Category: Curiosity and Reflection

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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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.

Inside the Practice of Hope

Inside the Practice of Hope

solstice sunrise – Photograph © Colleen Watson-Turner

“The hopeful spirit transcends limitations.”

The life I want to live is a life in which I care for myself, I care for others, I care for the Earth. For this, I need to retain the hope that it is possible. A vision of the good. Having big questions is part of it. Always loving the mystery. Feeding my curiosity – freeing my imagination. Laughing and crying.

And here is the hard part. Pain, discouragement, despair are real. So hopefulness is a life’s work. The large hill to climb before the picnic , and then the next hill appears. And sometimes I feel I might not make it to the place where the water is –the place where of the full life resides and the day that Thoreau says will dawn to the soul that is awake. And that is a funny thing. I am too often awake, but in that other sense of not being asleep.

Hopefulness begins with a belief about myself. I learn this over and over. For example, insomnia is a experience that plagues me and many women I know. When the night of short sleeps pile up, I can feel despair. The need to overcome that sense of feeling helpless in the cycle of almost sleepless nights grows in me until finally I can say to myself, “I can handle this.” I know that this is the start of the practice of hopefulness–the belief that I will find a way to live with the experience of tiredness and the feelings that pervade the long, dark hours of the night.

To say, “I can handle this.” shifts the experience for me. My feelings become a little lighter. I am then more prepared to see symbols of hope in my present life. Walking to our biggest windows when I can’t sleep, I see the moon and, for some reason, this cheers me up. Sometimes I turn to the tall sturdy spruces to remember that life endures.

I have learned that my insomnia comes in cycles. I also sleep well for many weeks at a time. The hopeful spirit knows that change is a constant of life. The way things are can shift suddenly and unexpectedly from the outside. These shifts that we didn’t foresee are part of the reality that everything is connected to everything else. They mean that we don’t know what will happen next and that we are not in complete control. I find it heartening to know that change will happen. Sometimes I find out that what I was thinking of as bad turns out to be a good. My labels are most often not helpful.

And less this get too solemn or earnest, a tendency I have, humour brings hope. And feelings of gratitude cannot be forced – it’s hard to feel despair and gratitude at the same time. If someone can make me laugh, I am mightily blessed.If I can make myself laugh, or someone else laugh, I am doubly blessed. A crack in the wall where the light breaks through.

When my sources of meaning dim, I can usually just get outside, go for a walk along the river or around the block, deadhead a few flowers in the bed outside our condo building, and my spirits lighten. Getting outside is my most dependable source of renewal.

To say, “This happened to me” is a way to affirm experiences from my past as a step towards letting them go. To say, “This is happening to me” is a way to acknowledge an experience that is discouraging me.  Accepting my present circumstances — not to give up on them, but accepting them because they already exist, has been for me the first step in viewing my life more positively . Gratitude also grows from this seed. Fighting our present reality saps precious energy. To regain hopefulness, my experience has been that first I have to believe in myself, my strengths, creativity, ability to persevere. I remind myself I overcame challenges in the past. I remember that I have a support network.

I know that everyone on earth does not have the support system that I have.  When I am able to feel grateful for my own strengths , the support I receive, and for all that my life holds my soul feels more grounded and my spirit expands.

It helps me to be aware that any personal difficulties I face are part of a much larger source of pain which I call World Sorrow and Earth Lament. To find hopefulness in the midst of the cruelty and destructiveness of humans is the most difficult of all for me and I want to turn away from it. But I can’t. It seems to be there always as an almost imperceptible weight on my chest or in my heart. It is at the times when I feel like I can’t watch or listen to the news that I try to remember the courage of millions of people the world over.

the place of prayer beads – photograph, Jane Thurgood Sagal

I find hope in other people’s stories.  The ways that people under the most discouraging, dangerous, or pain-filled situations carry on with their lives moves me deeply.  The ways people maintain their sense of humour within a painful moment or repetitive days of struggle inspires me. The moral and physical courage of others can be a source of renewed hopefulness about the state of our world and an inspiration for my own actions when grayness descends. I have learned to remember the stories or the faces of courageous and compassionate others but not to use them to compare and criticize myself.

Hope comes from believing that small actions matter. John Tarrant wrote of this with tenderness.

The movements of compassion can be big enough to save rain forests, but intimacy also appears in the small acts that open infinitely large doors. Modest act of courage reverse evils before they grow great; small generosities welcome children to the world. Those who recognize their connection with others serve quietly, like members of a secret order. Then the small acts and the large coalesce (pp 139-140)

Throughout my teaching life I was inspired by the children I taught. I think of Laurie, a bright-eyed little girl in my grade one class who told me she was so happy that she was going to learn to tell time and understand clocks because then she could get herself to school on time. Laurie often come to school later in the morning when her struggling, single-parent mother did not wake up. Laurie told me that she would be able to get her little sisters up too and feed them before she came to school. All this, she said with a beaming face. Imagine.

Hope is real and necessary and for me it is foundational to creating a better life and a better world.