As many of my regular readers may recall, back in 2012, my family and I suffered the personal loss of our dear brother, Michael, and at that time, our personal experiences surrounding that loss, and having to endure the profound sadness that accompanied those events, presented us with an unprecedented challenge of finding a path forward that did not include his presence among us. It seemed, in many ways, like an impossible task, and although each of us still struggles to some degree with the memories of the last days of his life, in the intervening five years since then, we have continued to support and love one another, and to honor his memory by celebrating as a family whenever possible.
Over the past few days, as the five year mark has approached, I have spent some time considering the broader view of the significance of life, including lessons from the past, as well as those of our own time, and I hope a brief look at the value of this moment from a different perspective, will be of some small comfort and solace to those who may presently be enduring a similar challenge in their own lives.
Beyond the potent personal memory of the loss which occurred on this day in 2012, this commemoration also provides an opportunity to share what are, perhaps, the even more important aspects of our contemplation, which are, to remember our dear brother with love, and to celebrate the abundant love we all still share, as we constantly seek a new beginning; a way to look ahead to the future with hope.
In preparing to write this blog post, I came across a bible passage from Ecclesiastes, which speaks to the heart of the matter. It’s taken from Chapter one, verses four through eleven:
“One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abides forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down…All rivers go to the sea, yet never does the sea become full…There is no remembrance of the men of old; nor of those to come will there be any remembrance among those who come after them.” Ecclesiastes 1:4-11
The world in which these words were written was a very different world than the one we now know. When it was written, which scholars believe was probably about three centuries before Christ, Alexander the Great was moving through Asia and into Europe, and he eventually conquered most of the known world, before succumbing to a fever, at age 32.
By Charles Le Brun – , Public Domain, Alexander’s Arrival in Babylon
While we rightly mourned the loss of our beloved brother at the age of 61, who was known primarily to his extended family, friends, and coworkers, I couldn’t help but ponder, in contrast to the effect of our loss, how much impact the loss of Alexander must have had on the world at large, when one of the most famous human conquerors and world leaders of all human history passed away having barely entered his thirties.
What is now apparent to our modern sensibilities, with the benefit of an historical perspective, is that the precise world that Alexander knew, the empire he established and which endured over many centuries, has now also passed into history. Generations of human beings have been born, have perished, and have been followed by succeeding generations, and yet, the earth remains.
From age to age, the human race has continued, but each one of us, exists only briefly on this earth, like a shadow, quickly skimming across the surface of the planet, with the changing light of day.
Considering the lives of all the previous generations of our family, the world that WE all know, is a reflection of their tireless efforts to promote and preserve the values that we now possess as the inheritors of that legacy. Our family history is replete with examples of steadfast love and support, across all the generations that preceded ours. It has been an unshakable love, which created a robust tradition of faith and family values, all too often absent in the world these days.
But neither the earth, nor the world in which we exist upon it, remain unchanged. Each new generation builds upon the one before, and although we create our individual worlds as we grow, we introduce changes which are sometimes profound, and perhaps sometimes unnoticed, but undeniably, these differences contribute either to the destruction of what came before, or to the construction of the world that is yet to come.
It should give us pause to consider, especially now, as we contemplate the passing of the most recent previous generation of our family, that we must find a reason to be grateful, and to be encouraged, and perhaps, to be a bit more hopeful regarding the prospects that life holds for us, as we make our way into the future. In Ecclesiastes, we are reminded that humans often don’t remember long the people and the lessons of the past, but no matter how many generations come and go, our legacy of love will endure if we nurture it.
Our science tells us that even the earth will eventually succumb to the death of the sun at the center of our solar system, which nourishes our planet currently, but what it is that has been created here on earth, and indeed, throughout the entire universe itself, is the manifestation of the divine source of all things, and that, like the love we now inherit from previous generations, truly does abide forever.
Nature is not matter only, she is also spirit. ~Carl Jung; CW 13; Paragraph 229.
Travel with me for a moment or two. Back…Back in time…even further back…to the dawn of the fullness of true self-awareness in our primitive ancestors.
What a moment it must have been when humans were able to finally know with certainty…”We are here–we exist.” Sentient human beings, at some point, were able to acknowledge, “I know that I am.” It seems likely that it was not possible to articulate this acknowledgement at first. The realization may have been simply a very rudimentary kind of “knowing.” It must have taken much longer to develop a means of expressing this fundamental acquisition. It is also likely that the earliest form of cognition was visual or composed mostly of mental images, and perhaps the initial apprehension of awareness consisted mostly of abstractions that had no practical means to be expressed except through gestures and actions which eventually drove the necessity of expressing them through the early forms of language.
Countless eons passed with no true appreciation of this fuller and more specific form of awareness or knowledge of existing as an individual, and as a larger social group or species. But when it finally appeared, it must have been astonishing to those who experienced it. Some initial form of it must have been percolating below the surface–protruding into the primitive mind. There was no formal oral language. Perhaps some rudimentary signalling or series of gestures appeared at first, which communicated urgent instinctual needs and desires. At some point, the first truly sentient humans became meaningfully self-aware. At that moment, I can only imagine how they must have opened their eyes one morning, and knew that something was completely different than the day before. It clearly must have been a gradual unfolding, not an instantaneous realization, but when it finally took hold, it began the journey toward self-realization until it eventually blossomed into modern consciousness. On that morning, the early Homo sapiens must have been awestruck, and may not have known what to do with it, or why it was there. Without language, it would be impossible to express the experience in a meaningful way. It may have been frightening in a way, even disturbing. Imagine yourself having an extraordinary experience or brand new sensation and NOT being able to ask yourself or another with words, “What is this strange sensation?” “What does it mean?”
As time progressed, the earliest individuals with this new capacity, may have begun to notice this same strange new awareness in others. Perhaps, a glance, a signal, which on a previous day would have naturally resulted in an instinctual response, at some point, saw a day when that instinctual response rose up, but was quieted, suddenly paused, or halted, or stifled. It must have been confusing, having a sense that what was happening had never happened before. Gradually, every experience which followed must have seemed, in an important way, like a new experience, unlike the others before it. The emotional response to such a radical alteration of their daily experience might have produced a degree of chaos initially, making them fearful to some degree. We can only imagine how the experience of self-awareness in each individual may have affected their interactions with others as they struggled to comprehend the ancient world. It may have been like waking up from a dream, suddenly realizing you’re awake. We all know that experience, when maybe we have a repetitious dream, one we’ve had many times, and it suddenly goes quiet. There’s a transitional moment or two when you awake and you’re startled, and you think to yourself, “My God…it was a dream,” or even, “What WAS that?…it felt so real.” For those ancient humans, it WAS real.
This capacity to be aware of being aware, might very well have been the driving force behind the development of a more complex and grammatical language, beyond the practical necessities of communicating the day-to-day urgencies of life during those early epochs. Think of all the questions that must have come up, with no words and no one to answer them but themselves. No one to look to, no guidance, no reference books, no wise elder who had already been aware for many years–nothing could have prepared them for the acquisition of such a radical alteration of their daily existence. Try to imagine what it might have been like to experience those first days and nights with full self-awareness, when it truly all came together and was realized by the individual having that experience! When we think back to our earliest childhood memories, they are like little glimpses–fleeting moments where aspects of our experiences suddenly made sense. It must have been very much like that for those early humans, perhaps having been asleep and upon waking, able now to wonder what it was all about. All those moments when they had brief flickering episodes of awareness, now could have a fuller sense of a context within which to better understand the nature of their everyday experiences.
Imagine how compelling it must have been to finally be aware of a subjective experience, and how that might have pressed those early humans to want to EXPRESS and share this feeling, with no possibility at first of doing so except with non-verbal communication. Think about what it must have been like for them to have the realization, for example, of how every clear morning they would see the sun rise above the horizon, and perhaps, before awareness, they would point to it and usually make a sound or a gesture, without realizing what it was, and now, with awareness, it felt necessary to associate that brilliant, blazing, yellow-orange ball in the sky with the gesture or by uttering a sound, as if to indicate, “There it is again, look at it!” Attempting to communicate the sentiment of the idea, not the idea itself, but the feeling which arose within them, may have been the very vehicle for associating what they saw with the gesture or sound that they uttered. At some point, others in those social groups started making the same gesture or sound when they saw the sun in the morning, and whenever any individual had that experience, they also would repeat the sound, and eventually, through repetition, that concept became accepted and associated with that sound.
After many years of primitive associative activity, and the spread of humanity throughout the different regions of the world, different developmental achievements from the various social groups were acquired, shared, and assimilated into the local cultures. The instinctive usefulness of fundamental tasks which enabled the early humans to survive, with this new awareness, could be enhanced and expanded through a more complex cultural and social development. With the eventual creation of language, the ability to teach what had been learned to ensure the survival of their children gave the early humans a unique advantage over every other species. When, at last, they descended into what would become known as the Caves of Chauvet and Lascaux, the pictures that they drew of the animals became symbols of the animals that they encountered in the world. It took many thousands of years more for the very first pictographic languages to appear, but the groundwork had been established, and the beginnings of self-awareness that gave rise to the NEED for self-expression, altered the landscape of humanity forever.
The first sparks of consciousness in humans, which likely appeared in our ancient ancestors hundreds of thousands of years before the appearance of Homo sapiens, eventually blossomed into fullness once the requisite components of human development reached the tipping point, probably during the Aurignacian epoch some 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, but was not immediately useful or practical in the way it is for modern humans in the 21st century. Many theorists today suggest that language was acquired and spread rapidly throughout the human population once it began to appear, and although a rudimentary form of subjective consciousness may not have required it in order to exist, it may very well have made its development essential in order for the fullness of the capacity to be self-aware to unfold.
–more to come–
Some of the most personally compelling spiritual experiences of my life took place long before I could even identify them as being spiritual. My earliest memories of childhood were punctuated periodically with moments of a kind of “unconscious awareness” of energies or forces beyond my direct experience of the world; occasionally precipitating unplanned and unexpected eruptions from within me, which would often feel like being immersed in water for a brief time. Several early episodes of actually being immersed in water over my head in the lake during family vacations brought this feeling on as well, but the feelings were just as vivid and occasionally overwhelming when they occurred during equally compelling moments on dry land. I vividly remember the visceral experience of immersion in lake water bringing to mind these “spiritual immersions”– moments of profound mystery and perplexing confusion as a child, which felt like a completely normal part of my experience of the world at that time, but which now, upon reflection, seem almost “other-worldly.”
There were a number of episodes where I felt certain that I was seeing the world through the eyes of someone else; as though another personality had taken up temporary residence within me, and I felt as though my presence in those moments was simply as a witness, as this other person perceived the goings on around me. Although it was a bit confusing at times, and not especially pleasant to have these experiences, I never felt anxious or afraid while having them. Fear of what took place inside me was something that only became real during my indoctrination into the world of religious fervor in the years of primary education in the Catholic school system. As my training in catechism and church doctrines progressed, I eventually became fearful that there was something wrong inside of me, and after hearing about what happened to the “fallen angels,” who went against God during the beginning stages of the creation of heaven and earth, I concluded that it would be best not to tell anyone about these experiences.
Dreams that I had as a child often contained extraordinary content, well beyond my limited ability to decipher them or to understand the imagery in any comprehensible way. Again, just as it seemed in my waking experience of the world, although I could not identify specifically the nature or source of the dream imagery at all times, the vivid experiences within the dreams themselves felt absolutely real to me and I did not question their validity or reality in any way. It was simply part of the fabric of my experience, which I innocently accepted as completely natural and normal in a child’s eye-view. Reporting the content of my dreams or expressing confusion about what I felt inside was always met with either dismissal as being “silly,” or discouraged as a topic for conversation. For years after starting school, I felt increasingly uneasy about not being “allowed” to talk about my experiences, and eventually abandoned hope that I would ever understand any of it well.
The death of my beloved brother when I was only eight years old was pivotal in this regard. The absolute silence which accompanied this tragedy caused me great concern that I might somehow have contributed to his demise, even though it was never inferred or spoken of out loud. My inner world was thrown into a degree of chaos and grief that was unprecedented in my brief life, but in some ways, it solidified my belief that there were forces and energies beyond my comprehension at work in the world, and somehow, I was aware of their existence without any expectation of gaining an understanding from my small circle of family, school, and church. I was utterly alone within myself, and eventually began to suppress all such inclinations, except when forced by some extraordinary event to consider them again.
Death became something to be feared, and thoughts about death were to be avoided at all costs. A young girl who was hit by a car and killed when I was in third or fourth grade became a traumatic experience for me when I was forced to attend the viewing along with everyone else in my class at the time. It was explained that our attendance would be of great comfort to the grieving parents, and our display of sadness would let them know they were not alone in their grief. I was not sad. I was terrified.
As I grew up, the death of other loved ones, particularly my grandparents, and a beloved uncle, forced me to consider what it meant to be a living person, and what losing life truly meant. The church seemed to categorize life as a temporary housing of the soul within a body, with conception before birth constituting the moment when a soul was introduced into a body, and the loss of life as the moment when the soul left the body. This imagery made a strange kind of sense to me, although it was also still incomplete and unsatisfying as an explanation of my own experience of being alive. I hungered to understand more completely, and for a time, seriously tried to allow the Catholic worldview to fill in the gaps. The devotion to the church and its teachings displayed by my parents and extended family of adults gave me the idea that I was somehow missing the necessary components of faith, belief, and devotion, and I did my best to participate in the rituals and adhere to the rules, hoping that an understanding might eventually just dawn on me.
When I entered high school, I secretly began to question the years of indoctrination into the Catholic worldview, and as I did, my spiritual life began to unravel. I complied unquestioningly with the expectations of my parents and teachers, joining several of the extracurricular religious activities sponsored by the Franciscan priests who taught at the school, but for every actual “spiritual” experience that I encountered there and elsewhere, there were many others that made me question what I was being taught in theology class. I enjoyed the opportunity to read the more advanced writings of Thomas Aquinas and Saint Francis of Assisi, and found books about saints like St. Theresa of Avila inspiring and interesting, but they did not seem to satisfactorily address the questions that kept arising within me about my own soul, and my own experience of the world.
Although it was only in later life that I was fully able to appreciate it, I know now that I was extremely fortunate, as it turned out, to have a Catholic priest in my immediate family; Rev. Thomas Flanigan, affectionately known as “Father Tom,” a cousin who grew up with my mother. As a young boy, we would visit the Flanigans in upstate New York, and inevitably, at the conclusion of our visits, we would all kneel down, and my father would ask Father Tom to give us his blessing. Several times, I was lucky enough to be the one kneeling in front of him when this moment came, and he would place his hand on my head, giving me the momentary sensation of floating, infusing me with a fullness of spirit in that brief moment that I never experienced at any other time in exactly that way, or to that degree. There was something extraordinary about Father Tom, and as an adult, I sought him out several times when I was in some sort of crisis spiritually.
Just being in his presence was spiritually uplifting. I could feel myself opening to the radiance of his spirit as soon as I saw him. His unconditional acceptance of me as a person, and his non-judgmental approach to counseling was unprecedented in all my other interactions with religious people of every sort. One experience in particular produced in me one of the most profoundly spiritual moments of my life.
I had been invited by Father Tom to stay with him in the priest’s rectory during a weekend visit to attend a wedding of one of my own first cousins. When the invitation was offered, it was enthusiastically accepted by me, even though it seemed a bit strange that it was only offered to me. I was struggling at the time with my faith, and even though I hadn’t spoken to him directly about it, he seemed to recognize the need in me, and when I arrived at the rectory, he greeted me warmly and embraced me in the hallway entrance.
We talked briefly about the schedule for the wedding, and he extended the invitation to include serving as the altar boy at mass on the Sunday following the wedding. I agreed immediately and looked forward to the privilege of serving mass with him. I had been an altar boy in my own church for years, but it had been a while since my last opportunity to serve and I was a little nervous that morning as I prepared to join him at the church. It was an early mass, and there were only a handful of people in the pews, but from witnessing the actions and demeanor of Father Tom, you might have thought there were hundreds of parishioners in attendance. I assisted him in preparing for the service, just as I always had with other priests, but at that moment it felt much more like a sacred duty, and although it was conducted in silence, I felt completely confident in responding to his unspoken instructions.
Right before the service was about to begin, I stood off to the side of the altar, in the doorway leading out into the church, and watched as Father Tom prepared the altar and set up the items he would use to celebrate the mass. I was immediately struck by the degree of reverence he gave to the task, and marveled at the painstaking attention he gave to the details of his preparation. For several minutes, I felt an overwhelming sense of my own personal spirit rising up within me. Father Tom seemed to be glowing–radiant–amazingly calm and reverent. It was an unforgettable moment. At the conclusion of the service, during which I had to be periodically reminded of what to do, I was once again in silence in the sacristy, assisting Father Tom with changing out of his ritual attire, and when the moment came, I knelt down in front of him, and he laid his hand on my head, and gave me his blessing. I was near tears, but with a joyful heart.
When the time came to leave, I found it difficult to gather up my clothes and put them into my overnight bag, and even more difficult to say goodbye at the door to the rectory. Prior to departing, the day before, I had found a greeting card in the local drugstore with the Ziggy cartoon character on the front, with the words, “Thank Heaven…” On the inside of the card it said, “…for people like you.” I left it on the dresser of his room on the way out. For a long time afterwards, I felt as though I had reconnected to my personal spirit in a way that I had fervently wished to do, but had not been able to do for a long time.
There were a few other opportunities over the years to enjoy time with Father Tom, including one in which he invited me to spend the weekend with him at his lakefront retirement home in upstate New York. During what would be my last visit with him before he died, I was given the privilege to join him in his daily “vespers,” the prayers that he was obligated to say every day upon rising and before beginning his day as a priest. I was stunned to be permitted to share in what was normally a private ritual, and was able to recite most of the appropriate prayer responses during our walk around the lake, as the sun peeked out above the horizon. In spite of being mostly estranged from the church at the time, I never recall feeling more like a participant in the ritual of prayer than I did on that morning.
These recollections span nearly my whole conscious experience of being alive, and connect me to the core of my familial history in ways that would have been impossible to imagine in their absence. I am profoundly grateful to have known these particular spiritual experiences during my lifetime, but these moments, as significant as they were, took place amidst an even greater variety of spiritual events, and it seems likely to me that my introduction to the diverse paths of the “specific avenues to spirituality,” which began in my early twenties as a young soldier in Europe during the “Cold War,” and which continue to this day as I enter my sixth decade of life, contributed in numerous significant ways to the broad scope of my current appreciation of the spiritual nature of humanity in general, and of consciousness in particular.
For most of my early adult life, I struggled with my place in the world, searching for ways to express the deeper truth I felt certain resided within me, and several important and occasionally traumatic events in my youth and early adulthood inspired me to pursue a greater understanding of the nature of humanity itself, which I came to believe had a clearly spiritual foundation, which was unambiguously expressed in the human subjective experience of consciousness. The journey has been, at times, arduous and painful in the extreme, but also, at other times, astonishing and illuminating in equal measure. Based on several decades of investigation into a wide range of spiritual, scientific, philosophical, and psychological subjects, I recently began to describe and elucidate the results of my investigations into these experiences in my personal blog called, “John’s Consciousness,” on WordPress.com. While I have worked diligently to include both the empirical and the ineffable in my ruminations, the avenues of spirituality seem to resonate as those which point most prominently in the direction of my personal understanding. I do not now adhere to any particular religious practice, and while I recognize that many other people are able to find their spiritual center in a specific formal religion, all of my encounters with them have continuously pointed toward a more universal character to spirituality that does not require a specific framework in order to achieve a profound and rich spiritual life.
The subjects related to investigating the very beginnings of and foundation for consciousness, and the evidence for its first inklings in our ancient ancestors, is so compelling for me that I can barely contain myself when the subject comes up, and although there is a fairly wide range of opinion about the implications which can be drawn from earliest indications of the awareness of subjective experience by the early humans, for me, the evidence available in this regard, and the ubiquity of spiritual avenues and pursuits in nearly every human culture since the dawn of humanity, are an unambiguous expression of a deeply spiritual character to life itself, and by implication, to our inner lives as cognitive human beings.
After surviving a profound psychological, spiritual, and emotional event in my early twenties, which erupted within me as a young soldier in the service of my country, I began to search for some way to reconcile my experience by investigating the science of the brain, various principles in psychology and philosophy, as well as a number of avenues to spirituality. Without holding one above the other, or limiting myself to what was familiar, my reading and research often suggested avenues of investigation which I followed willingly, hoping to gain some further appreciation of my own inner turmoil.
One of the first and most influential sources of spiritual illumination came with my introduction to the writings of the famous Lebanese philosopher, poet, and spiritual author, Kahlil Gibran. As a young man, I served in the military overseas in Europe for two years. During that time, I came across Gibran’s writings as a result of a gift from a friend of his book, “The Prophet.” Within its pages, Gibran speaks to many of the central issues of human and spiritual life. Few have been able to express so eloquently, a view of the universal truths of our nature as both human and spiritual beings. His grasp of the inner workings of the human spirit, and his ability to inspire a sense of lightness and joy regarding human life, makes him one of the truly timeless spiritual writers for the wisdom of any age. I often sought him out throughout my many investigations, in moments of repose, as well as those of despair and need.
One of the most important passages for me, taken from his book, “Secrets of the Heart,” speaks of the beauty of life and in all of nature:
“Beauty is that which attracts the soul…when you meet Beauty, you feel that the hands deep within your inner self are stretched forth to bring it into the domain of your heart…
It is the Unseen, which you see…And the Vague, which you understand…
And the Mute, which you hear…
It is the Holy of Holies, that begins in yourself and ends vastly beyond any earthly imagining.
Truly, I say to you that thoughts have a higher dwelling place than the visible world.”
With these words, I began to understand the relationship between the mind of thoughts and the spirit of the inner self that transcends “the visible world.” He intimates that our perception of beauty is the natural result of our longing for something which exists “vastly beyond any earthly imagining.” While reading Gibran’s, “The Tempest,” I was amazed at the depth of his spirituality and his ability to express so clearly the thoughts and feelings related to the questions we all seek to answer. Many of Gibran’s writings have informed my spiritual views over the years, and he was one of the first individuals who was able to speak to the very heart of my spiritual self, and he remains relevant to me today as I navigate through my research into the non-physical aspects of our very human nature.
Another profoundly influential source of spiritual guidance and illumination came when I began to investigate the principles of transcendental meditation. While living in what was then called the “Federal Republic of Germany,” (West Germany was divided from East Germany at the time.) I began to take a serious interest in writing poetry, which I had done periodically in high school and in my early college years, and during my review of books of poetry and about poets, starting with Gibran, I came across a reference to the Upanishads, the mystical writings of Hinduism, which have many passages that include poetry, and some that are completely in verse. At the time, I had not looked into Hinduism before, and wasn’t familiar with the ideas it contained, but was intrigued by the verses which seemed to speak to the idea of a “universal soul,” or Brahman, as well as the “innermost individual soul,” or atman. These were unfamiliar terms to me then, and as I reviewed the material further, it spoke of “the nature and purpose of existence,” as well as the methods of meditation and the “Transmigration of the Soul.”
While at the library, I saw a flier posted on a bulletin board about a school in town which had classes on “The Science of Creative Intelligence,” based on the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who had been visited by the Beatles and other luminaries of the day, and who founded the community of schools which offered his teachings. It seemed like an interesting opportunity and I spoke with a representative at the school and arranged to take the class. It was particularly challenging since the class was normally attended by Germans, and was being presented in the German language. I managed to become familiar with a fellow associate at the school who knew English well, and was able to get a more nuanced explanation of some of the more complex ideas when I needed it. For each practitioner of transcendental meditation, there is a unique word or “mantra,” which facilitates the silencing of the mind and the opening of the soul of the individual to the transcendent aspect of “self,” and acts as a means of reaching within to our deepest sense of our individual nature or “atman.” The Science of Creative Intelligence expresses a belief in a higher reality than that of sense experience; a higher kind of knowledge than that achieved by human reason, dividing reality into the realm of the spirit and the realm of matter. The practice of meditation as a means to access the inner realm exposes us to the philosophical concept of transcendence, i.e., existing outside of nature. According to this view, there is a direct connection between the universe and the individual soul. Intuition, rather than reason, is regarded as the highest human faculty. I enthusiastically embraced the practice of meditation, and it sparked a long association with the supporting Vedic literature.
The final exam in the course required giving an oral presentation of one of the main ideas from the class, and I chose to illustrate the idea of how each of us contributes to the whole of humanity, like a small piece of a very large puzzle, and each of our creative acts and efforts spring from an intelligence of which we are all a part. From that moment on whenever the Vedas came up in my reading, I immediately looked it up and related it directly to what I was reading.
When I returned to the United States in the late seventies, I had become fairly well acquainted with a variety of selections from the Hindu “Vedas,” or “Vedanta,” and eventually encountered the Bhagavad Gita, and was immediately enthralled by the story of Arjuna, with whom I quickly identified as someone struggling with both his temporal role in life, and with his inner life as well. The story addresses Arjuna’s struggles as a soldier and his doubts about his duties–a struggle I knew well. His mentor, Krishna, actually was a historical figure, but his significance in the Gita is as a “symbol of the divine dealings with humanity”, while Arjuna typifies a “struggling human soul.” The story is viewed as “an allegory of the inner life, and has nothing to do with our outward human life and actions”–(Wikipedia)
Shortly after returning to the USA, I once again attended to my university studies at Rowan College in Glassboro, where I took a class on mythology, based on Joseph Campbell’s book, “The Hero With A Thousand Faces,” and it altered my consciousness in ways that are still being felt these many years later. Campbell opened me up to a diverse selection of paths to understanding, including a much richer and expanded appreciation of the Hindu Vedas and the Upanishads, as “profound metaphysical and speculative works closely linked to the “Brahmanas,” (commentaries on the Vedic literature). According to Campbell, these works “emphasize knowledge and meditation, and are the first Hindu attempts at a systematic treatment of speculative thought.”
Perhaps the most important ideas that I encountered in these writings concern differentiating between the phenomenal aspects of existence, and the universal soul or “Brahman,” and the individual soul or “atman.” The texts were originally written in Sanskrit, but have been translated notably by “Shankara,” a man who lived between 788 and 820 A.D. His translation expresses the belief that “Brahman and Atman are identical,” and that “the individual self is prevented by ‘avidya,’ or ‘ignorance,’ from understanding the non-dual universal nature of pure being (Brahman.).” He writes:
“As long as the self remains without real knowledge, it will blindly look for its true self in the phenomenal world. It remains enmeshed in that world, again and again experiencing samsara, a series of existences, deaths, and rebirths each unenlightened soul undergoes as a consequence of its karma…Through the proper knowledge of the Vedanta, the individual soul recognizes the limitless reality forever existing behind the cosmic veil of maya (illusion)…realizes that its own true nature is identical with the Brahman, and through self-realization achieves moksha (release from samsara and karma) and Nirvana.”
In an anthology of Vedic writings entitled, “The Vedic Experience,” by Raimundo Panikkar, I found a good summary of what I derived from my reading of this literature:
“There is a constitutive dissatisfaction in human life. Even if one has done one’s best, other possible actions have remained undone. Disillusionment is, according to the Indian tradition, the beginning of philosophy. It may also be said to initiate the process of transcending the human condition.”
But perhaps more than any other benefit that I gleaned from the course, was being exposed to the writings of C.G. Jung, who introduced me to the idea of archetypal images, and inspired me to investigate further, many of his collective works, which frequently site passages from the Vedas. Jung’s insightful and scholarly treatment of psychological states, as well as his writings on the collective unconscious, and the personal unconscious, shook my foundation right down to my roots. I spent every available moment I could acquiring and devoting my energies to Jung’s writings, and after searching determinedly through those I could locate, I found this passage from Psychology and Religion:
“The unconscious process…when brought to the surface…reveals contents that offer a striking contrast to the general run of conscious thinking and feeling… The first effect is usually conflict, because the conscious attitude resists the intrusion of apparently incompatible and extraneous tendencies, thoughts, and feelings, etc. Under normal conditions, every conflict stimulates the mind to activity for the purpose of creating a satisfactory solution…Dreams, fantasies, and psychoses produce images to appearances identical with mythological motifs of which the individuals concerned had absolutely no knowledge…
The moment of irruption can be very sudden…so that consciousness is instantaneously flooded with extremely strange and apparently quite unsuspected contents…In so far as the forms or patterns of the unconscious belong to no time in particular, being seemingly eternal, they convey a peculiar feeling of timelessness when consciously revealed.”
Finally, I had a perspective from Jung that helped me to understand the traumatic event which led me to investigate the many “specific avenues to spirituality” these many years.
“Memory performs the impossible for man; holds together past and present, gives continuity and dignity to human life.” — Mark Van Doren, Liberal Education, 1943
“In a large sense, learning and memory are central to our very identity. They make us who we are.” — Eric Kandel, In Search of Memory, 2006
“Has it ever struck you…that life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going? It’s really all memory…except for each passing moment.” — Tennessee Williams, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, 1963
As I contemplated the landscapes along the highways on my way across the United States in 1975, I began to sense more than just the wider world through which I was passing, and often found myself absorbed by persistent thoughts in my mind, still bubbling from all that I had experienced in the extraordinary hills and valleys of California, and still haunted by the traumatic events in Massachusetts. The world had suddenly become utterly incomprehensible in some ways, and every moment of the journey held another new experience–each equally fascinating from my perspective as a traveler, and oddly troublesome in the degree of uncertainty I felt as I approached the unknown.
The stark desert scenes along the way through the American West were startling to me in a way that felt both unsettling and wondrous. Traversing the sweeping desert vistas of New Mexico and Arizona, I often felt the urge to pull the car over and just stare at these scenes. As oddly as it seemed, they felt familiar to me. I couldn’t understand the feeling at the time, but somehow knew that it would all start to make sense before long. The stunning and occasionally unnerving dreams that had been pervasive and even intrusive in Massachusetts and California, subsided during this trip, and I slept peacefully most nights in a way that seemed to escape me at all other times.
My arrival back on the East Coast was triumphant in my mind. I had survived the dark night of the soul, and the threat of death, and journeyed thousands of miles across the USA in a remarkable and healing transitional experience. For a short time, the dreams that had interposed themselves in my psyche faded, and I was able to recuperate, and reclaim some of my previous confidence in going forward to the next stop along the way. Visiting with my family was always restorative and rejuvenating; an oasis in the desert of uncertainty that I always seemed to find myself in those days. As the time for returning to military service approached, I felt compelled to review my writings, and as I did, new images and thoughts started to appear in my nightly dreams. In the excerpt that follows, I begin to sense a connection to the “ancient mountain of memory,” and prepared to go deeper into the abyss:
The Forest Within
“Away from the routines of the everyday, I find my heart in turmoil, withholding the silent sound of my true voice. I can hear the strains of music that have sparked hidden fires, whose embers refuse to be extinguished, nor can I seem to leave them undisturbed long enough for them to simply run out of fuel. The spirit that embodies these fires haunts me in the tremulous strains of familiar and beloved memory. Held at bay by the thinnest of barriers, my most persistent attempts have failed utterly to relinquish the wisps of flame that languish in the furthest reaches of the forest within. The trees grow even still in splendor that penetrates my visions of centuries past, and through the countless millenniums of ancient memory.
When not persuaded by necessity to avoid them, I walk these woods, through dazed states of mind and melancholy. Occasional streams of sunlight peak through the dense forest canopy to reach my face and my heart. Echoes of ancient music reverberate through the thick layers of trees and against the faces of the great cliffs of stone, which hold the forest to the earth. Every so often, the strains of a familiar pattern of notes catches me unaware, and I am transported momentarily to that place–the clearing at the center of the forest–where I find the living memory itself. Each time, I am undone by the clarity and the durability of these memories, and each time, they penetrate deeper within, and stay hidden longer.”
Jonas Rice lived in colonial America, and was one of the founders of the city of Worcester, Massachusetts. He served as a soldier in the struggle of American independence and made important contributions to that effort. Jonas and I came to be linked when his name appeared in the writings that burst forth from me during what Jung describes as an “eruption of unconscious contents,” that brought forth the original document from that experience. My discovery of his tombstone in the center of Worcester literally took my breath away, and I could not shake the sense that he was a part of me somehow.
In those early days, before I had a clear idea about what was happening to me, I felt as though Jonas was alive in me. As a member of an active continental regiment with the U.S.Army, I felt certain that my role in that organization was part of my destiny. There clearly was a purpose to these events, but it was clear also, that it would take time for me to understand it all.
…..next time….the document itself…
“In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.” — Buddha
“All great changes are preceded by chaos.” — Deepok Chopra
Recent developments in my personal life, which have affected me deeply, have clearly resulted in a degree of chaos for me, and have also pointed to some key distinctions, which I had been creating out of my own mind, and which I believed to be true. It would seem that the Buddha was on to something when he pointed this out. Even now, as I contemplate the events of my life recently, I am beginning to see how this chaos may be a necessary part of the path forward, and how it relates to the unfolding story here in these pages. We sometimes fail to consider how even heartache and emotional turmoil may, in fact, be the only way to discern what is most important in our lives. I am feeling better about these recent changes now, in spite of how difficult it has been to endure them, and I am beginning to see the wisdom in accepting them, rather than fighting against them.
The images directly above were taken just before I departed Massachusetts for my next assignment, and they still evoke a powerful sense of those days in my mind. Certain images, even ones I have received recently, can stir my heart and mind beyond the mere beauty they might reveal. It seems that whether they are from the past I remember, or simply so striking in their resonance within my heart-of-hearts, deeply touching my inner world, what lingers is the sense of familiarity and the emotions they evoke.
In the course of my research into the nature of consciousness, which began in earnest after the traumatic encounter with what Carl Jung called, “unconscious contents,” I began to see how the events of my youth were starting to fit into a kind of pattern in the way in which the contents of my unconscious mind were being revealed to me. The sensations and emotions and experiences in Massachusetts felt familiar in a way that didn’t make sense at first, but slowly, subtly, I began to understand that they were all somehow part of the same experience. It would generally begin with a spontaneous eruption of some sort, a flash of insight, a sudden sense of recognition, an unexpected turn in the routines of daily life, a remarkable confluence of deeply personal longing which would suddenly be accompanied by a feeling of fulfillment, all of which seemed to be guiding me toward an avenue of thought or action that I otherwise would never have thought to pursue. The truth is, throughout the many years that have passed since my journey began, as I reflect on the many missed opportunities of my youth, I have found that I no longer wish to miss a single possible moment of fulfillment of these longings. I trust enough in my heart and in my soul to be true to their inclinations, even when they lead me to something painful, or which I don’t fully understand at first.
James Redfield, author of “The Celestine Prophecy,” suggests that what we often consider “coincidences,” are in fact meaningful and essential events in our evolution as an individual:
“It begins with a heightened perception of the way our lives move forward. We notice those chance events that occur at just the right moment, and bring forth just the right individuals, to suddenly send our lives in a new and important direction. Perhaps more than any other people in any other time, we intuit higher meaning in these mysterious happenings.”
Redfield also asserts that the introduction of certain individuals into our lives, at particular moments in our lives, frequently seem to occur at just the right time to help us move forward or to solve some particular problem. In this regard, I have had many remarkable experiences, the significance of which was not always evident to me until long after the influence had occurred. A very small group of significant individuals stand out. Although it would be difficult to quantify their value precisely, it seems clear that my life would have been quite different without the intercession of a few of these “significant others.”
Many times, the arrival of certain individuals has had a compensatory effect for some other significant influence, helping me to maintain balance at a particularly precarious moment. Some of these individuals have been mentors and teachers. Some have been irritants who have compelled me away from certain situations or ideas. Some have been beautiful angels who lifted me up and made it possible for me to continue when it seemed like there was nowhere to go. Some have been adversaries, whose challenges have brought aspects of my personality to the forefront, broadening my self-awareness. Some have been lovers who renewed my faith in life and all its possibilities. In most every case, in retrospect, I have been profoundly grateful for whatever time I was privileged to be in their company.
The initial revelation of the Jonas story found me mostly baffled and confused as to the nature of its significance in my life at the time it occurred. While I knew it was important, I was unprepared to assimilate the information it contained into anything even resembling a coherent response. Over the span of years in my life as a self-aware and conscious being, I have gradually come to feel a powerful sense of having been born to some vital purpose, and have been reminded often of the feeling that what was unfolding within me was somehow remarkably different than what I observed to be happening in those around me.
The image above is a photo of the very place where, after months of chaos and confusion and a series of astonishing changes within me and as a young soldier, I realized that all I had endured, suffered, and learned prior to that day had created a foundation for all that was to come. As I sat beneath that tree on the square in front of my barracks some forty years ago, I knew that the journey had only just begun for me. At some point, we all encounter experiences and important events that change us in this way. If we arrive at such a moment reasonably intact, where we finally abandon our naive notions of the world, leaving behind our childhood, we may then hopefully embark upon a truly original individual human life.
….still to come… California impressions…
“The psyche (mind) is not of today; its ancestry goes back many millions of years. Individual consciousness is only the flower and the fruit of a season, sprung from the perennial rhizome (root) beneath the earth; and it would find itself in better accord with the truth if it took the existence of the rhizome into its calculations. For the root matter is the mother of all things.” – C.G. Jung from “Symbols of Transformation”
From the very first moments of cognizance in my life, I have had the relentless, nagging suspicion that I have been born into this world, not purely as an innocent, and perhaps more importantly, not in the fullest sense, strictly and only who I am in this life. As a child, I was constantly confronted with puzzling looks from my peers, as well as from some adults, which gave me the sense of being somehow peculiar in a way that no one else seemed to be. As an emerging young conscious child, I often experienced moments when I suddenly felt a curious “otherness” about myself, and I spent a great deal of time alone just thinking, or wondering what could possibly be wrong with me. Whenever I questioned an adult about these feelings, they would inevitably suggest that I was talking nonsense, or that I should forget about those thoughts.
As I grew older, and began to comprehend the world as an emerging adult, the feelings never left me, prompting me to fear that I would never understand the source of these inexplicable sensations of alienation and despair. In my twenty-first year of life, as a young soldier in the Armed Forces stationed just outside of Boston, the experience I described in the previous post shook me to my very roots. I could no longer ignore the feelings and memories of my inner turmoil as I had my entire life. In order to unravel the mystery, I began a research project at the main library facility in Worcester.
My research led me to the discovery that there had been a man named Jonas Rice who was a soldier in the Continental Army during the revolutionary war. His father, Jonas Rice, Sr. was one of the founders of the city of Worcester, and was buried in the city commons. The story of Jonas became an obsession with me, and from the pages written at the time of the original incident, I began to piece together the journey revealed in those writings, and launched an investigation that would last more than thirty years. Although there was a great deal of turmoil within me, and many other urgent matters to attend to as a military man, it seemed to me that I was on a very important path and yielded to the flow of events without prejudice. I wanted to see where it would take me. I didn’t have to wait long.
Periodically, similar sensations would occur like the one I experienced previously, and at some of the most inconvenient moments. As I reported in my posting, “Belief and Reason:”
” It was so disturbing, that I took the extraordinary risk of seeking out a mental health professional at the military base where I was stationed. It was a risk because I was training as a military intelligence specialist with a security clearance, and any demonstration of unusual or reckless behavior or any report of such behavior, could lead to dismissal and reassignment. Much to my surprise, my sessions with this professional person, while not particularly helpful in resolving the explanation of this event, did point me in a helpful direction, and I began my own research into a variety of disciplines in my quest for understanding.”
Training as an intelligence specialist at that time required that I learn Morse code, which was done by listening to the Morse code signals over a headset and typing the characters and numbers being broadcast on a manual typewriter. The signal would come across in groups of five characters of numbers and letters separated by a space, and there would be ten lines of fifty characters to make a block. It was a daunting undertaking at first, but as my competence grew, the speed would be increased, until as a practical matter, you couldn’t type as fast as the characters were coming, so you needed to remember what they were in order to keep up. I found myself almost in a trance-like “zone” as I would type away, and several times a week, I would look up at the page and notice that the normal grouping of five characters across the page were intermittently spelling out words, and sometimes I ended up abandoning the code altogether and start to write sentences on the code forms.
Right about in the middle of the course, just weeks after the abrupt psychic occurrence that started everything, I was seriously injured in a fall, plunging my left arm through a window. My recollection of the incident borders on an “out-of-the-body” experience. I initially stood up, thinking that someone behind me had broken the window, only to discover a large gaping wound on my left arm, now seriously leaking and exposing the bone. I immediately went limp and next remember waking up on the floor in excruciating pain. In order to stop the bleeding, a young man in my unit, recently returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam as a medic, was applying serious pressure to my arm, without realizing that there was a half-dollar sized piece of glass still in my arm.
I was quickly transported to the base hospital and was essentially told that in all likelihood, I would not be able to use the arm again. In the ensuing weeks, as I lay recovering from surgery in the hospital, much to my surprise, I slowly regained the use of my arm with only a slight loss of strength. I was eventually able to recover sufficiently to return to the Morse code class, where the periodic episodes of writing instead of coding became less and less frequent.
Next time….training as a continental soldier….
“Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
“There is no place more delightful than one’s own fireplace.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero
For more than twenty years now, since we moved in to our home, I have tended to the fire in the wood-stove in the front entrance way, which had been added on to the original structure some years before we moved in. While we were searching for a home to buy, when we saw the “wood stove room” at the front of the house, we knew it was the one for us. The huge maple tree in the back yard was also a factor, but the wood stove was the clincher. In spite of never having used one before, it seemed just right at the time.
We spent nearly every nickel we had, and begged, borrowed, and stole in order to get a mortgage, but it was a home with a yard for us and our children, and it seemed like a miracle that it happened at all. It didn’t take long to discover that home ownership wasn’t necessarily going to be a smooth ride. Since there was nothing left after the sale, there were no funds remaining for fuel oil, so the whole first winter required us to maintain a constant fire in the wood stove, in order to stay warm. We moved in right at the beginning of December, so our first Christmas in the house came up quickly, and the fire rituals seemed wonderful and seasonally appropriate. After the holidays were over, the novelty of chopping the wood and tending to the fire wore off pretty quickly, and soon became a necessary part of every day life. When the milder weather finally showed up, it seemed like a great relief. In spite of the challenge it presented, we learned a great deal about what it took to maintain the wood stove, and prepared during the summer of that first year for the winter to come.
Having a fire in the fireplace at home during the cold weather months growing up was always a special occasion. Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations were almost guaranteed to have a fire at some point, and Christmas in particular almost required a fire, so we could pop the popcorn and string it up on the mantle piece as a decoration. The photo above was taken in 1961, right after the birth of my youngest sister, and you can tell just by looking at us that we were feeling the joy of the season, even though it had only been a few months since we lost our younger brother to a sudden illness in October. The holidays wouldn’t ever be the same after that one, but we still wanted to have the fire when they returned each year.
When we moved into the new home we were all a bit older, but we still wanted to continue the traditions with the fireplace. Like most big families, we slowly figured out our places when it came time for the group photos, but no matter what, Mom was in the middle. She was always the center of our universe anyway, and little has changed since those early days in that regard. When Dad passed away in 2002, we all rallied around our Mom, and as life settled down in the months that followed, her role became even more central to all of our family activities. In the years that followed, her role as matriarch at family events rose to nearly epic proportions, and every important occasion clearly required her presence in order to qualify as important.
When my life with my own children began to take shape in our new home, it felt very much the same as my life did growing up, and tending to the fire became even more meaningful to me. The mother of my children also held her place at the center of our universe, but unlike it was growing up with my parents, where only Dad was allowed to conduct the fire rituals, the Mom in our home was more inclined to get the fire started when the cold weather arrived.
Now in the autumn, when the temperatures begin to seriously decline in degree, we generally tolerate the first few chilly nights without a fire, but before long, it seems like the warmer days are finally over, and we begin to light the fires of autumn. These first few fires are different than all the rest. They feel differently than the ones which become necessary to stay warm in the heart of the winter. It takes less time to warm the house up, and it seems more like the original fires which were only for special occasions. I seem to spend a lot more time gazing into the autumn fires, and the flames ignite a great deal more than the logs we place tenderly within the stove. The fires of autumn are the fires of love, of family, and of tradition. The warmth is welcoming without being absolutely necessary, and the memories of fires from days gone by all seem to float to the surface when I open those doors to add another log.
As I tend to the fire tonight, we are holding an autumn vigil, as my mother’s life hangs precariously by the thinnest of threads. The woman who has been the center of our universe all these years may soon return to the source of all life, and when she does, the fires of autumn will quickly turn into the necessary ones. Once again, the memories of fires from days gone by will rise up to join us in our vigil, and although we know that there will be many new fires in the autumn and winter days to come, no fire will ever be the same again.