“By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but nature more,
To mingle with the universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.
Dark-heaving; boundless, endless, and sublime,
the image of Eternity,–the throne of the Invisible!”
– George Gordon Noel Byron from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
The words that normally flow in great waves from my heart have, of late, fallen silent, even though my life has been pressing me into contemplation and reflection much more than usual. I have been engaged in a cooperative process with my siblings of caring for my mother, who is, in her own words, “facing eternity.” In the face of this perplexing “drought,” what I feel seems to make no sense at all. I have been in a heightened state of awareness, as the world around me swirls with an avalanche of decisions, distractions, and intrusions, all which seem to be disrupting the momentum of my life. I can barely assimilate the many notions and questions which press on me currently, and the circumstances of my existence hardly seem like a life presently. This posting is an attempt to see through the chaos and to attempt to find the light. I need to move forward toward the future in some way in order to see clearer, and to feel stronger.
I feel sometimes that I am bound away, destined to be far removed from all that I know, into a future which I could not know or see in a million years. It might be a heartbeat away or not to come for many years, but I know it is there waiting. An avalanche of distraction is not dissuading me from the task at hand, and there may yet be some purposeful element to be revealed. My mind is going in so many directions simultaneously that concentration has become challenging. As is often the case, when such conditions present themselves, I tend to turn inward. Resting in bed this morning, I was reminded of a passage from “Anam Cara,” by John O’Donohue:
“If we become addicted to the external, our interiority will become hungry with a hunger no image, person, or deed can still. In order to keep our balance, we need to hold the interior and exterior, the visible and the invisible together.”
Time seeks us out occasionally to remind us of its passing, sometimes in subtle ways, and at other times dramatically. The passing of time can mark the ending of a period of joy that evokes melancholy, or it can signal the relief from the pressure of a deadline. It can deliver us regrettably at a point of agonizing separation, or finally to a point beyond prolonged pain. In every case there is likely some underlying wisdom to be gleaned at that moment. For better or worse, our response can ultimately only be to move forward, each of us at our own pace, if we are to live fully and well thereafter. With the additional perspective of passing time, we can usually see more clearly, the wisdom contained in these pivotal moments, and whatever degree of difficult pain we may have endured, in retrospect, usually seems less daunting, however indelibly imprinted it may be in our memory.
One of the major disadvantages of the accelerated pace of modern life is the increasingly shorter time there seems to be allocated for contemplation. So rare can the opportunity present itself to engage in it, that when we are standing at a significant crossroad in life, which may require a choice with long-term consequences, we are wholly unprepared for contemplation. In order to reverse this trend, it is necessary to make a dedicated effort to increasing our regular attention to shifting our awareness in a quiet, thoughtful manner. A consistent practice of setting aside even small blocks of time everyday to simply stop the world and get off for a few minutes can work wonders. Taking a walk outside briefly if the conditions permit, looking up at the sky; sitting quietly and breathing deeply if it is safe to do so; even just sitting in the shade or out of the weather if it is inclement can bring a moment of beneficial repose. The idea is to fully withdraw from the routines and scenes of everyday activities briefly to give you the opportunity to disengage from the flow and let the constant stream of thoughts subside.
Reading this afternoon when the house finally got quiet, I was reviewing Colin McGinn’s book, “The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World,” and I was struck by his insistence that as humans we “postulate unobservable entities…because otherwise, we would not be able to explain what we observe.” This strikes me as argumentative rather than instructive. While our psychological desire for explanation and inclination to rationalize are fairly universal in human development, it seems unlikely to me that it is strictly due to having no other avenue to pursue in every case. As is often the case with our hunches, expectations, and even during anticipation, our intuitive responses and instinctive awareness can often alert us to the presence of actual phenomena. When we sense danger, or have expectations of success after becoming reasonably expert at certain tasks, we are tapping into our inner awareness and memories of our previous experiences. We are not predicting the future when we have a hunch about what is wrong with the car that turns out to be correct, but neither are we conjuring “unobservable entities.”
Postulating the existence of molecules, atoms, quarks, and the like may seem like an attempt to explain our observations, but it may also be that we are connecting to a level of awareness which is an enhanced perception of an independent reality, made possible by capacities which we have totally independent of our inclinations to conjure and explain. We have seen throughout the history of science, an “unobservable nature,” or quality to many phenomena that did not preclude an explanation and an eventual comprehension of it. It has always been my contention that we must first imagine a possibility before we can ever determine if it has any basis in temporal reality. There are some phenomena that are observable and known, and some that are unobservable and known, so it seems reasonable to me that my inclinations to consider a spiritual component to humanity in general, and to consciousness in particular, may simply be currently unobservable, but subjectively very real. I have been in the presence of certain individuals with whom I have felt a powerful, yet unobservable, spiritual connection, even though they themselves could not explain the awareness of it. In my own case, I have been sometimes painfully aware of my own nature in this regard, but have not been certain just how to make any useful progress in getting others to become more aware of what is clear to me, though not observable through any temporal methodology.
What seems to be consistently missing from McGinn’s arguments is a willingness to pursue them to other possible resolutions. Although he acknowledges the existence of a variety of possible explanations for consciousness, he prefers to argue that it makes more sense to say that we are “unable” to comprehend it, rather than suggest any solution which cannot be empirically demonstrated.
The Buddhist teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche, wrote about the “two aspects of mind,” calling them “ordinary mind – flickering, unstable, grasping… and the nature of mind – a primordial, pure, pristine awareness, that is at once, intelligent, cognizant, radiant, and always awake.” This idea is quite a leap from conventional thinking, but if there is a subjectively real interaction with a transcendent nature to our existence, it implies a reference to that which cannot be understood simply through normal sensory experience, and by its very nature, cannot be comprehended or described accurately in temporal terms alone. Its source may very well exist beyond what is observable and accessible as a temporal phenomenon.
Before we are born, and after we cease to exist within our bodies, we may reside in a state of being so radically outside of our understanding, and unobservable in temporal terms, that our attempts to reconcile what we are able to understand, and what is beyond our understanding, forces us to contemplate and consider the very transcendent source we seek….