On Intellectual Unwillingness, Part 3

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Course Ideas / Dialogues / Science

Genuine, transformative conversation hinges upon the willingness to understand and value the experiences and perspectives of another. An effort is made to take on board another’s ideas and listen for all the places where they intersect, both comfortably and uncomfortably, with our own. Where they don’t fit very well we have an opportunity for exploration, and for new understanding perhaps, but to explore this territory together we must resist the temptation to be rigid in our perceptions. We all must soften our internal geometries, at least for a time, so that we can join in the shared space of dialogue.

If we do not do this, we end up trying to exert a particular view onto another. We harden in our positions and there is little choice but to chisel away on the other’s in order to alleviate our discomfort. We end up making speeches, or scoring points, instead of having conversation. Without setting aside preconceived notions of what we want a particular encounter to be, of who we think we are and who we think the other is and has been, the possibility of true exchange is stymied. Transformative conversation is a space of shared possibility. It requires a certain freedom to move in the unexpected ways that it will.

When I think in these terms it is clear to me that the video I cited two posts ago by Richard Dawkins was not an attempt at genuine, transformative conversation. I also see that my reply wasn’t either, which is why it troubled me. Both of these displays were speeches. They were selfish acts in a sense, not unifying ones. I think if we want to have the sorts of conversations that can lead to genuine transformation—not the “fixing” of one supposedly malfunctioning party or the other, but the renewal of the entire architecture of shared spaces where we meet—then we must suspend our need to be right, and focus instead on being caretakers of one another’s humanity. We must value one another’s dreams, acknowledge one another’s experiences, have compassion for one another’s suffering, and be honest about our own. We must, in essence, join with one another.

When conversation breaks down it is quite often, in my opinion, because of an unwillingness to appreciate one another’s positions. This stems from the profound difficulty we face in truly adopting, at least temporarily, one another’s perspectives. To actually achieve a place of mutual sharing requires a certain paradoxical accomplishment within us: we must decouple our sense of identity from particular ideas, histories and concepts so that we are free to change our inner shape without feeling provoked, while at the same time anchoring the reality of our existence to a stable position. An example of a stable position would be the profound, unconditional love and appreciation for another being. This state can be cultivated, if we so choose and desire, and it is invulnerable to any particular ideas or concepts that may present themselves.

When we fail to do this, we make unreasonable demands on one another, and we find ourselves unable to join in a meaningful way in the space of conversation. I think when good ideas are not considered, this is the reason why. When we’re polarized and think our only choices are to fight it out, or concede territory that leaves us wounded at some level, this is the reason why. It is because we’re unwilling to share in the sacrament, the ceremony, the mutual affirmation of one another that is unity, for all sorts of reasons. What I think is true, is that the reasons we offer for stepping away from unity are never good enough.

A cultural polarity on which I’d like to focus these considerations is the gap that exists between advocates of scientific materialism, and advocates of the existence of a loving God. In my mind, there are perfectly good ideas not being explored by either side of this divide. The positions to which I observe many people clinging, on both sides of this issue, are not entirely justified in my opinion, and were the matter to be considered in the light of mutual respect and admiration for the important aspects of human consciousness and well-being that each party safeguards, I think there is room for a much more fruitful exchange.

I’ll stop here for today in order to keep these posts at a reasonable length, and in my next article will begin to explore particular dimensions to this conversation that I think preclude productive exchange. They hinge upon the sort of unwillingness to deeply consider one another’s positions that I’ve tried to describe above, and for me the truth is that we all suffer when we draw these lines between ourselves. Nobody wins when some of us lose. If we truly wish to end the polarized divides that shackle us all to ineffectual conversations, I think we’ll need to place unity first. And I think we’ll find, if we explore these ideas as openly and honestly as possible, that nobody needs to lose…

On Intellectual Unwillingness, Part 2

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I’ve been reflecting on my previous post and thinking I’m not too happy about what I did there. I’ve been feeling a cocktail of embarrassment and shame actually. I felt strongly about the ideas I discussed—ideas that I love about water and the human body and how this universe works—but also I felt angry about the way some people have used their influence to progress certain ideas. While there is nothing wrong with anger in and of itself, how it expressed is important, and I realize in looking back that in my anger I took the internal step of making Richard Dawkins the “other.” At least I did so within my own mind.

I wish to apologize for that. If ever there were a step I’d like to advocate not taking with one another it’s that one. While I don’t like the way Richard has communicated on certain issues, that is secondary to the fact we share a common heart. That is the reality, and it is far more important than being right about something. When we attempt to cleave ourselves from one another in that interior way, we are creating suffering. You may have sensed this or felt yourself on the periphery of that unfortunate state from my writing this last time out, for which I am sorry.

Being right at the expense of another is a weighty thing, and a troubling thing. I felt the weight of it fairly quickly, and I don’t want to function that way. I do want to explore some ideas that come to mind when I listen to Sam Harris’s podcast, but I want to find a way to do it much more positively. I want to do it in an inspiring and uplifting way, and I will.

I also want to note before jumping into a second piece that I’ve retitled the series Intellectual Unwillingness. The term intellectual dishonesty can come across fairly strongly, and I’m not attempting to suggest that Sam Harris or any of his guests are dishonest people, or attempting any sort of nefarious manipulation of the truth. I’m simply suggesting that deliberate choices are being made about what is and is not included in particular discussions, that those choices are interesting to me, because I think there are some stones being left unturned, so to speak. As I noted in a comment to the last post, this omission of particular ideas is better categorized as an intellectual unwillingness than in terms that suggest any sort of character flaw. These are certainly differences of opinion on what is reasonable.

So I wanted to say these things, and will return soon with a more positive offering. Thank you for bearing with this interruption in the regularly scheduled programming…

On Intellectual Honesty, Part 1

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One of the great things about blogging is the encounter of new ideas and voices—new, at least, in the sense that they were new to me, and I might not have found them otherwise. Recently I’ve been listening to Sam Harris’s podcast Waking Up, and been very much enjoying it. I’ve listened to about eight episodes now, and have begun to hear recurring themes and arguments, so I think I’ve started to grasp where Sam is coming from. What I enjoy most about the show is the opportunity to listen to brilliant, articulate people—albeit from a limited range of focus at times—discuss interesting ideas. I’ve really, really enjoyed it.

A concept that comes up from time to time is intellectual honesty. It’s one with which I resonate, and which I believe is profoundly important, but it’s not one that I find is particularly well-applied in all of the arguments I’ve heard. I’m not certain the breaches I find are intentional or not, or that those to whom I’ve listened would even agree with me that they have omitted plausible positions from their conversations, but it seems to me that people of the cognitive caliber as appear on this show would be capable of discerning these additional plausible vantages and at least discussing them. It is thus remarkable to me that they do not. I am left to conclude that Sam and certain of his guests do not consider these positions at all relevant, and therefore there would be no intellectual dishonesty from their perspective: these positions are, in their minds, simply not worth discussing. But from my perspective that is not always so. And I think it matters, because it leaves potentially interesting opportunities for dialogue and frank discussion unexplored. So I want to think out loud about a few of these instances in a series of posts.

(I apologize in advance for the length of this first post, and will shorten them moving forward!)

The first example of intellectual dishonesty to which I’ll point is a simple one, and it is not taken from the podcast. I’m beginning with this merely to give an example of what I’m speaking about when I say intellectual dishonesty. There is a video Richard Dawkins made—and Richard was one of the guests on Sam’s podcast to whom I’ve enjoyed listening—that is available on YouTube in which he takes a run at homeopathy. This is only two minutes long, and admittedly stripped of its context, which was a two-part show Dawkins aired called Enemies of Reason. I watched a portion of the larger episode to see if I’d missed something that this shorter segment did not discuss, but didn’t find anything to sway my opinion. That said, I’m certainly open to feedback if I missed a mitigating segment somewhere.

The premise of the video is that a medicine cannot work if the active ingredient of the medicine is not chemically present in the dosing mechanism. He makes the rib-hurting argument that mathematically speaking, to “imbibe even one molecule of the active substance [of a homeopathic preparation], you’d need to imbibe all the atoms in the solar system…” Then he suggests that homeopaths have known all along their formulations are “just water” and goes on to suggest that if the notion water has any active information properties—e.g. “memory”, the posited mechanism of homeopathy—that would require that we concede we’re all drinking a homeopathic preparation of Oliver Cromwell’s urine when we enjoy a glass of water. It’s brilliant theater, of course, but I find it to be intellectually dishonest.

To begin with, I don’t believe proponents of homeopathy suggest it is a chemical medicine, like aspirin or Crestor, but rather one based on the premise that water can be a carrier of biologically active information. So the entire opening argument is based on a misrepresentation of homeopathy, which Dawkins knows. He starts there anyway, which is basically the rousing defeat of an argument the counter party hasn’t even made, then proceeds to suggest the notion that water could store or transmit information signals is obviously ludicrous, because if it were true we’d be drinking a medicinal preparation of the urine of everyone who has ever lived. This latter point is itself misleading on at least three counts, which I’ll attempt to describe. I’ll ignore the obvious fallacy, which is that if something can be rendered in profound hyperbole, it must be wrong.

First, homeopathy does actually have protocols for the preparation and storage of the medications, which differ from the conditions and energetic transformations water undergoes in the natural environment. So there could be a way in which the environment is not a homeopathic preparation of all that has ever been. To ignore this is to suggest that either there is no protocol to homeopathy whatsoever (which is obviously false), or to presume the protocols simply don’t matter. Assuming the latter, Dawkins thus begins with the unstated supposition that homeopathic preparations make zero difference to water as compared to its original state in the natural environment. This approach is intellectually dishonest because the starting premise—that the mechanism of homeopathy simply doesn’t work—is also his conclusion.

Second, I’m not expert in homeopathy but it requires no effort on my part to wonder if there might not be mechanisms of removing stored information from water and purifying it at that level (so that we’re not all drinking medicinal preparations of urine). Turns out there probably is, and that evaporation by sunlight—the key driver of the water cycle—works by literally overcoming the weak electromagnetic bonds between water molecules in the liquid state, thus destroying (in all likelihood) any stored energetic patterns within a volume of water. I don’t know what a homeopath would think of this–it’s just an example of one idea a person might consider–but obviously Dawkins doesn’t either.

And thirdly, while the science of water physics has advanced tremendously since the time Richard crafted this presentation, even at the time he gave it the scientific community had begun to explore the admittedly controversial idea that water might, in fact, be capable of storing and transmitting biologically active information. Dawkins’ video aired almost ten years after the work of Jacques Benveniste, which was published in Nature, in which Benveniste reported that white blood cells could be incited to produce an immune response when exposed to dilutions of antibodies so dilute they did not contain any of the antibodies themselves.

Benveniste’s work, the ensuing criticism, and his response to it, is uniquely interesting theater of its own–and it is worth noting that I believe the scientific community would have cited a replication failure of Benveniste’s work at the time Dawkins’ video was aired–but there are two issues at play here. One is the notion, which under girds Dawkins’ argument in the video, that phenomenal observations should not be scientifically reported without the supply of a theoretical explanation as to how they occurred. This was I believe a large argument against Benveniste’s work: the observation can’t be true because there’s no known mechanism for it to occur. This makes no sense to me as an argument, since new theories are often based on observations that cannot be explained, at least at face value, from known theories. This idea that nothing can be reported as observed without being explained at the same time is a ridiculous standard. How could science progress without admitting both novel predictions from new theories, and novel observations that require those theories?

But the even greater issue is that at the time of Dawkins’ video, Benveniste’s work was not the only purported incidence of new science or technology involving water memory effects. The Austrian naturalist Johann Grander received an award from the Russian Academy of Natural Science in 2001 for his work on this subject. Grander was not a scientist, and his proposed mechanisms do not use the vocabulary of science and thus were easily dismissed by those who wished to do so. But the Russian Academy of Natural Science gave its award only after conducting laboratory work. I know because I traveled to Austria, met with members of Grander’s family and organization, and was shown the results. (I was working at the time with their US-based representatives, interested to see if the technology could reduce the need for toxic chemistries in industrial cooling systems.) When I asked them why they were not published, the answer was that it was impossible to publish research on a commercial technology in a scientific journal when the operating principle of the technology was not well understood. This does actually make sense to me, because it is not just a novel observation in nature, but the observation of a device present in the laboratory at the time of the experiment whose influence on the experiment is claimed to be decisive to the outcome, but which is not understood by the scientists in the least. How could that fly? I wouldn’t attempt to publish that paper either. And since Grander felt protective of his intellectual property, the systems of science and commerce did not align to incent the best possible outcome.

Dawkins conceivably did not know about Grander’s work, or the award from the Russian academy, but I believe it is reasonable to assume that if you or I, as a scientist, were going to air a program to millions of people and make a few sweeping declarations on a subject, the onus would be on us to take stock of not only what is known in a field, but also to take stock of where it might be going. Which doors are appearing? Which are open and which are closed? Is it even a legitimate field of inquiry? Why or why not? There were, in fact, a fair amount of ideas percolating at the time.

Many years prior to the airing of Dawkins’ video, a paper was published by the Italian scientist Emilio del Guidice (in conjunction with other authors) in which water’s novel heat storage capability was explained using the properties of quantum coherence, which are derived from the application of quantum physics to solid state systems. Basically, the value for the specific heat of water (the scientific term for the quantity of energy a substance can store per unit of mass) as well as a prediction of how that value changed with water’s temperature, was derived in this paper from the mathematical theories of quantum physics. The purported reason water stores more energy per unit mass than it otherwise ought to—being made of relatively light gases, hydrogen and oxygen—is that it spontaneously forms resonant volumes involving many molecules at once. If water was a chest of drawers, these vibrational modes essentially represent drawers you could use for storage that other liquids generally do not possess. It turns out that water, compared to other materials, has a lot more drawers you can hide energy inside.

Related, at least in hindsight, the German physicist Herbert Frohlich had also made some ground in the several decades preceding Dawkins’ video in which he posited that part of what makes living systems possible, and unique, are long-range electromagnetic interactions, or coherence, and the associated energy storages such coherence enables within the organism. Meaning what? Meaning that in living organisms, which are predominately water, considerable energy is stored in non-thermal mechanisms which are highly ordered, and insulated from degradation. We’re not just thermal baths in other words, but liquid crystals. These ideas have led today to really interesting breakthroughs in our understanding of the role of water in the organism, and also to our understanding of water in general. And in hindsight it is not too difficult to see how del Giudice’s work and Frohlich’s work relate. I only know because they were both referenced in other books I’ve read on the subject, and I looked them up. Dawkins’ argument hinges, in part, on the notion that medicine can only be chemical in nature, not electronic (or information-based), yet evidence of the importance of electronic states to the viability of living tissue was already gaining considerable traction. At the time the video aired, important relationships between biology and quantum physics had already become increasingly mainstream, and water was related to much of this research.

Could Dawkins’ have been ignorant to all of this? Perhaps. But he knew enough to know that the proposed mechanism for homeopathy was information storage within water systems. He certainly knew about Benveniste’s work. And he easily could have known about the other work I’ve mentioned as well. I did, after all, and my time for pursuing such diversions was quite limited. I had a full-time job (my work with the Grander organization was a sideline) and was simply an interested person exploring the world via dial-up internet.

So Richard Dawkins needn’t like these ideas, or admit them into the canon of his personal philosophy. But I do think the video is a straightforward example of intellectual dishonesty because it makes fallacious arguments, and because it takes advantage of the ignorance of the audience for which it was intended. But it is certainly great fodder for the home team.

(To Be Continued…)

On the Discovery of Everything…

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Book Reviews

I should give a warning here. Unless you’ve already read the book To Rise Again At a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris, after reading this post you’ll know a great deal more about it than you did before. I’ve tried not to give too much away, but of both joy and necessity I’ve said more than a little. I think regardless of what I’ve noted here, the wit and audacity of Ferris’s prose merits a read of this book no matter how much you know about it. But I know not everyone feels that way about such matters… so please, consider yourselves duly warned.

* * * * *

To Rise Again At a Decent Hour is the story of atheist and dentist Paul O’Rourke, a man in search of the ever-elusive everything. Golf was everything—for a while anyway—as were the Red Sox, movie streaming, walking tours of Manhattan, banjo-playing, a thriving dental practice, and a couple of failed romances. As O’Rourke confesses, “Everything was always something, but something—and here was the rub—could never be everything.” It’s hard to find your everything, you see, when the end game—so obvious to the practicing dentist, who must spend his days fending off rot and decay—is forever wafting up to greet you.

O’Rourke is a fantastic dentist, but he is miserable because he finds it difficult to enjoy the ordinary moments of his life. This is a misery to which I believe we can each relate. Whether we are persons of faith or we are atheists is irrelevant to this I think, and Ferris seems to agree. Like O’Rourke, who faces his demons in the deepest hours of the night by texting old lovers, watching recorded regular season Red Sox games—(regular season, for the love of God!)—or driving golf balls into the Hudson River from his custom-modified balcony, we must each encounter the restless quiet of our longing.

If this all sounds depressing, it’s not, for Ferris brings a verve to his writing that tickles, and a string of intimate confessionals about what it is to be human that are laugh-out-loud funny. O’Rourke is a troubled character, but not a tragic one. He doesn’t just fall in love with a woman, for instance, he falls in love with her entire family, as if he might expunge himself of those sleepless nights through adoption into a field of belonging. Then he oversteps, risks untenable intimacies, inserts foot into mouth, and ends up again with his chicken curry and the Sox on video cassette.

One aspect of the book I loved is that it wasn’t obviously written to pound a philosophical nail. Although the protagonist is an atheist, and though he finds conventional religions fairly ridiculous—as one might expect—the resolution of this novel is a delicate acceptance of the richness of life, a sense of one individual’s embrace of the unknown. It’s not an affirmation of any religion, but it’s not an affirmation of a hard line sort of atheism either. Ferris won’t quite surrender one to the other, and leaves them poised in the balance.

In one of the novel’s consummate moments, O’Rourke is reflecting on his surrender to a bizarre spirituality whose principal tenet, paradoxically, is the necessity of doubt, and says, “I guess I needed to make myself vulnerable. I was sick of the facts, the bare facts, the hard, scientific facts. I was saying: Look at me, seeking among the dubious. Doing something stupid, something stark raving mad. Look at me, risking being wrong.”

For me, the novel’s ending was just right. It floated on a certain sweetness and suggested there may be an elusive something in the balance of things, flickering through each moment—an everything perhaps—that we cannot call our own, but which can be glimpsed in our decision to risk the fullness of life in its fleeting embraces, and in the candor of its intimacy. Something beautiful, that’s been there all along.

Imagine That You Are Loved

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We’re going to perform
a thought experiment,
Hafiz announces.

What wonders to behold,
I answer.

(Why does he always assume
that just because he
wants to do experiments,
I do as well?)

(What irks me most
is that I do, of course.)

Hafiz bounces a rubber ball
off of the wall and catches it
with the same hand,
without really even being aware
that he’s done so,
then holds it over his mouth
like an apple,
tapping it on his lips.
He flips through the notes
from our previous session.

Imagine that you are loved,
he says.

I purse my brow in concentration.
He takes a bite of the apple
and the juice runs down his chin.

By whom?
I ask.

He waves his hand with an artful
twirl of his fingers,
as if trying to fling
a daub of peanut butter
into the sun.

I take a breath.
The bad guy in Die Hard,
Alan Rickman’s character,
comes to mind. Hans.

Bruce Willis has acquired the detonators somehow
and Hans’s plans for the evening
are not turning out quite as planned.
This is very frustrating to him.
He is about to shoot another hostage
because the last one
–that mouthy guy–
was clearly full of himself in the worst way
and had nothing to say worth hearing
and if Hans hadn’t shut him up then
certainly someone else would’ve,
and what options does Hans really have
in this pathetic, imbecilic, movie-theater world,
when I call him on his cell phone.

I imagine that he’s expecting a call,
so that he answers.

Hello, I say.


(He’s always talking like that,
letting his words peter out
into eerie moans and groans
like his voice is bleeding out of the air itself,
falling over the edge of an invisible horizon.)

What is it? he hisses.

Then I begin.
I imagine that he loves me.
His love for me is a revelation.
He wants us to go fishing together,
or hike up the side of an Alp
with seal skins on our feet
and skis on our backs
and jokes on our breath
to a view that sucks the wind
right out of you,
leaving you pregnant with

I can tell it’s working
because he clears his throat
and then goes speechless
with the phone in his hand.
His eyes are blank.
He’s not seeing anything.
There’s very little air
moving in or out of his body.
We are witnessing, together,
the quiet power
of nature.

Hafiz, I say,
does he know what I look like?
Or just that he loves me?

(Hafiz, unfortunately, will never talk to me
during the experiments.
He’s just an observer, as he likes to say.)

Alan Rickman’s character
sets the phone down on the desk.
He gets the other bad guys together
in the lobby area by the fountain
and tells them they are dismissed.
Let all the hostages go.
Then he comes back to the phone
and holds it to his ear.

But why, Hans?
(They’re following him
from room to room.)
What are we doing!?
(They are very confused.)

Alan Rickman croaks at them
like a disgusted frog, and they obey.
The hostages are freed.

I go visit him in prison now.
We chat for a little while
and laugh at things that are only funny
if you have the kind of history that we have
together. I realize I miss him
even though he is right there.

Hafiz bounces the ball on the floor
and catches it on the return.

How’d it go?
I ask.

He’s making a few notes.
He takes a bite of the apple.

Imagine that you are loved,
he says.

Entering the Dialogue, Part 3

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Course Ideas

I started this series of posts because I came to a realization: I was not being who I know myself to be in some way. It’s like watching yourself when you’re just coming under the influence, observing that what you’re doing is strangely inconsistent, and a little unexpected. It’s called dissembling. For me this came across in my attraction to discussions that in some sense were futile.

We do this sometimes because we care. Because what matters to us matters. But also because when we are hurting in any way—meaning that when any aspect of our being is in conflict with any other—we instinctively try to find the moments we can grab hold of to set things straight. We end up in argument with the world over ourselves. It’s actually quite fascinating. But this is not creating. It is not being part of the dialogue that Creation in fact, is.

It became obvious to me that what matters more than anything else and in the deepest way possible, is the fullness of being who we are. We’re not only more content when we meet life in this way, we’re more powerful. We are free to express without effort or contrivance. What emerges under is the truth of who we are.

I love A Course of Love. I love it because after reading it at least three or four times, over several years now, it still feels fresh when I pick it back up. If I put it down for a few months, when I return to it I’m somebody a little different, and it meets me there. I read a three word sentence today I don’t remember reading before, at least not nearly with the same vibrant connection to it, and it made me laugh. It said, “Wholeness is actual.”

Now try and explain this to someone who doesn’t see it. It’s almost impossible. To try and explain what this sentence means I’m afraid I’d end up telling you the entire history of my life to try and put it in context for you, but it still may not compute. And yet in my heart it resonates profoundly. The way some things hit us depends on who we are when they hit, and this is the Dialogue of Creation I think. This is at least part of it. It’s not enough to know the meaning of the words. It’s the experience of the words as they enter us, and what moves in us as we receive them, and the response that arises between these two that is real.

The word real is often used as follows: either there’s a monster under the bed or there’s not, just look and see. If you don’t find it, then it’s probably not real, or (and odds are strongly against this being true) it snuck out for coffee. But I’m not trying to be flip. We agree that a baseball is real. A pitcher, a catcher. The grandstands. The word actual is interesting because we often say it when we wish to clarify a perception. We say, “Actually, what happened is…” or “What I actually meant was…” To say wholeness is actual is to not only state that wholeness is real, but to state that it hasn’t been previously perceived as such. It’s been overlooked somehow.

Dialogue is a perfect vehicle for understanding the actuality of wholeness, because a dialogue is not a conversation, a debate, or an argument. It’s more like sex in the sense that good dialogue enfolds its participants in a particular sort of communion, and produces new life. It is predicated on vulnerability and intimacy, on respect and trust, on giving and receiving. In its most powerful form a dialogue reveals new understanding neither participant quite possessed on their own. A fullness transforms them both, bringing into being a new awareness, and what is actual is the wholeness of it.

What is actual is not Speaker A, nor Speaker B, nor an idea that might stand on its own afterwards. What is actual is not a particular outcome or agreement, but the dialogue itself—the whole thing at once, the relationship that yields transformation. That is real. That is wholeness and it is actual.

Creation is a dialogue because creation is the transformation of what is, and while we’re seeking to be whole we cannot participate in transformation. That’s because without the ability to let ourselves go, we cannot be transformed. While we define ourselves by ideology, status, position, history, gender, color, training badges, or any of the myriad other parameters the ego would paint on the sign on the office door, we cannot truly be creative. We cannot fully participate.

The miracle is that dialogue can also be healing. Perfection is not required to enter the dialogue, but the acceptance of what is actual is. Acceptance of what is so allows us to be transformed without fear of being lost. We discover that the opposite occurs: we become ever more profound embodiments of who we actually are. And this is creation.

Entering the Dialogue, Part 2

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Course Ideas

A quality of wholeheartedness is peace. There is a knowing of Creation’s completeness.

We sense the unchanging center on which all things depend, and know it as our own center, too, as beings. We know it as the center of the bluebird on the branch, the center of a field covered with snow, the center of the Himalayan mountains, the center of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, the center of the sun.

When we are wholehearted, a certainty within is reflected in the world. We see and know with clarity: we are all related.

We are related not because we share a common time, or because our skins are composed of the same types of molecules as rocks and stars, or because we are of the same tribe, or genealogy. Those are merely echoes of what is so. We are related because our existence is the fruit of the same completeness. We are related because what it is within us that actually lives, is the presence of all life.

Wholeheartedness is founded upon this awareness. What is profound to me this morning is that this awareness is not a hypothetical. Unity is not a conjecture. Wholeheartedness is the alignment of the heart and mind with the fundamental integrity of being.

I don’t think I’ve quite understood this before in the way that I understand it now. I’ve wanted other people to understand this with me. I’ve looked through the door and said, “See…? Wouldn’t it be amazing to visit this place together? How could we get more people to see this?” Outside of wholeheartedness we dissemble into this type of thinking. We need to get enough votes. We need to be perceived as reasonable. We need to be in the company of those who second us. What matters is what is effective: we need to pull the right levers to turn the ship around.

Wholeheartedness doesn’t see the world this way at all. It’s a very subtle distinction, but as soon as the idea arises that what is good and true is actually blocked from coming into being by another—as soon, in other words, as any problem we sense is projected onto another being—the possibility for genuine transformation is lost. And it is lost because Creation’s completeness is no longer being witnessed. What is witnessed instead is our collective truck stuck in the mud, and the notion that we’d actually be better off with some beings and not others. What is witnessed is right and wrong, the efficacy of gamesmanship and the validity of distrust. What is witnessed… is nothing at all.

Wholeheartedness is replaced in this exchange by fractured perception, and the power of what is so can no longer be summoned, or felt, or known. I’ve done this many times myself. I’ve done this as recently as yesterday. The problem of the world is addictive. But also, I’ve begun to appreciate how powerless I feel in my discontent. And I’ve begun to accept that the conventional wisdom of listening empathetically and giving another’s perspective its due, while powerful in helping us to understand another’s condition and motivation, can be taken too far. The fundamental false equivalency that exists is that of separation and unity.

To return to a point from last week, the only obstacle to genuine transformation is the loss of wholeheartedness, which can come from meeting the world on its terms. I’m paraphrasing the quote from ACOL I gave, which suggested what will prevent us from following old patterns is our inability to go out into the world and remain who we are. The trap here I think is otherness. The allure of otherness is profound in our consciousness. It’s instinctual even.

We like to speak of the illusion of self. It is a prominent theme in some veins of modern neuroscience, as well as in various non-dual practices. It seems a potential point of agreement across many points of view, but we seldom hear about the illusion of other, and I don’t think we can sustain wholeheartedness while the illusion of other remains. I don’t think we can enter the world and remain true to who we are, if the power of otherness persists in our thought.

Entering the Dialogue, Part 1

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Course Ideas

The desire to write manifests as follows: a warmth in my chest accompanied by the sense of possibility, and the awareness something wants to be said, though I don’t know what it is. Last night I discovered and read an e-mail exchange between Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky that was published a few years ago. I’d been listening to some of Sam’s podcasts lately, and discovered the two men’s correspondence. I’m not expert on either man’s ideas, but reading and listening led me down to the water’s edge so to speak, to the cool, moonlit stream of my own curiosity, and now I want to drink. I want to explore this feeling I don’t yet understand.

I want to say that this piece is my response to my own impressions, and has nothing to do with the positions either writer has taken. This is like walking into a forest and sensing something in the position of trees and the weight of the light, and stopping to jot a few notes about what it is. While sketching out this moment, the mind supplies a memory to accompany this spacious awareness, the way wine is paired to fish or grouse or tenderloin. So this piece is a reminiscing with my own heart. The e-mails I read have merely nudged me along.

* * * * *

Many of us would like to see the world become a better place. We may be angry about how some things are going, or frightened of the changes we see and the unknown into which those changes might usher us. There is foreboding in the air, a sense that we’re addicted to choices we know don’t ultimately serve us. And whether your life is one of relative comfort or one of considerable earthly difficulty, the fact remains in either case that when circumstance is stripped away, knowing what to do—being confident in one’s own response to a world which is at times so overwhelming—is a luxury few have ever known.

Not knowing what to do can be crippling because ultimately it is a symptom of not knowing or trusting one’s own heart. This occurs when mind and heart have not joined, when the mind’s logic and the heart’s knowing shear painfully against one another. In essence, when we are conflicted within. A Course in Miracles describes this condition in Workbook Lesson 257 (W-257.1.), saying, “If I forget my goal I can be but confused, unsure of what I am, and thus conflicted in my actions.” (The goal of course is a peaceful heart, unity with all creation, and the gifts of a forgiven world.) It is common when we feel this way to look to others for support and guidance—for safety in another’s knowing. There are many options in the marketplace of ideas today, more than ever perhaps, and what I find is that I can be swept along by the attraction of thinkers who exude confidence and an apparently consistent structure of thought. In particular I’m drawn to work that expands my awareness of a topic, that offers a fresh perspective (at least to me), and that suggests novel solutions to our problems.

There is nothing inherently wrong with bringing new ideas to the mind, and I’d say it is ultimately both healthy and necessary, but at the same time I’ll observe that if we enter the flow of ideas in a conflicted, and thus weakened condition, it is all too easy to let another’s recommendation supersede the knowing of our own heart. I’m going to suggest that this type of outward reliance merely sustains our ineffectual condition, and by extension a certain type of powerlessness. For that is what the conflicted state truly is: a powerless one.

A Course of Love (T2:7.10-11) speaks to this directly: “…[O]nce you have become happier with who you are, you will, if left un-schooled, turn your attention to others and to situations you would have be different than they are. You will want to be a change-agent. You will want to move into the world and be an active force within it. These are aims consistent with the teachings of this Course, but what will prevent you from following the patterns of old as you go out into the world with your desire to effect change? The only thing that will prevent this is your ability to go out into the world and remain who you are.”

There is something that happens, as it did when I read the exchange between Sam and Noam, that looks like this: when we see a disagreement—whether between two news channels, two friends, two pundits we admire, two dissenting movie critics or two spiritual teachers who’ve helped us, etc.—we feel a pressure to determine who we think is right. And not only do we feel this considerable pressure which the world brings to bear with great and immediate intensity, we feel a related pressure to explain our decision. There is something quite close to a social contract which says that for anything we might choose to advocate for, or actually do, we must have our reasons. They should be logical and defensible, and these choices and their reasons should be ones most any decent person could adopt. Otherwise we’re crazy.

And here is where it comes apart I think, because if our reasons are those of another–if they are not the reasons of our own heart–then when the spotlight finally shines upon us we falter. We find the reasons we’ve taken on are but flimsy shields that burn up in our reentry to the conflict. We cannot effectively make another’s response our own and place it at our center, because ultimately we cannot supersede our own hearts, so we find we are still empty there, alone and uncertain. There is nothing within us to give while we depend on another for our response to this world—no wellspring of life at the center of us that could not only sustain us individually, but which has as its only true desire the sustenance of all creation. We may embody great emotional intensity and seem quite profoundly alive, when in fact we are merely burning with conflict—consuming ideas like fuel to stoke our fire, to distract from or perhaps even to reenact the real conflict within, and to forge a moment of personal meaning.

There is, in wholeheartedness, by contrast, the gift of knowing who we are and what we would offer now. There is a perfect accord between what we know, what we would give, and the actions or non-actions into which this abundance would flow, and there is in the experience of this unification a reinforcement not only of our own inner validity as a being, but of the innermost validity of all other beings as well. In addition we are able to engage the world not only while remaining who we are, but by becoming even more of who we are. There is a holy source within us that receives even as we give, and the resulting dynamic, or exchange, is called “creation.” It is not the process of making right, or being right, or even knowing right in the eyes of others necessarily. It is the culmination and liberation of all that is—arising uniquely in you, in me, and in all who choose to participate.

(To be continued…)


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Remembering perfectly,
so that you produce the type of knowing
that actually yields light,
does not take practice.
But you do need to clear a space.
Give it time, and allow it to happen.

I left home once, you see—
pulled the door softly-to behind me
so the others wouldn’t be woken.
Clapped my hands in the cold
and breathed into their midst.
The night was so thick
you could smell the absence of light.

Soon I was lost.
Solitude ramified from an interesting idea—
the thought of an innocent adventure,
the word swashbuckling comes to mind—
into a hoary, compounding decrepitude.
You’d think a reversal
would return you to the beginning,
a careful retracing of footfalls.
Just rewind the film.
But it doesn’t work like that.
There’s a step in there you don’t
even realize when it happens
and that’s because it’s a portal.
It must be.
The channel on some universal television gets changed.
A snoozing god rolled over onto the remote control
and hit the wrong button and you were in there
when it happened.
Now you don’t want to panic,
but these things do happen.
The obvious answer is to gather facts.
Construct a system of knowledge generation.
Identify that button.

A mysterious force was holding me to the land,
which I found was emitting fibers.
By plucking fistfuls of the grass
and shoving them in my pockets,
I hoped later to produce a rope.
My initial attempts were like wads of wet clay.
But I learned.
There was also a wind.
The direction into the wind, I called up.
The other direction down.

I bumped into a woman once
who was standing in a spot she’d chosen
for reasons that of course do not exist
and she was readying herself to sing—
what is singing?—
and we were both surprised by one another,
and famished for a feeling we’d forgotten,
and we touched each other’s faces
in the darkness that held no light,
and like two pieces of flint we rubbed together
and produced a spark—
at least in our minds.
We thought we remembered something
and our tears were quite gladdening.

But it happened really fast.
And then it was gone.
And then she sang.

Afterwards I showed her I was trying to make rope
and she showed me a sail she’d made
from leaves—what are leaves!?
so we’d always know the direction
of the wind and we could navigate
and eventually we found others
who were digging ditches because
ditches don’t fill in for some reason
in this place
and with rope and ditches you could
expand from a common center and find
your way back which is what we all agreed
was what we’d always wanted
and like a society of civilized folk
we shared our measurements
and plied them together into a network
and like pieces of flint we rubbed together
sometimes in different ways, what with our talking and touching
and occasionally sparking ideas,
and once in a while blazed with rememories.

Once I was out way at the end of a ditch
and my heart shuddered with feeling
and the smell went away— which, as you know,
smells always go away, especially if they’re prevalent,
like the manure of animals,
or the off-gassing of wood and paint and carpet,
or the absence of light itself,
so it was hard to explain what I meant
by “the smell went away”—
but the absence of that smell
nearly wilted me, and my heart shuddered,
and pure knowing carved out a space in this land
in which the face of Hafiz appeared,
smiling of course, with flash cards.

The first one was a house. It looked very familiar.
I began to weep of course,
for reasons that simply don’t exist.
While afterward I shook like a fire hose
pressed suddenly into service,
in that moment I was a little awestruck by the light
of his twinkling eyes
and so I whispered to Hafiz, where is that house?
which Mitch, who was working beside me,
swears to this day was said to the darkness and nothing else,
which happens sometimes because as you can imagine
going so long in the smell of light’s absence
can cause your mind to improperly signify
sensory inputs—
to which Hafiz replied, “You’ve never left.”

And I felt an electric jab in my cortex
and up and down my spine and I tried—
Oh, believe me, I tried—
to remember which door I’d shut
when I went out for my little adventure,
because maybe it was an inside door
and not an outside door,
but I couldn’t remember.
I just, I just…
I can only remember that click.
The smell of light’s absence.
The pressing of a strange button.

The second flash card read as follows:
“There are no outside doors.”

Then the fire hose thing.

Mitch dragged me back to the clinic.
He was very heroic and he probably
saved my life, since I was thinking—
not really, actually,
I wasn’t thinking anything,
but basically the way the story is told
is that Mitch, by dragging me back to the clinic,
produced a chain of events for which
I should be very grateful.
They’re running lots of tests on me,
and they’re going to help me.
But once in a while, I catch the absence of the scent of the absence of light.
And I wonder, how do you retrace
that step that wasn’t a step?

How do you see through the darkness again,
if it doesn’t really exist? And why am I trying to see
with my nose?

A Tap on the Glass

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For meditation this morning (for how else would you describe it) I read the last fifty pages of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Then I walked the mile to the town library and collected some new pages to consider.

On the way back I passed a yellow farmhouse—the tractor and the corn wagon were parked across the street in a field of pending silage—where I heard a knocking hand against glass. I looked up to see a child, little more than a baby, pressed against the window. Bleached blonde hair and fair skin, a square head, and curious eyes were set in the lower corner of the white trim frame on the second story of this butter-colored house.

I smiled. I had two hardbacks in my hand, wrapped in their glossy covers. Two authors I’ve not read before. A brimming excitement.

I kept walking, and the child tapped again. And again I looked up and smiled, turning back over my shoulder this time before I disappeared into the eaves of a tree.

The child tapped again.

Has there been a more exquisite moment? Ever?

I was thinking, after just completing To the Lighthouse, that atheism and a certain breed of mysticism—an ecstatic consciousness as one writer described it—do not appear to be mutually exclusive, at least in the hands of Virginia Woolf. One does not need to invoke any particular religious trappings to savor the ecstatic whorl of an oar dipped in the current, to extend a feeling of warmth across the waters to a drifting man, to contact the rush of loneliness that sneaks in and leaves us winded, that lingers in the corners of a room, of a mind, of a place—in the stitching of cloth, the hues and contours of flowers, the positions of empty chairs.

I loved the way thought dips and soars in this book. It settles on a branch, quivers along its body then plunges into the sky, in every direction at once—a shimmering, croaking cloud of wings—swoops, then alights again, coalescing upon a wire. Now a line. Now a thicket of longing and wonder. Now the two persons along the path, their futures uncertain, the sky tenuous and sparkling. The rush of water against the rocks down below.

What I love is that this imminence is the thing itself, in Woolf’s writing. At least for me it is. It is not reducible to explanation. The characters are all adrift in this brilliant tumble. As we are. And I think if we could just have this, if we could just let it be and not pick at it, and not insist that it is equivalent to this or that underlying progression of digital commutations of which the world is composed, we would be alright.

If the play of the sun on leaves and the warble of a bird’s knowing could just be what they are, we could discover the extravagant, all-encompassing solitude that occupies the middle—the space between a world reducible to atoms, or reducible to God, and illumination could find us. We could transcend the franchises that occupy and cordon our thought. Our knowing. For there is a sort of knowing that is all at once, isn’t there?

I think there must be something real in the tenor and tremble of our experience. An irreducible might—a silent, shining vision. Something that can reach through a child leaning against a knee-high pane of glass, and tap on the window as we stroll along, to say hello.