On the Topography of Heaven

crowflightI was walking home from work tonight when I saw them, flowing in waves through the sky. The flight of the crows reminds me of two things: first, that even in a broken, filthy, impoverished, and flea-bitten town such as this Albany of mine, there is always beauty to be found — if you can look in the right direction. Second, there is the ridiculous abundance of Nature; as if it were a celebration of excess. More seeds than are needed to continue the species; more cosmic dust than the universe can contain; more birds than it seems the sky can hold. But this is Nature’s wisdom: She errs not to the side of excess, but to the advantage of Life.

onecrowThis is as true of the world within you as of that around you. And that reminds me of a question: What, do you think, is the difference between strength and power? I could make a case that, as we are now a year away from America’s next big national election, this is the most important and fundamental political and economic question of our time. For just as looking into the sky on a dull Friday evening in a characterless northeastern American city, allowing the song of wonder to well up within you until it feels as if it may burst every boundary you’ve ever been taught to believe in — just as this can free you; so in the same way can a simple question, held closely and carried through the shadowy walls of acculturation, become the seed of the Revolution, of the renewal that embraces and raises us all. So let that question percolate some in your unconscious, while I tell a story.

I will tell you of a young man I once knew, half a dozen years out of undergraduate school, where he had slid into a darkness of excess that had drowned his natural abundance. Cocaine, toxic hallucinogens, downers, uppers, angel dust, and an endless river of alcohol — bad booze, cheap beer, rotgut wine and sherry — even 200 proof grain. Thus he sputtered sideways into adulthood like a stream of piss into windblown snow, reeling drunk or brooding sober. Many of his friends and acquaintances receded; those who remained beside him stood back a pace in alarm.

He wasn’t what you’d call a bad drunk; but then again there are no good ones, are there?  When I came face to face with him amid those post-college years, I saw a death struggle going on in his eyes, like a fly spattering a windowpane loudly with its last desperate and directionless convulsions of wings. There was not a visible trace of light left in those 20-something eyes. He limped and staggered like a man four times his age, fit more for a hospice than a home.

Perhaps he felt the touch of death at the bottom of a bottle during a night or two; perhaps some random awakening of the energy of youth stirred him from his morbid torpor. All I can tell you is that when I saw him one dusk-lit evening, walking past a mirror down a bare and darkened hallway in a Zen temple in uptown Manhattan; something about him seemed different and strange — as if he had been made weightless from the releasing of an invisible yet crushing burden.

He showed up a few times a week, and began attending the weekend sesshins, the mini-marathons of Zen meditation. He told me of how he had built himself a meditation chamber in his bedroom at home, made of a wooden frame, dark curtains, cushions, incense, and icons — a crude, dark, yet working altar to awakening. For the first time in his life, perhaps, he thought he had found something besides himself that he could take seriously.

Somewhere amid this inner passage, he found that he lost his taste for alcohol; he had dropped the lust for that violent liquid stupor that so recently had been the obsession of his night life. He simultaneously lost patience and money for the cocaine habit; he had spent the last few rolled-up twenties and tens he had, still white with the dust of addiction, on books and beads and meditation bells. The rest he dropped into the donation bowl at the Zendo.

I have often wondered something about that young man — had some external God or Grace given him the power to conquer, to pull himself off the edge of the abyss? Or had something more intimate, closer, and more personal stripped whatever had obscured and distorted his ordinary light, and thereby made him what he always was anyway — strong?

That question may never be answered — the young man I speak of no longer exists, except amid the fading electronic illusion of a few neural circuits deep within my neocortex, known as memory. Yet I know where my feeling for him trends — toward the inevitable certainty of some visitation from deep within his living body, amid the strands and telomeres of that info-molecular essence called DNA. I tend toward the certainty that this young fellow was awakened not by power, but to it. Something had told him that he could safely walk away from the training he’d received, that the only truth, the only support he could find was outside himself. The moment he had sensed that, his ordinary strength had been awakened and released; and he could begin peeling away the lies that had covered his mind like cobwebs over an open doorway. He had had his first encounter with the regenerative understanding that the greatest and most enduring help of all comes from the beings you cannot see, the ones inside.


The death, two months ago, of Oliver Sacks has shaken me somewhat — another favorite modern writer from my younger years, now gone. I remember reading Anthropologist on Mars and Awakenings when they first came out in the mid to late 90’s. I remember thinking how this literature could not be cubbyholed into an insular category — this was a significant dimension of its quality.

Many of my past, recent, and current influences are of that same brand of creation that admits of no branding; for they not only defy categorization, they embrace contradiction. This is what art and artists do: they hold contradiction close to their bodies, over an often long period of years, and thereby transcend it. Sacks was a scientific man who had rejected religious belief; yet he writes more soulfully and with a greater consciousness of the sacred than many spiritual authors I have read.

Politicians and other blowhards of our culture — priests, pundits, corporate pitchmen and their media lapdogs — these also deal in contradiction, but in a different way: not through exploration but exploitation. When antinomy or iconoclasm suit their image, they wear it, garishly; knowing that it can always be thrown behind the walls of denial when its superficial purpose has passed. They engage and use contradiction not to surpass opposition but to aggrandize and even to deify it — until the president and the patriot become the exclusive priests of a distant and vengeful Power whose hand is fear and whose heart is guilt.

I have written before of the mandate we have as individuals in this age of power to expel from our deepest selves the ghosts of fear and guilt. But my message here may have been incomplete: overcoming fear is not about becoming the stereotypical tough guy, but revealing the sublimely sensitive guy who can be fearlessly scared. That is to say, there is a sort of provincial level of fear that we all experience. Every day, I find myself scared walking the streets of this gasoline-drunk city of Albany. The drivers are aggressive, relentless, and at the same time careless. So crossing a street in this town is scary in a way that pedestrian navigation never was in New York. But I walk anyway; always alarmed but never in fear. I wonder if this makes any sense.

IFLet me try a bigger perspective: I’m scared of global climate change. But I’m not afraid for myself: I’m scared that by the time my daughter reaches my age our species will be spinning in an irrevocable vortex of self-annihilation; that she will arrive upon what should be her years of peace and freedom amid a world of misery, desolation, rampant impoverishment, and hopelessness. And so I do what I can now: I talk to her about the helpers of the invisible world, and show her how her own life experiences have revealed them to her. If she can hold that understanding and carry it through the decades ahead of her, then I know she will have the capacity to be scared and angry and horrified but without knowing fear. Since she is an artist herself, she should be able to embrace this seeming contradiction without much effort.

I’ve often gotten a similar impression listening to Terence McKenna’s lectures: he might be invoking Occam’s Razor in one moment and then describing how the mushroom (Psilocybin) had “talked to him” one night (in answer to the question, “how can mankind save itself?”). McKenna was far more than a counterculture kook: he was a public speaker of amazing gifts with a far-ranging intellect and an incisive social conscience. Here’s a 13-minute introduction to McKenna.

Another prominent personal influence, Alan Watts, openly proclaimed his contempt for consistency and orthodoxy. His goal was always to penetrate appearances and find the undercurrent that feeds the visible stream, and he’d take any line and proclaim any outrageous statement to further that goal (he once told a conference of military strategists, who had asked him to speak on the foundation of moral behavior, that the only such foundation he trusted personally was pure selfishness).

Emerson famously warned us, “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” It is also the hobgoblin of little hearts. The message I find throughout so many of my favorite writers and speakers is precisely this: the urgent recommendation to break away from the systemic effort on the part of the culture to make you think, act, and especially feel the same way — that is to say, uniformly — with scarcely any variation. As many a visionary has observed, uniformity is not unity. Once, in a meditation, I heard three spell-phrases spoken by some of my elementary school teachers: “you must fit in;” “you have to get along;” “just be like everyone else.” I said the inner No to these spells and called upon the transformational energy of the universe to cleanse and purify my body of this ideological garbage; and then to heal the inner wounds these spells left behind. Finally, I asked that I be strengthened by the release of these useless burdens.


IFSacks wrote of his “feeling as a doctor for the mistreated or marginalized.” Like many other individuals who have pushed the ponderous rock of human evolution a millimeter further forward on the path toward what McKenna called “the transcendental object at the end of Time,” Sacks disguised his own transcendence in the dress of his profession — in his case, the physician’s calling and the Hippocratic Oath.

We all must play in and with our culture and its social roles, even as we recognize their decadence. True independence is not getting to do what you want; it is doing what you must without selling out. It is working among the stone idols of the culture without cutting oneself on their glittering, poison-coated edges; and all the while, seeking their weakness, the point where they may be struck once and broken into dust.

I have a long way to go; and I very often lose sight of the destination, until I also forget that there is one. But I have learned a little: I have learned that I can work for the government; fill my role and perform my assigned functions; and then, during the walk home from it all, stare in wonder at the flight of the crows — black wings filling the evening sky with energy, beauty, and order, exactly as the invisible movements in the subatomic dark regions of my being may someday shift the ground beneath me in furtherance of some great renewal, the triumphant return to the beginning. As Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The Web of Gems in Your Skull

connectomeThe spirograph was one of my favorite childhood toys; and I remembered it instantly when I saw this image in Nature’s piece about the Human Connectome Project of the brain.*

Toy comparisons aside, it appears almost too simplistic, doesn’t it? Obviously the third dimension is only suggested (by the bilateral arrangement of the figure, with each major lobe’s sectional inter-connections shown by the arches touching the color-coded borders). Granted, the technology of mechanical self-awareness is not by any stretch our most highly developed technical achievement (yet). The image above represents a composite of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans, a neuroimaging technology that measures blood flow into and around neurons (brain cells) rather than real neural activity. The tech is based on the reasonably sound premise that when you’re using a specific part of your brain, blood flow to it will increase; exactly as you feel blood pumping through your upper body when you lift weights.

nature15692-f2Now the problem is that fMRI has a rather limited gaze — it can focus on a few millimeters’ scope for a very limited time. Again, it doesn’t really look at what it’s measuring — and blood flow can be affected by other factors than usage (drugs or illness, for instance). Its cost and logistical complexities make fMRI a somewhat unreliable instrument for creating detailed, large-sample studies. There is a funny story of a satirical study involving a dead salmon that highlights this shortcoming.

So this technology’s output is, at this point in its development, more worth the study of philosophers than of empirical scientists. Perhaps sometime before our century’s end, fMRI or its successor technology will peer deeply into human skulls and create a vast and astonishingly accurate picture of what’s happening in there. For now, it can show us pockets of activity and draw artful networks of connectivity.

I welcome and even identify with such a science; for it dares to go deeply into a realm which playfully resists its gaze and smiles at its obvious incapacity to thoroughly do what it dares. We have a lot in common, fMRI and I — you might say that an fMRI Lab is an “ephemeral” space (sound it out, fMRI-L). We endure only in what we inspire.

Isn’t this what artists, poets, writers, musicians, and other creative types have done throughout human history — study the self and Nature to touch a vision that goes beyond the provincial and into the universal? But you can’t be a visionary until you open your eyes. So this fMRI technology, with all its statistical flaws and mechanical shortcomings, nevertheless has a vision, along with a certain limited mission of awakening, which it wants to share with us. I will read its messages in the same way I listen to the lectures of Watts, Krishnamurti, or McKenna. I will meditate on that crude yet searching spirograph map of the web of connectivity that animates this organ of being, awareness, thought, memory, feeling, and art.

The art of the fMRI reminds me that there are intricate webs of inter-relationship within and among the 100 billion cells of my brain; and that there is a unity of presence between this web and the web of being beyond my skull — a presence which connects and consummates the Whole.

I look at the blank spaces within the drawing, and I sense presence as much as from the lines; I gaze into the broad X-figures at the top and middle (frontal – limbic / limbic – parietal) of the image, and wonder. I sense each neuron, invisibly and abstractly represented by this image, and perceive that every one of them lives in union with its total cortical environment. “If I am my foot,” said Watts, “then I am the sun.”

I have to remind myself that this picture represents a single organ within a single individual. For it is obviously an Indra’s Net, a cosmological map; a web of gems; a fractal image of Infinity. In terms of our brain’s capacity to grasp itself, Infinity is the next gate past our best estimates of the reality: 100 billion neurons creating 100 trillion connections. And that may be a sizable underestimate; for neurons are largely transparent — they are the dark matter within our bodies (and one astronomer has recently suggested that the term “transparent matter” be used in place of “dark matter”). We currently have no accurate idea, even in a ballpark range, of the teeming and near-endless abundance of the fundamental elements of that bundle of goo that sits between your ears. In that respect, it doesn’t matter who you are — you can be as stupid as a bag of Donald Trumps — you are a marvel.

Now this is not intended to be a “What the Bleep Do We Know” kind of rant — that ‘s been done already. My feeling is that science given perspective will be less easily dismissed or denied; it will become a more welcome part of the human community; and it will not be used as a cudgel against imagined enemies but as an attractor beam of light that invites the curious, no matter their educational or socio-economic background.


*The complete collection of these neuroscience articles sits behind Nature’s paywall. But even if you can’t afford the $200 annual subscription (I got this year’s via their Google+ page for an introductory rate of $50); it’s worth following them on social media, if only to have a glimpse of what’s happening at science’s leading edges. Nature is still the most comprehensive, creative, and best designed science journal I’ve encountered.

Parkinson’s Disease, or, Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, or, The World’s Most Interesting Question

[For the tl;dr (“too long; didn’t read”) set: audio version of this essay]

Geeks — that is, professionals who work in and with technology — tend to have an ambivalent relationship with the stuff of their craft, both within the office and especially beyond. Over the past decade or two, tech has become so goddam popular; and that’s a discordant note for the average geek. To the geek mind, the less you have to use your tech gear the better it is, the more it is fulfilling its purpose as technology. The addictive aspect of the device undermines technology’s raison d’etre, which is to use processor cycles to create free space within the cycle of life. What happened to us that we sometimes appear to prefer our cell phones to our most intimate human companions? Why have we become so obsessed with something that is, in the vast majority of hands, nothing more sophisticated than a toy — or worse still, a status symbol?

Geeks try to avoid involvement with such questions. They have to work with and for those toys; write code for them; make their websites responsive to the size of the screen on which they appear. But most geeks I know use their cells rarely and peripherally beyond the office. Even I – a marginal geek at best – tend to retreat from involvement with tech once the quitting bell has rung and I slide off my dinosaur into my real life. I have no car (which are all computerized now); no smartphone; no tablet; no laptop; and a single 4-year old box PC. My phone is one of those primitive slabs that I got for free when I was unemployed and on public assistance (no, they are not “Obama-phones,” that is a right-wing FOX News myth).

Now geeks have a problem with these devices and everything that goes with them — the addiction known as “intextication”; the runaway train of social media; and the selfie phenomenon which ramps up the candidate list for the Darwin Awards. It goes beyond our ordinary fatigue with the stuff of our working lives. We geeks tend to get frustrated with the rampant ignorance about these devices and their software; the massive security and privacy holes that multiply regularly; the broader social darkness in which actual information criminals go scot-free while others, like Ed Snowden, who are trying to help, are exiled and condemned.

The undercurrent that stirs all this mud is, of course, the issue of the loss of human contact and the further slurring of the limited communication skills that we civilized people brought with us into the 21st century. The best study of this issue I’ve found in popular media is Sherry Turkle’s recent piece for the NYT; highly recommended reading.

A Neurological Distraction

My communication skills are fair to average; they could do with some improvement. Unfortunately, unremarkable as they are, I compare favorably in this respect to most people I know at work and beyond. I imagine part of the reason is that I spend so much time alone; solitude has made me a pretty good listener. But another aspect of it has nothing to do with my lifestyle but is instead a gift of neuropathology. I couldn’t begin to physically navigate a smartphone — I’m sometimes in awe of those who can manage all that swiping, squeezing, stretching, and tapping — and I’m even fairly incompetent with a tablet device (I have one at work). My doctor recently told me he’s pretty sure I have a condition known as Parkinson’s Disease.

I’ve had the tremors for a long time, since childhood (there is quite a taxonomy of tremor). I can still recall a day in junior high school gym class when some fellow asked me if I had the DT’s. For most of my adult life, they haven’t been much of an issue: back in the 80’s and 90’s I actually had a 12 handicap in golf. Recently, however, since the time I moved upstate 2 years ago, they’ve gotten a lot worse. Currently, I meet 5 of the 7 core symptoms of PD that I found at the Mayo Clinic site.

Now, WTF is Parkinson’s Disease? Mayo defines it as “a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement.” When I first read that, I said (out loud to the computer), “could you be just a little more vague?” Based on my own admittedly amateurish research, what this means is that Parkinson’s is a constellation of symptoms with no specific or demonstrable etiology (physical cause). There have been a number of postmortem studies (i.e., autopsies) of the brains of people who had been diagnosed with PD, which revealed evidence of cell death of dopaminergic neurons (nerve cells that carry a specific neurotransmitter called dopamine) in a particular portion of the midbrain known as the substantia nigra. But there is no technology — diagnostic imaging such as CT, MRI, or PET scanning tech — that can show this cell death happening in a living person (I asked my doc, he said, “you’re right, there is no such diagnostic yet”).

So again, I have this constellation of symptoms which has no north star within it. I asked my doc, “so you can’t know I have this disease until you give me the gold standard treatment — levadopamine — and see if it has any effect?” He nodded: “that’s pretty much the state of the game today.” (My doc is refreshingly candid, so we get along great).

Now the problem is that there are a dozen or so different cocktails of this levadopamine stuff, and how it’s prescribed and how much is a matter of collaborative assessment. That is, I have to see a neurologist and let the dance of specialization complete its choreography. I’m good with all that: in my world, if I need some javascript, I call the developer; if I want some UNIX commands run, I contact the sys admin; and so on. To each horse his bridle.

Meanwhile, I have to do a private life assessment. I can no longer be the great gourmet cook that I never was anyway; I am flat dangerous around a stove. I can still pour a cup of coffee without scalding myself, if I do it very slowly with both hands. Golf will have to be the pastime of a future lifetime; I will miss it desperately. I can’t write (I mean by hand, physically — whether I can “write” as a writer is a matter of opinion). But I can still tap away at a keyboard — I won’t win any typing speed contests, but I work for the government, where expectations are low to moderate. So I can continue to earn my living while having the diet of a college freshman — whatever can be put in the microwave for two minutes.

Pain, muscle rigidity, and fatigue (common complications of PD) have recently become nasty problems. Pain — mainly in the extremities — hands and wrists, feet and ankles — is a constant but so far tolerable companion. Exhaustion is the real bugbear in my new bodily household. My doc made an interesting observation last week: “the tremors drain energy from you, they suck it up and leave you exhausted.” It took but a moment’s thought to realize how right he was: when the tremors are bad, I am crushed by fatigue; when they are moderate, I have a little energy.

Diagnosis or Sentence?

Now my prospects for improvement would appear to depend on how I accept and understand the diagnosis. Remember, one of my axioms that runs under and through all my writing here is this: there is no objective, meaningful distinction or separation between the physical and the psychological; or, for that matter, between the spiritual and the physical. So if I subject myself to the mechanical model of the disease (i.e., some neurons in my brain are dying and there’s no getting them back; that death is the cause of all the trouble, so the symptoms will only get worse as more of these cells die off) — in that event, I have accepted more than a diagnosis; I have submitted to a sentence.

This, of course, is what happens in doctors’ offices, clinics, and hospitals all over our blessed land, every goddam day. But once you perceive this, you already have a choice: I can accept the mechanical prejudice, the myth that says I’m a bundle of wires, tubes, pumps, parts, fluids, and blind impulses; and all the hopelessness and futility that goes with it. Or I can call bullshit on that myth (without rejecting the science) and go my own way.

Alternatives to the Mechanical Myth

Virtually all of the science of the past century completely undermines the hegemony of the mechanical myth. Quantum mechanics; relativity theory; non-linear dynamic geometries and chaos theories in mathematics — these and other expressions of the new revolution of ideas occurring within and among the best minds of our species — all of it points toward the necessity for a fresh and deeper understanding of ourselves and our world.

Clearly, all that science is in a dynamic state of flux, development, and  organizational maturation. That is to say, even the scientists themselves don’t understand the practical implications of their discoveries. So we’ll just have to try that next step on our own.

What seems fairly clear about it all is that our language just hasn’t caught up with the new tide of experience that science is revealing to us. You see this in clumsy terms like “entanglement,” which actually describes a contrasting state of synchronicity or complementarity between two particles or quantum states; in “chaos theory,” which tells us not that reality is chaotic (quite the opposite), but that it can be really hard to predict accurately; and finally the notion of “quantum weirdness,” which is meant to reveal the substrate of deep natural order that underlies the seemingly strange and random behavior of subatomic beings. As Dr. Frenkel, the author in the previous link, mentions, “There is really no escape from the mysterious — some might say, mystical — nature of the quantum world.”

I’d say that there’s not even a need for mysticism, just a new kind of common sense. And that brings me back to “my” diagnosis. One of the primary insights of the quantum approach to living is that ownership is an illusion. Particles in a state of quantum entanglement aren’t “entangled” in  conflict or possession; they are simply in a mutually responsive harmonic. So I don’t “have” Parkinson’s; nor does it have me. A disease is not a possession; it is a message. Let me feel that and I may discover a more natural relationship with the symptoms.

Feeling is the key here, for the message of disease is not in text. Words tend to stagger as they approach the threshold of reality; just as the 20-something device addict hobbles and reels through the street like one four times his age. As Einstein demonstrated to us, relationship is reality; we are called now to move beyond the screen’s lurid glare, penetrating into a wordless, textless space of ecstatic union — the literal meaning of the term yoga.

Parkinson’s is not a private disease; quite the contrary. Its public face is exposed constantly, especially in those tremors known as intentional tremors: the kind that hit you just as you’re trying to do a specific something, usually with hands and arms. These are the tremors that are the worst and most common for me now. People notice this shit; it can’t be hidden.

So the disease calls me into a new and uncomfortable experience of relationship. I can no longer hide behind disguises, masks, and self-images: the harder I try to act normal, the more I am exposed as a fraud by my very limbs and extremities. The disease demands that I reveal myself; that I take this private practice of psychological nudity into the workplace and the other interpersonal domains of ordinary living. It is as if the disease is saying, “it is not the trembling that drains you; it is the ceaseless struggle of pretense, which now manifests these visible symptoms.”

What Have You Learned?

This, to me, is as empirically sound a model of my disease as the mutely mechanical one, viz., that for reasons utterly unknown to science, brain neurons that carry an electro-chemical substance responsible for coordinated movement are suddenly dying off in my sixth decade of life. The new metaphor, which I have only begun to explore, is founded on relationship — the relationship between me and the disease; between my life and the life around me in an impoverished and decaying corner of the dying American Empire; between me and the invisible realm of eternal life with the feminine voice that continually asks me, “what have you learned?”

Amid his various books, papers, researches, and other condensations of his studies of the Near-Death Experience (NDE), Raymond Moody describes a core journey of those who have encountered the Other Side, only to be drawn back into this life. A sense of weightlessness; of leaving the physical, three-dimensional domain of bodily reality; of a journey through a tunnel of or towards light, shimmering light — at the other side of which stands a being, also of pure light, who asks a single question: “what have you learned?”

The true answer to that question is the book of your life. In the narrowest of perspectives, that is your autobiography, your memoirs, your life’s resume. If at the moment and that place amid the inter-dimensional crossing, we were to go Jack Webb on Lady Light and give “just the facts,” we would be avoiding and even slandering the truth. You won’t have your iPhone there with you; you won’t be able to google the question or ask Siri and have the answer. That’s what we’re trained to believe here, that the facts, the data, the information, equal the truth. But the one who asks us that question deserves a fuller and supra-verbal response. I believe it makes sense to start practicing that now.

So this morning I was doing my meditation in the usual way — sitting naked on the mat at the window, looking into the dawn sky over this struggling and flea-bitten city — and I felt the presence of that light and that question. “What have you learned?” Words and thoughts rustled and rose like the city’s weakly colored leaves before the chill breeze of an October dawn; and then they settled in quiescence. Then two words soared into air beyond my window, blown by a gust of recognition: “Nothing Much.” I felt myself pointing back down the tunnel of light, toward the chest of the corpse that had just been me; and nodded to Lady Light: go into that still heart as only you can, and explore — you may find there the answer to your question.

But that’s only a single moment’s perspective. I am saying that while there are correct (and incorrect) approaches to this question; there is no Right Answer. Another time when I contemplated that question, words did indeed arise — specifically, these three brief phrases:

  • I have learned not to be afraid. In our culture, with its lust for survival at any costs, this may be the core lesson of any psycho-spiritual quest — that fear of death is also the fear of life. When that fear, and all the derived beliefs that fuel and foment it, are dissolved and flushed out of the psyche, there is an immense sense of freedom.
  • I have learned not to be guilty. As fear is the engine of guilt, this learning follows from the first. Still, my experience has been that guilt needs its own effort of expulsion; for guilt is the most physically violent and destructive punishment imaginable to us, since it is — even when taught, inevitably self-imposed. Guilt is the ideological knife of harakiri; the fire of self-immolation. Obviously, I can give you no facts or data on this conclusion, because it is not the kind of thing we study or even inquire about in our culture; but I am fairly certain that guilt is responsible for more disease and fatality than any physically mechanical cause. Guilt is a programmed assault on life; it is the carpet-bombing of the living, bodily psyche. If I can go to the end of that tunnel of light and am able to look that Lady in the eye and honestly tell her that I have learned to be free of guilt, that alone, I feel, would make her smile.
  • I have learned not to believe. Belief — in the sense of fixed, derived, and inflexible ideas about your life and the nature of your world — is the foundation of the monument of shadows. That is to say, I can feel that something is true without carving it into a stone tablet and carrying it down from a mountaintop to bash over your head as Law. Truth can be nourished by words and facts; but not made by them. Words and data are not truth’s body, not its identity; just its food. It is difficult for me to express this with the eloquence it deserves: Truth is eternal and unchanging; but there are no eternal and unchanging truths. That’s as much as I can give you on that point; the rest you may discover on your own unique path.

So this may be part of the message of my trembling, the primary symptom of Parkinson’s Disease — that this question, “What have you learned?” needs my better and more persistent attention. I need to develop and nurture the relationship with that light-being at the end of the psycho-spiritual wormhole now, while my consciousness is still here within this body. Perhaps drugs and other medical treatments may help me somewhat; I will probably find that out soon enough. But the active balance and still vibrancy that we call inner peace cannot be the product of a pharmaceutical or surgical intervention alone.

Whenever we believe that a doctor or a drug can alone make us whole, we are putting an intolerable burden of pressure on medical professionals and pharmaceutical companies; it is no wonder then that they often behave like these corrupt and insufficient machines of superficiality. A nurturing and health-promoting relationship — with a device, a drug, or a doctor — cannot be defined by passivity; else it is not relationship. If you are not bringing your entire self into any relationship, then you are selling its potential short; and you are thereby delimiting or restricting the fullness of the response you may have for the lady of light at the end of the inter-dimensional tunnel, when she asks you the most important question.

Help and the Inner Harmonic

highcontbabyI have never had an enlightenment experience. That is to say, I have known no moment of kensho, satori, moksha, illumination, or any similar experience that might be recognized and endorsed by a master or guru of an ideological sect. Granted, had I the gift of a Rumi, Basho, or Keats, I could write poems about the first sip of morning coffee or the sensation of a golf ball connecting on plane with the perfect center of one’s club face…but no, the Cosmic Whole or the Bodhicitta have never opened themselves before me; nor have I solved a single koan. Mind you, I don’t deny the possibility: I know others for whom this has happened, and I trust their word. But I am a raw tourist amid the realm of Sunyata: I wander Her periphery, poking constantly at Her body with my thoughts and my persistent ignorance: no self-respecting Woman would open Herself to such a brutish pest as me.

That disclaimer made and held firmly in mind, I now ask that you consider a single moment of relative clarity that I’ve experienced in my adult life. It happened sometime during the first week of my daughter’s life, and arose from a typically intellectual exercise of mine — thus I describe it with a certain sense of caution as to its psycho-spiritual validity.

I had done some research on the World Weird Web (which in early 1994 was itself still a child) about the perceptual and cognitive capacities of newborns and found a library of plain black and white, figure-ground type images in lines and stripes, which I printed out and stuck to the walls of our apartment. One day, as I was carrying Maria around the place, she appeared to reach for one of these images on the wall. I moved closer to the wall and loosened my hold on her tiny body. She leaned away from me a little faster than I’d expected and I quickly brought her back so as not to drop her. As I watched her gazing into the black and white stripes on the paper, some dawn opened within me.*

The future 2+ decades of my life as a parent opened themselves before me. It occurred to me that all the work ahead of me was a single long act of letting go; and that this principle, this one guide, would have to become my hallmark and reference for every parental decision, action, and feeling to come. That all I owed to this little person, this newcomer to the universe, was to gradually and carefully let her go. It was such a simple, obvious, and even a primitive realization that I dared not tell anyone about it for many years.

Seven years later, amid the dissolution of my marriage and a life-threatening assault of that illness known generically to our culture as depression, I encountered the teachings of Hanna Moog and Carol Anthony. These two masters** delivered a new perspective on my earlier realization, which gave it a fresh strength and a more practical, focused direction. Their insight was as simple and primordial as my own; fortunately, they had the verbal gift, maturity, and natural humility that I lacked. In short, they understood that such an insight needed to be shared, to be told to a culture that might not be ready to receive it, and to individuals who could.

They taught me that it is (at least) as plain and true to lived experience a principle that the Cosmic Whole is a benevolent and supportive environment for life as it is to claim that the universe is cold, dead, impersonal, and stupid. The focal context of their teaching is the ancient Chinese oracle I Ching (or Yijing in pinyin), which speaks repeatedly of the presence of “helpers.” Their perspective on this term is summarized in their interpretation of the I Ching’s third hexagram, “Making a New Beginning”:

The person needs to discover and eliminate the mistaken beliefs he holds about his true nature, which are the hindrances mentioned. They prevent his seeing with clarity that his true nature, which is composed of Helpers, possesses everything he needs to live his life in harmony with Nature. His true nature also connects him with all the helping aspects of the Cosmos.

In the context of my parental realization, this told me that the life-act of letting go was about more than gradually releasing this child of mine to her destiny; but, even more critically, about dropping the derived burdens of certain expressions of cultural infantilism within myself. There are in Nature certain energy-patterns which further life, growth, and maturity, thus preparing us for the life beyond the term of this physical body. In a culture such as ours, freeing these helping presences, inviting them into our lives, is guided by a process of elimination: releasing the “hindrances” that tend to impede the movement of helpers around and through us. This process would guide me toward the meeting with the “Helper of Parenting” whose leadership would take me through the years and the challenges that remained for both my daughter and myself.

Perhaps you can see what changed for me: Moog and Anthony provided me with some firm ground to stand and walk on along that path of maturation. They also showed me, quite conclusively, that the path is not a solitary grind of ceaseless and largely fruitless pursuit. There is a golden thread of what Jung called synchronicity; an expression of what ancient Buddhism called the “web of gems” and modern science terms “quantum entanglement” to it all. I realized that my daughter’s maturation could only be successful if I undertook a similar path of my own.

mdnightFor me, the fundamental step on such a path was (and remains) the grateful acceptance of the realization, “I cannot possibly do this alone and without help.” Anthony and Moog showed me that such an admission had to reach even beyond seeking help from other people, other human ideas, other schools of psychology, other tricks and techniques of self-development and parenting. It meant clearing the ground within me to make space for those invisible energies of transformation and maturation.

So that tiny bundle that I carried around, looking at black lines and figures on white paper, well, she became a young woman and artist of immense potential for the future and astonishing maturity in the present. And I grew up a little too.

twocatsOurs is a culture of opposition, of power, of accumulation; driven by a frequently paralyzing nexus of fear. We claim, we cling to, we clutch at experience and belief (forgive the alliteration, but there may be something primordial in that cl- sound). Moog and Anthony taught me that every act of claim is an act of fear. Every act of fear arises from a mistake in perception or belief. Clear away the false belief, the emotions of darkness, the expectations of evil; and fear dissolves. When the fear is gone, so is the claim. This applies to ordinary daily living, the government of nations, and the raising of children.

It is, admittedly, a perspective that carries no weight among civilized western nations and their institutions. But that doesn’t mean we have to abandon it as individuals. It is precisely because such a way of life has no pride of place in our institutions that it can lead us so beautifully in our homes.

Recently at Facebook, I saw that a young woman had announced that she had found a new home. I congratulated her on this great fortune and added the following; it is perhaps all I have to teach:

In my philosophy, the question, “where is my home?” is one of the 3 great psycho-spiritual questions of life (the other 2 are “who am I?” and “what do I want?”). At a pre-verbal or better still, a supra-verbal level, these are all the same question whose answer constantly transforms. But whenever and wherever it appears and takes form before and within you, the response of natural gratitude is all the universe needs from you. So love that home and fill it with life: that’s the response of gratitude.


*It is perhaps no random coincidence, then, that she ultimately became a musician — just compare that image above with the familiar staffs and markings of western musical notation.

**I hope they never read this, for if I called them masters to their faces they might ridicule me or simply slap me upside the head. But I call them masters not in an ideological sense but in recognition of the strength they showed in their ability to articulate what for me had been a mere presentiment, a shadow of enlightenment that I lacked both the fortitude and talent to bring to words.

Maria Donohue: Janacek Piano Sonata

If I believed in pride, that it had any human worth or value, I’d say I’m proud of her. But it’s better to simply say, I admire the kid. This is a breathtakingly beautiful performance of the Janacek, by a breathtakingly beautiful person.