The brain is wider than the sky. ~ Emily Dickinson
It wasn’t the problem of evil that made me leave the church. It was the Universe. Or rather, the insight “It’s only another mythology” AND the Universe. Just the other night I looked at the stars -- they were exceptionally bright -- the night sky clear without the mucilage of even the wispiest white cloud affixed there like a postage stamp on a letter to an unknown address. Again I thought that no being, especially no one looking like a man seated on a throne somewhere up there, could have created the stars. They are gigantic nuclear reactors (fusion, not fission). They are formed, exist for billions of years, then die. The distances involved are beyond what we can grasp. Assuming that Jesus travels at the speed of light, after 2,000 years he still has not left our galaxy.
(Yes, I realize that one can try to interpret this as entering another dimension, but it’s the same as with the string theory: a wisp of proof, please. But it’s not provable; in a wonderful new phrase, the hypothesis is not falsifiable, and in order to be a useful tool, a hypothesis needs to be falsifiable.)
This is obviously a fake church bulletin, and an exaggerated one: it’s not a question of proving ALL of this. Proving ANY of this, even a small portion, would be astounding. As my one and only astronomy professor said, it’s not that we throw up a handful of pebbles up into the air and expect them to fall down so as to spell “god.” It’s not that we are waiting to hear from the Voice from the Whirlwind. A small still voice, a whisper practically, might do -- with the disclaimer that auditory hallucinations are the most common kind. But even so.
Recently I had yet another reminder of what made religion so impossible to return to. It had never worked for me as consolation. Aside from the threat of hell, the complete silence on the other side of prayer was unnerving. A brave little boy actually questioned the nun: “How come god spoke to Moses, but never speaks to us?” The nun sighed and smiled a vague appeasing smile: “The times were different then.” This seemed as suspect to me as god’s invisibility.
Still, during a period of exceptional stress, I too ask the absurd and all too human question, “Why do we suffer so much?” After a reading, I was talking with the series host, Jon, one of the two local poets I know who happen to have a Ph.D. in physics (!) Like Ms. Job, I said that I never wanted heaven, oblivion was fine, but first, I wanted an answer to the question, “Why do we suffer so much?”
Jon replied that he would like to know why gravity is such a weak force. Are gravitons leaking into other universes? Soon he was speaking about gravity waves and Einstein’s time-space curvature hypothesis, and . . . I noticed that I felt exhilarated. I said as much to Jon, who told me that while waiting in a medical office, he happened to read an article on the Big Bang. “It really cheered me up,” he said.
That’s when it hit me — again — “The answer lies outside.”
All the psychobabble we’ve heard over the years tries to tell us that the “answer lies within.” Look within, and your problems will vanish. I say the opposite. The answer lies in self-forgetfulness, which means looking at the world.
SCIENCE-RELATED MOOD UPLIFT
Later I remembered another time this “science-caused” change of mood happened to me in an even more dramatic way. My father was in the final stages of Parkinson’s disease (the most macabre way to die I’d ever witnessed), and a neighbor handed me a newsletter about Parkinson’s that summarized new research. I read it in one sitting, totally fascinated and strangely exhilarated. The disease was gruesome, but I couldn’t resist the mystery underlying it. What caused the dopamine depletion? Inflammation, yes, but why specifically the destruction of dopamine-producing neurons? Boxers and women who’ve had hysterectomies -- the risk factors didn’t add up but remained a haunting tangle.
The following weekend I went to the BioMed Library at University of California, San Diego: the first weekend of many. I feasted on the books, and even more so the journals; eventually gravitated toward endocrinology. I, who never thought I could cease writing poetry, who regarded poetry as an all-powerful addiction, let poetry vanish from my mind -- for about eight years.
To get to the point: once I began reading science article, both popular and professional, I couldn’t help noticing the emergence of a much more “sane” self. I traded the anguish that went with poetry and po-biz for serene contentment. I wasn’t depressed anymore. The pressure to hurry and struggle were gone. So this was mental health, I thought: reading about dementia and experiencing mysterious contentment.
Listening to Jon speak about gravity waves, I experienced a mini-version of this return to sanity. I was no longer interested in the metaphysics of suffering. Obviously there were different causes of different kinds of suffering. But why even think about it, when there was so much to learn about the world. I was in the grip of rationality, and loving it.
Why the uplift? Bearing in mind that science is more about the fun of pursuing questions rather than positing answers -- those are always partial and subject to change as new evidence emerges -- we can tentatively state that the activation of the left prefrontal cortex leads to a brighter mood and positive emotions. Intellectual stimulation activates this region. Brooding about one’s problems and negative emotions are associated with more active right prefrontal cortex. Furthermore, an active left prefrontal cortex can decrease anxiety and other “negative affect” -- what I call the “screams of the amygdala.”
So yes, an easy way to cheer up is to activate the left prefrontal lobe -- and an additional factor may be being reminded of science, that astonishing and triumphant human enterprise.
PRAYER NEVER WORKED FOR ME; RELIGION NEVER CONSOLED ME
A believer might argue that the best way to decrease anxiety and improve mood is prayer. But that’s just it . . . prayer never worked for me, at least not the mechanical prayer that I was taught. As for some kind of “conversation with god,” a ten-year-old girl doesn’t have much to say to god (who already knows it all anyway). I tried and tried to be attentive at prayer. Still, within minutes I always got drowsy. Nothing zombified me into stupor as effectively as praying the rosary.
Now it’s quite obvious: I’ve never been much interested in sedation. Mainly, I love learning new things. I don’t mind the muddle and murk at the frontiers of knowledge. Nietzsche was right: as soon as we look at anything deep enough, a new infinity opens up. There is simply no end to learning and unfolding.
A boat ride on the River Styx, Mammoth Caves
Everything here is blind:
white shoots of errant seeds,
Salamanders thread eyeless sleep.
reach out without hands;
unfinished dragons clot,
stretch bulbous heads
rowed with unopenable eyes.
A stream runs through me,
clear as absence.
You ask how it can flow,
reflecting no one –
my curtains of stone, where shadow
does not fall, but is;
balconies of dark overlooking dark,
unechoed shell of passages –
Don’t be deceived. I am a slow
hurricane of motion.
Everything lengthens, thickens, fuses.
Drop by drop, I meet myself.
~ Oriana © 2013
(One reason I chose this poem was Rabbi Finley’s remark that atheists don’t enjoy poetry; they can’t understand metaphor and symbolism.)
Krubera Cave, Western Caucasus
TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE SELF
If the self doesn’t exist, why does it feel so good to “forget oneself” in the pursuit of anything intellectually stimulating? (This sounds like the “Jewish Zen” kind of question: if there is no self, then whose arthritis is this?) Even writing in the third person leads to a better mood than writing in the first person. Maybe distance is the secret not only of poetry, but of everything (but, as Sarah Luczaj pointed out the first time I made this remark, it has to be the right kind of distance; do I sense another infinity opening up?)
Obviously, not everyone is interested in pursuing learning. Even those who do have other access to being swept beyond the mundane into utter delight -- or, as I understand the term, transcendence. The most common portal is music. It affects the brain so quickly and profoundly that we find ourselves in another plane of experience without really trying. Tranströmer described this beautifully in the opening of “Schubertiana”:
Outside New York, a high place where with one glance you take in the
houses were eight million human beings live.
The giant city is a long flimmery drift, a spiral galaxy seen from the side.
Inside the galaxy, coffee cups are being pushed across the desk, department
store windows beg, a whirl of shoes that leave no trace behind.
Fire escapes climbing up, elevator doors that silently close, behind
triple-locked doors a steady swell of voices.
Slumped-over bodies doze in subway cars, catacombs in motion.
I know also – statistics to the side – that at this instant in some room
down there Schubert is being played, and for that person the notes
are more real than all the rest.
(~ translated by Robert Bly)
First, we are given a description of New York seen from a “high place” outside the city. I love “a long flimmery drift, a spiral galaxy seen from the side.” “Flimmery” suggests “shimmering” and “glimmering” – but happily escapes the overuse of those “poetic” words, and deepens “drift.” Flimmery also makes me think of “flimsy.” And yes, a galaxy: nothing solid, just darkness and those moth lights flimmering there, and everything evanesces: “a whirl of shoes that leave no trace behind.” That too was my own experience: at night from the Empire State Building, Manhattan seemed unreal with its hovering verticals, a phantom city.
And yet in that phantom city, with its subway cars like “catacombs in motion,” with its “triple-locked doors” -- “somewhere down there Schubert is being played.” Let me quote the entire passage, my favorite lines in this poem full of marvelous lines:
I know also – statistics to the side – that at this instant in some room
down there Schubert is being played, and for that person the notes
are more real than all the rest.
More real than everything else, and so capable of producing ecstasy is that many classical music lovers agree that music is the closest we can get to the divine; some have gone as far as to say that music IS god.
Ah, you may say, that’s the magic of intense focus. But something about great music simply forces the change of focus. We are “swept away.” Beautiful scenery can do the same. Those who engage in the kind of physical exercise where every movement requires great attention often report elation. Apparently anything to which we give total attention can be the ticket to transcendence.
IT’S STILL EARLY AFTER THE DEATH OF GOD
And yet, as we read about religious mystics, who wouldn’t want to achieve that kind of transcendence? Does it take belief? Deep meditators say it doesn’t, but not all of us are capable of mastering meditation. Listening to my refrigerator works best for me, but it has taken me only so far. After all, it’s not just rapture we seek; we want a life-transforming vision, a beautiful sense of trust in the unfolding of existence.
As Ginette Paris points out in her excellent book, Wisdom of the Psyche, it’s still early after the death of god. This is still only the dawn of the post-religious era, and we are still working to develop effective secular life philosophy. Paris says, “Neither Voltaire, nor Nietzsche, nor Freud, nor Jung, nor Sartre, nor any of the modern philosophers of atheisms are completely free of the redemption myth. God may have been declared dead, but the mourning is not finished; it is too big a loss to be completed in just a few generations. Jung’s nostalgia for god resurfaces at times in his theory about about the Self.”
The idea of “individuation” never appealed to me; I felt I was individuated enough and didn’t care to spend my time micro-analyzing my dreams and fantasies, or endlessly journaling and “questing.” The self-centeredness and ultimate futility of those practices were blatantly obvious to me. With my introversion, I had a rich inner life without really trying. My need was for greater engagement with the world. That’s how I realized that the answer doesn’t lie within; for me, and I think for many others, the answer lies without, in the right kind of work or activity, in the right community and connection with others. Rather than draw dream-based mandalas, I prefer to read a good book, write something either lovely and/or blasphemous, give a lecture, swim with the dolphins.
Ginette Paris argues that the myth of redemption has made it difficult for us to see that life is both terrible and wonderful, so let’s enjoy the wonderful part. (This view can also be found toward the ending of Ecclesiastes.) I whole-heartedly agree. Most people are not wretched sinners who deserve hell for eternity. They are decent human beings who do their best under the circumstances; rather than meditate on the five wounds of Christ, they want to be happy -- in this life, and not after they die.
THE JOY OF BEING POSTHUMOUS
When I was eighteen, my mother said to me, “The difference between you and me is that I am no longer waiting.” I was indeed waiting, which is excusable at eighteen. At some point during adolescence, we start waiting for everything to happen. And then, at some point when we are much older, we are no longer waiting. We are living for the present, not for the future. I call that being posthumous.
Ginette Paris writes from a posthumous state of mind. You can get there either by nearly dying or simply by growing older and being cornered by mortality. Goals, self-improvement, weight loss, striving to lay a foundation for the future -- all this becomes ridiculous. You realize that one day you will lose ALL your weight. As for everything you do being a stepping stone to something better -- or, as one woman put it, “your blog is your ticket to the future” -- that is simply a delusion. At long last you realize that just existing is an immense delight.
You can have this insight early in life, but it won’t necessarily “take hold.” I had an early encounter with mortality. At first it affected me profoundly -- for instance, I realized how trivial and inane most concerns were in the light of mortality. But I was simply to young to absorb the profound lessons and form clear priorities.
THE DAY I LEARNED MORTALITY
The surgeon said in a calm, controlled
voice, “You should be able to lead
a normal life – ” he paused –
“for the rest of your life.”
I walked out of the arctic hospital.
I kept walking to the parking lot.
It was the fracture of that pause:
the silence rolled, uncontrolled –
I drove on the streets, the freeway.
Sunlight in streaks and spills
played tag along the tattered
eucalyptus groves. Wildfires
of bougainvilleas flickered,
flirting with the wind.
It was fluent paradise on fault lines.
A death sentence, but normal.
The palm-tree in front of my apartment
stood quiet, not clapping
its fronds, but waiting.
Not a twig fidgeted, not a cloud.
I kept walking. I kept climbing
the echoing stairs.
But everything around me
Everything was staring,
waiting,my shadow splayed in two
against the stucco wall.
~ Oriana, © 2013
The answer arrived many years later, in the form of the sayings of the “Jewish Buddha”: Be here now. Later you’ll be someplace else. Is that so complicated?
As usual, deep and thought provoking. The images you use are always beautiful. The newest one with the eclipse brought to mind an article online I read recently of A S Eddington, a famed British astronomer, contemporary of Einstein and devout Quaker. He was a profound man of science yet was awed by the unseen as well. I have long believed that simple men and women of faith have done perhaps more good, unseen by us, than we shall ever know. Guesses, as C S Lewis might say, but am sure the truth is much better. I am thankful for the bad example of Tolstoy and Melville; brilliant writers but miserable people....better Tolkien than Tolstoy, that's my motto and in my haven of 'New Nantucket' is where I'll reside, a isle full of birds, black coffee and books. Oh, have gotten some great Nantucku's, even one from Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Muldoon!
Nothing in all the mythologies and sacred texts awes me as much as the mysteries that science is grappling with, whether it’s astrophysics or biology. The world is so amazing! The more I learn -- and I don’t pretend to know even a fraction -- the more astonished I am by the intricate workings of nature, especially where chaos theory applies, and yet somehow we end up with something almost comprehensible. Scientists, like artists, have a sense of the sacred that goes hand-in-hand with questioning, rather than with blind obedience to authority (the greatest enemy of truth, as Einstein said).
I see the torment of great minds like Tolstoy and Melville as due in part to their having lived at a time when the archaic religious texts were already difficult to accept, but there wasn’t yet enough to take their place. And there still isn’t quite enough, but at least we are further along the road. Scientific explanations of natural phenomena have helped, so earthquakes and diseases are not seen as “divine punishment.” Life has become less harsh thanks to scientific advances -- think of Jonas Salk and polio; can we ever be grateful enough? Globalization has also helped, making us familiar with other cultures and their wisdom, and less eager to consign their members to eternal damnation.
Nevertheless, as I point out in the blog, “it’s still early after the death of god,” and we are still struggling toward a planetary consciousness and the concept of human dignity that’s based simply on this: everyone is not just one isolated individual, but humanity -- a part of the human family. Everyone is unique and has value. Imagine the kindness that would prevail if this became an accepted principle. Respect -- for animals too, for nature in general. More than respect -- reverence.
A private paradise of birds, coffee and books -- I’m with you, even if I need to put milk into my coffee -- and coconut milk too, and vanilla extract. Paradise now! How lucky we are . . .
First totally awesome sentence, "Assuming that Jesus travels at the speed of light, after 2,000 years he still has not left our galaxy."
Love the way you contrast boring prayer with learning and unfolding.
I would say the Rabbi F can be accused of not understanding metaphor in poetry when he referred to St. John’s of the Cross “Dark Night of the Soul” and said it was not a love poem.
Even Rabbi F would agree that music is transcendent.
Of course I love the part about swimming with dolphins. Your writing is so inspiring.
Jesus lends himself to various uses. His activity as a healer serves as an argument against those who think suffering is good for us and we should not be seeking cures for various diseases. As I think I say somewhere, no church would ever donate money to medical research. Churches might not admit to it, but religion relies on suffering. People don’t turn to it for knowledge -- many believers would admit that the creation myth is not to be taken literally, nor Eve being made of Adam’s Rib, nor Noah’s Ark, and so on. But suffering is not metaphorical. The clergy know that illness and other hardship is what makes people pray. Religion thrives on fear and helplessness, offering a kind of Santa Claus in the sky (the jealous god of wrath is mostly in eclipse these days).
And, amazingly enough, Jesus can even be used to illustrate astrophysics. Of course a large object, such as the human body, could not travel at the speed of light.
St. John of the Cross was inspired by the Song of Songs, which his poem imitates. But I am impressed that Rabbi F even knew the poem. He probably knows the gospels too. That he settled on the Kabbala and its strange myth of creation is somewhat mystifying. Maybe it’s a way to explain evil: the vessels that were to contain divine light shattered. God was not a good potter? In retrospect I love the way Rabbi F shockingly concluded that Tikkun Olam does not mean repairing the world but repairing god. For me the sense of absurdity is delicious: inventing a deity, and then concluding that imaginary being needs us to repair him.
Religions tie themselves in knots of their own making, be it the problem of evil or the question of rebirth: if there is no self, how can it be reborn? There are so many REAL problems that need solution that I’m tempted to say that wasting time on imaginary problems is a sin, a crime against reality.
The line I remembered from the first reading is “cornered by mortality” -- that one line intrigued me. Food for thought, as is the whole blog. Also I especially like the line “A stream runs through me, clear as absence.”
I think if we don't question everything we are not thinking creatures. There are so many miracles every day to consider and question, and one question leads to another like a space craft (Star Wars) lifting out of this planet into the universe. I like Whitman's "a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels." Your photo of a snail is a miracle and
the night sky staggers me.
I like the cave poem: “Here everything is blind. . .” I have claustrophobia so going down into the salt caves in Salzburg was an experience -- all those blinding white walls of salt! I forgot to be afraid, I was so awed. It dwarfed life and all I knew, the way the ocean puts things in perspective.
How little we really know of the world how little of our brains we really use?
It’s a pernicious and persistent myth that we use only 10% of our brain. We are whole-brain users. Nor do some people think with their right brain while others use only the left brain. Might as well talk about those who think with their rear brain!
Trouble is that garbage in = garbage out. Endless misinformation. But then, compared with the horrific nonsense that people in the Middle Ages believed . . . I still find it hard to believe that Europe managed to survive the Middle Ages. And a nuclear holocaust, though it seems less likely now, is still not 100% averted. If anyone starts it, it will most likely be a dictator with a medieval mentality.
We still know only a small portion of all there is to know about the universe. There is a consensus that the unknowable will always be with us. Yes, a mouse is a miracle, but its genome has been decoded. Every year, a bit more knowledge -- that also awes me and cheers me up. So many discoveries have been made since my birth! One reason I’d love to live long is because I love to read about the new discoveries -- even though I know that all scientific knowledge is provisional, subject to revision as new evidence is presented. Can you imagine a religious leader saying to his “flock” (isn’t it something how people are equated with sheep?) that what he says about the afterlife is provisional, including the very existence of the afterlife? Yet cultural evolution takes place in religion also; liberal Judaism seems to be losing even the belief in a deity. And certain left-wing Catholics are influenced by the Eastern traditions and say things like, “We are all Christ” and “Your deepest self is Christ.” Talk about a contrast between that and “You are a sinner doomed to hell except for the redemption by Jesus.”
A slow progress toward more kindness and dignity. Why not atheism for everyone? Because there will probably always be those whose lives are so hard that they cannot manage without a super-parent in the sky. Nobody’s life should be that hard. Life should be a joy.
But back to transcendence and nature. The beauty of nature does seem miraculous to me in that it’s more extravagant than seems necessary. If engineers were designing flowers, would they ever come up with orchids? That extravagance of beauty, going beyond a functional minimalist design, is a mystery to me. I think of it with reverence and gratitude.
As for the image below, I considered one that says: Lose yourself in nature and you will find yourself. I'd revise it to: Lose yourself in nature and feel happy! All this stuff about finding yourself is well, too self-centered. The answer does not lie within; it lies outside, in the beauty and mystery of the world. It lies in self-forgetting and remembering the world.