As In Writing, So in Life

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Course Ideas / Reflections

Writing fiction well is intractably difficult.

You begin with maybe one or two bricks at the ready, stand facing an unruly forest that is neither for nor against you, but possesses all the density and might of any previously uncontested wilderness, and you are armed only with the vague feeling that a Taj Mahal-like structure of beauty and possibility is alive inside you. There really is no way to know where to place the first brick, but you must place it so that another is given to you. So you look down, and you place it, noting you have just interrupted the path of an ant.

After the first day’s work you have a knee-height wall snaking between the trees but going nowhere just yet. In truth, it has gotten away from you. The first brick led naturally to a second, which led to a third, and one thing led to the next, and it all felt wonderful—just laying brick felt majestic—but you can see now you must really take stock of things. Your wall is headed towards a copse of three trees that surprise you with their beauty, but also are quite simply in your way.

But in the way of what?

You will have to grapple with the relation of your wall to the land, you realize. Not just to those three particular trees, but to all of the trees. They are ideas and possibilities. You will have to uproot a few of them, incorporate others into your wall perhaps, prune a few and leave still others untouched, but you will have to do so with some intelligence. The truth is that you couldn’t have known even this until you took a few bricks out of thin air and laid them down, let them combine their finite parcels of being into something new, a something imbued with the suggestion of something even more. You can stand on that wall and look around now, and see this forest differently than ever before, but the wall is not good enough as of yet. It has served its purpose, and led you forward, shown you what before was not possible to see.

But now you must begin anew. You may keep a particular section, but overall it must yield to the flux of discovery.

In his book The Art of Fiction John Gardner wrote that, “What the beginning writer needs, discouraging as it may be to hear, is not a set of rules but mastery…” Mastery is the power of getting everything right at once, and doing so naturally, as if it could not have been any other way. What I’ve described as intelligence in the paragraph above is not intelligence at all, but feeling. According to Gardner, “Art depends heavily on feeling, intuition, taste. It is feeling, not some rule, that tells the abstract painter to put his yellow here and there, not there, and may later tells him that it should have been brown or purple or pea-green… his instinct touches every thread of his fabric, even the murkiest fringes of symbolic structure.”

Can it be, when we are beginning, that our feelings are wrong? If masterful work does not flow from our pens, is it because our instincts are inadequate? It may seem this way, but it is a false and debilitating conclusion.

This same difficulty overtakes in our lives all the time. We sense we must trust our hearts—that we cannot navigate by logic alone—but this path leads us so often into difficulty. We find ourselves in moments that are prickly with doubt, that awaken forgotten pain, that do not possess the grace and wonder of our beginning. We find ourselves in moments in which we seem to be losing. It is as if we are inspired, and we dash forth in heed of the call, only to find ourselves caught in a cauldron of despair.

When I sit down to write, this happens on recurring basis. At least once or twice during the process of writing every story I’ve written in the past year, I’ve reached a point at which I simply had no way to proceed, no idea how to proceed, and no hope of having one. The joy that brought me to the paper has vanished. And we cannot produce beautiful art by thinking our way through it, any more than we can lead a great life by following all the rules.

Gardner wrote that, “[t]he first and last important rule for the creative writer, then, is that though there may be rules (formulas) for ordinary, easily publishable fiction—imitation fiction—there are no rules for real fiction, any more than there are rules for serious visual art or musical composition.”

I’ve realized recently how similar the processes of writing and life are for me. We sense the Taj Mahal of goodness, beauty and peace within us, but the process of bringing it forth in the world—the process of being in the world in a way that allows these wondrous instincts of ours to flourish—is intransigent to our will and our rational efforting. We so often feel we are denied. And every effort on our part to reduce this act of living to rules and strategies—to technique essentially—results only in imitation, which is lifeless. Imitation is not living at all, really—nor is it what will move our world into what A Course of Love describes as “the New.”

The New as described in A Course of Love is what I would equate, metaphorically, with masterful writing. According to ACOL, “The new is not that which has always existed. It is not that which can be predicted. It is not that which can be formed and held inviolate. The new is creation’s unfolding love. The new is love’s expression. The new is the true replacement of the false, illusion’s demise, joy birthed amongst sorrow. The new is yet to be created, One Heart to One Heart.” The New is masterful, wholehearted expression.

But how are we to learn what cannot be taught or copied?

The answer in both cases is to trust. A core idea of A Course of Love is that we do not learn to be who we are. We cannot, in fact. Who we are is revealed to us as we build our walls through the forest, and as we, and others, respond to what we’ve done. Trust allows us to witness creation without the false premise of dead ends. With trust we are freed to shift naturally, to pull the wall up and try again, and to discover the wall we built has led us to a place we hadn’t known existed before.

Gardner says simply that a writer must practice. She must read, write and repeat. She must be immersed in the art of it and care for what she is doing. But he also says that trust in one’s own creative instincts is one of the two most important factors to a writer’s creative authority. We need this trust to overcome the difficulty that arises when a moment of inspiration produces a structure that is untenable. We need this trust because it implies the way forward already exists, and is already within us. Our feelings and instincts are not wrong. They do not lead us astray, but we don’t live, or create, or dream in straight lines. The process of creating something from nothing depends on our ability to respond artfully to what is, to let our feelings guide us from yellow, to purple, to pea-green. And back to yellow. We cannot do this while we think any change to what we’ve done implies we were wrong about something.

To experience the power and wonder of who we are, and to give the Taj Mahal of grace and truth within us to the world, we have to trust. And I think this simple truth can be found in every sort of creative practice there is, including the art of life itself.

The Same, Only Different

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Course Ideas / Creative / Flash Fiction

What do you think the future will be like, Hafiz?

I was thinking about fusion-powered hovercrafts and molecular sequencing technologies that could produce cheeseburgers from a teaspoon of good dirt. Redrawn political borders, bullet trains that crossed the ocean, and ways to download skills and information directly into your brain. I was thinking about teleportation and glass condominiums floating in the clouds. Something you drank that allowed your body to look whatever age you desired.

Hafiz listened to all these thoughts. I am thinking about beings being in relationship to beings, he said. And gardens full of flowers! It is very exciting indeed.

Yeah, but Hafiz, think how different it could be!

I don’t understand this difference you seek, he said, but I think maybe it is already here. You will see it easily once you realize how every time and every moment is the same.

I just shook my head. Hafiz the Buzz Killer! I said as I punched him in the shoulder. I laughed. Jeez! Can’t you give me one moment to dream my own dream. You’re always on me with this stuff. What’s wrong with hovercrafts?

Hafiz laughed with me then. Like one of those guys in the martial arts movies you know is about to unleash a shit storm of chi on you with an unwavering smile on his face. Ha ha ha ha ha. Ha ha ha. Ha-hah-hah-hah ha ha. Then you keel over and blood trickles out of one nostril.

You done there, big guy? What’s wrong with hovercrafts, Hafiz? Answer the question.

Nothing, he said. What’s wrong with beings being in relationship to beings?

I sighed. You know I hate it when you do this, Hafiz.

I am sorry, my friend. It is just that sometimes I feel awkward when we talk about fashion. But I know you love it. Let me try again. I am picturing many, many beings with beautiful faces and colors. These beings are seated in a tremendous gallery of fusion-powered space suits on the dark side of an asteroid, each one of them enjoying his or her most idyllic garden of virtual reality, unique in every way to their personal predilections and glandular desires. They each picture one another in the setting of their choice. They are able to converse in this way, but they can become any species of being and any form of consciousness they would like while meeting one another in these virtual realms. Their suits have built-in aromatherapy generators that turn starlight and space dust into warm tea and the scent of geraniums. How am I doing, my friend?

Don’t take this the wrong way, Hafiz. But I don’t think you’re getting it.

No, he replied. I guess I’m probably not.

Inspiration and Grace

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Book Reviews / Reflections

When I was in high school I underwent one of those sea changes that sweep through us. My mother was hospitalized for a time for treatment of Multiple Personality Disorder, my dad lost his job, we made weekly trips down to the church’s food pantry, and eventually my parents separated. The real weight of it occurred during my senior year.

One of the interesting things that came out of this was the freedom to leave the house on school nights–previously unheard of. For a time I found myself making periodic visits to a friend’s house; he was a new friend really. I don’t even remember how it started but what I realized was that this person who’d seemed so different from me for most of the previous four years was not so different as I had thought. I began high school playing soccer and reading books and was pretty removed from the social scene, and he began playing football and dating cheerleaders. We hardly spoke. There was never animosity; we were just turning different screws. I was just trying to survive a bottom locker.

One afternoon a few months prior to graduation I was at his house and we were playing guitars. We’d been taking turns playing “Sunshine of Your Love” and the intro to “Purple Haze,” and then he shifted gears. “You’re not leaving my house until you hear this song,” he said. “For me, this is it. This is how I wish I could play. I wish I could do something beautiful like this.” For him, in that moment, the guitar playing in this song had everything. It was delicate and it was simple and it was good. It wasn’t ostentatious. It wasn’t trying to show-off. It filtered gently into the space around it. Yet it was powerful.

The song was “Waterfall” by the Stone Roses, who and which I’d never heard of before.

Middle age is also a sea change, and for many it can be a difficult time. Chris Cornell’s recent passing certainly springs to mind as a potent example. A couple of weeks ago I had an astrology reading from Linda, which I was gifted as part of a blogging challenge she hosted late last year—(and the reading was amazing, my first experience with astrology!)—and she was explaining to me how in mid-life a person typically passes through these returns, traversals, squares—(I’m a complete novice but don’t let that reflect on Linda, please!). I gathered they can come in opposition to conditions or influences that may have been active around the time of our birth, and so it can be a time of unearthing things and reviewing them and confronting them and dipping into them anew. There are, anyway, often influences surfacing in this time that can push and prod us a bit.

For me that has certainly been the case, but the process is doing its work. It has led to new expressions of being. I’ve experienced a renewed focus on creative writing, which had fallen away for much of the previous two decades, and am excited to report that my first story has been accepted for publication. It is, like many things in life, at once a small and a grand thing. It is a beginning and an end. It is most meaningful in the context of experiencing the consummation of inner creative desires that have been within me for a long time, but also has revealed how far there is to travel on this writing road.

While on vacation recently I read Trans Atlantic by Colum McCann and for me it was like the moment when my high school friend played me his favorite song and we both just listened. The book was beautiful and resonated with me from start to finish. I really liked the style in which it was written. He used a lot of short, beautiful descriptions that added up over the course of the novel to a stunning inner momentum. The characters emerged swiftly out of nothing, were built from hand-picked granules of history and the everyday, and part of the richness of this work for me was the way in which no single character could lay claim to the novel’s arc. The baton of hope and desire was passed deftly through lives, across continents and over oceans, through visages of war and grief and longing, until it finally dissolved altogether. What remained settled gently on the land like the dew, had dispersed through everyone involved. And you realized, this was nightfall on but one day of the human heart.

Acknowledging simple moments of grace. This is what this time has unearthed in me, and I am grateful for the inspiration from near and far, for the nudges towards possibility, and for unexpected moments of friendship.

A Review of Lincoln in the Bardo

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Book Reviews

This morning I finished George Saunders’ novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which I greatly enjoyed. I enjoyed it not only for the quick flecks of prose that struck like the tongue of a benevolent snake; not only for the scenes of the self-evinced departed rummaging through their own private psychoses, e.g. the Bardo; not only for the utterly imaginative mechanisms and rules of the in-between to which they clung; but for the manner in which they found freedom at the last, for the humanity of what they found, and for the way in which they found it.

Redemption was portrayed as a collective task—dare I say it?—the work of unity and relationship.

There are undoubtedly a great many more relevant elements of this novel than I have described here that I will discover in a second, slower reading, as I felt it was peppered with intriguing symbolism and image. At the same time it was vibrant, witty and immediate—alternately rollicking off the tracks and plunging into vignettes of a father’s grief. But what I was left with most palpably, in the end, were the glorious discoveries made in the climactic scene when the countless rank and file of Saunders’ Bardo piled into the body of President Lincoln in a last-ditch effort to persuade him—nevermind of what.

In this moment of frantic, almost giddy hope, the discarnate briefly forget the cocoons of story and personhood to which they must cling to remain in the Bardo, and discover in this immersion into shared presence what has been lost and all but forgotten. They remember the calamitous beauty of life, the potency of occupying a world in which they once impacted one another significantly, when time was dear, and they remember not only who they once had been, but who they had never become. It is from these heights of unexpected unity, and the delightful way that Saunders both approaches and renders the moment, that the remainder of the work unwinds.

Interspersed throughout the work are chapters in which scenes of President Lincoln are recorded in a blend of authentic and fictional historical quotations. Snippets and tag lines from various witness accounts of the same scenes are assembled to create a hodge-podge of data in which what truly happened is obscured. The eyewitness accounts differ; they betray themselves with bias; they get details wrong and out of place. But also in this work, Saunders’ provides insight into his fictional Lincoln through encounters by various characters with Lincoln’s inner life as well.

Saunder’s employs a similar narrative approach throughout the entire novel: the scenes in the cemetery—the realm of the Bardo—do not have a consistent narrator. The entire story is told through the voices of his characters, who sometimes are in dialogue and sometimes are, like the historical sound bytes described above, providing narration about the scene, their own imaginations, or even about one another. At times they even finish one another’s sentences. Sometimes it is surreal, as when Character A says what Character B is doing, and then vice versa, and then the next moment they are speaking to one another. For me the approach worked, largely because of Saunder’s incredible linguistic dexterity. Also, I enjoyed the way in which it echoed the notion of a human commonality that underlies our diversity, or as it is described in A Course of Love, our shared being in unity and relationship.

For me the book was genius—endearing and humorous, sad and compassionate all at once. I would recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone interested in a unique, entertaining and utterly insightful exploration of the human condition.

A Piece of Cosmic Literature

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Course Ideas / Science

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

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

We just don’t know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

The article that kicked this musing off is here.

A Meditation on Fear

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Course Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Wholeness, Life and Awe

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Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Writing

comments 27
Course Ideas / Creative / Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Moon Gymnastics

comments 55
Poetry

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

The Arc of Being

comments 36
Course Ideas / Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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