“Never in the world were any two opinions alike, any more than any two hairs or grains of sand. Their most universal quality is diversity.” –Montaigne, Essays, 1580
In a letter-writing conversation with a thoughtful friend some years ago, the topic turned to how to engage others more deeply without abandoning our own sense of self or compromising our ability to function as an individual spirit in the world. My friend wrote, “…deep engagement without reluctance, in my opinion does turn the world upside down, and the only way to engage at that deep level, unless you are still in the womb, is to let go of your own consciousness. But there is a conflict because what we seem to hope for is deep engagement not with our primal undifferentiated selves, but with our developed selves; but the developed self by nature is separate, has evolved to live independently of the host, the mother.”
In response, I turned to the writings of C.G.Jung, and his ideas about the process of individuation, which, according to a notation in Wikipedia, “…is the process in which the individual self develops out of an undifferentiated unconscious – seen as a developmental psychic process during which innate elements of personality, the components of the immature psyche, and the experiences of the person’s life become integrated over time into a well-functioning whole.” Jung believed that “…the essentially ‘internal’ process of individuation does not go on in some inner space cut off from the world. Rather, it can only be realized within the larger context of life as it is lived.” Our developed selves, brought about by individuation are, in my opinion, perhaps more accurately described as being founded upon our primal undifferentiated selves, rather than as something separate from it, but it seems pretty clear that it is our developed selves which inspire conflict when it does occur. Conflict seems to me to be more of a cultural problem than one of the host being separate from the mother.
In a letter he wrote a few months before his death, Jung stated:
“It is quite possible that we look at the world from the wrong side and that we might find the right answer by changing our point of view and looking at it from the other side, that is, not from the outside, but from inside.”
For me, the connections I recognize as those which I strive to engage without reluctance and without turning the world upside down, transcend the developed self. The crucial point of the matter here seems to be our connection to the infinite. In his autobiography, Jung wrote:
“If we understand and feel that here in this life we already have a link with the infinite, desires and attitudes change…In our relationships…the crucial question is whether an element of boundlessness is expressed in the relationship…Only consciousness of our narrow confinement in the self forms the link to the limitlessness of the unconscious…In knowing ourselves to be unique in our personal combination—that is, ultimately limited—we possess also the capacity for becoming conscious of the infinite.”
– excerpt from Jung’s autobiography, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” 1963, New York: Random House.
I have struggled to come to terms with the compelling inner sense of a connection to the infinite that has appeared regularly in my writings these many years. I often struggle also with attempting to articulate this inner urging and to describe it in ways that can be appreciated by my readers here. Of necessity as temporal beings, we often resort to temporal references in order to allude to that which cannot be described in temporal terms. The nature of life, temporal existence, the physical universe, and everything relevant to that existence cannot be described completely in terms belonging only to that physical existence. We have devised ways of referring to these other aspects of life and existence, particularly as they relate to our very human nature, and acknowledge them as existing in a domain far removed from the temporal–as far removed from the temporal plane as we are from the quantum world of the very small, and the farthest reaches of the physical universe. Although we are, in some important ways, defined by these two opposing aspects, the truth seems to reside between them.
Sometimes, we all need to step away from the table, to catch up on our sleep, or to clear our hearts and minds from all the clutter that can accumulate. Wellness requires periods of rest; mental health requires periods of sleep and occasional disconnects. No one goes on vacation all the time, just every once in a while. It is unlikely to find peace in even a deep connection unless we are able to find some peace in ourselves. This is the absolute goal in successful relationships, and I feel strongly that I DO have some peace within me now. I may have some additional work to do through contemplation and ruminating on my path that brought me to my present place in the world, and psychologically we should all be continuously working to engage our hearts and minds in the pursuit of progressing as a person, but the foundation I now possess has been hard-won and warrants consideration when I sometimes still feel that twinge of the memory of the pain that led to the peace of where I am now.
Each of us suffers subjectively in ways that cannot meaningfully be compared to the suffering of others. As a person who cannot seem to avoid empathizing with the suffering of others, I have endured my own suffering with a fairly unique perspective as a man. My mother told me that as a young boy, when one of the other children in the neighborhood would fall down or be crying for some reason, I would also cry. As I witnessed the birth of each of my children, I cried buckets of tears, and holding one of my grandchildren now or when I see any newborn child, my heart absolutely melts. Reading about the tragic circumstances that seem to appear regularly in the news these days frequently brings me to tears. I can’t say I know many other men who have this problem. These experiences clearly are of the “very human” variety, and it seems to me that our very human nature is more complex and mysterious than any of the science, psychology, or philosophy of mind currently can illuminate.
Michelangelo Buonarroti – The Dream of Human Life
Writing about “Life,” or rendering artistically the everyday scenes of our temporal existence goes on all the time in every culture and it has become commonplace in our time to read about or to see the results of those efforts everywhere we go. Actually “living our lives” and answering the important questions about life are a whole other matter. As artists of every variety know all too well, it’s far easier to look at the world and express your art than it is to undue the tragedy and mayhem that we see in it. As a writer and a reasonably well-traveled fellow, I am far more adept at describing and expressing my thoughts about the world, than I will ever be at unraveling the tangled web we are all weaving as modern humans.
Recently, I was asked by a visitor here if I had come to any conclusions about what purpose there might be to our existence, and by inference, to life itself. Modern Homo sapiens are currently the only known species capable of asking such a question, and since this now familiar variety of human life has only been in existence for about the last 100,000 years or so, the path of life that led to creatures who can think well enough and be sufficiently self-aware to ask such a question obviously existed well before modern human beings showed up.
Since Life is at the top of the list I posted recently, and since all of the research and study I have conducted over the years frequently suggested this question for myself as well, I thought I might introduce the subject with some general thoughts which might serve as both an opening to talking about life and as an initial response to the question.
The Life of the body is problematic, right from the start. In the womb, we are fragile, unable to survive outside of our mother, and so tiny at first that we cannot even be seen except with a powerful microscope. In spite of all the advances in medicine through the centuries, there are still no guarantees that every child conceived will flourish. There are still many different ways in which a new life might not succeed. Our beginning in the womb is tenuous at best. If we are fortunate enough to be constructed of healthy genes and to develop in a healthy womb, even after we emerge into the world and take our first breath, life continues to remain uncertain.
But the Life of the spirit is not bound by any such limitations. Its health is unaffected by any physical malady. When we describe the life of the spirit, we speak of an inner life-the spirit within-sometimes referred to as “the Soul.” The Catholic Monk, Thomas Merton, who wrote one of the most profound books on spiritual life, entitled, “The Seven Story Mountain” called it “the inner experience.” It is in this realm, where we experience the most exquisite joys, and the depths of sorrow, and everything in between.
There are many different viewpoints regarding which relationship might be considered most important in life, but few familial relationships can claim the centrality and significance of the one between a mother and her children. Sometimes children grow up without their mother for one reason or another, or are born into a family in which the mother is unable to be a proper mother for one reason or another, but I think it’s fair to say that the role of the mother is, by far, the most personal relationship we can have with another person. With its many facets, from carrying us inside of her body before birth, through the care and feeding of us as infants, to teaching us the many lessons we need to learn and grow as young children, and through the many stages of our lives for as long as we have her with us, there are many contributions that only a mother can make. The mother who gives birth enjoys a level of intimacy with that child that cannot be duplicated or reconstructed after they arrive in the world.
No matter what kind relationship we have with those we love, we often don’t realize just how much the spirit of life figures in our experience of the world and our temporary existence as human beings, until we are faced with the end of life. But if we take the time to examine these important considerations while those we love are amongst us, it makes it a bit easier to celebrate their lives when the body can no longer sustain itself. It might seem strange to say that we celebrate someone’s life when they finally reach the end of it. The end of life and celebration seem, on the surface, to be contradictory. And yet, what greater reason to celebrate than the fulfillment of life; the arrival at the goal to which all life has pointed, and the place at last for which the soul has always longed.
But we are so human, and the end of life feels like such a loss, that we can easily forget the other side of the coin, which is the transition into a life of the spirit. We often see the end of temporal life only as a door closing on life, not as an opening to a much greater one. We feel the emptiness within ourselves, making it so much harder to remember, through our tears and grief, that as St. Paul said, “We know that when the earthly tent in which we dwell is destroyed, we have a dwelling provided for us by God, a dwelling in the heavens, not made by hands, but to last forever.” Many of the world’s mythologies and religious traditions suggest some variety of transcendent existence which supports our lives as human beings, and which can mitigate our sense of loss. We cling to life in a completely understandable human way most of our lives, suffering terribly when we see that it is lost too soon, and sometimes we despair even when it dwindles slowly at the latter part of a long and fruitful life.
Each of us abandons our grief and arrives at joy once again in our own time, but it is always there waiting, and we must, at some point, attempt to locate it. Of joy and sorrow, the great poet and philosopher, Kahlil Gibran wrote, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. When you are sorrowful, look again into your heart, and you shall see, that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
All the work I had done to come to terms with and to put into words, the core matter of the spiritual nature of human consciousness, had never been so vital to me, as it was when facing the loss of the connection to my dear brother. Contained within my experience of his last days was the perception and recognition of the very essence of the life of the spirit, and tending to his spirit during those days was the fulfillment of the essence of the spiritual awakening that had been percolating in me for years. The character of this connection of two spirits was experienced with a profound recognition of the significance of that connection, so full of life and love, right to the last.
The realities of the temporal world, have not escaped me. I am not running blindly into the sun. I nearly lost my footing many times when enduring the grief which followed the loss, because I did not fully understand and could not have known, the extraordinary circumstances that would lead to the recognition of what it means to exist as both a physical and spiritual being.
Every aspect of the spirit within me is invigorated by the potential of the spiritual connections possible in this life. The revelation of the Jonas material, now thirty years ago, was a prelude to the release of the spirit about to come. After the journey began, I realized that I could no longer trip and slip through the important learning and work necessary to come to terms with the experience. While I remain uncertain about how I will share what I have learned, or even if expressing what I have found in a comprehensive way will be possible, I view the work I have done these many years as my first tentative steps to encourage others to seek the path to the fortress of life, and to pursue the ultimate fulfillment of their own unique purpose.
All of my siblings and I, along with many family members and friends, said a final farewell to the grand lady who brought us into the world today. Over the past several months, as her health began to decline, each of us stepped up the frequency of our visits, and dedicated our energies to bringing her as much comfort and joy as we were able to conjure for her. As difficult as this day felt for us all, our reflections and our wonderful memories which came to us during this time, provided a degree of comfort and joy to us in the process.
As a young boy, many of my earliest memories were of days spent together with Mom. We grew up in the 1950’s, and like many American families of that time, Dad was the provider, and Mom stayed at home to raise the children. But to understand our true origins as a family, we have to go back before the courtship and marriage that led to this arrangement. Born into an emotionally reserved family of modest means, experiencing her own early childhood during the Great Depression, and her teen years during World War II, our Mother had a foundation in her formative years that would be difficult for those of us today to fully appreciate. We always listened attentively to Mom’s stories growing up, and the tales of having very few resources in her youth, of rationing during the war, and of the challenges our parents faced just to court each other and marry, and they all painted a picture of a very different world than the one we all know today. Raised with only one brother, it was her joyful and abundant summer visits to the home of her beloved aunt, who had a house full of children, that instilled in her the notion that she wanted a family just like it. Her devotion to her role as our mother, had its seeds in the experience of her youth.
Mom was our champion, our protector, and our teacher, and she performed all these roles with equal skill and enthusiasm. Throughout my childhood, in spite of my tendency not to “look before I leaped,” my Mom never made me feel as though there was anything wrong with me. Her patience and loving tolerance for a whole variety of trials that I managed to present during my adolescence never resulted in anything more than perhaps a sigh, and an urging to try and give my actions a bit more thought the next time. Her gentle prodding and steady diligence to steer me in a better direction always felt like love, and the image above shows a degree of the good effect it had on me.
Throughout my tender youth, my prevailing memories of my Mom were of her as the most beautiful and happy woman of any that I knew. As a youngster, I obviously had no idea that one of the main reasons for this perception was my emotional and psychological position as her beloved son, but even as I grew and matured, I never lost the sense of how beautiful she seemed in comparison to all the other Moms. Whatever youthful innocence was responsible for coming up with this idea, it never seemed to leave me in all my travels.
When I joined the military at age 20, my Mom cried in the kitchen when I told her about my plans, and she began immediately to prepare a meal for me to eat. Since she already knew more about what it meant to be a soldier than I did, she felt the maternal urge to feed me, since my meals would very likely soon become nothing at all like home cooking. We talked for some time about what it would mean to our family dynamic and how the others would react, but she embraced me and smiled and seemed proud of me. I had no idea that my life was about to change drastically, but in her gentle wisdom, she knew that the time had come to start my own path, and she wished me well.
Of all the many wonderful memories that come to mind as I reflect on a lifetime as her son, one of the most enduring is the memory of her “secret technique,” for making gravy. All of us would marvel at the process from a distance, and even though it seems unlikely to us now that there was any exotic “secret” behind the formula she would use, every Thanksgiving and Christmas, or whenever a family dinner required a “gravy boat,” we were kept at a distance during the “secret” phase of the operation, and even during a recent gathering while she was still able, I snapped this photo of her and nearly got a spoon over my head for disturbing the workings of her culinary method.
In her final days, Mom was in her element. In spite of her weakened state, even with so many visitors coming and going during the day, she rose to each occasion, and frequently dazzled us with her ability to engage and respond to the banter being offered with a nimble wit. We spent many of our last hours with her laughing and dodging her admonitions when we would come up against her fiery will. In one particularly emotional moment on our last day together, as we sat close, Mom put her hands on either side of my face and whispered, “I have loved you since the day you were born.” It was classic Mom right up to the end. By the early evening on that day, it was clear that her body would not be able to sustain her spirit much longer, and as she slept in the wee hours of the morning, she crossed gently over the threshold into the next life.
It has been a mixture of wonderful memories and difficult moments these past few months as Mom began to slip away from us, but we recognized how fortunate we have been to have known such love with our Mom, to have enjoyed a lifetime of benefits as her children, and to be able to live the lives we are living now, in large part, as a result of having her as our Mom. The lasting legacy of our Mother lives inside of each one of us. It is composed of mutual love and respect for one another; a sense of purpose in being a parent ourselves; a devotion to those parts of our lives which matter most to us, and a deep abiding love for our own children. Now it’s up to us to pass it along.
The Astronomer by Johannes Vermeer (c. 1668)
Astronomy has always fascinated me. Ever since I was a young boy, I was intrigued by the planets and the stars, and wanted to know everything there was to know about what I could only barely see when I looked up at the night sky. Constellations were magical in my young mind. I truly believed that the ancient people who gave each of the mysterious shapes a name, and to which they attached a meaningful story about the various mythological characters and the mystical creatures of those mythologies, knew something about the universe that I could only imagine. I could not fully grasp the ideals contained in the mythological stories, nor could I truly decipher what they were suggesting about life right here on Earth. I couldn’t even truly understand why I felt such a powerful urge to gaze up at the panorama all around me in the night sky. Somehow, opening my heart and mind and spirit to the stars, made me feel alive and real.
As my life progressed, I never lost my fascination with the experience of the firmament of night, and even into my adult years with the additional opportunities to view the starry vault from different locations in the world, my heart would always long to fly up into the darkness for a closer look. Something about outer space drew me inexorably up amidst the innumerable elements within the celestial sphere, until one day it finally dawned on me. The universe all around me was my reference point to know that I am truly here.
We can get lost in a crowd and still feel completely alone. We can disappear into the night, but still see where we are going. We can be absorbed in a book or a movie, and still realize who we are and where we came from before becoming absorbed. We can live our whole lives without ever experiencing a truly transcendent moment, and still feel that we somehow have a connection to something bigger than ourselves. But once we discover and truly experience a deep and abiding love for another human being, once we are awakened to the existence of the unmistakeably potent thrill that accompanies our acknowledgement of that connection to another, and then inexplicably suffer the gut wrenching experience of loss of such a connection, it throws away every doubt we might have about truly being here.
“Love – Loss” by Philip Straub. Medium: Oil on board. About this Image: One of a series of paintings created to explore human relationships.
Recognizing that our lives, and the lives of all those who inhabit the planet, are an essential component of the universe in which they come to pass doesn’t come easy always. With so many human beings populating the Earth in the 21st century, and with so few of us finding each other, caring for each other, or even getting to know each other well, it’s hardly surprising that we sometimes fail to see our essential connection to the lives of the billions of inhabitants who share this life with us, including every other living creature who walks, flies, or crawls along the surface of the planet with us. In order to reach such a recognition, we must carefully examine our relationship with each of those we do encounter, and as far as possible, engage them fully and learn to accept the diversity of strengths and weaknesses that each soul possesses, without relinquishing what is most essential to the connection in ourselves.
My good friend and fellow blogger patricemj recently posted an insightful look at one particularly illuminating example of how this awareness and love for others can bring us to see that we are truly here, and I recommend you stop by to have a look:
Of the many illuminating experiences which can be instructive with regard to knowing that we are truly here, particularly after what might have been the accumulation of many years of almost forgetting that we are here for some good purpose, is the arrival in our lives of a brand new person on this Earth. Here is a brief excerpt from my personal journal about one particularly illuminating moment:
“Writing this morning next to a portable crib with my two month new granddaughter, sleeping peacefully after I shared a sleepy half hour or so of her morning feeding, I can’t help but contemplate the extraordinary quality of our communications since her arrival in my world. Pure delight overcomes me as my eyes land upon her face, and she bursts into a wide smile, her own eyes opening widely as well, and her arms and feet gyrate with excitement in anticipation of being picked up and cuddled. As a man with a reasonably functional adult brain, my responses enjoy a much richer and fuller range, but my granddaughter’s more limited repertoire of responses are nonetheless sufficient for her to receive the desired, although instinctive immediate response from me to satisfy her immediate needs.”
Watching a child awaken to conscious awareness is a nearly miraculous process, and if you are not fully conscious yourself when such an opportunity arises, you will soon find yourself in the thick of it before long. As time progresses, each time I have the opportunity to share time with this bundle of excitement and joy, I am reminded again that I am truly here:
Now three years along in life, this young lady hasn’t lost a single bit of her power to remind me that I am truly here, and while there are many ways to increase our understanding and appreciation for the power of love in our lives, including every possible variation and quality of love between two human beings, there are no limits to what we can accomplish by opening ourselves to our powerfully urgent longings to connect to others.
…..more to come….