A human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning. Carl Jung.
As I watched the sun come up on the longest day of the year, I was parked near Vantage, Washington, by the Columbia river. A huge wind ripped down the gorge. One moment the sky darkened and it looked like a storm was about to break in the burgeoning shadows. The next moment, the weather is blown down the river and the sunlight pours in. Millions of years ago, the flood that made this canyon was 500 feet above where I stayed and rushed down the valley at 60 miles an hour. I can see that in my imagination. The wind was bashing and bending the trees that day, following the path of the ancient floodwater, making a roar that sounded like I was standing next to a busy superhighway.
Then, 60 miles further north, I was parked by a stream near Liberty, Washington. Every one’s dream on the road. Surrounded by forest. Sitting, listening, hearing only the water gurgling over the rocks, felt odd at first. I could almost feel my brain sorting out the frequency of the stream from the hum of all the roads I have slept next to in the last couple of years or the busy freeways that were in the distance. I was sure I heard people chatting in all the bubbling, as if there were a party going on, just out of sight. After my mind sorted it out and settled in, it occurred to me that it wouldn’t be too long before I would be looking for a little quiet.
It takes decades to train a human being to deal with all the opposites that appear to run our lives. With that kind of investment, there can be profound resistance to seeing things another way, even when the conditioning isn’t working. Most people are too busy interacting with machines … taking care of business. That is the blessing of old age. I feel like I have less to lose now, in terms of self-image. I don’t need a lot of money. I don’t mind being wrong. I am calmer, less likely to get run over by a bus while wandering around, discovering how it’s all a projection.
In the highest moments, when I ‘have the world on a string’ and all the things are in order, I still have a subtle sense that there’s something more, at the edge of my perception. In the darkest moments, when the sadness washes through me as if there had never been joy, there is still a slight scent of something beyond. It is an echo, a resonance that comes with being ‘whole’, whatever the size and whatever the name … being swept into it, all of it, then and there … giving up the precious position of being me. I am open to the world coming apart. Like the Buddhist mandalas, which are built out of fine colored sand and then are blown away, the image of a world built out of commas, periods and capital letters is ultimately a surface, a temporary measure. A bardo.
The person I became in my formative years was a reaction to the world, not a contribution. Spirit has a presence for me. I can bring something. I have had time to watch threads spin out over the course of a life. I have faith that those brief experiences, when I felt myself to be a part of something so much bigger, revealed a dimension for which there are no words. I have felt it. I know it is everywhere. An experience in its own time. And I know that it is me that is in the way.
It’s easy to assume that old age has lost its promise in a world built on the future tense … who I am is who I am going to be. The fact is that Life happens before we know it. Science shows that the field around the body reacts to a stimulus seconds before the mind catches up. Carl Jung wrote that it’s about what I do, not what I say I’ll do … or not even what I say I’m doing. The future can be a refuge. Words themselves are late to life.
But words and the way they are put together are what got me here. They are what got you here. Words are what get anyone anywhere. It is Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey to catch a glimpse of the light behind it all, unpack the illusion that carried the story so far and let the sun shine in.
When spirit is a reality for me, living becomes a process of refining my thoughts, feelings and behavior to be in accord with these largely invisible forces. Small mind matching big mind. Energy pours through when I am true to myself. I am that energy … before it becomes positive or negative … before it has a name. I make at least three mistakes for every one effort that ends up feeling right, but I will gradually refine my approach so that more of that energy can pass.
A better person is formed on the other side of the construction (grammar) … de-construction (no grammar) … re-construction (new grammar) cycle. In the West, the alchemists called it The Great Work. Turning unconscious lead into conscious gold. In the East, wise men called it waking up. Growing is a refining process. It is never over, but it doesn’t begin until I take responsibility for creating my own life on the spot.
Flowers and fruit are the results of a seed refining its nature. The growth of a tree and the course of water returning to the sea … processes of refinement. The nuclear heart of our solar system is refining itself. Re-finement. Not ‘Finement’. This is not making something out of nothing. It is the creative essence … the first impulse in finer and finer terms as it bursts into the universe.
Heaven is here … as it is everywhere. It’s just not useful. And it doesn’t insist. Michelangelo said that the sculpture is already there within the marble block, before he started work. He just had to chisel away the superfluous material. The same is true of the soul.
If I can’t name it, it must not be there … even though it is only a tiny slice of the universe that my regular senses can accommodate. Even if it does exist, I can’t deal with it, if it doesn’t have a name. I live in a dream conjured by the names I do know. On my journey, two things happened when I loosened up the way I was punctuating my experience and looked more carefully at how I was naming things and imposing sentences.
First, I became more aware of how I have already seen spirit flow through my life, when words didn’t manage my feelings. In joy and grief, it is the same. When my mother died, I was overwhelmed with grief. But I never felt closer to God. The experience was the loss of reflection … the sense of me. There was no time between what I saw and how I felt. It was the same experience as the awe that filled my senses in front of the magnificent landscapes of the Northwest. This is a dimension that I live right next to, but it’s hard to see through the screen of words. When the information flowing from Nature doesn’t have to bruise its way through a complicated pattern of unfinished beliefs, I am reminded.
Secondly, on the journey through the Northwest, I began to realize more consistently that I am that spirit … where I see it, when I feel it, it is as though the ‘I’ dissolves. The experience of spirit is participation. I see this life, not as a ‘thing’, with a beginning, a middle and an end … but as a cycle, a period of transition while I uncover who I really am. The individual identity … what I have named … like the mandala made of sand … will blow away in the breeze. The quality of the experience, the heart, the spirit that made the picture in the first place, will endure. It is not a poetic fantasy. It is the new science. It is a fact. In essence, we are all one.
Nature eventually forces me to unlearn the ‘either-or’ approach that words create. There are no dualities in Nature. Not even light and dark are separate. In this world I have created, there have to be opposites for there to be anything at all. I was taught that measuring a scale between those opposites properly is the way to navigate through this life. When that mechanistic approach breaks down, I can see that life just radiates. I, the observer, impose a scale with which to distinguish things. No scale, no observation. No observation, no thing. There are no straight lines in Nature, so disorganizing my grammar will disorganize my thinking. It can be a mess for a while. To me, it’s worth it. The business of living is just the beginning.
Soon, 65 years-old will be two-thirds of a lifetime. 61.8%, within a margin of error. The Golden Mean. The turning point. The Fibonacci ratio that accompanies transformation may be a fundamental constant of Nature. What I can leave behind are old nervous responses to what I see around me. I can revise the grammar that preserves ancient (and incorrect) assumptions about the world: things which are similar may be treated as identical; parts may be considered without relation to the whole; actions are one-way; ‘qualities’ are properties of ‘things’; an event has a ‘cause’ and to be myself, I must not be you.
And what I will find in the future … I just can’t know for sure. There must always be a verb in the present tense, but the other tenses work only in the imagination … they are not real.
Living in this world of opposites will always mean suffering. If I want to know I am good, I must know what bad is. And so on. In order to act more efficiently, I forget that big, small, rich, poor, up, down, here, there, good and bad are all relative terms. They depend on the observer. I have become complacent about the implications of everything being relative. After all, it’s that ambivalence I was trying to stamp out in the first place, by putting names on stuff. I want to stabilize the chaos that threatens to engulf me when I lose the handle on things.
In those moments when I am a little more awake and I experience something more than I am used to, I get a sense of a bigger picture. Carl Jung calls these experiences numinous. As subtle as these forces (numina) are, just at the edge of my sensory equipment, they nevertheless remind me that everything matters, sooner or later, because everything is connected.
In order to grow up, I must work my real self out of the shadows. I must show myself for who I actually am, behind the words … because who I am is unique. That uniqueness is a key. If I am not coming from who I am, then the feedback I get back from the world will never help, in terms of taking responsibility. That’s a big reason to pretend … to avoid responsibility. I must face the consequences of my perceptions like a grown-up, instead of like a child. Perceptions don’t just happen. Pretending to be at the mercy of circumstances leaves me no power to make a change. I can refine the energy that is me by taking responsibility for it. It is what I am doing anyway. I might as well own up. I have been running the show all along.
So often, I forget about this completely. I feel helpless and blame basically everything within reach. As a child, I had not yet realized that I am accountable both for what I do and what don’t do. The way I operated back then – if you didn’t see it, it didn’t matter. Older now, I know that it is what I did not do that made life the most difficult … situations where I avoided responsibility for my perceptions, by switching the words around. If I said it … and didn’t do it … it is unfinished. If I thought it and didn’t say it … it is unfinished. The only way what I believe changes is if I answer for it. Slowing down for a moment, becoming an observer of my own mind, reveals how busy I have been, building my own story, embroidering a life upon the fabric of the non-local universe. Refinement is a process of picking up the stitches.
In everyday life, grammar is flexible. It will bend but not often break. When I am angry, I chop the world into short sentences, with lots of exclamation points. When I am sad, my sentences slide toward a conclusion, usually not finding a period at the end. I can take the subject out of the sentence by joining in an uplifting experience with others in church or in a sports arena. Have you noticed how you can’t be carried away by the spirit of a concert, a football game or a romantic movie and be noticing where you are at the same time? The paradox of the non-local universe is that as soon as you look for it, you separate yourself from it. When the grammar does break, it is no longer everyday life.
Growing up requires that I re-visit the rules I used to make my way in the world. Words will never buckle life into place. Re-learning how to ‘punctuate’ experience is the art of living. The key is to find and restore that being that chose all those words in the first place. Rebirth instead of retirement. Refinement of a spirit that has always been there.
I began this journey two years ago truly believing that I would find what I was looking for in the Northwest. What I saw in the mountains and the forests moved me. Nature took my breath away at times. I had forgotten I could feel that. I had such large feelings, seeing something that so extended my senses, Something ‘inside’ me matched something ‘outside’ me. I had lost track in the whirling abstract mess of machines, concrete and steel that I had been dealing with for years. Nature was waiting. It has no case to make of its own. Nature is just there. It is the destiny of people to pick and choose.
We have been misdirected by thinking of words as tools. Tools have limited use. Consider a shovel. If you don’t discard the shovel when you are finished digging … if you insist on carrying it with you wherever you go … you will forever be seeking a place for a hole. As Heidegger pointed out, we continue to act as if language were a tool, when in fact language has become the master. How often does someone, in the midst of an argument, exclaim, “Well, that’s not what I would call it!”?
Angels wait behind the veil of words. I believe that. The harmony beneath the world we babble on about is unimaginable to a person who considers his or her self to be separate … who thinks they are seeing, rather than being, during an observation. Emerson made the point that resonance with Nature is happiness to us. During the first phase of life, Childhood, we are lead out of that inherent resonance, in order to be an Adult. We are conditioned to ‘rise above’ our nature, to ‘get a hold’ on ourselves. Adulthood, the second phase, is when we find a scheme that works to take care of business. We find a way of thinking that keeps us out of trouble and manages all the information coming at us every day … filters that keep our self-image safe and make things appear to be predictable. Adulthood is a limbo, a loop the spirit takes in order to learn.
There is a third phase, whose time has come now that we are all living longer. Re-union with the spirit. Carl Jung called it Individuation. Refinement. Coming into one’s own. We had to think with things before we could think without them, but, ironically, when we take the ‘I’ back out of the sentence, we uncover a whole self that mirrors a larger spirit, which is also undivided. It is an opportunity that is uniquely human … to be a mirror for the divine.
A lifetime is not meant to be a bell curve. It can be a diagonal, lower left to upper right. Who I am is not a linear thing. I am a radiation, a frequency. a presence. Who I am is not a body. I am that spirit with which I feel connected every now and then. I am not the learned ‘me’, but I am in there … in that space between what is behind the words and what may be coming next … the dimension of free will.
If I believe that the source of creation, the reality behind this world, is out there somewhere, then I can’t change on my own. Even worship assumes a powerless position. On the other hand, once I truly experience how I am making it all up, how I am the one shackling my experience into chains of sentences … I can’t forget that it is up to me.
Our destiny is Heaven on earth … whether it’s for a moment, a day or a lifetime. In the East, this is called Buddha Consciousness, since everything has to be called something. In the West, it is Christ Consciousness. The names don’t matter. It is the awareness that arises when the words fail. The edge of my senses is becoming aware that spirit is returning. Not because it ever went away, but because words are losing their shine. It is the same for one as it is for all. We are ready to see again. As Joseph Campbell said, the whole deal with Buddha Consciousness is getting to know you’re it.
What I am calling it, in the dark, when nobody’s looking, makes it so for me. I must start from there and weave my way through the shadows … the unrecognized thoughts and feelings for which I never found the words to put in their place. Internally, the landscape is not unlike the mountains and the forests through which I have roamed for the last two years. Without direction, it can be overwhelming.
The way the eagles handle it, out in the sound, west of Vancouver Island, is to divide the unlimited territory into about 200 yards of shoreline each. Each bird rules their territory absolutely, not missing anything that moves. They called to each other across the water. There was a pattern in which even we in the boat were a part, as we floated from territory to territory. Every perception blended into the next. There was a rhythm. I was absorbed. Everything fit.
The irony is unavoidable. The way that can be named is not the way. The rush of the wind down the valley is the way … the songs in the stream … the sun that tumbles down through the trees. Silence is the way. The still pond. Not doing anything. Not going anywhere. It is all here, now. Darkness is the way. It reveals the value of light. All one can do is point … even though there is no thing to point to. We come from the light, not to it.
Spirit is simply the background behind the fabric of time and space. It is not a special something that has to be conjured somehow, available only to saints. In the beginning and in the end, spirit is all there is, just as water is the background to life. Attempts to stamp and shape spirit are always temporary measures, like holding a stream. Loosening the grip that the subject-verb-object view has imposed on the world opens the way for the real nature of being: participation not separation, uncertainty not knowledge, us not me.
We can never take the awe out of the presence of the divine … that is how we sense it … but it’s time to stop pretending it’s a mystery. Acknowledging the presence of spirit means that I am accountable for my point of view. Being accountable for my perceptions opens the door. That process starts with me using the words, rather than the words using me. The divine is not a someday thing. When I don’t realize that, there’s a reason. I am not ready to give up being sure.
I am reluctant to acknowledge the divine because there are implications: I should treat others as myself; I am no longer powerless to make change; I can no longer blame. Sometimes I have felt that I wanted to know God … but not just yet. I want to be more irresponsible first. What I see as my life is no one’s fault but my own. I wasn’t in a hurry to know that. I am free to see things any way I want, but now I see that some approaches will not work in the long run because they are not good for everybody. Growing up so selfish, the way I did, it takes time to learn that, especially when there are still childhood ideas that I want to hold on to. My life has been a process of opening up and letting go.
Spirit is not something I can keep in words because its nature is to be in motion. Spirit moves. It flows from a dimension that is underneath, into time and space, like dreams flow into sleep. Spirit must be respected because life is barren in its absence … and magic when it overflows.
This two-year journey for me is ending in fire, all over the Northwest. Old growth, piled up over years of drought, bursting into flames. For weeks, in Northern California, the blue in the sky has been stifled by a blanket of grey haze. Magnificent horizons are invisible, as if the landscape isn’t even there. The giant sequoias on the coast are testimony to this being the way of things. One way or another, balance will be restored.
For a while, I was too busy to bother with things that are only in-visible. Grammar does not apply there, so I can get confused. Sometimes, when I lose the label on things, I can hear that bus gearing up around the corner, but there does come a time to sit back and sort it all out. That can come early or late, depending on how sturdy a structure the words have created. The pattern emerges, when I look back. I see that who is looking has always been the same, from my first memories. Who is looking is still un-scarred by my losing battles and un-heralded for my victories. Who is looking sees the fear but does not tremble, feels the fire but does not burn. Who is looking knows the sadness but does not cry, and knows the joy, but does not laugh. Who is looking is richer for being alive. Who is looking, before the sentence starts, is who I am.