Guided by Feeling, Not Feelings

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Book Reviews / Reflections

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

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

But first, a sweeping statement from yours truly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The issue has to do with feeling.

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

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

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

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

Alexander quite agrees.

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

Endings That I Love

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Course Ideas / Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We simply are coordinated.

When we let ourselves be.

When we trust…

When we recognize the ending is only the beginning…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can’t remember what led us here.

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

The Negative of Darkness

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Book Reviews / Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Knowing, Dialogue and Mysticism (Part Two)

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Reflections / Science

Last time I expressed my dissatisfaction with the attempts Julia Galef made to understand the “other” in our lives, in this case Richard Feynman’s artist friend, who felt that scientific descriptions of things, to put words in the artist’s mouth, ruin them. What Richard reported his friend actually said, speaking about the beauty of a flower, is that “you, as a scientist, you take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.”

Richard at this point described his friend as “nutty.”

The core of my dissatisfaction with Julia’s attempts to understand the artist is that she undertook her efforts without wondering if the artist knew anything she didn’t. The resulting justifications given for the artist’s position were very weak: the artist we come to “understand” through her explanations prefers image to reality for reasons of pleasure, or… if we’re unconvinced, is more confusing to us than when we started. Or should have been, at any rate.

Julia makes sure to assert she wouldn’t want to be the artist she claims to have understood, which I think begs the question why anyone would. Here is where we might learn something, but Julia is not really curious about this, and is content with the portrayal of the artist she has given. It is this contentment that vexes me. Denial of the possibility that the artist may comprehend or feel something that Julia or Richard do not transforms the exercise from one of potentially discovering a legitimate basis for the artist’s position, into one which can only establish why the artist’s position is second-best. This is elitism—an unconscious form of it perhaps, but no less real or impactful by being unintended.

So now I want to suggest there are perfectly good reasons a person may say something like, “[you scientists] take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.” Not because a person can’t handle the scientific truth alongside of their aesthetic sensibilities, but because some recapitulations of the scientific view are antagonistic to elements of reality that others directly experience and hold dear. Let’s leave Richard’s artist friend out of this for a moment and insert the accomplished mystic in his place. He might say, “The whole of the universe is contained in this flower. And yet it is perfectly unique. It is remarkable. Can you see it?” Or we could put the indigenous elder into the seat, and she might say, “This flower is my relative. We gather them by the river in summer. You can hear the ones ready to give of themselves for the people. In our ceremonies, we honor them and we pray their nation is strong.”

When Richard and Julia attempt to describe the artist’s position, they both define it as an aesthetic one. Aesthetics is subjective. I like blueberries and you prefer cherries. I like Ford and you prefer Chevy. What Richard and Julia are saying when they ascribe the artist’s position to aesthetics is that the appreciation of a flower’s beauty is sort of quirky–a fashion sense, a matter of personal taste. From their point of view, they must make this assertion because it is the most benevolent one of which they are capable that is consistent with their views. But one cannot assert the mystic and the indigenous elder are experiencing a fashion sense, so those positions must be denied altogether. These two are, in essence, delusional.

The mystic and the indigenous elder above, however, are not delusional: they are simply speaking about the flower from perspectives that lie outside of the perceptual lens of a subject-object orientation. They are speaking about wholeness, and further, about the vehicle of deep interconnectedness and relationship through which wholeness arises as a form of immediate sensation and knowledge. This profound sensation of relatedness is, I believe, universal. It is accessible to anyone, and to all life. It is not unique to our planet, our time and place, our culture, or even our species. But it can be conceptually denied.

I made the assertion last time that a great many of us are debating only partial views of the whole. What I meant is that we’re trying to explain things—both the artist and the scientist—as if wholeness is not real, and when we do this we’re missing the essence of one another’s experience as well as our own. We can deny the most fundamental sensations of life, or when they arise in our experience—as they inevitably do—we can insist they are something other than they are, but we can’t prevent the very basis of our existence from seeping into our lives. We have the freedom to label what is, but not to change its very nature.

When Richard says in the video, “First of all, the beauty that [my artist friend] sees is available to me and to other people, too,” he is noting, without realizing it, that we all possess the ability to be touched by beauty directly, and further, by wholeness, even if we don’t define it as such. Richard’s artist friend, on the other hand, when suggesting that the scientific view “takes things apart” and “makes them dull things” is speaking to the direct experience of what occurs when the reality of wholeness is denied. Unfortunately, in this exchange neither Richard nor the artist, at least from the reporting we have, can see that both of their positions can be true at once.

The artist may not realize in conceptual terms that he is defending the immediate and universal reality of wholeness, but he doesn’t need to. The artist can sense directly, without effort, when the sensation of relatedness that provides him joy and the direct knowledge of being has been interrupted. Richard can sense it, too, when to his dissatisfaction the artist suggests the scientific description of our world is superfluous to a profound appreciation of reality. For Richard, the artist is denying the essential nature of the very activity that, to him, provokes the sensation of joy and deep relatedness that he, too, seeks. The mistake is the failure of Richard and his artist friend to realize that as unique individuals, the specific triggers or vehicles that return the joy of being who they are, and which place them in contact with the tangible sensation of wholeness, are not the same for them. They further err by insisting that the joy of perceiving the flower’s shape, color and texture must be somehow different than the joy of understanding the cells, the molecular composition, and the quantum electrodynamic chicanery deployed in the chloroplasts. It’s not! Joy is not conceptual!

As individuals we have unique passions, curiosities, talents and predilections. But the joy that comes of the direct sensation of relatedness to the whole, of experiencing the particularities of our own existence as good and wonderful, is the same. And the wholeness from which every expression of life and existence has emerged is our common root, our common heritage, the ultimate identity we share. When this is understood, there is room for the unique perceptions of the artist, the scientist, the mystic, the indigenous elder, and all forms and conditions of life in between.

As my friend Lee Roetcisoender recently wrote me, in a statement I thought was perfect, “What has become an urgent necessity is a way of looking at the world that does no violence to either of these two kinds of understanding and actually unites them into one.” He was speaking about the artist and the scientist. And he’s exactly right. This way, I believe, will be rooted in acknowledgment of the underlying reality of profound unity, relationship, and interconnectedness through and upon which all of our unique vantages are realized. Such a reality is universal even as it is directly personal. It is felt as the uniqueness and joy of being who we are, and has nothing to do with intellectual capacity, refinement of aesthetic sensibilities, hours in the training room, value at which your paintings or sold, number of scientific papers you’ve written, or any other criteria one might assert to distinguish themselves and their tribe from the “others.”

Wholeness is simply the heart of what makes all of us, us. And without it, we are lost.

On Knowing, Dialogue and Mysticism (Part One)

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Recently, through a series of clicks, I found myself watching a YouTube video of Julia Galef decrying the habit many of us have, in discussions with or about people who are different from us, of saying, “I just don’t understand how anyone could… [think, say, or do whatever it is the unfathomable ones in our lives think, say, or do…]” In her video she used the example of Richard Feynman, who once recounted a discussion he’d had with an artist friend. While the artist thought the scientific view of the flower detracted from the appreciation of its beauty, Feynman believed that “…science only adds to the excitement, the mystery, and the awe of the flower.” He concluded by saying, “I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

Julia Galef suggests in her video that Feynman could have tried harder to understand his artist friend, and goes on to use herself as an example of what is possible when we make the effort to understand another’s point of view. Unfortunately, I think she fails, at least from my perspective, and I think it’s interesting to consider why.

Her first attempt is to assert that “the property of mystery is commonly held to be a beautiful aesthetic property.” (Feynman, in his interview, also described the beauty of the flower as “aesthetic” and acknowledged that while his appreciation of this property may not be “as refined” as the artist’s, he appreciated it nonetheless.) As an experiment, Julia asks us to imagine we discover a key. There’s a certain allure here because initially the key is a mystery, but she notes that if we were to find out it opens a particular apartment door near where we found it, this would “not be revelatory or particularly satisfying or beautiful.” Generally, she asserts, the lack of an answer can be more aesthetically pleasing than any answer we could get. We simply enjoy the sensation of mystery.

In her second attempt, she provides a brief discussion of Construal Level Theory, which is about how abstract or concrete our thinking is about a particular subject, or the psychological distance that may exist between ourselves and the object of our thought, e.g. how “near” or “far” we are from it. Here she says that, “Far mode can have a certain beauty to it, even though I think sometimes it steers you wrong. There’s a certain beauty to abstraction and a zoomed-out, big picture.” An ocean, for instance, can be a symbol of vastness or the unknown, but if we were to look at a small portion of an actual ocean, the details we see would pull us out of the abstract view we had and this may be undesirable. In other words, the reason the artist may not wish to know the scientific details about the flower is that it would cause a shift from far mode to near mode, with loss of all the abstractly pleasurable qualities the far mode offers.

My first difficulty with Julia’s attempts to foster an appreciation for the artist’s point of view is that while she has offered two reasons the artist would not wish to comprehend the details of a flower, neither are reasons that seem very attractive to Julia herself. Or to me. The artist is a caricature in this discussion–one whose position Julia never really considers entertaining. In fact, she begins and ends her presentation with the need to ensure we understand she thinks the world would be a better place if less people felt the way the artist does. Holding this fixed vantage forces her into the position of explaining away a mistake: the best she can do is show it’s an honest one. Even though there’s something not that great about how these artist people think about flowers, at least we can understand the temptations that snared them.

This is ridiculous.

If you wish to truly understand another, it’s important to begin from the position they are your equal, and to assume that if they espouse a certain conviction there are likely very good reasons why–reasons you yourself may not understand until you experiment with those positions. Also, I think it should be considered that your own position is every bit as transparent as you perceive theirs to be, and that it is not some intellectual enfeeblement that causes the other person to think differently than you do, but an honest choice about what is more valuable to them given a reasonable understanding of the alternatives. It’s true that this condition of fully understanding the alternatives is likely not the case—meaning, at the outset it is unlikely the two of you really understand one another—but if no possibility for such an equitable footing exists, at least as a mutual goal to be arrived at, then there is no basis for genuine understanding.

This relates to a more fundamental difficulty I had with Julia’s position, which is that her understanding of the artist appears to have been based solely on her own comprehension of the world. This artist we never hear from directly is an individual who doesn’t want to understand the inner workings of a flower because he or she will lose the pleasure of perceiving it a certain way. It’s like learning Santa Clause isn’t real: once this individual learns the flower has cells, or the Calvin cycle inside of it, he or she will lose something vital. I have never met anyone quite so loath to learn something amazing about this universe, so my own projected opinion is that the artist probably had a more sophisticated point to make than is being portrayed, but this isn’t really pursued.

Julia’s video carries the subtle logic that the artist’s appreciation of beauty depends upon a certain form of ignorance. Both Julia and Richard describe the artist’s position as purely aesthetic, and Julia’s two examples of understanding the artist’s position both suggest that the artist’s pleasure is derived from eschewing deeper understanding. Neither Richard nor Julia questions whether or not the artist’s position is as shallow as they perceive it to be, as they haven’t made any attempt to imagine otherwise. But they’re careful to say, look, we appreciate the attraction here, too. We understand it, but we go beyond it. Their position is that you can enjoy a fantasy, or you can get in touch with reality. Julia’s effort at understanding the artist ultimately boils down to this: I appreciate that a fantasy can be enjoyable.

If you said this to a friend, he or she would quickly infer you were trying to stage an intervention. Some may perceive this as an act of love and thank you for caring enough to rescue them from what you perceive as a self-destructive position, then politely excuse themselves from the conversation, while others may become profoundly annoyed at discovering how trivial your respect is for their faculties. The point is that it doesn’t allow for the possibility I wish to explore in this series of posts, which is that there is actually a there there. Forms of knowing exist—and faculties on which they ride—that are neither enhanced nor diminished by scientific understanding, and which may freely express in either condition.

These are not self-indulgent aesthetic pleasures, or the obfuscation of genuine understanding, but something else entirely. These are impulses from the authentic nature of our being seeking to become known in us, and through us, in our lives. The difficulties that sometimes arise—such as we see here in the archetypal conversation between the rationalist-scientist and the artist-aesthetic—is that conclusions are being made on only a partial understanding of the reality from which these impulses arise. We solidify them quickly into our conceptual frameworks, where they can only ever be slices of the whole, and then we debate them. And unless we’re exceedingly careful, we find ourselves unconsciously promoting the views we have collected at the expense of the views others may have. We talk past and marginalize one another, and the irony when this happens is this: both sides believe a vantage they enjoy is vulnerable to accepting the validity of the other, and attack the other as a defense, but neither side actually comprehends what they are doing.

There is a better way, and I plan to explore it in the posts ahead…

Coming to Life

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The other night I got that inkling. A tickle of spaciousness. One minute I was trying to decipher an ambiguity in the building code, and the next I was alone in the room at dusk, standing beside the window, trying to decipher the ambiguity of a meadow. I relaxed, settled—something moved within me.

Unity, like freedom, is the utter magnitude of being.

Later that evening I witnessed the great truth of our moment: the real pandemic is expertise. Do you notice how delectable it is to seek contradiction? How gratifying it can be to tell some other group of people they’re doing it wrong? To watch someone else tell people they’re doing it wrong, and to do so magnificently?

It even struck me as funny for a time, this endless parade of serious people explaining serious things. Zoom out just a bit and the words dissolve into a luscious cacophony, a pudding of emphasis and evidence and reasons, and then you see it: we’re a plague of trouble-shooters. We just can’t help ourselves. We could be plopped into the center of an alien culture and in three seconds flat describe everything wrong with it, and how to make it right.

There’s another way, of course, but it’s a quiet way—a way that partakes of not knowing as a way of coming to know. It’s not a way of being right, but a way of being true. And this is delectable also, but not cheaply so. The mockery we’ve made of reason is the inevitable result of our belief that appearances are reality, and that thereby we may profit from deceit. So we drown in a world of images and talismans. We compete to be seen and heard, and forget that the true nature of our lives is invisible.

In this way of being true, we quite literally come to life. The reality at the heart of our being takes form and finds authentic expression through us, and as us, in the world. We become conduits for the utter magnitude of being, and it’s enough to simply allow this expansiveness to flow through us into the world. It’s enough. This way doesn’t require white boards or Ted Talks. There are no concepts to learn that will help us do better, no intellectual achievements required, no self-improvement programs to complete; it requires only the acknowledgment and holding of what is truly real within us, a movement from the unnatural condition of fragmentation within ourselves to the cohesiveness of genuine being.

The sense that something is wrong, seriously wrong, haunts us, but this is simply how the world feels when we are fractured inside. The world echoes our pain. The mind is like a landscape and the heart is like the water. Disconnection between the two makes deserts out of us. It makes our culture barren, our thoughts dry, our concepts inflexible. We’re forced to find water and we project this onto the world. And then we go to work, wounded and dis-integrated as we are, to fix the world. We put on the badge of trouble-shooter and enter the fray. This sense that something is wrong drives us, compels us to keep going. It blinds us to the simplicity of the only solution we ever needed.

In this way of being true, we come home to ourselves first and somehow… somehow… with reparation of the once-fragmented elements of ourselves, we reconnect with the Whole, and we sense the grace that permeates and sustains this world. This ethereal nourishment flows through us. The waters return and we sense the potentiality of being, the depths to which movements within time are rooted in timelessness. The chronic sensation that something is wrong is eased, the channels in us open, and new life enters us. There’s nothing we need do but allow this to occur.

There’s a great documentary film entitled Fools and Dreamers about the regeneration of a forest in New Zealand, which contains a beautiful discovery I think is applicable to what I’m trying to say here: the quickest way to regrow a forest is to do nothing. That’s not a direct quote—or it might be—but that’s the idea. Nature will be nature. Life will be life. We can find ways to augment and assist and participate in the natural flow of life, but we don’t need to take charge of it. And I think, perhaps, this is a great fallacy of the present age: that we need experts to show us the way. We need top-shelf trouble-shooters to keep us on track. We need to know exactly what we’re doing at all times, and do it.

But we don’t. We simply need the wisdom of our own hearts, and the rest will follow. I think the regeneration will be swift when we finally let it come. It will not be planned or mapped, but it will come to Life.

The Way of the Marys

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Book Reviews

2020 was not my most prolific year in terms of writing, but there is one piece that shines for me that I would like to share with you. It is the review I wrote for Mari Perron’s latest book, Mirari: The Way of the Marys. This book is about many things, but in particular it is about the power of the divine feminine and the potential within us to receive and birth the New.

When Mari asked if I would write a review, I knew immediately it was something that I wanted to do. I’d read the book once earlier in the year and it was quite helpful to me at the time, and I read it again in a couple of sittings when I helped with some copy editing, but it was not until I sat down to write the review and started taking notes, page by page through the book once again, that I realized how truly rich and powerful it was. Like all great works of prophecy, it recast the mundane for me. It pierced the echo chamber of my now and let in the light of new Life.

I felt inspired while writing this review in a way that I hadn’t in quite some time. It was a relief, really, to feel that churning magnetism take hold in the heart of my being, to sense the palpable tugging of my entire being upon the unknown, pulling into crisper and crisper form the words and phrases that I needed. I discovered things as I wrote, wandered into new arenas of comprehension. This is what inspiration does for me. The entire process reminded me: we are joined to something far greater than ourselves.

I hope you enjoy the review but more importantly hope you would consider the book itself. I think Mari and Mary together have an important message for our time.

On New Life

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Course Ideas

I have, for most of my life, been curious about the creation of a better world. When I think about what this world could be, it comes with feelings of wonder and happiness that are quite the opposite of the guilt and grief that attend the world as we have known it. I think these feelings are related to the sensation of things working out. Or perhaps more accurately, of things having already worked out. It’s like a distant memory of a place we all must know. There is the sense that, somehow, what is true is good, and what is good is so for all of us, and that in our coming to know this we discover there is even more to it than we thought.

This could easily be dismissed as sentimental, even misguided dreaming. Plenty of people along the way have been willing to disabuse me of these notions by explaining how the world really works. To them I can only say, yes… that’s how it’s worked in the past. The question is not whether or not it was, however, but whether or not it had to be. Has the world been the way it has because it simply couldn’t have been otherwise—because of some inviolable law that requires it function just as it has forever? Or could it have been different?

My answer is yes, it could have been, and still could be, different.

This answer permits me to wonder just what it is that might be changed or transformed, and just what it is my heart still whispers about. Such questions may be answered on many levels, but I think we must get to what is fundamental if we are to truly understand. And in the simplest terms possible, I think the world we’ve known has been rooted in the seemingly inviolable principle of death. Death is the ticking clock, the enforcer of our zero-sum games, the tragedy we cannot escape, the ultimate acknowledgment that things don’t work out in the end.

With death as the final arbiter of what is so, the perception of certain realities is inescapable. For starters, death isolates us, each from each. Death is not a team sport, after all—it is the cessation, the extinguishing, forever, of me. In a world beneath death’s sway, the life we “have” is the one thing that is ours and ours alone to do with as we please. We will never receive another, and there is no going back. I am me and you are you, and we are profoundly separate beings, each packaged separately, our lives compartmentalized by the bounding walls of our individual volition and ultimate demise.

To say that conflict arises from this view is an understatement. And there is no escaping it while death is in command. Our responses to the situation vary greatly. Some try to be good, or virtuous. Some to maximize pleasure or profit in the time allotted. Some to pass on a name, a mark, or a brand. Others to live quietly while leaving not a trace. I’m not sure the world will ever be without conflict, by the way, and certainly not without differences of opinion, perspective, and desire. But there’s a tragic edge to things when death is running the show.

So let us talk of Life! We’re all enamored of life in one way or another, but I think precious few of us yet appreciate its true dimension. The life of which I speak is not the life defined by death’s shadow. It is not some fragile, chance dynamic hacking bubbles of being from the inky sea of molasses that is death’s perpetual presence, only to collapse again into nothing at all. It is not defined by bodies or forms or colors alone, though these are most certainly spun-off from its creative flux. It is not some subset of the world we see. Life, real life, is an indivisible movement, a power unto itself alone, a perpetually unfolding wholeness in which nothing is truly lost, and in which we are fundamentally joined even as the platform of Life itself brokers the possibility of freedom, novelty, and differentiation.

We realize how profoundly death’s grip has held us when we try to parse the statement: there is no death in Life. What does this even mean? To the rational mind still isolated from the whole, still divorced from the heart’s clear knowing, the statement would seem to require a sort of superhero immortality—that we live in our current form forever. Wouldn’t this be life without death? Well, no actually! Such a notion is still in death’s thrall; it is simply death inside-out. Still defined by death alone, this existence would be yet another, macabre form of tragedy: day without night, existence without rest, and stasis without transformation. This is not Life!

There’s a great deal more to unpack here, but for now I simply wanted to convey some sense of the spaces we’ve yet to explore. The question is still before us: how would a world nourished by our awareness of Life itself be different than the world we’ve made in the past? I must admit this is where the dreams begin for me, the flashes of what might be. None of us can predict the experience we will have when we begin something new, but we can imagine it, and what I imagine are conditions obtaining in our society like transparency, simplicity, and authenticity. Death is the great obfuscator, you see—the keeper of secrets and guilt, the progenitor of shame. Through these instruments, death commands our allegiance. These could fall away, leaving us with genuine concern for all life, backed by a willingness to make an honest accounting of things, and the space to do so in which blame and mistrust are replaced by compassion and support.

Most importantly what I see is the restoration of rational values, by which I mean those values that emerge when the thrall of death has been left behind, and the power to destroy is finally seen as ineffectual compared to the power to create. The masculine and feminine—the mind and the heart—will merge and our actions will be guided by the principles of life. It is hard for us to even comprehend how it may be so, but it is possible for us to be freed from the horrible trade-offs that stalk us today. And this is how we will know the world has been transformed: when the means of our fulfillment are profoundly just, and the source of our joy is the day itself.

On Quiet Transformation

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Course Ideas

Linda’s blog challenge this year is about transformation—inner transformation particularly. It’s an interesting subject, as it can be hard to assess oneself, but clearly I’ve become quieter the past year or so. More inward-facing. Times of true connection with others have been precious and have served as markers upon this sea I’ve been traversing. I imagine when one is at sea for a while, for what seems a very long time, things start to really change. The edges blur. Perspectives expand and dissolve. The sky slips into the eyes. One loses what was once an obvious orientation.

The real these days is like quicksilver. It flashes at the edge of vision. A month passes and then it strikes—hissing through the grass, filling the space between trees. Melting ice taps against stone. How did I not hear this before? As quickly as it’s there, it’s gone, but it’s enough to remind that so much of what seems to be, is not. That so much of what is, is still on the way.

There are spaces that need not, and cannot, be justified. There is realness at the heart of the world no edifice of reason or logic can quite encapsulate. It’s the place were being right is meaningless, because what is there to be right about? When we’ve accepted this resiliency at the root of our knowing, then ambition softens. It’s replaced by the sense of what can only be given and received, not made, and maybe this season of quiet precedes this new life that nudges forth.

The day-to-day this year has been like galloping towards a diminishing horizon. Being swallowed as I go and no way back and this endless rhythm that lulls the contours into fluid hiding. Until it seems that nothing is happening at all. But could this be the most creative place yet? This empty quiet? This waiting in the shadow of what must come?

The bluebirds entertain me daily: early afternoon, just outside the window where I’m working, they appear. One inspects the roof of the birdhouse in which it was born, while the other peers inside. Then they trade places. What are they looking for? The quiet wonder from which they emerged, I think. There’s a magnetism and I can feel it, too, but is it for what has been, or what will be? What is it that we know innately but cannot name?

To hold a thing, and carry a thing inside, and to know this as yourself… what kind of “thing” would that be? It would be an ephemeral one, an enduring impermanence, the transcendent that can be revealed but never captured, for it never ceases. Does one “know” a new land even as one is drawn to discover its fruit trees, meadows, and streams? These are clues but not the whole. And yet the whole is imminent. It is there in every texture, hue of light, flutter of motion. Where would we find it but there?

I think this quiet—though days pass in a blur—is bringing something forth. It is like passing through the screen of some mirage. A plane of light saturates our view. There are times we navigate we don’t fully understand. We can only move in the direction of our trust. What are these times for? To herald the days ahead? To prepare for them? It seems I’ve been occupied with the mundane, but we’ve so many levels and the whole is still there, in the realness of everything that resolves into view, unexpectedly, and transforms me completely. It’s hard to say what each of us carries in the depths of our heart. What spaces we hold for the whole. What shifting and healing is happening deep within while the news washes past overhead, and the days grow short, and the bindings between us fray.

I don’t know quite what this is, only that it is different than before. What is coming now is quiet and gentle. Where it pokes through the soil no one notices. We walk across the top of it, chattering away. It seems like it was always there, but the wind has shifted and the light with it. And what I know is that I have hope. I know there is a storm, but I also know it’s not without purpose. Everything is held somehow and it is this I would remember as the day fades… we are held, even now, by what is coming.