A Piece of Cosmic Literature

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Course Ideas / Science

An aspect of nature I love is its elegant ambiguity. Despite our best efforts and the amazing discoveries we’ve made in the past few centuries there are fundamental questions about the nature of the universe that may not ultimately be knowable through objective inquiry. It’s always too early to tell, of course, since we don’t know what we may learn next, but the pattern of ambiguity is fairly clear. The ambiguity goes all the way back to the Greeks. At least.

Two fundamental questions on which we still cannot definitively rule upon with our present knowledge are free will vs determinism and atomism (discreteness) vs holism (interrelatedness). Other assumptions that appear to be true given our present knowledge but may ultimately be disproven are the notion that natural laws and/or fundamental properties do not change in time, the idea that causality holds at the most fundamental level of the universe, and the idea that the universe is only one thing at a time.

We just don’t know.

Generally speaking I think scientific discoveries provide interesting data points for our conversations regarding the really big questions, but I do not believe any of the discoveries we’ve made to date should be parlayed into big picture conclusions just yet. For instance, some may look at the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics and suggest that the uncertainty gives room to justify the existence of free will, or the movement of the will of God, etc. I think it is inappropriate to draw these conclusions, and thankfully, nature’s ambiguity makes them untenable anyway.

That said, I do think the patterns and correlations we observe in the natural world are interesting. I think they tell us something about ourselves, much like our artwork may reveal qualities of our subconscious minds. I think that our discoveries tell some of the truth, but not the whole truth, if you will, and although I argue we have to be careful about drawing metaphysical conclusions from physics, for instance, I do think it is worthwhile to note correlations between the two—not as one serving as rigorous proof of the other per se, but more like the manner in which good literature invokes a sensation of the familiar. Good literature reminds us of something genuine about ourselves and our experience of life that cannot necessarily be reduced to simple statements. Likewise, I think the patterns we see in the natural world can resonate with and spark a memory of what we experience and know at a deep level. It is like seeing something and going, “Oh, yes… I remember this… it is familiar… it is life…”

So one really interesting field of research in modern physics today is quantum entanglement, and while I don’t have space to explore the idea fully here, I will try to provide a simple example. In quantum physics a particle does not have definite properties until one or more of them are measured and information about the particle is extracted from it. In some cases, more than one particle can be bound by natural laws to form a singular quantum system. One example is two particles who have the same point of origin, or birth point. Due to natural laws, and by way of example, we could say that the property of spin must be conserved: if one particular spins one way, the other particle must spin the other. But until one or the other particle is acted upon or measured, both particles exist together as a singular quantum system in which the spin of neither particle is determined. They “exist” in multiple spin states simultaneously until we force them to choose one state or another. What is remarkable about entanglement is that we can take these two particles in carefully constructed carrying cases to the opposite poles of the earth, and then measure one of them. What has been proven in modern physics experiments is that both particles always show equal and opposite spins when the measurement is made.

The head-scratcher here is that the particles are too far apart in space to receive any signal from the other, so they essentially coalesce into the mutually correlated states instantly. If one is spin up, the other is spin down. How do they do that? If their condition wasn’t predetermined at the moment of their conception, how does the roulette wheel land in precisely opposite points every time? That is entanglement. Theoretically it has been shown that IF the outcomes of the particles were predetermined by some factor that existed at their mutual birth, then an experimental result would be different than if they were truly a quantum system whose final state was NOT predetermined. Time after time the quantum result has been measured.

But recently physicists have noted that the quantum outcome of the experiments could be measured AND the outcome could still be related to some predetermined factor that related them from birth IF it were the case that instead of having all possible spin states to choose from, they were limited to a particular menu. In other words, if some factor existed at their birth that constrained the possible spin states from which they could choose, then the quantum experimental results would be observed but it would NOT prove the quantum position. The experiment could not distinguish then between two particles whose identities were determined at birth from two particles whose identities were randomly determined only at the time a measurement was made.

The distressing outcome of this realization is that there is no way to know for certain that everything in the universe is not constrained in some way all the way back to the common point of origin for the entire universe—e.g.the Big Bang. If I replace the word constrained with related, and if I understand the article correctly, it means there is no way to disprove the existence of a fundamental relatedness of all things to all other things that extends all the way back to the birth of this universe.

Scientists call this catastrophe super-determinism, and they call it a catastrophe because it suggests the entire universe is pre-determined. But I view it for the time being as an interesting corollary to the sort of “God” described in A Course of Love, a God which is described as “the relationship of everything to everything.” [ACOL D:D35.3] A key idea in A Course of Love is that to shed our false skins we must forgive reality for being what it is. We have to forgive the fact that the universe is based upon relationship, and none are truly separate.

“Joining rests on forgiveness. This you have heard before without understanding what it is you would forgive. You must forgive reality for being what it is. Reality, the truly real, is relationship. You must forgive God for creating a world in which you cannot be alone. You must forgive God for creating a shared reality before you can understand it is the only one you would want to have. […] You have to forgive yourself for being what you are, a being who exists only in relationship.” [ACOL C:6.1]

I think that this idea of super-determinism is perceived as catastrophe because it speaks to our deep relatedness and we are culturally enamored of our own independent greatness. We marvel at the self-made man, the one who puts destiny on their back and sallies forth. We don’t generally like the idea there may be something we cannot overcome, some condition that binds us. Now I’m not sure that this finding implies every last thing is known in advance (e.g. is as deterministic as the behavior of billiard balls for instance) or if it merely implies that because of our relatedness the universe may not explore every conceivable situation or possibility. The menu may be limited, and it may be limited by the choices we make together, or perhaps by a choice we made together at the very beginning. I find that to be a beautiful thought.

So I’m not suggesting we have proof of God here. Far from it. But I do think we have a piece of cosmic literature with which to resonate. Or not. What we most assuredly do not have, is answers.

* * * * *

The article that kicked this musing off is here.

A Meditation on Fear

comments 33
Course Ideas

When we are in a fearless state, the edges that delineate us as individuals blur. We flow into the world comfortably, and the world flows into us without resistance or hesitation. This is the primal form of giving and receiving on which I think all beings are nurtured and sustained. It is not a state of excitement or of euphoric abandon, but of peace and of enduring joy.  When this is our experience we respond easily to the movement of the world, without wondering if our responses are the “right” ones, and somehow they end up being good (rather than right) anyway, even if they trigger the unexpected. The unexpected is okay: the phoenix needs ashes from time to time, if it is to arise.

When we are in a fearful state, the edges that delineate us harden, and collapse. We contract. Something in the world appears to threaten our existence or well-being and in accepting this perception we instinctively move to protect ourselves. The protecting that we do cuts off the circulation of ourselves into the world, and the world into us, leaving us even more unsafe in our experience than we were before. We can end up isolated from the subtle tendrils of knowing that pass back and forth between ourselves and the heart of the world, without which we are left to our own devices.

With a smidge of reflection and honest self-appraisal, we recognize that our thoughts and feelings tend to feed off of one another. We discover that a sensation of well-being is accompanied by particular types of thoughts and feelings, and that the sensation of being fearful, or threatened, likewise is attended by a particular pattern of thoughts and feelings. Often in our initial review we attach our thoughts and feelings to worldly phenomena: I feel good when I imagine I will be successful or when I actually achieve some goal, and I feel poorly when I suspect I will be a failure or when I fail to achieve some goal. One of the most critical objectives of the spiritual path is to look more deeply at these cycles of thought and feeling, so that we may discover the underlying conditions that generate them.

In time we discover that our assignments of well-being and fear to phenomenal conditions was only an effort to project the realities of our inner life upon the symbols of the world; we discover the true causes for our sensations of well-being or of fear and threat are in fact only indirectly related to the world. The world is not the cause; rather, the world—or rather, our interpretation of the world—mirrors our innermost choices and beliefs. We respond to it based on our sense of well-being or fear, and these responses feed the cycle. Thus in looking at our responses to the world, and in looking carefully at our ideas about the world, we see what our own deepest beliefs really are.

At some point it becomes clear that a sense of well-being may be maintained in any set of circumstances—even if at first we are only capable of imagining this in others, like a teacher or a saint or a figure like Jesus or Buddha. Upon discovering this we fill with the desire to sustain this well-being indefinitely in ourselves, to make it the very ground of our living. We know that if we could do so, we would suffer no more. What disturbs this on an almost continual basis is our fear, which we ultimately discover is the product of various deeply held beliefs that contradict the nature of reality. When we believe in ideas that are in contradiction to the nature of reality, it places our hearts and minds into conflict. This is because our hearts don’t forget so easily, or rationalize things, so even though we may convince ourselves of something intellectually, if it isn’t in accord with our authentic nature at a very deep level, then we experience conflict. And when we are in conflict within, we are afraid.

The great paradox of a spiritual journey is that knowing all of this is not enough. Even though we recognize we must relinquish our fear, while we are afraid this is an act we are not remotely capable of completing. It is like having the world’s stickiest glue at the end of your finger, and you’re trying to shake it off, only it is motion-activated so the harder you shake the sticker it gets. Our efforts to relinquish the fear merely reinforce its existence. When our efforts fail, we feel that we have failed twice over.

At the same time, we will not be rescued. When we lament and pray for our fears to be removed, or appeal to some higher power in a similar way, it almost goes without saying that magic wands and silver bullets do not arrive. We are left with ourselves, and this in turn can lead to despair, too. We can’t shake it off and we aren’t going to be rescued. What are we to do?

One thing I’ve learned is that we too often miss the gift of silence that comes in answer to our desire to be rescued. We miss its real meaning. The first year I did a vision quest I thought if I was good and genuinely giving and as vulnerable as I could be in all of my preparations, that I would be rescued. I didn’t say it that way to myself, but that is what I thought. And then I stewed for the entire time in my own juices, and the difficulties inside me seemed only to magnify. I knew I couldn’t dispense with fear through intellectual slight of hand, and my effort to offer up everything I had fell on its face. But then I realized there was this silence given. What did it mean?

In our efforts to be fearless—to be worthy and loving and unified of mind and heart—our approach is almost always rooted in changing ourselves somehow. We live in a world where we believe we have the power to make and to change ourselves. We believe we have some say in our destiny. But this is not only false at the deepest level, changing ourselves is precisely what is not required. In fact, it is not possible, for we remain as we were created forever. Sure we change outwardly all the time: we develop skills, we pick up hobbies and interests, we are “changed” by our experiences, but this is not the level at which we are changeless. It is the level at which we are afraid.

The real difficulty is that we have attempted to be something we are not and can never be. We have attempted to assert a dominion that is invalid, a personhood that supersedes our point of origin. We think we can change what needs to be changed without yielding on this one false assertion we have made: that we know and define who we are. There is great difficulty in relinquishing our cherished notions of who we are, and this is why fear is so tenacious, and why miracles are so necessary. For miracles are the middle road between being rescued and being in charge. Miracles are flashes of the unity and relationship that are our authentic selfhood. Miracles are given naturally when we stop driving the bus and pining to be rescued.

Our authentic selfhood is a bit of an enigma to define, but we know it when we allow it to be. For suddenly our boundaries have blurred, and the world within and without is simultaneously known. There is a familiarity with the unknown itself, a comfort with its movement in our life, and an awareness that well-being is flowing in steady supply from each to each, and all to all. Our mind discovers the true nature of things and in doing so is no longer conflicted with the heart, and our fears dissolve.

Our part in this is really interesting. Our part is to stand amidst the evidence of our brokenness –our illnesses, our broken relationships, our failures as we perceive them, our shortcomings and inadequacies, our doubts—and allow them to be turned inside out. Rather than interpreting our circumstances as a meaningful reflection of who we truly are, we allow grace to provide the interpretation. And if we feel we must contribute something to the process, we can nurture a view that encompasses not only ourselves, but all beings, and looks so deeply upon them that their innate goodness emerges in our sight. This choice, which is not a choice about ourselves alone, but a choice about all beings, is powerful.

This is a choice we can make. And it will heal our misperceptions, and dissolve our fears in time.

On Wholeness, Life and Awe

comments 33
Science

I like ideas that change the room completely and clap me numb as a board, and I have found that in both scientific and spiritual domains—in all encounters with genuine discovery—moments arise producing a sense of awe. This awe is like a resonance of my heart. I think conventional knowledge would suggest that the heart’s ways of knowing and intellectual ways of coming to understanding are unrelated, but I have to confess I don’t see it this way at all. In my work as an engineer for instance, when evaluating a problem, I get a sense that something is incorrect long before I can identify the reason why, and likewise, often a statement that is logically correct just feels wrong, and if I trust this intuition I am able to follow the thread to the reason why I feel that way.

The fallacy of most argument is that it treats an isolated portion of the story, and never the whole.

Recently I had one of these moments of awe reading a paper written by the Italian scientist Marcello Barbieri. I have this feeling often when I read about the rambunctious whirly-gigs of life that fill a cell, and in this case it was the notion in Barbieri’s work that the process of life relies upon conventions that are not reducible to physical laws. Barbieri’s work is at the frontier of biosemiotics, a field which endeavors to apply principles of semiotics in general to biological systems.

One example of semiotics is semaphore, where waving flags around allows people who are able to interpret the symbols to send messages back and forth. Nothing about the process of waving flags around, or watching them wave around, violates physical laws, but nothing about the meanings exchanged may be derived from physical laws either. The meanings could be anything.

The process involves three components: a sign or symbol (the various flag-waving maneuvers), the meaning (the letters of the alphabet assigned to those maneuvers), and a code, which is the relationship between the two. It is this relationship between symbols and meanings that is not reducible to physical laws. The relationship, in other words, is not predicated upon a physical necessity.

In the body the most famous code is the genetic code, but in relatively recent history many other codes have been found in biological systems. Barbieri identifies approximately twenty in his paper, all of which were discovered between 1996 and 2008—the year his paper was written. So this is a relatively recent line of theoretical pursuit. What is amazing to me is this: life produces novelty through the production of novel and sustained relationships (codes) not driven by physical necessity. The operation of these codes conforms in every way to physical laws, but the relationships themselves are arbitrary in some sense. Or at least, that is the supposition.

As scientists the difficult task that Barbieri and his colleagues face is that they wish to avoid resorting to mysticism or spiritualism or the like to justify this, and I support them in their desire to do so. I have a mystical propensity myself, but I don’t believe a quick leap into positing an external codemaker—e.g. an invisible writer of codes, such as a God—is merited. You see, it doesn’t sit well with me to reduce these moments of awe to something that I can hold in my hand by saying, “Oh, it is the hand of God.” I would rather sit in awe for a moment and just let that feeling be what it is…

Why is this awesome, though? What does it mean about the nature of things? Well the spiritual teachings with which I resonate most describe reality as relatedness. A Course of Love is quite clear on this, and I see certain Buddhist teachings suggesting this as well, though I am not a scholar and could find myself in a quandary were I to try and elucidate that quickly here. What is awesome to me is that we see the very nature of life, and of the world in which we live, as being the spontaneous production of non-physical, novel quantities called “codes” that never existed before in the history of the universe. This is sublime. You will not find codes by manipulating natural laws or the equations that express them any more than you will produce a legal system by recording the sounds produced in the vocal cords of prehistoric hominids. Now this is not to say that Barbieri believes the cellular codes are the product or vehicle of any conscious codes, like a modern language for instance; to be clear that is not his intent at all. But it is his intent to demonstrate that life as we know it could not exist or have evolved as it has, without the promulgation of the absolute novelty produced by the development of codes in the very heart of biological process.

If I think about the resistance to physicalism that I have in my heart, it would be this: physicalism tends to assert that all things are explainable, ultimately, by the basic physical properties of matter. This is certainly the case for the creation of the elements in stars, for instance, where the given properties of atoms and the forces of nature necessarily give rise to heavier elements. This process is no different, qualitatively, than water flowing down a hill. It is fully explained by the given nature of things. The implication of codes at work in living processes is that life is not reducible to the given nature of things. It is something more.

I am willing to make a leap Barbieri and other scientists may not be permitted to take, and that would be to suggest that it is the very nature of this universe to explore relatedness—to suggest, in other words, that the universe as it exists is not reducible to physical necessity alone. There are additional propensities in its very fabric that compel the spontaneous production of novelty through the exploration of relatedness. We might say, for instance, that this universe has some sort of innate facility to promote, or bring into being, relationship itself. These relationships are not necessarily physical, or reducible to physical necessity, but nonetheless they are developed and sustained. And they are certainly physically expressed.

It would be remiss scientifically to propose an external conscious agency orchestrating these events, and that is not what I wish to suggest. That is too simplistic an approach in my opinion. It misses the mark because it suggests there is something outside of this universe acting upon it, and that does not ring my heart like a bell. It feels more a projection of anthropomorphic reasoning than a viewpoint from this moment of awe. Awe, you see, does not require a causal explanation.

I do think, for instance, that we may discover additional physical means by which these relationships are forged. One little known piece of scientific research, for instance, has found that proteins and other biological molecules related to a common process in living organisms share common resonant frequencies. Water has also been shown to be a medium capable of receiving, storing, and transmitting those (or similar) frequencies in recent scientific research as well. We may well find that—(I’m rushing heedless into the unknown here)—a missing element to our story of life’s origins is that some sort of selection process occurred between primordial biomolecules due to shared resonance that facilitated repeated interactions, which led to novel relationships. The elements to such a theory exist in various disciplines right now so I’m not sure how great a stretch this really is. I have no idea what we will find, but I think we’ll find a great deal more by way of explanatory mechanisms as we dig.

That said, it would not take away from this sensation of awe for me, or from the idea that the universe has its origins in the promulgation of relationship, which is never identifiable in one physical entity or another, but in the wholeness between them that is greater than any part. It is wholeness that we too often discard as having any active validity in my opinion. It is wholeness that we cannot measure. We think both scientifically and culturally in terms of discrete entities, discrete beings, discrete forces, when in fact there are few fields of knowledge where self-existing independence remains viable as a path to knowledge.

And when we confront the ineffable link that lies between things, holding them each to each and giving them a path to expression, I think awe is a perfectly reasonable response. For it is what we cannot measure that is the most essential quality of what is.

On Writing

comments 27
Course Ideas / Creative / Fiction

I could suggest I’m grappling with writing—with the idea of writing, perhaps, and how the idea crumbles when I sit down to write; how I pan in the dust for gold and will myself to proceed though a dense and peculiar metal, of itself, is meaningless; how I come up dry and uncertain, but then find a sparkle or two in the half-light just as I turn away, and suddenly am renewed—but the real grappling is with the need to be measurable. The real grappling is with the notion that I might say, I love this, and in loving it and acting upon that love, create a fuller version of myself, or that in my failure to do so, I might fail not only some selfish dream to which I feel prey, but the pure dream on which my life was founded.

We worry we will not become who we have always been.

Of course ultimately it is none of these things, really. And yet it is all of them. It is whatever it takes to be reduced to an instant of creative complicity with all that exists, so that this becomes my sole purpose for being. There is a moment, one step beyond our base desire, when the sorcery actually works and we are entangled with new life—it is with us and in us even as it rises onto its own shaky legs to become a fresh and growing thing, a living thing quivering with potential we cannot explain.

I have been reading, in fits and starts, The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, and I very much enjoyed the passage in which he attempts to describe the motive in the art: the need to express some truth of our lives that can only be expressed in the way a narrative takes shape. This “truth” cannot be reduced to some principle of morality or theme. It can only be stirred up and aroused, blown into the air through the sleight of hand that we call writing—just as our own lives I think, stand for something that can never quite be reduced to labels and boxes.

We each stand for such a subtle truth that emerges in the fullness of our living, in the way we yearn and stumble through time and circumstance; in the way we call out, seek to know and be known; in the way we attempt to take the measure of ourselves and one another—though how tragically pointless is this pursuit of taking measure?

In college when I signed-up for a fiction writing class as a senior elective instead of another engineering or mathematics course, I remember wondering at one point: if it is true that we can shake off the chains of concept and ego, what stories would there be? What would be the point of this art if suffering were no more? How could you have plot without the conflict—character without man or woman against the world, against one another, against what has befallen them?

I still wonder sometimes, but of course it is a silly question. It is a bit like asking whether or not life would still be valuable were we to experience its beauty and lasting perfection in a deeper way. Surely this is not an idle pursuit! I think the fact would remain: art in all its forms, including life itself, would exist to tell a truth that cannot be reduced to a more primitive form. This is why there is so little to be found in conforming to particular definitions or concepts of success in this life: to live for someone else is to believe the content of one’s own unique revelations, when unearthed through the art of living—or writing, or building, or studying, or sailing, or experimenting—will not be enough.

This of course is the beginning and ending of all our difficulty.

My fiction work to date is deficient in various and measurable ways; of this I have no doubt. I am like the violin student producing screeches a half-step out of key; but I do think there have been truths unearthed, in the middle of it somehow, that cannot be reduced. And I think that as I learn to trust them more, and to contemplate less their relative worthiness, one day I will find myself bewildered and standing in the presence of new life. The attempt is helping me to overcome these final and beguiling expectations for myself, to admit I don’t know what I am doing even if it produces moments of soul-cradling sweetness.

It seems a solitary pursuit, but the sensations of doubt lead me back to the beginning, and to the realization that we are all related—we are all the same in our need to know and be known, to share in moments of intimacy and grace, to have a feeling that is ratified or an insight that inspires, to birth in our very lives a truth we could not have known otherwise. Writing is far too feeble and fleeting a pastime to carry the weight of a life, but left alone, freed of idols and fixations, it may perhaps surprise us.

Just as we may surprise ourselves to realize that, in all our driven fury, we have always been right here: in the room, in the moment, in the time, where new life emerges.

New Moon Gymnastics

comments 55
Poetry

I went for a swim.
Now I am dripping with this stuff.
The words are all one-sided.
If you look at the wrong side it’s not even there.
You hold one up to the sun and it looks like a translucent ash,
because we’re all falling out.
In my desire to move in a quiet circle, I can see:
sometimes even the straightest shot is a broken one.
Life is this thing, you catch yourself immersed in something trivial–
you catch yourself.
It’s that moment of catching. Like a dove’s landing. The last time the wings flap.
You just have to try it yourself.
Fall from the sky, and then:
coil your wings beside your chest.
You pull away from what you’ve been
and it’s all right there.
If you’ve ever studied the darkness, you know what I mean.
You catch yourself, you catch somebody else.
They each catch somebody else after that.
To do this, we listen.
That’s the way.
Did I say ash? Maybe it was snowflakes.
Dew glistens in the darkness unexpectedly.
After driving all day, you kill the lights.
You can go no further.
There!
Hafiz is standing on the rim of the world,
doing cartwheels before the moon,
prancing like a spider.
What is he dancing on about?
The other day it hit me:
cigarettes are in the movies again.
The times are very serious
and everything I know is wrong
and I don’t want to downplay it…
but the water’s been this way for a while.
I want to have conversations
with hearts who’ve already broken,
who have nothing left but their trust in the wind,
who can teach that to me with their silence,
who know the only thing you truly have
is the space all beings inhabit together.
Not bodies.
That’s not what I mean.
I mean beings.
Beings who are dripping with this stuff,
and laughing,
toweling off, doing calisthenics,
warming up for tonight’s new moon gymnastics.

The Arc of Being

comments 36
Course Ideas / Reflections

The other morning on the ride to work, I heard a story on Maine Public Radio about the various preachers that would be offering a prayer at the upcoming Presidential Inauguration. The report made it clear that several of the individuals were known for teaching the “Prosperity Gospel,” which apparently is the idea that earthly success may be interpreted as a symbol, or perhaps even an outcome, of divine favor.

This idea is so pernicious I wanted to take it up briefly. But I also wanted to spend a brief time on the idea because it could be seen as the extremist form of a more moderate idea–more readily accepted perhaps–that there is some sort of relationship between our worthiness as people, and the events of our lives. While I do believe there is a relationship, or dialogue of sorts, between the events of our lives, our most profound inner needs, and the divine, it has little to do with this notion of earthly treasure or accomplishment. At the same time, I do not see our relationship to the divine as divorced from our earthly journeys, so this merits some thought. What do I mean?

To begin, this idea of Prosperity Gospel is abhorred to me because it says, most simply, we’ve each gotten what we deserve. If we were favored, we’d have these things we desire, or if we made ourselves good enough, holy enough, pure enough–undoubtedly in ways that defy human understanding–we’d be able to change our stations in life. This is utterly false in my opinion, and is based on a profound misunderstanding of what true value is. Worst of all, it is a doctrine that could be used to spiritually underwrite the status quo and suggest that the widespread suffering we see today of those who are poor, sick, or alone in one way or another, is just how it is. The people who find themselves in conditions of despair should just pray harder. This is absurd.

And yet… I do believe each of us exists in relationship to what I will call, similar to terms used in my previous post, a grace-filled arc of being. This arc of being is the journey we each make along a path from ignorance–our basic ensnarement in the thought forms of separateness, specialness and conflict–to freedom. I believe we are each supported along this arc in ways that are profound, subtle, and gentle; in ways that do, often, defy human understanding. I believe each of us is called, or chosen if you will, to make this journey, and that while the tools and systems-of-thought in which we may take solace and direction will be unique to each of us, they are nonetheless rooted in a common and ubiquitous grace.

The value that I see on offer is the fullness of our heart’s expression, and our freedom from fear and suffering. We are free, in other words, from the abiding sensation that we are vulnerable to forces acting against us, and we are able, in the fullness of our hearts, to give the world that which is uniquely ours to give. The results of this in some cases may well entail a public renown, a benign notoriety or an audience of receivers to our giving, but I think this is quite secondary to the task at hand. Our fulfillment derives from the freedom from trepidation that we achieve, from the sense of unity with one another that inherently arises when the obstacles to our awareness of such have been removed, and from the glory of simply being the fullest version of ourselves we are able to muster in any given moment.

I do believe we are supported in this arc of being throughout our lives, and perhaps beyond, but I think most importantly is the notion that we are supported equally in this regard. Equal in our society has a tendency to imply a mediocrity, a bureaucracy, a legislated norm, and it is this that I think we must overcome. For in our failure to conceive of equality in an ecstatic, dimensionless sense of the word, we bind ourselves to the mediocrity we have created in the past. We insist on external systems to do the work for us, and of putting our trust in institutions.

I consider Jesus as a teacher and a friend. I consider Rumi in this light. The Buddha, and countless others. I see in them a call to transcend our ideas of material success and institutionalized equality, and to embrace the timeless equality of being. We are each called to something uniquely our own, yet integral to the whole–to revelation of our innermost sensations of existence, which naturally give rise to our collective provision, to our collective health and well-being, and to our freedom from hidden agendas, favors owed, and the inflicting of leverage upon each other.

If the favor we seek comes at the cost to another on this earth, it is a false favor, and will be granted only upon the prying of earthly laws one against the next. Yet I am certain that somewhere along that arc of being to which we are each and everyone called, lies freedom from these impositions, these false laws created and ordained by humans, that have no basis in universal phenomena or decree. This arc of being is hard to walk. It can be arduous, but only because it asks us to let go of every false value we have ever chosen, and to recognize even in our most trying moments, that their arising has been a gift of proportions we so often fail to consider or comprehend.

There is a Prosperity Gospel, and it is the truth of our interdependence, of our interbeing–the abundance we discover in lifting ourselves and one another. It is the trump card of timeless grace, against which all failures of circumstance and perception fail. We are all travelers on this arc of being, whether we accept as much or not, and in this, we are truly equal.

What We Know, Who We Are, What Will Be

comments 49
Course Ideas / Reflections

As we embark on a new calendar year, I am intrigued, as I usually am, by the notion that a life is a unique and particular trace through the unknown. But I am even more deeply stirred by the idea that an integrity to each path is preserved, akin to the deepest natural laws ever discovered, that sustains at all times a most succinct route possible through suffering, regardless of what our choices may have been in the past. This perpetual sustenance presupposes that in every moment, a perfect response is given to the parameters of our knowing, our acting, and our being, such that our lives proceed inevitably through ignorance and difficulty, to grace.

Our unknowing, if you will, proceeds inevitably to knowing. But we have a role in this process. We can witness the underlying thread connecting our aspirations, our pain, our dreams–our most subtle natures, even–or we can remain distant from this active force in our lives. Either way it is not always easy-going.

We think sometimes that life would be easier, more enjoyable even, if we could carve out a self-perpetuating niche of solace, something like a trust fund of peace and quiet, or safety, in which we could remain. But our lives drag us forth from these niches and inevitably undo their very foundations, time and time again, so that we are unable to carve out from the wilderness of unknowing the one thing we have sought–some insulation from the travails of chaos and disappointment, from the threat of illness, poverty, isolation, and of course, the abyss of a mediocre status quo. A dull and grinding hanging-on that’s like the personal heat death of our universe.

This principle I am seeking to describe does not allow for psychological or physical retreat from the frontier of one’s imperfect knowing, because it is this frontier which is precisely the avenue held open to us through which wisdom may be encountered, and suffering undone. If one wishes to experience this movement towards grace as the very substance of their inner life, it helps I think, to accept that all other explanations for events are secondary to this fundamental force of being. Events themselves mean very little, but they reveal us. What is truly occurring in any circumstance is invisible, and most readily understood in terms of one’s unique awareness of resistance and desire.

While our personal desires are objectified or idealized–while we are striving in other words towards some consciously constructed ideal–then the tendency is to interpret our experiences through the lens of this desired outcome. Most often this leads to a resistance in one form or another to what is happening. Resistance sets into motion responses on our part that are intended to change something. This leads us into circular experiences I think, until we discover that the idealized outcome, the object of all our pursuits, was not actually one that life itself is willing to sustain. It was always a false premise.

* * * * *

At the same time, I love that when the dust settles, we know ourselves. We know ourselves with an intimacy and a depth that is astonishing. We know our tendencies, our loves, our needs and our desires. And they are good. We know without needing to even think about it what makes us uniquely who we are. And if we sit with this knowing a little while, I think we even discover we’re each happy about who we are. We don’t really want to be someone else.

I like to read, to write, to get into deep conversations I can’t find my way back from. I like to explore ideas in physics and biology, to learn about the discoveries that propel us to new understanding, but I can only go so far before I must let it all fall away and abide for a time in the simplicity of being. I have to remain in contact with a visceral, effervescent inkling I feel at the core of my being that I can neither justify nor communicate to another human being. It enfolds me, bleeds across the boundaries I have constructed, flows in and out of who I think I am. The social interaction I most require is the quiet, intimate conversation or correspondence, and time spent alone to write or dream or create is a precious resource. But every half hour I wander down the hall to see what my wife is up to. This is who I am.

These are not the things we must forego. None of these individual inclinations or personal nuances create barriers to engaging deeply in the processes of life–processes that nudge us into healing, and then beyond the threshold into fields of pure creation. The edge we must lose to release our suffering is the edge of separateness, the edge of specialness, the edge of not good enough, the edge of vaunted ideals, the edge of resisting. As I write this a great many humans are in poverty, grappling with some form of disease, feeling put upon, encumbered, guilty, or uncertain of how best to proceed. In my heart I hope these become the hallmarks of a passing age. I can see how they might. When the puzzle pieces fall to the floor, in fact, I can see that they already have.

It’s intriguing to realize these are all just ideas–that we are bound so coherently to our ideas we can hardly distinguish them from the events in which they speak. It is all but impossible to comprehend that feeling as certain about different, new ideas as we do about the world we see today would yield a very different experience. We are not being led to a grace in which our unique and given talents, proclivities and attributes are lost, but one in which they are free of the need to be something different, something more, something perfected. I think the miracle of life is that it would ask us to be only who we are–nothing more and nothing less. And I hope in this year we each may recover a taste of the peace that resting on that simple, ineffable memory of who we are can offer us.

On Pulling Oneself Together

comments 28
Poetry

One day I looked Hafiz straight in the eye
(his left if you must know)
(my right)
with the full faith and undeniable force
of forty beleaguered years of human existence
on this little planet of ours, which,
in case you hadn’t noticed,
is clearly going right down the same unsanitary tube
as the one that we now call an asteroid belt,
and I said half-jokingly,
“Tell me the first thing that comes to mind.”

He nodded. Very well.

“Your life,” he said, “is the grace
of a thousand pale suns
still young enough to touch
that you could plant in the soil
anywhere you like–

“including the dark coffin of space
beneath your back deck
where you’re afraid to crawl
lest a horde of spider webs
wrap themselves around your face
while ground-dwelling wasps
crawl utterly nonplussed across your naked skin
causing you to lurch uncontrollably
towards the light and bang your head
against a length of pressure-treated wood–

“where they (the nascent stars) would grow
into fiery gravity mongers yielding glorious worlds
filled with unimaginable representations
of your deepest love,
yielding all that you are
or could ever desire,

“that you keep in a little black bottle
stuffed with an old wooden cork
and wrapped in a shabby wool cloth
that you’ve hidden in a secret compartment
of the heel of your shoe
and completely forgotten even exists.

“Your life until now
has been a great making-do
without the one thing you most need.
And some days, I wish so badly you could see it
I nearly explode into light capable of
filling all of space from one end
to the other.”

I looked down at my beaten-to-hell
leather loafers, and I said to myself yes,
Hafiz you are a genius,
I really can’t go on like this.

Look how I’ve let myself go.

I really must get a new pair.

A Few Loosely Related Thoughts

comments 30
Reflections

bookcover_mlmAs an update to my previous post, my second poetry book is now generally available. I checked and found it on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and stopped there. Henceforth and until it no longer matters, if you live in the United States I would be happy to send you a signed copy for $17, including S/H, provided you are open to delayed gratification. If you live elsewhere I’m also happy to do it but need to research the shipping costs first. If you are interested and aren’t certain how to contact me, you can click on that plus sign (or the link called ‘Contact’) that should be near the header of this site, and contact me via e-mail, and we will make the arrangements.

In terms of new business, I recently finished reading this year’s Man Booker Prize winning novel The Sellout by Paul Beatty, and have begun reading it again. This time I’m taking notes so that when I’m done I can write something intelligent about it. As I make my way more carefully through the text, I am discovering the extent to which it is brimming with insights. It is also brimming with moments that make me laugh, which has made the deeper dive every bit as enjoyable as the first encounter. As an example of Beatty’s humor, consider the moment in which our narrator, who begrudgingly agrees to keep his friend Hominy Jenkins as a slave, at Hominy’s request, bemoans how little work you can actually get out of a slave these days. Particularly one that likes being punished. It’s insane of course, which makes it all the more hilarious.

In Beatty’s writing, humor comes from looking directly at what is and ignoring the most ignominious parts of what you see. Then you realize what you are laughing at and scratch your head. Hominy wants to be beaten because things have changed in his life and he has lost his relevance—what little relevance he once had. Hominy says, “Beat me to within an inch of my worthless black life. Beat me, but don’t kill me, massa. Beat me just enough so I can feel what I’m missing.”

“Isn’t there another way? Isn’t there something else that would make you happy?”

“Bring back Dickens.”

Dickens is the community in which the narrator was raised, and which has basically been forgotten. It has been stricken from the map, the road signs along the highway removed. The narrator can’t commit to bringing back the city, but feels obliged, having asked the question, to take Hominy on as his slave. There’s so much to unearth in this one exchange: the way little absurd loyalties cause us to miss the big picture, the way we manufacture drama to feel alive, the way our desires become distorted and turned inside-out by our desperation, and the way we feel when we are forgotten. I think it takes incredible skill to put so much in play in one construct, and I’ve really enjoyed discovering Paul Beatty’s writing. I look forward to trying to tease out some of the biggest themes of this book in a more thorough review.

Looking back, I’ve read many more authors who are new to me this year than previous years. I think it was because I increased my investment in reading commensurate with my investment into writing. Around this time last year I read White Noise by Don DeLillo, which I loved. I also read Underworld and End Zone, two of DeLillo’s other novels. DeLillo’s writing pushes me along like a blown and giddy leaf, flinging me here and there with the joyful intensity of his sentences. My stepson, who knows far more about these things than I do, once told me that DeLillo writes one paragraph per sheet of paper so that he can really focus on the perfection of the paragraph. His writing has the potent feel you might expect from such a process.

Here is the opening paragraph of End Zone, which is but two sentences in length: “Taft Robinson was the first black student to be enrolled at Logos College in West Texas. They got him for his speed.” Maybe you do not, but I still experience a flicker of euphoria when I read those two simple lines. How does he do that!? End Zone explores intersections and parallels between nuclear war and American football, and there is one chapter of utterly delicious play-by-play of a high stakes college football game.

DeLillo describes his own writing pretty well in this quote I found on Perival.com, “For me, well behaved books with neat plots and worked-out endings seem somewhat quaint in the face of the largely incoherent reality of modern life; and then again fiction, at least as I write it and think of it, is a kind of religious meditation in which language is the final enlightenment, and it is language, in its beauty, its ambiguity and its shifting textures, that drives my work.”

In reflecting on my own enjoyment of reading, I think the beauty inherent in well-crafted prose is indeed something of a revelation, for the words are not the thing, but neither is the thing the thing, really. The thing is this nebulous light, this gossamer thread we see here and there, stitching together the elements of our lives into something beautiful. When we read fiction we are once-removed from its contingencies, freed of the consequences we assign to our own daily affairs, and thus able to see this light as it emerges naturally in the story. Of course what we are seeing is the way our own lives are each more than they seem: currents of narrative and grace that are revealed in the unexpected…

The Magnificence Challenge

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Christ / Course Ideas / Poetry

When I saw Linda’s Magnificence Challenge it gave me a moment of pause to think about how I might answer it, but it did not take long for me to recall a favorite quotation of mine I thought might get the ball rolling: “You are the work of God, and His work is wholly lovable and wholly loving. This is how a man must think of himself in his heart, because this is what he is.”

The truth of the matter is that when we doubt our given nature, we suffer, and I think it is particularly important given the pace and scale of changes in the world these days, to learn that each of us is indeed the seat of magnificence—of holiness and peace. There is something alive within all of us that we can count on, draw upon, and rest within. Something we can share, and grow, and discover. But even as this is true for each of us, we each remain unique, and part of Linda’s challenge is to express in some way what is uniquely “me” I think.

One expression I’m excited about is my second poetry book. After receipt of the proof copy later this week, it should be available in pretty short order from Lulu, and then from other on-line venues in time. Writing this sort of poetry has been a venue for me to rediscover a form of self-expression I had set aside for quite some time, and also where I took a little bit of a gamble—at least so it felt—in writing about this character Hafiz. It just kind of happened. I don’t attribute any real special meaning to it, other than it was one way of giving expression to things that I felt, and somehow it really helped having that fun-loving, deep as a river companion alongside me with whom to explore my heart. It was quite simply fun, and led to discovering relationships with many of you here, which has been deeply rewarding. I don’t know what I would have written about the last couple years without such a muse and companion!

bookcover_mlm

This has now given way to a rekindled desire to write in other forms, and this year I’ve been focusing on writing short stories. So I’ve been just as busily writing as years’ past, and have (mostly) completed six stories since I began in April—mostly, because editing is never truly over–but because I’ve been submitting work for publication in literary journals I cannot publish them here. (If anyone would like to read one of the drafts I’ve written I’d be happy to send you one off-line, just drop me a note or let me know in the comments.) I think what I’m doing is working on a collection of stories that approach the subject of grace, and how it illumines our lives, but we’ll see if I can keep the theme going for an entire collection!

An exciting moment occurred for me this fall when I found out the first story I wrote this year, which I began while seated in an aiport back in April, was awarded Honorable Mention in the New Letters Magazine Prize for Fiction. The Honorable Mention isn’t automatically published so it is not in print yet, but it was a wonderful validation of the direction in which I’d set off. I chose to work on short stories because I felt intuitively it would help me to develop my skills as a writer and I think that is proving true. It is intensely challenging to write. As evidence I also have to my credit over fifteen rejections this year and counting, so pursuit of the craft has been exquisitely humbling and rewarding all at once. The more I engage with the sheer difficulty of it the more impressed I become with every single thing I read. I can no longer read reviews on Goodreads because the ease with which people are able to comment with such casual criticism on work that takes months and months and even years to produce is astonishing. It’s amazing!

Writing has been a great teacher this year because I have been up and down and all over the map about it, without any real recourse to getting a grip at times, but also have experienced directly through its practice a few of those moments of grace. In fact it has required that I keep going despite the usual arsenal of thoughts about whether it is or isn’t going well, and at the end of the day through any committed practice I think we realize: what we do can never provide us with the magnificence we are. It can only reveal it. It’s already in there. Often it is ourselves who are most in need of this discovery, and somehow we must engage with something to act as a catalyst for this cracking open. We have to find our way to the sweet spot of not trying too hard or denying what we have been given, while simultaneously making the honest effort all the same. It’s called surrender I think. Creative endeavors are forays into the unknown and we just can’t control them. It is only when the control is relinquished that what is truly magnificent within us can step forward.

When we discover this sensation of surrender, then the magnificence in each of us is revealed, and the whole world is transformed, as one by one our hearts activate. I’m grateful Linda offered this challenge and grateful to have given it a go. I do hope you will consider checking out the new poetry book when it is released as I think it has its moments—moments I could never have anticipated that somehow matter. In one’s magnificence we see everyone’s, and this is why it is so important that we make the effort to reveal the truth of who we are. Thank you for being part of this journey with me.

Peace to each you…