Author: Sandra Finney

The Yogi in the Teapot

The Yogi in the Teapot

Messages  come from everywhere.

Sometimes I find an unexpected message heartening. Sometimes puzzling.  Or disquieting. Sometimes I ignore them. Like email I’ll read later. Or email I delete. When I first started getting messages attached to a string attached to a teabag, I read them.  I would say to myself before reading one, “Okay, this is my message for today—the one I should shape my behaviour and thoughts around.” There was no harm in that decision. We can chose to find meanings in a book of Thoughts for the Day, or in a box of teabags.

Do some people believe that the messages on the little squares of paper attached to a Yogi teabag come from a real Yogi? Do they see him as an old man full of wisdom who is willing to share it? Perhaps some people think that way. Or don’t know care where the  messages come from they are just comforted by them. Perhaps some people find them heartening—assuring them that they are living in a benign world.

I don’t think there is an old yogi creating the little maxims. Here’s what I imagine. Somewhere in the USA there is a group of 3 persons—a young man and 2 young woman, all in college. They are friends and they have been  hired to think up these sayings. The money is useful for helping to pay their way through university. They say things to each other like, “Here’s a good one. You are more than you think. Subtle eh? I mean, think about it. It could just mean, “Hey! Don’t forget you have a body.” Barely containing his laughter, the young man says, “No, you are bigger than you think.” All three of them crack up.      

A friend suggests that the messages are computer generated. A pretty simple program could develop the kinds of things they write. It just needs words like “heart” and “soul.” Those are popular. 

I will give you a sample of ones I have received from my Ginger Mint brand of Yogi tea.

You will always live happy if you live with heart.

Compassion has no limits. Kindness has no enemy.

You are unlimited.

You are as beautiful as the Universe.

Lift people up to their potential and higher self.

The beauty of the soul is constant, continuous and endless.

And my personal favorite, Let things come to you.

I can’t stop myself from creating messages of my own. You pick up your teabag of the day and read, “Everyone is someone.” Or, “Now is the time. There will never be a better one.” Or is that a depressing idea? How about, “You matter. You really matter.” I feel at this point you are making up your own. Perhaps you won’t go so far as writing them on tiny pieces of paper for the others you live with to choose and read. So far, I’ve been able to stop at just thinking them up.

But. I ask you. What does this say about North America that manufacturers feel we need these messages enough that we would choose our brand of tea just to read them. This seems like taking the slogans on t-shirts too far. Do you really want your tea or your next cookie or the image on your wall to tell you how to live? To be your moral arbiter? Or to remind your friends and family how they should think or what you want them to feel?

I am all for happiness, peace, safety, compassion, and a good life for all, but these are hard earned. When those dark hours of the soul come to me, it’s usually in the middle of the night. I do want help. Sometimes if the insomnia sets in for weeks, I pray. I say, “Help!’ and “Please.” I often get up and read but the books I want don’t contain maxims.

I do find comfort in my morning ritual of starting my day with tea. A warm cup to hold. Tea to sip while I gaze at the sky and cars and people in the streets below me. Tea to drink while I read or listen to music.

As for the yogi messages, I think, well, “It all started with tea leaves.”

Perhaps go for a walk and ask the squirrel what she thinks. About you. About life.

 

 

Connected

Connected

Beaver Creek flows into the Saskatchewan River

Remembering my Relations

Everything has Spirit.  Everything is connected to everything else. I came to these understandings late in life—at the same time recognizing that in some reduced form, I had always known it. The strongest knowing of interconnection in my childhood was that my family members could hurt each other. This included me. I thought more about how we could avoid hurting each other’s feelings than I did about how we could affect each other’s happiness.

I have carried with me since childhood this understanding of how feelings are connected. This brought with it a sense of responsibility and attempts not to emotionally wound others. It was a very imperfect response to connectedness. I remember with regret that I could get drawn into the behaviours of friends and make fun of other children, not directly, but behind their back. I chose some friends and left others out–again, not directly, but the result was just that.  I don’t remember ever saying, “you can’t play with me.” I did understand that my actions could wound others and remorse was part of it too.

Just down the street from us was the Cowan family – a warm and jolly bunch that my sisters and I really liked. My parents also liked. But I had a slight sense of superiority over them and I intuited that my mother did too. It was something to do with the smells inside there house. And what seemed like their lesser intelligence. This due to them not doing too well at school. Yet, they were loyal and trustworthy friends. I think my reservations about the value of their friendship is really sad. They moved away before I started high school but I feel certain, if one of them had been my age, I wouldn’t have continued with her as a close friend.

After the challenges of childhood and the teenage years, I became more dedicated to not hurting others and more consistent in acting from the understanding of how we all share the same needs. My focus on injustice still causes me to feel great anger when people in positions of power disregard the well being of others and the environment.

My sense of connection to the Earth and all other living beings was not very strong in those years, yet I did like to walk to school by myself as a teenager, through a field rather than down the sidewalk. My mom and dad took us on picnics and wiener roasts and swimming in lakes and a small river and we were outdoors all summer playing with neighbour kids but I don’t remember ever thinking that I was part of the natural world and in relationship with other life forms. My daughter gave her daughter a sense of connection to the natural world at a young age and in a natural way — a rare gift. During walks, she drew her attention to birds, bugs, trees, shrubs, and flowers and always said, “Hello birds” or “Hello tree.” Often handing her a leaf or small flower to look at.

hello flower

In the last couple of decades, I have become immersed more frequently and gratefully in the beauties of the Earth. My understanding of interconnection with everything there is, is what I live with now. It brings me moments of deep feeling and moments when guilt or regret surface. More about that later, but first the satisfaction, the gratitude. I am quite an ordinary seeker of the spirit in trees, the herons in flight, the ocean, the people I encounter, and the solid rocks. Yet, growing within me is a new joy in being outside, and a stronger absorption when listening to piano sonatas in the early morning, or watching the light transform the furniture to glow with richer colours. The constriction of my heart is being stretched and smoothed, my feelings loosened and set free, and happiness and quiet more frequently settle upon me.

And, in the last few years I have gradually been able to be more at peace outdoors, less restless when sitting by the river or the ponds we visit. Just to sit and breathe and look is the greatest pleasure. I have an attachment to the birds that twitter away in the trees by the river or the waterfowl and shore birds at the ponds we visit. I have a life time attachment to trees and my spirit never tires of back-lit leaves.

I notice more and am moved in a deeper way by beauty in all its forms. A little more than a week ago, Dennis and I saw a Bittern by the shore of one of the ponds in a conservation area. It was standing still and quiet that first day – all soft brown and tawny as the reeds that enclosed him. And on that second day, the Bittern moved into the light and we were absorbed into the place of pond and bird and light and water and reeds. The Bittern had such certainty of being and of movement, utterly focused, yet easy in its world. These were moments when my spirit felt such a strong sense of being gifted by the sun, the Bittern, the pond waters; and of experiencing my own presence as no longer separate. The sun charged the body of this great bird with light, with fire. Its feathers turned to copper iridescence and the Bittern was given a luminous outline. I was in love.  I had been given a sense of the rightness of the world.

This was an experience that erased the sorrow of what we have done to our world. To live, to feel, to see, and join in the sacredness of being was enough for that time. The pull, the undertow of knowing that my connection to everything else brings responsibilities was absent. Yet being within the beauty, the pleasures of the day, is often where that ancient question of, “What then must I do?” arises.

Indigenous Elders and Wisdom Keepers use the phrase, “all my relations” to talk about the central understanding that we are connected in spirit with all other living things and with the Earth as a truth and a reminder that we have obligations to the living world of which we are a part.

Grasslands National Park

In the writing of William Mussell, an educator with the Sal’i’shan Institute, another expression of this central understanding. He describes what it means to be interrelated to all of life as understanding that we must be responsible to the impact of our behavior on all the others and emphasizes that each party in a relationship is equal in worth.

“In relationship, one must be willing to take responsibility for the impact of one’s behavior toward the other, as well as responsibility for managing and learning from one’s responses to the other’s behavior. Each party in the relationship is equal in worth to the other, regardless of difference in age, knowledge levels, insight or personal authority.” (Mussell, W., 2008)

How best to meet this responsibility is a constant question. When asked by environmental activists  what they could do to save the Earth, Vietnamese Zen teacher and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hahn, after a long pause responded by saying that they needed to,

“place their hands on the earth and listen to the cries of the world.”

This was not the answer they expected. He wanted them to “reconnect with their original motivation: love for the earth.”  I think he wanted them to feel why they were doing the work they did first, as the foundation for thinking and action – feel their gratitude for the beauty and diversity and mystery of being.

To only feel guilt and pressure to do more for those who suffer, more for the burdened earth, is a disservice, to beauty, to life. A happy appreciation for diversity, for beauty, for being alive, must be there too. In the end, I feel there the best way I can respond to gifts of beauty, freshness, goodness is first with pleasure and gratitude, then with knowing that the only thing you can do is to show up; to be present as your singular, unrepeatable, self. Look, listen, quieten, be still, know that you are unique, that we are all extraordinary and enough. And that is our role always, to do what is our piece. Guard yourself from those who want us to be other than we are, stop your ears to any message that you are not enough, insufficient as you are, and go out into the world complete. Yes, we must do what we can. But I feel strongly that doing everything you can means most profoundly, what you can. That of course means knowing who you are – a life’s work in itself.

If we are fortunate, the work life we choose will be the life closest to our gifts and abilities. I felt becoming a compassionate and creative teacher was a way of giving back to the world – my way. Teaching and parenting were demanding and satisfying. When the contributions you make through your work life seem to end, they don’t really. You take what you have learned and it is part of you and can continue to heal others in perhaps, less direct but equally important ways. Our presence, the way we smile at a clerk or another person out walking can add to the store of good feelings in the world and perhaps make the other person feel good about  who they are in an almost imperceptible but nourishing way. I enjoy those encounters with the spirit of another. I am grateful for them. They contribute to feeling fresh and happy to be alive and here in this place – here with all the other people, the other living beings.

present, awake, alive

Gratitude that is felt through every bone, muscle, cell, will be compelling enough to remain with what your spirit tells you, and your soul compels you to be, yourself. Yourself to care for, love, and not overburden. Your responses then will be the ones only you can do –the ones you were always meant to do. Perhaps you are meant to be an appreciator. When accepted as your role, particularly later in life when energy starts to ebb, appreciating, enjoying, entering in, may be exactly what to do next, and ever.

“It is love that fuels us to make constructive change in our care for the natural world and of our fellow human beings.” (Coleman, M., p.11)

What the Angels Sang

What the Angels Sang

 The angels arrived right on schedule on December 1st and took their accustomed places in our living room.

The angel I painted has a very stubborn chin and does seem determined that everyone listen to the message in the choir’s favourite carol.

 

The Buddha joined the choir this year—a very ecumenical Buddha he is—and though he doesn’t know all the words he hums along cheerfully.

 

The silly angels can’t stop giggling but they eventually join in because the message is such a good one.

All the angels sing with great gusto the song at the top of the Angel Hit Parade for 2018:

Love Wins! Love Wins!

Oh joy, oh joy,

Love Wins! Tra la la la. . .

Wishing you all the joys of the seasons, health and happiness in the New Year. And lots of laughter.

 

Three Poems

Three Poems

wild roses on the prairie

Always

the wild roses grow

along the path I walk.

 

 

The Bittern at the pond

wrote me a letter.

It said, “Look!”

Saying Grace

It will not end when you die.

In the Cathedral the trees will still grow

and the mushrooms appear.

The cat will still sleep in the sunny window

and the unnamed insect will continue to crawl in and out.

The rose beside the alter will still have thorns and perfumed petals.

And when it all burns away,

a new cosmos will appear in the heavens,

complete and lively. And you will be somewhere in it too.

In the deep and fertile dark, a seed of light.

 

 

My Life with Gardens

My Life with Gardens

A garden is just a way of mapping the strengths and limitations of your personality onto the soil (Klinkenborg, 2002, p. 35).

This is a story about potatoes and flowers, degrees of coercion and choice, awareness of privilege, and food security.

My emotional history with gardening is a bit ragged. It started reluctantly. Nothing thins the gardening spirit like having a boss. In my case, it started with my father in charge. Dad loved to sit at the kitchen table and draw plans for the coming year’s garden. He used a slide rule. He liked the designs he created. He bought the seeds. Then my sisters and I were recruited to plant, weed, and pick.

We proved unsuitable for the job and the responsibilities we were given. We lacked exactitude and enthusiasm. We all had an aversion to worms and caterpillars; a fear of bees and wasps, and felt mosquito bites were a plague.  Precision was not a value we held, nor a talent we demonstrated. My least favourite task at the end of the season was picking the raspberries. Bees took the raspberry patch as their territory; thorns scratched our arms and legs. I did not want to eat the raspberries we picked. My aversion to finding caterpillars in the berries was so strong I did not want to examine them and certainly not eat them. I can hear in these words a tone of entitlement and it does not please me. Although most children, at least the fortunate ones, don’t think about the bigger world picture, my father tried to give us a social justice view.

At this point in my life, I ponder the idea that my father was offering us an opportunity to participate in something essential to human well being. Growing your own food for many is a necessity; for many a desire, yet an impossibility. For our family it was both a blessing in terms of lowering our food bill, and part of a vision of what a human life should include. My parents’ values, including their belief in having a strong social safety net that helped to care for those most in need, were not attached in my mind with any feeling of being lucky we had abundant vegetables. My dad admired Adelle Davis and her principals about gardening. Our closest neighbours were not pleased that he bought a hay bale and spread hay all over the garden to conserve moisture.Much of the hay ended in their yards.

It has taken me a long time to understand that despite my not particularly appreciating anything about the gardening tasks I was given as a child, some knowledge of gardening and values related to growing your own food remained. Seeds were sown then that helped turn me into a gardener later. I think they also have some part in the development of my present anger at the practices of agribusiness, and my understanding of the relationship between healthy soil that is available to everyone, and food security.

š

The next garden I tended was the one where my sombre and critical first husband was in charge. He had the larger say in what was to be planted. He also had a penchant for straight rows. Although a lot of the work of this substantial garden fell to me, it hardly ever seemed to meet my husband’s standards. I think my lack of feeling pleasure in this garden and its produce was again the matter of having little choice in what to grow, how to grow it, and even how to cook it, and preserve it. And being the object of my husband’s bad moods and disapproval coloured gardening grey for me. My husband had some virtues and many gifts but he was not a happy man and their seemed to be a kind of aura of dissatisfaction that hovered around him. Although he worked hard, every kind of work seemed to make him angry.

To be fair, there were some enjoyable tasks in those gardening years—some knowledge gained, and lasting skills attained. I got to choose flowers for the garden and I feel a kinship with flowers. My husband built the rock garden I wanted at the front of our house. Our daughter loved the flowers and peas from the pod, and eating raspberries. A new gardener was born.

I subscribed to a prairie gardening magazine and became interested in hardy plants. I learned a lot about gardening, especially the slow process of turning clay to good soil. But, the constraints and criticism of those years weighed heavily on my spirit and spoiled the pleasures I took in horticulture. If I had a choice, I felt I wouldn’t want my spring, summers, and falls to be taken up by a garden.

š

After that marriage ended, a funny thing happened. It was certainly time for a funny thing. I moved to a city where my children would be attending university. I bought a house—partly chosen for its good condition and partly for its fully-grassed and gardenless yard. A few weeks into the first spring, something came over me. Gradually feeling became conviction. I wanted a garden.

My son dug up a small rectangle of lawn. I sowed flower seeds. I planted a set of pinks as a border. A set of tomatoes towards the back.  I held my breath. I waited. This gardening mood remained. I was amused.

I was in charge. Not coerced. I didn’t develop a bad temper nor a tendency towards precision. The tomatoes didn’t care. And every home after that had a garden with potatoes, tomatoes, and floral displays. Every deck had flowers in pots. A proliferation of pots. It seemed I couldn’t abide summers without growing something. And no one was looking over my shoulder.

Stephanie Mills (2002) describes the gift of freedom in a way that captures some of the ways I felt. When gardening is chosen, I think it is as Mills says a way of being fully present. Her words on freedom ring true to me.

An archaic liberty such as the freedom to go for a swim, entrusting yourself to yourself, is a shaping kind of freedom, a kind of liberty critical to developing and sustaining one’s strength of person. To be fully present in the body and in the body of nature is an old, old, need.

And so it was. I needed to garden and the garden gave me back a self I felt more at home with. I knew I was a teacher and a mother by choice. I learned I was also a gardener.

I married again – a kind, funny, perceptive, man. By the time we bought our acreage that had been a farm field, I was onto the joys of garden design. I studied garden plans, discussed possibilities and drew a garden of walks and raised beds. It came into being with the help of my husband Dennis and in the pounding of long bolts into the railroad tides that held the soil of the raised beds, my son. The weeds flourished and so did the vegetables and flowers.

Over five years of drought, we planted trees and shrubs and hauled heavy black hoses closer to the trees to water, water, and water. I don’t remember that we minded the constancy of the work. It was ours. There was great satisfaction in the labour involved in turning fields into shelter, produce and flowers. The trees and garden were ours. Everything chosen. At times we had enough tomatoes to give a large box of them to the local food bank.

We no longer have a garden and my only plants are house plants in our apartment condo. I enjoy and learn from them. I feel all the gardens of my life were blessings in some way and I understand more now about hunger and poverty. My first husband lives in the country and continues to grow a garden with vegetables and perhaps zinnias which were a his favourite flower. He may still be a sombre man but I think something of his garden strengthens his spirit in some real way. I wish it so.

šThe list of lessons I learned from gardens is long. First, freedom is not another word for nothing left to lose. Freedom is grace. And having a garden is a privilege. Food security is an essential human need—one that we can fulfill if the will is there. A secure home of your own, however small, gives people a ground from which to become fully human and humane. And a garden is a blessing. I am convinced that forests are gardens and we need them and that there is room in the world for forests and grain and vegetable gardens.

Gardens contain relationships beyond our control and each plant’s way of being. They have their own sense of order. And gardens are endlessly entertaining. They helped me cultivate my sense of humour and grow in gratitude.

It can be amusing to notice and create names for the different weeds—the regulars and the never-seen-before-in-your garden weed. We had weeds at the acreage that I called “the weed of the month,” a testament to weeds having timetables of their own. And I learned how long I could stay at weeding without earning a back ache-a good thing to learn in life more generally.

The morning tour of the garden to see what flowers have blossomed over night and whether the green tomatoes are turning yellow is happiness felt and earned. And who could not enjoy the smell of tomato plants when you pull them up each fall, or the scent of wet soil after a rain? Or walking through the garden at night, star gazing and breathing in the heady perfume of evening scented stocks? And I can’t help indulging in metaphysical questions that gardens arouse like the meaning of green or where the first seed came from.

 

And another thing I learned is that once you have created a garden, choosing every plant in it—gardening because you want to, you experience a heightened pleasure in viewing and discussing gardens with other gardeners. This works best if no one involved feels like an expert.

And, if you have no regrets, the memories of gardens past are small and lasting sources of joy. Close your eyes, visualize, sniff, you are there again.

The Questions Enliven Us

The Questions Enliven Us

The realization that I needn’t have answers to the Big Questions, needn’t seek answers to the Big Questions, has served as an epiphany. I lie on my back under the stars and the unseen galaxies and let their enormity wash over me. . . . Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe (Goodenough, 1998, p. 13).

I like the mysteries of life. I felt when young, and still feel now, the compelling nature of those dimensions of life which can’t be known and understood with certainty.  I appreciate explorations of the many mysteries that exist—the questions of beginnings, meanings and purposes—questions that have many possible answers and interpretations. The lack or impossibility of coming to know the central mysteries of the universe has never been a reason for me, or for cosmologists, to stop pondering them. Quantum physicists also ponder and create. They develop mathematical equations that describe—with precise findings that have been duplicated and proven many times—the nature of some elements and dimensions of the universe, but not ones that explain why the universe exists at all. Imagine representing the meaning of life mathematically!

the far hills of Cyprus

There are some big questions most fundamental for me. “Why is there a universe or multiverse at all? How can something be created from nothing?” are my favourite questions. They have so many possible and not necessarily probable answers.

Other prismatic questions that enrich my life are: In the face of the mysteries of life, what then must I do? What is my role?  What is the essence of goodness? Why does beauty seemed to be attached to the mysteries at the centre existence? Was love inherent in the universe from the beginning?

The Divine is felt in many theologies to be love. I have not found sufficient reasons to believe that. Much as I might want to think that the ultimate source or spirit of life (what many call the Creator or God) is ultimately one of compassion, in the face of human cruelty I cannot. When I think of what might be meant by “God”, my conception is that the central life force, if a god, is a god of freedoms—freedoms within limitations.

I am better pleased with ridding my thoughts of any kind of ‘Godness” attached in any way to human characteristics, and seeing instead a endless creative process—infinite in time and space. Theologian and Professor Emeritus at Harvard Divinity School Gordon Kaufman (2004) calls the whole process of creation and destruction, continuity and change, with its unknowable beginnings and on-going, perhaps infinite, bringing of the new into existence, “Serendipitous Creativity.” Not only a seemingly infinite creative process, but also one with moments of grace that made it possible for the earth to support life, and for human life to coexist with all other life forms.

Humans coming into being and evolving was an event for which improbable conditions were just right at just one small moment and never again—cause for wonder and gratitude. As science writer, Ed Yong (2016), describes it;

For roughly the first 2.5 billion years of life on Earth, bacteria and archea charted largely separate evolutionary courses. Then, on one fateful occasion, a bacterium somehow merged with an archaeon, losing its free-living existence and becoming entrapped forever with its new host. That is how many scientists believe eukaryotes came to be. It’s our creation story: two great domains of life merging to create a third, in the greatest symbiosis of all time. The archaeon provided the chassis of the eukaryotic cell while the bacterium eventually transformed into the mitochondria . . . . There is a huge void between the simpler cells of bacteria and archaea and the more complex ones of eukaryotes, and life has managed to cross that void exactly once in four billion years (p.9).

The countless bacteria and archaea in the world have never again managed to produce a eukaryote. And yet, that union is the reason that plants, humans and other animals, and anything else that can be seen without a microscope, exist. Why only that once? Why then?

I agree with poet Mary Oliver when she says “In this universe we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions.” There is so much to wonder about. So much to beauty to appreciate, so much destruction to mourn and power to be in awe of, so many questions and wonderful answers. Yet the mysteries persist. Opportunities for wonder exist as permanent opportunities. For instance, the question of “why the universe exists at all” has never, and probably will never, be answered in a way that satisfies every human soul. We wonder why we here and who we are meant to become. We wonder why love seems to flow through life on earth, and try to understand human consciousness and how deep it can go in sensing hidden realities. I close my eyes and envision a chain of “whys?” extending and fading into infinity.

It pleases me somehow when I am reading nonfiction to come a page where the author is asking the great questions of existence. For example, Albert Schweitzer, beloved by so many for his compassion, his wisdom, his music, and his dedication to the poor people in Lambaréné, in the Ogowe district of Africa, wrote that pondering the elemental questions of life is necessary to becoming fully human. In his words,

Elemental thinking starts from fundamental questions about the relationship of humans to the universe, about the meaning of life, and about the nature of what is good. It is directly linked to the thought that motivates all people. It penetrates our thought, enlarges and deepens it more profound (1933/1990, p. 228).

Ursula le Guin, author of fantasies, essays, and literary criticism, in speaking of the nature of life reminds us “It doesn’t have to be the way it is” and suggests the thought that the universe, the Earth, could be otherwise is where imagination and fundamentalism come into conflict. Le Guin also believes in the power and importance of the big questions.

“Why are things as they are? Must they be as they are? What might they be like if they were otherwise?”To ask these questions is to admit the contingency of reality, or at least to allow that our perception of reality may be incomplete, our interpretation of it arbitrary or mistaken. . . . To open a door that has been kept closed is an important act (2017.p. 83).

Indeed.

Phillip Simmons, in his eloquent book about living with Lou Gerick’s disease, reminds us of the difference between mysteries and puzzles.

As a culture we have accomplished a great deal by seeing life as a set of problems to be solved. . . . We observe the world, we break down what we see into its component parts. We perceive problems and set about solving them. . . . And here is where we go wrong. For at its deepest level life is not a problem but a mystery. The distinction is fundamental – problems are to be solved, true mysteries are not (2000/2003, pp. 7-8).

Mysteries are to wonder about.  And be alert to. And be in awe of. And the questions keep us on our toes. Peering into places and realms where we’ve never looked before. Scanning the planet for new possibilities. Listening to the ideas of birds and winds and the cow in the field. I asked a former dairy farmer once, “Do cows have best friends?  That set us wondering.

Small mysteries such as pondering the inner life of plants and animals can exercise the imagination, be cause for amusement or communion. Bound together as we are on this small orb circling the heavens let us not assume too much. Or too little.

As we age, we may lose some of our memories, but let us not lose our questions.

Beauty and We Don’t Know Why

Beauty and We Don’t Know Why

Whatever attitude to human existence you fashion for yourself, know that it is valid only if it be the shadow of an attitude to Nature. A human life, so often likened to a spectacle upon a stage, is more justly a ritual. The ancient values of dignity, beauty, and poetry which sustain it are of Nature’s inspiration; they are born of the mystery and beauty of the world. (H. Beston, 1988 p. 218)

 

The Spiral Galaxy, source – Hubble website

There is so much to wonder about. So much to beauty to appreciate, so much destruction to mourn and power to be in awe of, so many questions and wonderful answers. Yet the question of “why the universe exists at all” has never been answered in a way that satisfies every human soul. We wonder why we here and who we are meant to become. We wonder why love seems to flow through life on earth, and try to understand human consciousness and how deep it can go in sensing hidden realities. I close my eyes and envision a chain of “why?’s” extending and fading into infinity.

In his book, A Briefer History of Time (2005) brilliant mathematician and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking,  describes how scientists are striving to create a complete theory  such as was intended by string theory. He says that up to this point most scientists have been too preoccupied with theories that describe what the universe is to ask why? Perhaps many feel that the “why” questions  of ultimate existence are impossible to answer and to attempt to is a pursuit with no particular value. In relation to this, Hawking concludes that theories of science should be accessible in some form to everyone including the pursuit of “Why?” . He says:

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason–for then we would know the mind of God. (p. 142) [my emphasis]

I feel Hawking is being rather playful here while at the same time serious in reminding us of what lies behind what we know now and possibly of the limits of what can be known. He uses metaphors as all physicists, mathematicians and other scientists do when it comes to theorizing about the infinitely large and infinitely small. To me, the “why” questions are infinitely interesting – mainly for their connections to meaning. They appear to me as questions of Spirit. And Mystery.

Poets, philosophers, and theologians use different words and images in pondering the ultimate questions of existence and some keep these ideas and questions separate from how they live their life. For Indigenous cultures across the world and throughout time, spirituality was contained in their lives and languages, all of a piece.

A Lakota ceremonialist, Don Coyhis, commented:

This is not a scientific or technological world. The world is first a world of spirituality. We must all come back to that spirituality. Then, after we have understood the role of spirituality in the world, maybe we can see what science and technology have to say. (quoted in Simonelli, 1994, p.11).

Ojibwa author Richard Wagamese (2008) describes this world of spirituality as a world where everything is energy that connects all beings. “We are all one being. We are all one soul,”  he tells us.

Chinese scholars called this energy “qi”. It has also been thought of in other traditions as “spirit”, “vac”, or “Word”. Gary Holthaus, in his book Learning Native Wisdom talks of ways the Mystery was described by human wisdom seekers. He says that for Nishida, an early-20th century philosopher, the mystery at the heart of Nature goes beyond “mere universes” and is pure experience – experience that lies behind or prior to planet earth. A sensibility that refers to ‘mere’ universes makes me smile – contemplating one universe seems like a life’s worth of awe to me. Nishida continues in describing what he means by pure experience in these words.

Because it exists at the deepest heart of Nature, it is eternal. We can rely on pure experience, Nishida holds, because it is always available to us, always present. Further, in that depth there resides a unifying force that Nishida calls ‘spirit.’ He says, ‘I contend that reality comes into being through interrelationship.’ (pp. 192-193).

The Eagle Nebula, source – Hubble website

 Father Thomas Berry, scientist, environmentalist, cultural historian, and religious thinker speaks of the basic principles of the universe process in a way that also emphasizes the interconnectedness of all life forms. He says the primordial intentions of the universe are towards differentiation, subjectivity, and communion and defines these in ways that give these intentions spiritual value and a form of beauty.

Differentiation refers to the extraordinary variety and distinctiveness of everything in the universe. No two things are completely alike. Subjectivity is the interior numinous component present in all reality, also called consciousness. Communion is the ability to relate to other people and things due to the presence of subjectivity and difference. Together these create the grounds for the inner attraction of things for one another ( pp. 168-169).

I notice the similarities in which scholars from different countries and spiritual traditions talk about the great mystery. I love those similarities – the unity of interrelationships, the uniqueness of each individual life form, the different ways that spirit is approached, and how all come to rest on the same felt sense of an eternal force or original quality. Some philosophers and theologians feel that the fact that humans have always asked the large questions of existence suggests that there is something more – an eternal, unifying force of some kind behind the reality we see, hear, and touch. They feel that the deepest part of our inner life, our spirit, senses this “More”and creates a vision of what it is like. I ponder why it is that people from all cultures through time desire a personified force to pray to – or ask for help, or give thanks without knowing who or what they are addressing.

In my reflections over the years, I have come to feel that the greatest gift humans have received from what I call the Spirit of Life is freedom – freedom to choose how to live, freedom to question and appreciate what is in us and around us. We can choose what we look for in the universe and in life. I seek stories of human goodness, tolerance, generosity, and compassion. I find much beauty in the world and know it could be otherwise. For me, cruelty and destruction do not cancel out the beauty or the goodness in the world.

My just-turned-seven-year-old grandaughter  was sitting with her mother in an auditorium watching a video of the coral reefs and listening to the discussion with coral reef scientists that followed it. The audience were encouraged to ask them questions. My grandaughter whispered in her mother’s ear, “I have a question. Why is life so beautiful?”

Madeleine in Spring, courtesy J. Klenz

“Why?” indeed.

I know that for many, perhaps most humans, the answer is because God created it that way. Why is there something rather than nothing? Because Creator, Allah, God, or the eternal Tao brought the cosmos into being before time began. But, “Why?” and “How?” Other mysteries. Perhaps scientists will find answers they can accept to the “How?” question. Perhaps many people will continue to live in relationship with their God and feel no need to seek further.

I have written of this before but it matters so much, I will say it again. What matters is not what you believe in relation to the Mystery or God or Nothingness but rather how that belief shapes the way you live

  • Does how you answer the question of “Why there is something rather than nothing?” or how you envision the ultimate source of the universe make you kinder? more compassionate?
  • Does it make you feel more open to and appreciative of human and bio diversity?
  • Does your belief system in relation to the large questions of existence, make your more awake and aware of the life around you?
  • Does it leave you with more questions and an open mind?
  • Do your ultimate beliefs open your heart and strengthen your spirit?

 

 

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The Dark and the Whole

The Dark and the Whole

On Darkness and Oneness

the light within the storm  Photograph © Colleen Watson-Turner

There is so much we don’t know, and to write truthfully about a life, your own or your mother’s, or a celebrated figure’s, an event, a crisis, another culture is to engage repeatedly with those patches of darkness, those nights of history, those places of unknowing. Solnit, R. (2014), p.

Rebecca Solnit* is commenting on something that Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal on Jan. 18, 1915 as the First World War was leading to such affliction, suffering and heartbreak. She wrote, “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” Solnit understands Woolf’s darkness as uncertainty of not being able to see what is ahead—a good thing to hold as fundamental to persons as well as futures. She says,

[Woolf] is calling for circumstances that do not compel the unity of identity that is a limitation or even repression. It’s often noted that she does this for her characters in her novels. Less often than, in her essays, she exemplifies it in the investigative, critical voice that celebrates and expands, and demands it in her insistence on multiplicity, on irreducibility, and maybe on mystery, if mystery is the capacity of something to keep becoming, to go beyond, to be uncircumscribable, to contain more.  (pp. 99-100).

Not knowing for sure, there are still possibilities–perhaps that something better is still achievable. The dark story may still hold moments of compassion or generosity; it may end in a different place. The horizon may shift. More will be seen.

Even when a life has been completed, the story of who the person was is not completed and never will be, and perhaps, never should be. My father was in the trenches in France during that First World War at the age of 17. He had a dark side. Perhaps as a result of his war experiences, perhaps as a result of the way these experiences affected who he was and his personhood as a whole. The suffering and scars went deep for him and affected those closest to him. He had an unpredictable temper, black moods, and a fatal flaw in his need for power, love, and admiration that no one could fulfill. While this was true for how we knew him, there was much more. He had great warmth, humour, and creativity. You could say his darkness was darker and his brightness brighter than most people.

Yet at the heart of his life was a passion for social justice, and a belief that we are indeed our brother’s keeper (he felt this as deeply as any Christian yet he was an agnostic and no lover of organized religions). He came to deplore wars and nationalistic pride and was a pacifist. My father accepted the responsibilities these convictions brought with them and fought for the rights of workers throughout the 1950’s and 60’s. He helped to organize unions and walked picket lines with striking workers. I remember one occasion where he stood with the women from Woolworth’s (a five and dime type of department store) in a strike he helped organize because he believed forming a union would bring them a living wage and job security—something few women had.

He loved the outdoors, creating family rituals, and teaching all the neighbourhood kids games we could play with a few cans or a ball. He was a sentimental man who cried at weddings on television and a storyteller with a tendency to exaggeration and holding the floor for what could seem like forever. How I remember him and how I feel about him as a father and as a human being has continued to change as I change. I will never capture all of who he was and like Woolf, feel that is a good thing.

We can look at persons as wholes, as embodying singularity and a oneness that contains a world. Or as so inextricably connected to everyone, every event, and everything else that we are confounded in our attempts to know who they are with any certainty. How much we can bear is perhaps how much we can see or understand of a person close to us or of what it means to be human. It is not easy to recognize or accept all that is below the surface of someone you feel close to.

I find I need vision to see the good within all humans; a lot of moral courage to face what history tells of human destructiveness; and greater sensitivity to see the compassion of others as their beauty. To understand that the seemingly ordinary people I see on the street all have whole lives and hidden depths, unrealized talents and dreams takes heart, and willingness to forego judgements. It seems like a crucial understanding. I often fall short. I have found models of this openness and kindness in my life and in my reading and I continue to feel this is an essential life task for all of us.

In describing the nature of the world, naturalist Sigurd Olson talks of an attitude of facing, seeing all that life contains, it’s joys and sorrows, and being able to feel in accord with it, a part of that world.

Oneness is a sense of communion vital to a [hu]man’s mental well-being and to his [or her] survival. It does not come just by being called upon; far more than a point of view, a permanent attitude that colours all we do. . . . Oneness recognizes all things, the harsh with the benevolent, the cruel with the kind, violence with peace—all of it belonging to those who know it. Oneness can be felt anywhere on a city street, in a quiet pool, at home, or on some raging ocean coast. It does away with fear. (Sigurd Olson (1976/1997) Reflections from the North Country, Alfred A. Knopf: New York, p. 79)

Oh, to be able to feel and keep that sense of communion, to see the beggar and know he is also me. A soul that is part of the world’s soul. A sorrow that is part of the beauty and the anguish of the world, a part of the all that is in me and beyond me. Oneness, darkness, and light.

*In Solnit, ((2014), “Woolf;s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable.” pp. 85-106.

 

 

 

Take Heart-On words with power

Take Heart-On words with power

Take Heart

I watched a woman being interviewed. She sat in a wheelchair because she was elderly and feeble. She said that she was dead for she had lost her heart. The psychiatrist asked her to place her hand over her breast to feel her heart beating: it must be there if she could feel its beat. “That,” she said, “is not my real heart.” James Hillman, (Jungian psychologist) quoted in S. H. Buhner, 2010, p. 21).

I love that response. There was no hesitation there in understanding and using language metaphorically. Many of us are wary of that part of us or of others which knows and feels ideas and phenomena beyond the visible world—in the realm of that which can’t be proved. It’s funny what we can accept and what we cannot, what words we feel fine using and which words we ridicule silently, aloud, or perhaps  are afraid of. I know people who are fine with talking about the heart as the source of deeper feelings or the gut as the source of intuitions but to talk of spirit matters would take them over the edge of the precipice. They do not jump. I know people who are fine with the words, heart, spirit, and soul to express longings, callings, suffering, but who find their use in the religious realm unacceptable and the word God absolutely taboo.

Like many people, I am adverse to turning abstract concepts into absolutes. I have experienced an antipathy to some of the ways words from the Christian or other spiritual traditions are misused. I am angered when they are adopted in the interest of sowing hate and discord, of dividing people one from the other. In many instances I have kept away from using the word “god” because I feel the ultimate existential questions of why there is something rather than nothing and why we are here can’t be solved by personification.

Yet, theological and spiritual language has an important place in human life. Some words from these traditions seem charged with the force of the great mystery. Northrup Frye called them “words with power.” God, spirit, soul, faith, heaven, hell, grace are like vessels holding religious ideas concentrated and distilled from centuries of humans’ deep feelings, powerful experiences, meditations, and long thoughts. The language of faith and religious institutions can cling to the person using them and may be accepted or rejected based on our feelings about that person –their sincerity, the depth of their compassion, and the breadth of their inclusiveness.

the light in the rock, the light from the rocks,  -courtesy of A.M. Schaefer

The rejection of these words as describing any sort of reality may also stem from a fear of the unknowable. Perhaps we don’t feel sufficiently defended against the aspects of life and mystery these words point to. Perhaps a leap into theological beliefs might demand some response we are not prepared to make. And for some the existence of what is often called evil –knowledge and experience of human depravities and destructiveness—can  be strong reasons to turn against religious traditions, their language, and their beliefs. There are variations of this from “How could a God of love let my son die?” to “Religions create division and are causes for wars.” While these are about beliefs, they are created by words. There are so many reasons to be wary.

And yet, I live comfortably with the idea that there are important existences that humans can’t pin down and attach a proof to, dimensions of the universe that even scientists have no certainty about and use metaphoric language in attempts to describe. I think a life without questions of ontology and cosmology is a life diminished of sources of meaning. And any religious beliefs that come out of human experiences and that leave people kinder and softer, more inclusive and less dogmatic, I respect and leave open.

I appreciate the spiritual sensibilities that come out of most Indigenous cultures because they are grounded in the Earth and encompass the universe. I use the word Creator in those times I feel a need to personalize the great mystery. I also believe in the concept of the sacred and feel its respectfulness supports living thoughtfully in and protecting natural environments and places held to be sacred to cultures and peoples.

I am grateful pretty much at all times for the creative nature of humans and the ability to express aspects of life not amenable to the language of the everyday. I don’t question the need for compassion or that dreams could have some meaning that might relate to how you live or might better live. If by soul is meant some part of the human makeup that feels things deeply, appreciates the aesthetic dimension of human life, is open to flashes of insight, and startling contradictions of what was previously felt or thought; I have one. If by spirit is meant the longing to transcend, to connect to life forms and forces at infinitely great distances, to miss nothing, to believe everything that is possible to believe then I have a spirit. Can I make clear distinctions between spirit and soul? Not really, but I know how psychologists who respect mystery describe them as different but equally necessary to a human life fully lived.

If some people are most comfortable collapsing the soul and spirit into the concept of the human heart as if by this move, they are ridding them of any divine nature, I can understand that. But I might suggest they are not necessarily leaving the field of spirit altogether. If the heart is believed to be a muscle pumping blood to all parts of the brain and body or just a collection of cells, mystery remains. Even our cells interconnect and communicate with other cells. Atoms connect across time and space and can affect each other and change when observed. Even the universe is considered by many cosmologists to be infinite. Science is finding the reality underlying the universe to be disturbingly statistical, yet unpredictable and mysterious. Even our cells seem miraculous. So, speaking of my heart instead of soul or spirit still gives the word a touch of the sacred.

I feel that the spirit and soul are part of what makes us valuable to the Earth and the cosmos and that feel is the right word to use. I want those words to have meanings that matter to the good life—to be real, to stand for real dimensions of humans—even without their being found by neurosurgeons or new x-ray-like technologies. What is gained when we allow for the possibility that many ideas and potentialities veiled in the mystery of what can’t be known should be respected and given room in our life?  More wonder and awe, more sources of meaning, more humility, are some gifts that come to mind. I love the idea of the possible, the might be. There is a kind of certainty that seems to be the death of the soul. Be open. Take heart.

Intuitions and Illuminations

Intuitions and Illuminations

We explore the interior realm because it is what we humans are for—consciousness, the marvelous voyage. (Tarrant, J. 1998/1999, The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, and the Spiritual Life, HarperCollins: New York, p.6)

A few days ago, I didn’t know what I wanted to write other than that I wished, hoped, to write some thoughts from some source that wasn’t the rational, logical mind. Perhaps, to hear the poetry of the soul— mine and of the cosmos. So I started this task with the tool closest to hand, the mind with its raven’s nest lined with ragged and worn memories, and once shiny thoughts. I hoped I would somehow drift out of the nest and into the voice of the heart, soul, or spirit. Those forces of the interior realm. What comes when we are truly awake. What is felt in the larger mind of the body, the heart.

It is hard for me to shift from the rational, doubting, logic-creating mind. Exploring the interior realm can take us very deep, leave us full of doubts or longings.

The heart, soul, spirit triad are believed by some to be three distinct archetypes that bring the same messages in different forms, shaped by different sources. The heart’s communications come from listening to our feelings and emotions; the soul brings ideas and sensed meanings from the quirks and puzzles of consciousness, often packaged in the happenings of the day, in what crosses our path. The spirit’s faint calls are heard in experiences of “the in between”, of sensing more than the eye that saw and the bird that sang, but some relationship of being to being; of somehow transcending our present consciousness and feeling life open wider.

Grasslands National Park
the wind through the grass, the immovable rock

It seems easiest for me to believe that the forces of nature call to us; awaken us to beauty, remind of us powers beyond our own. There is spirit in those forces. Soul in the old tree and the eyes of the wolf. Many voices, perhaps one truth. Offered to us in the silence of the mind or the roar of the wind – the depths of the dark and the bend of light.

And shouldn’t hearing and responding to the inner voice involve curiosity, imagination, humour, and desire; perhaps as much or more than intention, resolve, logic, and commitment? A life time of seeing, hearing, sensing, responding, and waiting to unearth, stumble over, or invent what happens next. The inner voice—a part of a very human life.

I have talked to a few people, more commonly, read from books of poetry or prose in which the author describes the experience of recognizing the heart, soul, or spirit voice. I think it is heard, because those same people believe it exists.

I want to believe that too. Hoping that in the belief that there is more to life than can be known directly, concretely; the invisible might become discernible; the murmur more distinct. Perhaps the spirit whispers too faintly and I am tuned to a louder volume. Perhaps, the soul’s desires are most often ignored, not felt by the heart region of my body. Or contradicted by my seemingly reasonable mind.

It is in the hours of the night that I ask the soul and spirit questions. “What’s wrong?” or “What should I do?” or, “What are the limits of love? Is love inherent in the cosmos—existing in all moments and places and beyond time and space?” No voices answer, or they do, but the responses seem so simple, or so crazy that I don’t believe in them being other than the usual machinations of my mind.

In poet and activist Gary Synder’s view, they might come from a trickster –one so gifted in upsetting everyday beliefs that they are either not heard or not believed. Kabat Zinn might say the messages are there and they come from the heart and the practice of being still and aware.

The task of hearing the soul’s voice seems to be one of going deeper—it arrives as a voice that might easily contradict what we think we know. What we feel pressured to do. The spirit’s voice is perhaps heard as a call to fly higher. What do I know other than I need to be silent, I need to be calm, I need to be outside. Perhaps equally, I need to be in turmoil, or utterly foolish, or enraptured. Willing to live in the extremes life brings and also able to stop and be still whether inside or out.

Once, I heard a voice that did not seem to be my own, say, “Sandra, you are loved.” I did hear it, but not because it was spoken out loud. I immediately called on the inner skeptic to discredit the source and the message. Perhaps, other messages have been missed which means I didn’t or couldn’t shift from the analytic, logical dominance of brain mode to the possibilities of the heart and imagination.

Freeing the imagination is so difficult for me most times. I trod on. It isn’t so much that I need more poetry, more music, more stories, more light and dark, more trees and tiny bugs; as I need to hear, see, feel, with a sense of possibility. A sense that there is a message in their somewhere.  Always a message. And more messages.  And let the answers be riddles. And flashes of light. And sudden darkness.

I am nervous of people who think they know. I want a life with so many meanings it makes me dizzy and a life with moments of respite that feel anointed by something other and benevolent. Blessed times when in returning, I feel renewed. If the holy is anywhere it is in the everyday. Breathe, walk, look, ask questions, believe in everything you can. Oh to voyage far, wide, and deep.