NOTICE: THIS POST CONTAINS EXPLICIT SPIRITUALITY, GRAPHIC TENDERNESS, AND SOME RELIGIOUS LANGUAGE. (But I hope you will read it anyway.)
Back around 1998 or 1999, I took a class in nineteenth century American literature. When we started reading the transcendentalists, the professor departed from the usual class format of discussion, and delivered a lecture, laying out the philosophical foundation of the transcendental movement. In describing the world-view of Ralph Waldo Emerson, he said that Emerson divided all of reality into three parts: God, humankind, and nature. Emerson held that each of these three were simultaneously different from and separate from each other, and the same as each other; each holds the others within itself, while being entirely distinct.
Wow, I said.
If you’ve ever found yourself staring at an M.C. Escher drawing of something impossible, that can only be drawn or imagined by playfully distorting visual perspective,you can imagine how my attention was riveted to this metaphysical conundrum. What’s more, this was before I came to be particularly interested in religion, and I wasn’t in the habit of thinking about God. But, something about this little problem grabbed my attention, and demanded – no, required – my attention. (Of course, hindsight shows me that it was the inward Teacher giving a lesson.)
So, I sat on my deck, studying my lecture notes, and this little problem presented itself for my consideration. I looked at the forest behind my house and struggled with Emerson’s conception of reality, trying to understand the impossible idea that my soul recognized as True; God, humanity and nature, all different, all the same.
I pictured a Venn diagram with three circles, partially overlapped. Nope, definitely not that; I’d have to push all three circles together while simultaneously holding them completely apart. I began juggling the ideas, spinning them, trying to push them all together while holding them apart. I tried to feel their oneness and distinctness while they moved in front of me.
It was then that something happened that felt like when you look through a kaleidoscope and turn it, and there’s a moment when all the little pieces shift and fall into a new pattern, and it’s clear and right in front of you, and then that pattern is gone, never to be repeated in just the same way.
I saw it, I felt it, I knew it, I understood it. All different, all the same, all one, still three. It made me feel so whole, so connected, so close that I cried. (I have since described this phenomena as God’s kiss.) Then, the kaleidoscope turned and it was a memory.
I didn’t know it then, or for quite some time afterwards, but I had experienced something that spiritual mystics of all traditions pursue through years of diligent meditation and prayer, a transformative experience – a moment of enlightenment – and it had been given to me. Given to me! who never had meditated, who hardly ever prayed. A gift. Unearned. And it took me years to even begin to learn to appreciate this moment of pure grace, and to begin assembling the edifice that must stand on this foundation.
I understand (poorly) that all things are identical to each other and to God at the same time as they are (clearly) different from each other and from God. The woodchuck who eats my wife’s garden is fundamentally one with the garden and my wife, even as she chases him, wielding a skillet, aware that she really won’t hurt him, because she feels the unity we live in and move through. (Sarah Palin, on the other hand, is truly dangerous to animals because she seems unaware of the unitary nature of reality.)
And it seems to me – yes, I’m a bit tentative here, venturing into the realm of speculation, notions, and unsupportable opinions – that these two ideas, these fundamental, grounding truths of reality must be connected. It’s not just that there should be a logical connection (heaven forbid that I should ever invoke logic!) but it feels like there should be a connection. After all, just as I said that it is subliminal awareness of unity with animals that stays my wife’s hand when she lifts a skillet in anger, couldn’t I have just as well (and more simply and more clearly) said it is love that stays her hand?
And so, I think I am having another identity crisis – in the mathematical (or logical) sense of “identity”, that is, two terms that are equivalent. Love is the same as a wordless awareness of our simultaneous oneness with and distinctness from another. And it’s simultaneously different? I’m working on that.
Here’s another idea I am working on: the perception of beauty may be the same thing as a wordless awareness of our simultaneous oneness with and distinctness from another, which is the same thing as love, but they may also all be different.
Now, I really should apologize for being so pedantic and abstract, and, indeed, I am sorry if what started out as a peculiar little story has turned into a theoretical discourse. But, as I suggested, that peculiar little story laid a foundation, and a foundation requires an edifice. This was the ground floor. The upper floors – which will follow in good time – are far less abstract, and far more practical.
But why am I doing this, why am I trying to impose thoughts and ideas on you when I ought to be telling stories, and I really should know better? It is because I am living under a sword of Damocles, still awaiting a definitive pathology opinion, and then I will be awaiting the next CT and PET scan results, and the next, and that ever-present sword has imparted to me a sense of extreme urgency. Even if no more malignant tumors are ever found growing in my flesh, and I live another thirty years, time is short, and there are things on my heart that must be spoken, a nation that must quickly learn to love more if it is to survive, and a world that must grow in love if it is to thrive. And even if it isn’t all up to me, it is all up to us, and I can yet do more.
So, in other words (and a ridiculously ironic metaphor): the gloves are coming off.