What We Know, Who We Are, What Will Be

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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

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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

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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!


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…

A Response to the US Election

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Course Ideas

I’ll keep the post here short since I’m providing a link to a short article I wrote in response to the election for a newsletter named “The Embrace,” which is circulated by the publisher of A Course of Love. I do think it is hard to understand the overall implications of what is happening in this election, and the world at large, and my sense is there is a great deal here that is not exactly as it seems.

The Election: Moving from Shock to Love

“Voting this year felt like trying to distill years of carefully-gathered hope and passion into a single, oval-shaped grunt. It was like trying to create a landscape painting with a single prick of ink. It’s not all that satisfying, really, to speak in grunts, but that’s how the final accounting is made. You have to hope the universe is listening. You have to hope it understands…” [Cont’d here]

The Beloved’s Cable Television Network

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When I awoke
I found that
Hafiz and I
were riding breathless
beneath a whirling sky
of flames and television screens,
beneath booming voices
that emerged from the darkness
to pound the night’s hide
with declarations and logic
that made the ground shake
all around us like we
were dashing through
the replay of a furious world
filmed on a handheld.
Our lips were drawn in taut lines,
our horses tireless,
our clothing billowing and tearing
into streamers of muslin
that whipped in the air behind us.
Dust was pelting our eyes.
Talk show hosts and news anchors
were scoring points overhead
while the stars beyond them
were dashing to and fro
in droves, like swarms of bees.

“This is crazy, Hafiz!
What are we doing!?”

“We are in a recursive loop!” he yelled.


He pointed up ahead
to a Cartesian dystopia of
abandoned telephone booths
that stretched for miles
in every direction.
A graveyard of flash-in-the-pan technology.

He stepped inside a booth,
pulled the door shut and
motioned me into another.
We each picked up a receiver.


He waved.

I waved back. This was fun.

“A recursive loop
is when you believe only what you see,
and you see only what you believe.
This creates instabilities in the force.”

“How do we stop it, Hafiz?”

“I find it helps to remember
the Beloved’s cable television network
has quite a wide variety
of programming options.”

It did give quite a contented feeling.

“I like talking to you without yelling,” I said.

“Yes, it’s nice, isn’t it?
We should do this more often.”

Falling Leaves

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I keep sensing this thing
called Love.

The leaves are whispering
something about it right now.
I imagine that when they all
make a sound together like this,
each vibrating in a crisp binding
they have built in this last season of the light–
one they never knew would lead to this–
they hear a sound so beautiful
they flood with joy and forget at last
to hold on.

This is how Love guides itself.
Holiness rises like a flood
to dissolve what only seemed to be.

The leaves drop to the earth.
They are already gone.

It was the sound of each other they heard,
ringing each in each–
the sound of never-ending,
the sound of what
was only ever

We Are One Body, One Life, One Mind

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Course Ideas / Reflections

In the Dialogues of A Course of Love, Jesus says, “Matter is simply another word for content.” This can be a challenging pill to swallow for students of A Course in Miracles, a text which (in part) aims to bring peace of mind by clarifying our confusion between what is real and what is not. We recover our access to peace by withdrawing our identification with particular forms and surrendering our identity to the changeless, formless, and eternal reality that we share. The forms themselves are impermanent, and thus the linking of our identity to a particular form inevitably leads to difficulty.

This teaching often leads to the mindset that form itself is problematic, an undesirable error in creation. It’s in our way, an impediment to pure knowing, an obstacle to our experience of the truth. In such a mindset, our relationship to the world in which we live becomes confounding. No matter how we may try to insist otherwise, in our holiest moments, when our thinking quiets, we witness the world’s astounding beauty. There is something about the very tenor and structure of the world that speaks to the heart of our existence. So how can it be that there is something inherently wrong or “less than” with a material existence?

One of the challenges of attempting to disentangle our misplaced perceptions of the forms we behold is that it can lead to a sort of dualism. Matter is here, and spirit is there. We fabricate a clean divide between two worlds, and thus we cleave ourselves in two. But there is no peace in being divided. There is no peace in waiting for a new life somewhere else. There is no peace in thinking everything we lay eyes upon is one form or another of material temptation. This is not unity at all.

At the outset of A Course of Love Jesus also says, “Content is all you have of God. There is no form to see, yet in the content is the form revealed. This is true seeing. For content is all and form is nothing.”

This is a powerful line to me. It relies on a context that emerges from the entire work, with roots established even earlier in A Course in Miracles, which state that content is eternal and unchanging, and form, as an ever-changing illusion, is nothing at all. So how do we rationalize this with the idea that “matter is simply another word for content?” If forms are nothing and content is all, how can matter be content? It would seem these statements are in direct conflict.

The answer I think is in this idea that “in the content is the form revealed.” Forms come and go, but the substance of which they are made, the very wholeness of creation, is eternal. Earlier in my life I read most of the books Walter Russell wrote and I think that experience was conducive to my understanding what is being spoken of here. In his book The Universal One, Walter wrote:

“Matter is light.
God and matter are One.
Spirit and matter are the same substance.
That substance is light.
There are not two substances in the universe.
There cannot be two substances in the universe.
The substance of the universal Mind is a living substance.
Light is life.
There is but One Life in the universe.
The whole of the universe is but One living, breathing, pulsing Being…”

After this steady drumbeat of declarations, only a few of which I have copied here, he goes on to say that, “The One substance is absolutely frictionless, temperatureless, non-compressible, non-expandable, non-reflectant, non-resistant and non-refractive; but, potentially, it contains the appearance of all these qualities through the dynamic action of those opposing forces within it which cause it to be a thinking substance in motion. These qualities belong to motion and appear only through motion-in-opposition.”

The way Walter uses the word substance is a little challenging, as with our divided minds we don’t tend to envision matter itself as unchanging, or spirit as being a substance, but I suggest that this marriage of the two seemingly distinct realms is exactly what Walter is saying is real. At its most fundamental level, matter is without quality or attribute, and is eternal. It isn’t just dumb dirt, either. It is both pure knowing and the essence of materiality itself. Call it a substance, call it light, call it nothing at all. But don’t call it something that stands apart from what we experience in this very moment of our lives.

What we call a form, however, arises as this fundamental substance is conditioned, through cyclical, repeating movements, which only ever bloom and fade. When we perceive particular forms and lose sight of the whole, this is when we are misperceiving the very nature of creation. We break it down into the here and the there, the good and the bad, that which we would keep and that which we would lose. This is misperception. But the matter itself—the most basic substance of which any form is composed—this thinking, knowing substance, this Light, cannot be changed or harmed, created or destroyed.

To return to A Course of Love, the nature of any form is revealed by its content. When the content is wholeness and that is what we choose to behold, we see the way in which any particular form is but a localized movement of that which is inherently indivisible. The forms give transient expression to what always is and ever will be. The forms can become expression of the content.

This is expressed beautifully in a book called the Divine Iliad by Walter Russell, which his wife Lao quoted in writing a preface for the Universal One. It is hard for me to envision a more palpable form of prayer than this remembrance:

Again I say that all things extend to all things, from all things, and through all things. For, to thee I again say, all things are Light, and Light separates not; nor has it bounds; nor is it here and not there.

Man may weave the pattern of his Self in Light of Me, and of his image in divided Lights of Me, e’en as the sun sets up its bow of many hues from undivided Light of Me, but man cannot be apart from Me, as the spectrum cannot be apart from Light of Me.

And as the rainbow is a light within the light, inseparable, so is Man’s Self within Me, inseparable; and so is his image My image.

Verily I say, every wave encompasseth every other wave unto the One; and the many are within the One, e’en down to the least of waves of Me.

And I say further that every thing is repeated within every other thing, unto the One.

And furthermore I say, that every element which man thinketh of as of itself alone is within every other element e’en to the atom’s veriest unit.

When queries man thee in this wise: ‘Sayest though that in this iron there is gold and all things else?’ thou may’st answer: ‘Within the sphere, and encompassing it, is the cube, and every other form that is; and within the cube, and encompassing it, is the sphere, and every other form that is.

Our words make it hard to see what can only ever be whole and indivisible. Our apparent separateness hides our fundamental unity and if we try to cut it too fine with words we end up with nothing. But I think in our hearts we can sense these things. We can sense that we partake of a life without beginning or end, that we are each other’s own, and that each life is extended to every other life. And when we get an inkling of this, I think it is our universal nature to find we are deeply at peace.

Two Pieces

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Welcome Home

Everywhere you go,
silence follows.
Peace and quiet
have this down
to a science.
They send out their tails
to watch and record
everything that happens
while you’re out there
looking for that certain
trying to get better.
They blend in undercover
and look like exactly
what’s happening.
They’re armed with technology.
Don’t look for them, though.
This isn’t the time
for paranoia.

Just be prepared:
when you do finally give up
and come home
there may be a lot
of silly posters hanging

It’s just because
we love you.

Freedom’s Power

Hafiz exclaims.

“May I remind you
that a regulation ping pong table
has an overall length of 8.99 feet.
And it reflects sound very well.
You don’t have to yell, Hafiz.”

My last shot had veered off
into a blatant nowhere
like a heat-seeking rocket
aimed at the hero
of an action movie.

It was bad.

But Hafiz is not listening to me.
Instead, he is performing his shuffle,
which is part the Robot dance,
part the Moonwalk,
and mostly a poor rendition
of Chi Chi Rodriquez.

Then he takes the ball,
bounces it off the table
and sets it on the palm
of his hand like it’s about
to turn into a bird and fly off.
He is holding his breath,
squinting at the ball,
waiting for some inner cue.

“It’s ping pong, Hafiz.
Serve the damn ball.”

He is wearing a sombrero
with laminated pictures
of the greatest ping pong players
of the last seven generations
hanging all around him.
They are all making grotesque faces
with varying degrees of success,
like they’re at a Maori training camp.
The pictures click a little when he moves his head
and they knock together.

He twirls his paddle in his hand.
He sways on the balls of his feet,
contemplating his pending serve.
He is crouched like a stalking puma
for ten whole seconds before
finally he rises out of his stance and says,

“Be very careful, my friend.
If you mope around all day
asking the Beloved to make you ordinary,
one day you will sprout feathers,
you will see through time,
and your words will move nations.
Babies and mountain lions
will sit quietly beside you.
For Love, this is what is meant
by every day.”

“Serve the damn ball.”

He shrugs his shoulders,
throws it up in the air
and then darts in three ways at once
while the ball is on its way down.
The ball flys to my left, hits the table,
leaps forward with a burst of speed
and curls to my right.
I’m wrong-footed but suddenly
I don’t care. I swing the paddle
as if restraint no longer has meaning to me.
I put my whole life into it.
I just catch the ball with the edge of my paddle
and launch it straight up into a maze
of suspended lighting systems,
miniature trusses and fire sprinkler piping.
It rattles around like a pinball
off of conduits, steel wing-dings, speakers,
security cameras, bar joists and spider webs,
before finally dropping out
of the ceiling jungle on the far side of the room,
like a fresh robin’s egg,
right into the corner pocket
of an empty billiards table
and disappears.

The ping pong saints are swaying.
“What a fine piece of skill,” he says.
“I would say–
that is your advantage.”

Then he runs for the opposite wall
and leaps through the air
like a ballerino,
while I marvel at what
the purity of my own feeling
has begot.

Ideas About the Principles of Life

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Reflections / Science

One of the things I think is that the world we see is an afterimage, or representation, of an invisible one. I don’t really know the details such that I could draw them out, but I do think this. And even though there may be no objective merit to my thinking like this, it is the conception of the universe that resonates most truly with me.

There are several of ways to conceive of what I’ve just said and I think all of them are to some extent valid. For instance, one thing I think is that physical matter of the type our senses can detect is like the skin shed by the invisible and ever-moving snake of energetic exchange that forms the fabric of the observable world. Not that anything is static, per se. But what appears static is the product of the invisible and continuous motion of existence. This is not really controversial.

Another way to conceive of it, which is more controversial in some corners, is to suggest that the types of organization and patterns found in the physical universe are replications, or expressions, of underlying truths or realities about the way things are and must be and cannot otherwise be. In other words, the physical world is a representation of what exists in silence, outside of all motion and polarity, outside of time. This is the idea that what arises in form is the coming into being of what is formless.

While this idea is not accepted by the scientific mainstream, it is generally accepted in religious circles, where (unfortunately) it is generally expressed in just one particular form: the idea of a supernatural God. This is in my opinion a very limited form of the idea. In particular, this God often possesses traits undesirable in one another– judgmentalism, elitism, selfishness, capriciousness, etc. What I think of as formless has nothing to do with such a God, and everything to do with suggesting the formless is as natural as the formed–that they in fact are inseparable and intimately linked– and therefore neither one is “supernatural.” When one says a thing is supernatural they are in essence saying it is magical. Its effects are the whimsical movements of a power that transcends the natural laws of this world.

I don’t believe in such a whimsical power, but I do believe the limits of the natural laws of this world are only incompletely understood, so this places me in something of a no man’s land. I don’t believe what I think can rightly be categorized as either religious or scientific per se.

One of the most interesting things we’ve discovered in this universe is ourselves. To say it another way, the most interesting phenomenon I think we have found so far is life. I like to read about what we call life because I sense that, like my vague and weakly antithetical thought system, life doesn’t quite fit the molds given it. The extremes are reductionism and physicalism on the one hand, and bearded, lightning-throwing gods on the other. It appears to me that life defies them both.

To me, the general idea of physicalism is that nature is a closed system of mutually interchangeable matter and energy that unfolds in accordance with natural laws. Said another way, it is a system of objective and measurable quantities whose unfolding takes place without the influence of any external (or supernatural) causes. Reductionism is the idea that complicated things can be explained in terms of their far simpler parts, and that very simple physical propensities–when allowed to behave as they must, in conformance to the natural physical laws of this universe–can explain everything. They can explain life, for instance.

I would say that very generally speaking then the view of the world that is considered scientific is one that says everything we see can be explained by the operation of fundamental principles, or natural laws, upon fundamental quantities, e.g. upon the smallest bits of energy, the smallest bits of matter, the smallest ingots of space, and the smallest slices of time.

Key to all of this is the idea held in the scientific sphere that there should be no resort to any external organizing factor or intelligence. Though the fundamental parameters of physical existence appear to be quite precisely tuned to produce novelty and life, it can be said that we simply haven’t learned how the system of nature works yet, and so one day we will be able to explain those beguiling initial conditions without resort to any external condition as well. The most important thing in the scientific explanation of the universe is to provide a plausible explanation of its current state, expressed in terms of the very simplest, most concise mathematical laws and measurable quantities possible.

In such a conception of life, all biology should be reducible to physics, as physics is inherently more fundamental than chemistry and biology. There are in fact countless examples of this. The growth of the human cell, for instance, has been shown to occur in very regular periods of growth and rest, and in researching this a protein containing copper was found that modulates the naturally-occurring sinusoidal cycle of redox potential in water such that the modified cycle has a period of 24 minutes. Exactly 60 such cycles equals a twenty-four hour day. Living matter in other words, has built a clock from the physics of things more or less “laying around”: amino acids, copper, and water. This clock functions because of the action of the fundamental laws of nature on the fundamental quantities of nature, meaning that it necessarily functions as it does because it cannot do otherwise, given the physical properties of the atoms in the system.

Similarly, it has been shown that E. Coli bacteria resist the stress of heat–which causes otherwise precisely folded proteins to come apart–by forming a particular, additional heat-resistant protein that acts as a brace to keep other proteins from wilting in the heat. The feedback loop in regulating the production of the heat-resistant protein is quite amazing, and is also at least conceptually understood in terms of the underlying physics. For instance, the shape and composition of the heat-resistant protein is surely one which, unlike that of other proteins, is less affected by an increase in temperature. It takes a lot of resources to make these proteins, though, so they’re not made all the time. What happens is that the gene that calls for the heat-resistant protein has the opposite problem: it produces RNA that does wilt at safe temperatures. So even though the cell is always producing the RNA molecule that contains the genetic sequence for the heat-resistant protein, generally speaking it wilts and is subsumed before it can be used to actually transcribe the protein. When it gets warmer, the RNA doesn’t wilt, and great quantities of the heat-resisting protein are manufactured very swiftly. All of the properties of the molecules that make this system work can (and should) be explainable in terms of the underlying physics of the molecules in question. In other words, those molecules are what they are necessarily–they cannot be something else–because of their unique arrangement of atoms and their fundamental quantities.

I find this type of thing absolutely fascinating. The complexity and uncanny perfection at work here boggles the mind. That aside, an important question is whether or not the operation of the fundamental principles of nature (natural laws) upon the fundamental quantities of nature (things like the strength of gravity, the charge of the electron, the mass of the proton, etc.) could explain all that we observe today. The answer in many ways is yes, but there is one very interesting facet of this process that is not reducible solely to those fundamentals, and that is the genetic code. Something very interesting is happening continuously in living organisms, and that is this: linear information contained in the genetic material (e.g. DNA) results in the assembly, by molecular machines, of three dimensional proteins. There are only four bases in the genetic code, and yet this is sufficient to produce 20+ amino acids in varying combinations and lengths, yielding a vast array of possible proteins.

It is a code in the sense that within the context of the living organism, particular sequences of DNA “code” for particular proteins. There are molecular machines in between the world of DNA and the world of proteins that have a specific relationship between the two worlds, a relationship that is not necessary because of the operation of the fundamental laws of nature upon the fundamental quantities of the universe. In other words, the bridge between the world of DNA and the world of proteins is one of meaning. It doesn’t have to be that way physically–it could be some other way entirely. A house key certainly depends upon the natural bond between atoms to function, but the shape of the house key is an arbitrary one that must correspond to the lock, and there is nothing necessary about the shapes that are chosen. A code is in essence a two-sided key–an interface between symbols on the one hand, and meanings on the other.

If I was deposited in an alien civilization and I said, “Oh, shit,” there would be nothing in the physics of the sounds I produced to suggest the meaning I ascribe to them. That’s because language is a code. Many languages use very different sounds to convey a particular meaning. This is what the genetic code is like, along with many other codes that have been discovered to be actively at work within living matter. The meaning (protein) that results from a particular symbol (a gene) does not necessarily arise from the physical properties of the atoms and molecules involved. It has more or less been determined that the biological system of information (e.g. DNA) and its corresponding meanings (e.g. synthesized proteins) represent a quantity or property at work in the physical world that is neither reducible, nor measurable, and thus is fundamental in some way.

What we call life therefore cannot be understood in terms of physicalism or reductionism, though it is remarkably adept at leveraging the basic and inalterable properties of nature’s fundamental elements to its use. There is a really interesting question here about whether or not life itself could be producing content in the universe that is not only new, but fundamental. This idea is remarkable to me. It suggests that life could be producing content in the universe that is not only new, but irreducible and necessary to explain the phenomenal world as we objectively comprehend it. Creation in other words, is ongoing, through the manifest dynamics of unity and relationship.

While it is not my aim in this piece to leap to the assertion that the presence of codes and irreducible information in biological systems implies the existence of a God or gods–for I have added nothing to one side or the other of that discussion–I do wish to point out one analogue between what we observe at work in biological life, and the idea expressed in A Course of Love that we, as beings, share a common root—a unity of being—that is made known through the continuous and open-ended exploration of relationship. Life is in essence “revealed” through relationship. For myself there is a beautiful reconciliation here of the idea that the visible and the invisible are echoes of one another, and that all life represents the unfolding of simple principles that are not only natural, but eternal. What we see around us, in other words, are the reflections in material form of those specific and timeless principles which are inherent to the reality of being, and thus to the reality of life.

* Some of the ideas here were taken from two papers by Marcello Barbieri, one entitled “Biosemiotics: a New Understanding of Life” and a second entitled “Origin and Evolution of the Brain.”

** The E. Coli description was taken from the book Microcosm by Carl Zimmer, which is a fascinating read.