Recently, I went for a walk–wandering around the neighborhood–and when I came back, I took a look around the house and was struck by a few particular moments of the extraordinary, waiting to be discovered in the ordinary. Every year around this time, all of nature usually comes alive simultaneously, and it is always a relief to once again observe the greenery coming back to life, but this year, nature seems to be bursting out all over the yard, and it almost seems to be trying to swallow the house whole. The image above was taken in a field near the house which I snapped while walking, and it felt relatively safe and ordinary as I paused to capture the scene.
Once I came along the sidewalk in front of the house, I was taken by surprise by what seemed like a jungle creeping up on the house, with our cat, Mittens apparently oblivious to the impending attack. On the right hand side, next to the yellow rose bush, what I had earlier dismissed as simply a small new tree, has suddenly taken root and shot up like a beanstalk. The ivy in the center of the image, which had always seemed like a nice decoration around the light pole at the end of the walkway, now appears to have engulphed the whole thing. Yes, there is a light post under all those leaves.
It won’t be long before the mailman will have to bring a machete with him to get to the mailbox!
The ivy is starting to take over the whole front of the house.
It’s even creeping up to grab anyone coming out the door.
It’s getting a bit ridiculous now.
But lo and behold! Sitting out on the back porch I notice that a maple seedling from the backyard tree has taken root in the space between the boards. In the most unexpected places, and against tremendous odds, nature has found a way to flourish! Even though it’s clearly doomed in the long run, I couldn’t help but stare in amazement at how persistent and unflinchingly the plants and trees and everything alive is growing all around me.
The natural world, of which we are an integral part, shows us even in these humble discoveries on an ordinary day, how it is that we can approach life as something extraordinary, which needs to be appreciated and which should provoke us with wonder and inspire awe. Imperceptibly, but relentlessly, every plant and tree persists under the most daunting circumstances. We cut it out, and it grows back. We rip it out by the roots, and the seedlings drop and the process begins again. Every year, with lethal intent, I decimate the ivy and chop it to bits, and no matter what I do, life finds a way.
Apparently unfazed by it all, our cat, Princess, seems blissfully unaware of the tumultuous orchestration of Mother Nature all around her, and found a quiet spot on an old carpet remnant to curl up for an afternoon nap. As the mammal with the big brain and a penetrating cognitive awareness, I find myself curiously undone by all of these ordinary wonders, and equally cognizant of the extraordinary aspects which serve as the foundation for all life and existence in our little corner of the world. Time to dig a little deeper…..
View from Blue Ridge Parkway in southwestern Virginia
There are few experiences for frequent highway travelers that can compare with the exceptional countryside road views available along the highways within the Blue Ridge Mountain range, which stretches from northern Georgia all the way up to Pennsylvania.
Recent camping trips have resulted in several wonderful opportunities for both sustained hours of contemplation, and for producing some remarkable images along the variety of roads and some lovely trails leading through the scenic areas surrounding the campgrounds in Virginia. As a consequence of being able to enjoy these opportunities, a number of avenues of exploration have opened for me, and in the coming weeks I hope to share postings which will include the fruits of those opportunities, both in the visual sense through photo essays, as well as in a spiritual and philosophical sense through the expression of my contemplative efforts and recorded thoughts from the numerous visits to the various natural landscapes in these areas.
Traversing the countryside in a motor vehicle is one of the best ways to get a broad appreciation of the scope of natural beauty and wide expanses available to visit, and frequently you can encounter alternative and unfamiliar points of interest which you can either stop and explore immediately, or perhaps make a note to schedule a visit at a later time. Sometimes, while on the way to a planned stop, pausing to take in a scenic overlook can provide a wonderful opportunity to be inspired and to appreciate the advantage of serendipity for sharing in nature’s bounty.
By far, some of the most beneficial and inspiring scenes are more often attainable by stepping out of the vehicle, and hiking along the trails and visiting the many visitor centers which can provide helpful information about the most interesting sites contained within the state and national park system. Trails can vary from leisurely and easy walks through tried and true paths for the casual visitor, all the way to some of the more challenging hikes through rugged terrain.
One of my more recent trips into nature’s gardens provided an especially fruitful time in contemplation, and included the chance to review a volume of philosophical writings by Descartes received as a gift from my brother at Christmas. Safely nestled in the bosom of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I encountered a passage that seemed to be describing the very path of my life:
“As soon as I was old enough to emerge from the control of my teachers, I entirely abandoned the study of letters. Resolving to seek no knowledge other than that which could be found in myself or else in the great book of the world, I spent the rest of my youth travelling, visiting courts and armies, mixing with people of diverse temperaments and ranks, gathering various experiences, testing myself in the situations which fortune offered me, and at all times reflecting upon whatever came my way so as to derive some profit from it…”
“…For it seemed to me that much more truth could be found in the reasonings which a man makes concerning matters that concern him than in those which some scholar makes in his study about speculative matters. For the consequences of the former will soon punish the man if he judges wrongly, whereas the latter have no practical consequences and no importance for the scholar except that perhaps the further they are from common sense the more pride he will take in them, since he will have had to use so much more skill and ingenuity in trying to render them plausible. And it is always my most earnest desire to learn to distinguish the true from the false in order to see clearly into my own actions and proceed with confidence in this life.”
–from “Discourse On The Method,” by Rene Descartes, published in 1644
In the weeks to come, I will be enlarging and expanding on the clear association between communing with nature apart from most all familiar modern amenities, (with the exception of the devices for photography and recording my thoughts for posterity) with the emergence of important life lessons, philosophical writings, and a greater well-being as an individual struggling with the meaning and purpose of his remaining years on this earth.
In a recent communication with a dear friend, I reported a brief defense of this association in this way:
“You can almost hear your heart beating in the stillness of early morning in the forest. There is a reflection of life across the still lake waters at dawn. It is humbling and life-affirming to look out at beautiful mountain vistas. All of nature reflects all of life…”
“And don’t forget to unplug your earbuds or headphones and to walk without any sound except what nature provides, and look within. There is more wisdom available in one hour of stillness in Nature’s gardens, than you could ever hope to find…(elsewhere)”
…more to come…
November has flown by with a swiftness of a fleeting blink of an eye. The autumn this year was reluctant to begin, with summer-like temperatures holding fairly steady well into October in the Northeast corridor, and the delay in arriving at more seasonal weather seemed to mute the changing colors when they finally began to change in earnest. As I came slowly to consciousness this past Saturday morning, I awoke to the sound of a robust and formidable wind stirring the trees outside my bedroom window. Since I had no urgent events scheduled for the day, I was able to awaken slowly and reflect for a bit before rising.
I sat up for a moment or two once I had gathered my wits and took a few photos as the day began, and then settled back down again to contemplate the day’s beginning and the events of late that accompanied the strangeness of the reluctant autumn taking place all around me. I generally try to capture some seasonal images as the earth alters its course around the sun each year, but this time around, it seems that mother nature had other ideas, and stubbornly withheld the expected changes until just last week.
In the yard next door, my usual view out the window on that side would have displayed this scene a month ago, but only last week came into full blossom with many of the leaves already missing. In just the last few days, most all of the foliage in the trees lining the street was gone. The wind had wreaked havoc on whatever plumage remained and the tree now appears almost totally bare. This experience goes against the traditional one I generally expect at this time of year, and as I lay in bed pondering these changes, I looked back over several extraordinary life events that led up to the strangeness of my early morning awakening.
Beginning in late August, as I traveled to the first of three family gatherings as autumn approached, the sky above me looked so strange and peculiar as I rode astonished at the sight, that I had to capture the event, as though it were an omen of some sort. I couldn’t decide if this sky was ominous or simply extraordinary.
Gliding down the highway in silence, almost mesmerized by the sight of it, it gave me shivers as I held my eye up to viewfinder. What an amazing sight!
Last month brought me once again into the emotional rollercoaster ride as Father of the Bride. As we gathered for the marriage of my youngest daughter in the spectacular landscape of rural Virginia, the anticipated autumnal awesomeness was only barely underway as we prepared for the outdoor ceremony in the afternoon of Saturday, the 21st of October. Driving through the beauty of the sun kissed scenery, my heart already primed for the flood of feelings and memories, I was struck by the contrast with the previous driving experience, and could barely contain myself as I soaked in the spectacle before me.
On the first morning in Virginia before the wedding, I awoke at sunrise in the mountains, and was able to observe the first light while chatting with my daughter who called me on the phone. It was a compelling moment of many that would occur during the trip, but all the more poignant as I was able to share some fatherly advice with a nervous bride.
The view off the deck of the rental house above was taken on October 23rd and offered only a hint of Autumn’s colors, and while the temperatures were mild during the day, it was still chilly in the morning and that helped to remind me that we were indeed experiencing the autumnal transition. The thoughts passing through my mind on that morning turned to one of the most poignant moments that occurred over the weekend, when I first saw my youngest daughter in her wedding dress. I nearly fainted!
With one day available to me after the wedding to relax and look around, I decided to travel to nearby Charlottesville, Virginia to satisfy a lifelong desire to visit Monticello–the home of Thomas Jefferson. Ever since I was a small boy learning American History in school, I had wanted to visit this historical home, and it was another monumental and emotional experience on a weekend full of them. I will be writing a separate blog post about that visit soon, but I wanted to include an image from that day. The visit and tour of the estate will remain as one of the most significant of the many I acquired in any autumn season.
There have been so many moments throughout the season before winter this year that seemed to overwhelm my ability to process them well, and I couldn’t help but wonder about the confluence of each of these events and what the meaning might be for me personally. The perspective of years of memories of past autumns has run the gamut from the most stunningly beautiful to the personally devastating, and all along the way, every variation in between has contributed to the auguries of autumn for me.
It is sometimes said that a person in their sixth decade of life is approaching the “autumn of their years,” but I wonder now just how close the winter might be, and what wonders await me.
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.
The times when I am at my quietest is when I am best able to recall the connection of souls, lingering in memory. Perhaps, as a memory, reflecting on the connection seems delightful in a way that is sometimes difficult to see when we are actually experiencing the connection. Gazing upon those we love, and sharing the special closeness that can only come from such connections, creates a lovely memory of the experience when it happens. The memory of that experience holds particular pleasure because those aspects which we hold on to, those which mean the most to us, are the parts that we remember, even though there are lots of parts. Lots of silliness and laughing, but also crying, and even profound sadness sometimes. We tend not to want to remember the difficult parts because they take away from the joy and the fulfillment that went along with them.
Walking in the brisk autumn air now, inhaling deeply, listening to the wind rustling the leaves that are left, the beauty of the oranges and yellows and browns, all around, stir memories from many years ago. Every year at some point, I walk in the autumn air, but this year was a little different because I felt alone in a way that I have not felt in a very long time. Even as a younger person, who was essentially on his own, I still never felt alone, at least, not in the way that I do now. I suppose these are the parts of the autumn that stick with me so much–the beauty all around no matter where you go; the contrast of the colors against the blue sky; the sweetness in the air, and the crystal clarity between myself and the world. I think because I am older now, I feel this loneliness more profoundly, while still recognizing and acknowledging the unity of everything that lives.
The feeling combined with this recognition suggests the dual nature of all aspects of life, especially to be alone, but also to be one with all life simultaneously. It is a gift. It is a consequence of our humanity–a temporal manifestation of the infinite, the spiritual, the ineffable. It is a paradox to know for certain that there is unity among all people, all creatures, all parts of the universe, and to feel so desperately, profoundly alone simultaneously. It evokes mystery; it evokes contemplation. What could it be? What does it mean? Why is it so?
Walking alone down the street, feeling at once completely unified with everything I see and feel and sense, in every way, and yet, distinctly alone, individual, apart. The differences between myself and other living entities is a signal that there is a variety and a number of differences in the way that consciousness manifests in the world. If you go down deep, and when we say “go in deep” or “go inward” we mean not temporally, but spiritually within us–when we do that–it emphasizes both our unification with all life and our inner separateness from it, and the simultaneous recognition of both becomes clearer when we withdraw within.
I close my eyes and try to see, not with my eyes, “…for they are wise.” But to hear the sounds; to feel the warmth of the sun against my skin; the rising and falling of my chest as I breathe; the air flowing in and out of my lungs; the pulse throbbing in my wrists. Descartes wrote, “I think, therefore I am,” but for me more than thinking, it is when I FEEL, that I can say with confidence, “therefore I am.” Feeling has always been that which allows me to know that I exist. The temporal feelings or sensations that we get through our five human senses, the sense that we exist, it feels like something–existence as a person–as a human–as a living entity–a sentient being–it feels like something. There is something that it is like to be a human individual, who is, through his spirit or soul, connected to all things.
All the feeling in the world, all the sensations, all the input to our brain from all the different regions, somehow comes together and synchronizes and processes all that data–electrical impulses flying all throughout the body–reporting the sensory information, extrapolating meaning and memory and discernment, when all of those things coalesce. The focal point of that coalescing is the feeling–the experience of being.
Sitting in a hot tub of water can evoke a feeling that can be blissful. The relaxation in a soothing, warm liquid is an acknowledgement of what all that data can turn into. It evokes contemplation, sensation, and memory. How many times I have laid in a tub surrounded by a very warm liquid, and how often it has brought memory to mind. Memory, as we now know, is not like reading a transcript, or watching a videotape, or constructing a digital rendering of what happened in the past, but an actual reconstruction in our minds. The coordination of the brain regions that are responsible for memory, the flow of stimulation from the hippo-campus, to the frontal cortex which interprets the data from our memory centers, is a tool, a mechanism that brings the memory of the feeling back. It stimulates the brain to recreate the way it felt and that is why we do it. We remember the texture of the skin we once touched or saw. We remember the different aromas which bring us to recall those blissful moments spent inhaling the air, and the processing of the accompanying data that passes through the olfactory senses teaches us how to remember them.
I have a very distant memory, which feels to me like it may be an ancient memory, of laying in a pool of warm water in a cave where there must have been a natural underground spring that made the water warm. I remember cautiously sinking into it in order to become slowly accustomed to it, and laying back with some leaves and other natural gatherings behind my head. I remember looking up, seeing the steam rising up from the water, in the afternoon, with no worries. There was a hole in the dome which covered me, allowing me to see the sky, which was mostly deeply dark blue, with an occasional swatch of a white, puffy cotton cloud, or a wispy steam of a smoky cloud that would slide by. I seem to remember saying to myself, “I must remember this experience.” It was a deliberate intent to impress the memory in my brain, and to hold it in my soul. It feels like an ancient memory from a distant past, so I cannot say for certain if it was retained somehow through the eons of time, or if I picked it up like a transmission through an antenna in my soul, and now its vibrations resonate in my brain. It feels like a memory to me. I feel, therefore I am. I experience life, therefore I am alive.
If we didn’t have feeling, if we only had knowledge or data from our senses that merely informed us, and we weren’t able to integrate that information into a feeling–if there was no such thing as a feeling– it is MY feeling that we would not converse, we would not communicate, we would not be as alive as we are today. Being alive means feeling genuine, interpreting the data in our brains to the point where it evokes the memory of a feeling, and we re-experience that feeling in memory, and that moment comes alive for us, we suppose, exactly in the way that it did when it was impressed upon the soul.
I remember hearing the seagulls. Perhaps the natural spring was in a mountain near a beach. There was no other sound aside from the water, the birds, and the music in my soul. With eyes closed, the memory of experience was fully engaged. A moment of repose, of silence, of solitude, forcing me to contemplate a memory of a feeling. I cannot completely or precisely replicate them. They only rise up within me in my solitude. In spite of the difference in time and possibilities, the unknown, the uncertain, the vague, all of it comes together in a moment of solitude.
We always suppose that we might be able to evoke those feelings again, even at such a distance in time and space, like my experience of the warm water in that ancient space, and that somehow, if we could travel through time and relive them, that they would be the same as we remember them. However, my sense is that if we could do that, they might actually seem radically different than our memory of them. It wouldn’t be because our memories are faulty or somehow impaired, but that the feeling and experience of life holds so much more within it, like when we are sharing closely, personally, or intimately. There is a feeling there that would be enhanced by being fully present in the same place. At some point, the fullness of that experience would manifest, with every nuance of it being realized and that would feel differently than the memory of it. We might find it to be a diminishment of the memory in one way or another, but whatever might result, we would still want to hold on to what enhanced it, and to let go of what might diminish it.
More important than the beauty of the memory of those experiences–those feelings–is the connection of souls. It is more important than any other aspect of those moments. It is, in my view, the ultimate experience of feeling that is possible in our temporal existence. We can hold each other close, feel each other’s skin against us, embrace at length, cuddle, and share the experience unadorned. It can be beautiful, but it will always be temporary. At some point, it won’t be possible to do again, but the connection of souls will never perish. The unity remains, and we must rely on the memory of the connection to sustain us.
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.
“Our experience of the world involves us in a mystery which can be intelligible to us only as a mystery. The more we experience things in depth, the more we participate in a mystery intelligible to us only as such, and the more we understand our world to be an unknown world. Our true home is wilderness, even the world of everyday.”
“Unfortunately, (a) true sense of the mystery of things which may, in fact, deepen in the course of scientific investigation…finds no articulate place in the articulated results of scientific investigation…Philosophical interpretation of the experience of the activity of scientific investigation is seldom offered. Thus the wonder, respect, and love for things investigated, which may be at the heart of scientific experience, virtually escape reflective interpretation and testimony.”
– Henry Bugbee from “Inward Morning.”
The title of this post was inspired by the announcement of an exhibition of the works of Rene Magritte, the quintessential surrealist artist at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. While contemplating the subject of this posting, it occurred to me that what I may have been struggling with all this time is the mystery of the ordinary. We take so much for granted as temporal beings in a material world, supposing that since we have come to unravel so much of the mystery of our existence through science and technology, that it is simply a matter of time before we unravel it all. It seems unlikely to me that we could continue to thrive or even exist without coming to terms with the mysterious, and the quote from Henry Bugbee puts it in perspective for us.
The events of my personal life recently have given me some pause in this regard. I must confess to a certain degree of reluctance to submit myself to the trials inherent in the process of assimilating the many different aspects of spiritual discovery, and of coming to terms with my own experience of consciousness. My heightened sense of awareness of other people’s emotions and their spiritual selves has been unsettling at times, creating a degree of conflict as a direct result of my sensitivity. Occasionally, contact with the stream of life from their inner worlds has evoked emotional responses and triggered instinctive behaviors that might no have occurred ordinarily. Particularly high degrees of openness in a few cases have resulted in a commensurate degree of confusion. and I have not always been adequately prepared for the unrestrained response in my own inner world.
Even when there is an intellectual awareness of the possibilities which may arise in such situations, depending on which end of the spectrum one finds oneself, it can either enhance the experience or send it wildly out of control. There is also a potential for an unavoidable encounter with individuals who we perceive as particularly spiritually vital, but who are, for whatever reason, inadequately prepared for such an encounter themselves.
Opening ourselves to another individual, exposing our inner world and having another’s put before us, can be a considerable risk in some ways. Without careful consideration regarding the possible effects of unrestrained responses, or of insufficient control of one’s emotions, it is unpredictable what may happen. Sometimes, it requires a true leap of faith.
Recently, I was formally introduced to an engineering consultant from the upper levels of management, and ended up in a lengthy discussion, surprisingly not only about philosophy and religion which are of particular interest to me, but also about personal beliefs and the news regarding the state of our culture in the United States and abroad. This bright and engaging fellow is from Pakistan, a Muslim by birth, and a curious mixture of enlightened intellect and pessimistic practicality. His double major of Mechanical Engineering and Religion at the university level struck me as uncommon, although not entirely unrelated. On the surface one doesn’t seem to have much in common with the other, but as is often the case, perceived divisions between subject areas can be dispelled with a persistent effort to find commonalities. At the heart of all knowledge, there is some kind of ultimate reality which reflects the unifying force within life itself. E. O. Wilson wrote a book called, “Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge,” in which he makes a compelling case for finding our modern day version of “Ariadne’s Thread,” the one which assisted Theseus to “…retrace his steps through and out of the labyrinth.” The enthusiasm of our philosophical discussion easily diverted our attention away from the task at hand. Several reminders were needed from others about what we were supposed to be doing, because we repeatedly got caught up in our conversation and didn’t realize how much time had passed between reminders.
The ease with which our conversations progressed and the similarity in our areas of interest were powerful incentives to continue with them, and to discover such a common interest base with an individual raised and educated in such a radically different worldview almost defied belief. We were both struck by the notion, and delightfully surprised to find a degree of personal compatibility which resulted in becoming such fast friends. Lately, it seems that I have been approached by many of the people who come across my path, who have required my attention or counsel. It has resulted in an odd mixture of anxiety and anticipation, and in the coming together of certain aspects of my inner voice and spirit with the external world. At times, it feels synchronistic like signposts of crossroads, and I am alternately encouraged and uplifted, as well as a bit fearful and anxious, from the feelings inspired by progress spiritually, as well as what feels like a widening gap between the world being revealed to me in the process and the world in which I must engage the process. Within the world of the ordinary experiences, it seems that I am being drawn inexorably deeper and further away from the everyday world, and moving toward the uncertainty of new experience.
Magritte’s surreal artworks are intriguing and thought-provoking. I remain in awe of the flow of the stream of life, and must trust in the wisdom that guides us on our journey of the spirit.