided by feeling itself:

We come now, to the most important and most profound aspect of living process. I believe it is the deepest issue in this book. I believe it is the most enlightening and appealing. Yet it may also prove, intellectually, to be the most controversial and the most difficult to accept.

The issue has to do with feeling.

I assert, simply, that all living process hinges on the production of deep feeling. And I assert that this one idea encapsulates all the other ideas, and covers all the other aspects of living process. It may also be said that this vision of living process is, or if true may turn out to be, in the end, of the greatest importance for the future of humankind.

Feeling is a difficult word, as Alexander acknowledges. He goes on to say, in a later passage, “The word ‘feeling’ has been contaminated. It is confused with emotions—with feelings (in the plural) such as wonder, sadness, anger—which confuse rather than help because they make us ask ourselves, which kind of feeling should I follow? The feeling I am talking about is unitary. It is feeling in the singular, which comes from the whole. It arises in us, but it originates in the wholeness which is actually there. The process of respecting and extending and creating the whole, and the process of using feeling, are one and the same. Real feeling, true feeling, is the experience of the whole.”

Lastlyand I know I’m packing in the quotes hereAlexander has this to say about the recursive nature of the process by which this feeling is made manifest in a work: “You know the feeling which the thing will have. But you do not yet know the form. In fact, you keep having to change the form, because as the work unfolds, you find out many, many details which have the wrong feeling, which do not function, in response to the whole, as you thought they would. Because you keep the feeling constant, you have to change the form.”

Is Alexander not describing the selfsame process as Saunders did above? I believe he is. For Saunders, art involves “some moment-to-moment responsiveness to what [is] actually happening.” Such a process cannot be arbitrary, planned or formulaic. This is the process of listening to our heart as it speaks to us—instantaneously, unerringly, yet somehow confoundingly—about whether or not a choice we’ve made is consonant with the whole that is coming into being. This doesn’t mean that reason doesn’t enter into it, but reason cannot viscerally sense the whole or provide access to the field of resonant feeling that is the whole coming into being.

Alexander quite agrees.

Each of these geniuses is pointing us in a common direction: we don’t need more facts, better technologies, or more expertise; we need the unique responses to wholeness that each of us alone can offer to the world around us. Because in truth this isn’t just about constructing buildings or writing novels, it’s about constructing the network of relationships on which a living, healthy, and thriving world community depends. We will do this not by planning or designing our way to it, but by creating it, through a myriad of incremental, stepwise transformations—thoughts, words and actions—that enhance our feeling of the whole and extend its life into the world.

Endings That I Love

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Course Ideas / Reflections

The endings I love most are the ones where appearance is turned inside out by the fall of this one little domino—think Sixth Sense, or Interstellar, or another personal favorite, The Thomas Crown Affair. (Or what actually set me off on this post, which was the final episode of the Showtime series Homeland.) When that last piece falls, the meaning of everything that came before it is transformed. I particularly like when this reveals an outcome far better than we would have previously imagined possible. We see then how the seeds of this beautiful realization had been there all along, in all the strife and doubt and muck and grime and whatever else it was that had to be endured. It all becomes worth it in light of this final revelation.

I think our lives are like this. No matter our path, the territory we’re exploring is that of grace. And what’s amazing about grace is that it shifts beneath our feet and we never know it. We’re wobbly, heavy of heart, uncertain… or disciplined, rehearsed, confident—and either way, grace responds unerringly with the moments and circumstances we need the most. Grace ensures the path is perpetually arriving at the time and place of our renewal, at the moment of our heart’s recovery.

I read a beautiful line recently that Jesus gave to Mari Perron. He said, “Trust your mind completely. Not a little bit. Not in certain situations. But completely. This is the only way certainty will come to you.” (When Jesus says mind he’s talking about the heart and mind together, the unified mind we share that is distilled uniquely into each one of us—not merely the analytical or conceptual part of ourselves.) I thought this was really profound. It’s the idea we can depend on what we’ve been given. Even if we’ll never know everything, we always know enough.

Those endings I love are the moment when we realize this is so, and always was. In that sense they’re not endings at all, they’re beginnings. That’s what’s so great about them! The entire journey that brings us to this point, where we finally discover that we can trust, is recast as prelude. And then we face the real choice: to explore what this new knowing makes possible, or to set it aside and restart the cycle once more. If we take the discovery to heart, what lies beyond is not some new debacle through which grace clears a path once again to our beginning, but the full-hearted expression of who we are. Which is everything.

It’s easy to look at all the challenges facing our societies and the planet in general and wonder just how in the heck we could possibly turn things around. We’re wondering this pretty intently these days, but the truth is we can’t. The primary misconception is that we, who occupy these various circumstances, are uniquely qualified to undo them. On our own, I mean, in the seeming separateness that obtains when trust is absent. From that vantage, we think we’ve got to do the right thing, muster the right response, make all those difficult choices and turn this leviathan beast of our own momentum in some new direction. We think we’ve got to somehow be other than we truly are.

The paradox is that it does depend on us, of course. Just not in the way we think. The transformation we seek comes not of “making” it ourselves, in a vacuum, through our own disparate devices, but of recognizing that all Life is in movement together. We don’t need to be the heroes of some mythical, epic battle against our lesser natures, but authentic participants in the beauty unfolding all around us.

To move with trust is to see this. Trust is the perfect fuel for transformation because it enlivens us and laces our every breath with meaning. Without it, we languish and labor, we rely on resources outside of ourselves, we shackle ourselves to ideologies and to great thinkers we admire, and our own voice is lost in the shuffle. We plot, plan, and preempt. And this ultimately pits us one against the other. Trust might seem as if it is the opposite of engaging, of caring, or moving into the throes of things with passion, but it isn’t. It doesn’t mean any of us care less about the elements of Life that have been placed in our care, it simply acknowledges that what is at work here is greater than any one of us can see.

Do we do what is in our hearts to do because of some calculus that confirms, yes… it’s a worthy investment of our time? Or do we do it because we simply can’t do otherwise?

Trust frees us to express and become that which is ours alone to express and become, because we don’t have to understand how doing so will accomplish the outcome we desire. We don’t have to conceptually or intellectually understand how the callings of our heart, the uniqueness of our interests and desires, or the avenues into which we channel the time and energy that are ours to channel, add up to something more. They simply do. The fact that they do—the fact that billions of people don’t need a plan to participate in the ebb and flow of Life, and the creative transformation that is upon us—is what we call grace. Grace simply is. The truth is that each of us is precisely where we need to be. The fact that we can’t understand how this could have happened without us, without our being in charge of the process and formulating some sort of conscious plan to make it happen, just doesn’t matter.

We simply are coordinated.

When we let ourselves be.

When we trust…

When we recognize the ending is only the beginning…

Resounding

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Reflections

The mind can be a buzzing midge, or a reckless bull, but it is always susceptible to ambush. You’ve been devoured, I’m sure. The midge enters the flame with a spark. Likewise, when the bull glimpses mountains beyond the rustle of the cape, the ruse is up. He rests on his belly like a puppy. There is no going back.

Heart, mind and body, all together, are inexplicable. Try to list the possible states and before you reach the end you will exhaust every resource there is, even thought itself, but you will not run out of you. Instead, you will be back at the beginning—before you were named—and like the day you drove twenty miles through full sun in waves of shifting cars, embodying only the music, you will wonder how points connect.

I shut off the vacuum. Beyond the window are grass and trees and sky, brought to color by the sun, but motionless. Every blade of grass is reckless inside, but I cannot see it. Sometimes the land is still like this. Other times it is violent. A whipping mixture. The same is true of us. Of our minds. Our whirligig consciousness. The vacuum has put me up to this somehow. The harmonics, the blade pass frequency, the branding, the simple presence of frozen thought. Standing straight—once I get there—is a relief after hunching over these seat cushions for the last ten minutes, pulling dust from its pores. Where was I beforehand? I forgot myself, I realize. But I was not forgotten.

We are vulnerable to goodness in ways we seldom comprehend. We all can be ambushed.

If meditation has taught me anything, it is the delicate nature of perception. The way thought dissolves, disappears, reforms. The way feeling moves into the body and garners attention. With one subtle nudge, the pattern shifts. Turn a thought inside out and the organs will respond. My first time in a sweat lodge I was frightened. The steam was so hot I thought my throat would burn. I couldn’t make myself breathe. What I’ve never understood: which of us was the “I”, and which the “myself”? Being too much in your head leaves you in pieces like that. Carrying too many shells.

A few lodges later, I was fine. The difference was trust.

There was always this thing about ceremony: everything seemed perfectly normal until I went back to the world beyond—to the highway, the grocery store, the television, the post office. Then I could tell: something inexplicable happened. I merged into traffic, but only part of me saw it. Another part flickered. There was a hole in my attention. A vulnerability. I’m not usually like this. Part of me is still flying. Some people know immediately when a part of them is flying and some people like me don’t realize it until later, when they find a piece has gone missing. Around ceremony—around the sacred—there was always the feeling I’d catch up to it later. Always the feeling of being a novice. Until I understood this, I wondered if anything was even happening. If I had the ability to even sense it.

Then it came. A week later. A month. The now eventually finds us all. The meanwhile is manufactured.

When I’m attentive for long enough, just breathing, I catch it—that moment when I wasn’t not me, but when I wasn’t only me either. The sky peered through me; it borrowed my eyes. It’s a mistake to think the mind has a boundary. It’s a mistake to think the day will never come when we offer only Light.

I love this Steve Reich composition because just when you hitch a ride on one rhythm it dissolves, and you find yourself emerging from a new one. Memory alone can tell you this—can illumine such changes. The truth is we are never not transforming. We are never other than transformed. The mind pitter-patters, or gallops, or becomes an ensemble of gliding swallows. In an instant we are surely curved flight. And then it comes. A shadow spreads across the floor, a puddle of absence to distract us while the silences align, and the next largest space bids us enter.

We can’t remember what led us here.

But there’s no need: this is the place we’ve never left.

The Negative of Darkness

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Book Reviews / Reflections

I finished the novel V. by Thomas Pynchon a week or so ago. I’ve now read all of his novel length works except for Bleeding Edge, but I won’t be able to muster any intelligent commentary on them. That will happen, if ever—and likely not even then—after I read them a second time. It took me a while to master the art of just accepting the fact that comprehensive narrative understanding is not the point, that the point is immersion into a tumult of fleeting, divergent and yet somehow intertwined narratives in which the part is the whole, and the whole but a ghost.

Like life itself, there’s too much to unpack, and no place to put it anyway. Scenes whistle past as time impales us. History is a riverbed, dried and cracked, strewn with the debris of whatever blitzkrieg modernity just ransacked the region, turned its profit, and left it for dead. We are bright-eyed explorers of this broken realm, drunken on the illusion there’s something to find here. Distended machinery parts sparkle in the sun, raven feathers drop from the sky, and an engorged human eye watches our every move through the periscope of a submarine sunk fathoms deep into sand. The owner of this eye concurs, there’s nothing to be found here. Nothing but us.

What I like about Pynchon is that he’s right. There’s no bottom in these novels, no bedrock. And this is the modern, (or post-modern), plight. We are grounded in nothing greater. Our greatest intellectual achievements have left us stranded in an increasingly dehumanized and artificial environment. But somehow, in the midst of this garish terrain, a part of me emerges that I cannot reduce. A depth appears. This part of me comprehends that the negative image to Pynchon’s paranoid, rollicking carnival is a place suffused with light. That place lives in us. Reading Pynchon is like looking over the edge, and just when that sense of falling threatens, and my stomach flutters, I remember this is a dream. It is one place I can fly.

A wonder of Pynchon’s writing is the subtle connectivity that looms invisible behind the work: we sense it here and there, in worlds’ broken and bereft where no greater meaning may obtain, but correlations supervene over chaos nonetheless. Consider this passage about the German radio scientist Mondaugen:

Mondaugen was here as part of a program having to do with atmospheric radio disturbances: sferics, for short. During the Great War one H. Barkhausen, listening in on telephone messages among the Allied forces, heard a series of falling tones, much like a slide whistle descending in pitch. Each of these “whistlers” (as Barkhausen named them) lasted only about a second and seemed to be in the low or audio-frequency range. As it turned out, the whistler was only the first of a family of sferics whose taxonomy was to include clicks, hooks, risers, nose-whistlers, and one like a warbling of birds called the dawn chorus. No one knew exactly what caused any of them. Some said sunspots, others lightning bursts; but everyone agreed that in there someplace was the earth’s magnetic field, so a plan evolved to keep a record of sferics at different latitudes. Mondaugen, near the bottom of the list, drew South-West Africa, and was ordered to set up his equipment as close to 28°S as he conveniently could.

The categorization of these sferics is a taxonomy of the inexplicable, the formal distinctions suggesting a comprehension of phenomena that ultimately reduces to nothing at all. These signals could be utterly random, or they could be precisely ordered by forces we just don’t understand. This is the madness Pynchon offers. What are they, then? It is into this breech, I think, that the light in me pours. Like any great work of art, Pynchon’s novels allow us to inhabit them differently, based on who we are, and somehow, for me, the baroque and broken spectacles he creates offer an abode for the unformed knowing in me to take shape, if only for an instant.

When faced with the perpetually flowering madness of nothing at all, I discover a ground.

Isn’t life a little like this? The mystic acknowledges deeper meaning in those very places and patterns that the modern sensibility has simply skipped over, or else usurped for the purpose of pleasure, idolatry, and a fleeting sophistication. Mondaugen attempts to do his work recording the sferics from a German estate in South Africa that has become a non-stop carnival—Fasching, as Pynchon describes it, a very real German celebration prior to Lent in which eating, drinking and merriment precede the pending sacrifice and vigil. But what if there is no pending vigil to ground this celebration? What if there is only the unbroken excess of orgiastic pleasure, wine, food, and the odd bit of sport from the rooftops of the estate, where onlookers watch clumsy colonial biplanes strafe the natives? The picture Pynchon paints is absurdly hollow, but somehow, as I said, the negative image of this is the fullness of life’s meaning. I don’t know how it happens, but it happens.

Pynchon’s novels dissolve into a sort of mist. There is the sense of an arc, and with a bit of focus on your own experience as a reader, certain elements may be unearthed and brought to the light. Those may be a bit different for each of us, but if five hundred of us noted our impressions, certain elements would likely emerge. That said, to get anywhere we might have to agree on which passages to explore. The incident above with Mondaugen, while rich with commentary, is but one thread of a five hundred and fifty page work. How does this passage relate to the whole? There are certainly thematic linkages to other passages in the novel, for sure, but ultimately this novel is neither about Mondaugen, nor not about Mondaugen. And herein lies the dilemma. For those hoping for the evolution of a classical protagonist, or the resolving of some mystery, it just doesn’t happen really.

In the failure to over-simplify, and the tendency to elevate certain human conditions to the extremes, Pynchon makes room for the exploration of what’s really at play here: the soul of the modern world. Has modernity reduced us to the level of automatons? What is the role of love and compassion, ultimately, in our societies? And what good is a world of unchecked technological pursuit if the essence of what it is to be human is somehow left behind? My heart has answers to these questions even if my mind does not, and when I read Pynchon, my mind is distracted enough for my heart to share its wisdom with me. This, for me, is the beauty of his work: there is a space for me to enter.