SILENCE: WHAT IT ONCE MEANT TO ME, AND WHAT IT HAS COME TO MEAN

By Paul

It would seem that few people require, or can even tolerate, absolute silence.  Such a state at any rate, at least in the physical sense, is extremely rare, and may even be something of a physical impossibility in the world.  Usually, there is something that interferes with or interrupts the soundlessness, even if that something is only the wind in the trees, or falling water, or the tiny clatter made by an animal or an insect, let alone the endlessly deafening array of noises made by humans and our machines.

As a child, I remember I would sometimes try to escape, hide out might be a better word now that I look back, from my friends and even from family.  My refuge was St. Patrick’s, the big, red brick church across the street from where we lived. Those were the days, in the mid1950’s, when churches were still open to the public at anytime, all day long in fact, as they no longer seem to be today.   Going in, I would do my utmost to close the doors as quietly as possible, so as to avoid any sound.  As it turned out, though, this was something of an impossibility.  The big wooden portals would creak and bang with a deafening echo no matter how hard I tried to ease them shut.  Once inside, I could usually hear nothing of the outside world.  The church building itself was huge, and cool even on the hottest of summer days, and I would sit there trying to hear what could not be heard.  Because it was unusual for anyone else to be there during the times when I was able to go, the only sound I could hear was that of my own breathing, or the beating of my own heart.  I remember wondering how many breaths, how many beats a person had in his heart before the end, before beating and breathing stopped.  How many did I have, and how many did my mother have?  I calculated that there had to be some specific number, although at the time my own numeral seemed as if it must have been so huge as to be almost immeasurable.  I also hoped the same would be true for my mother, and I now understand what a mercy it was that I did not know how few, in fact, she had remaining.

Later on in life, I learned how to “watch the breath,” as Indian yogis might say, and that this is one way to begin to enter into the quietude needed for deep meditation.  It goes without saying, I guess, that as a young boy I didn’t know I was practicing a kind of yogic technique, and surely would have been horrified if I’d had any inkling, because at the time I considered all religions except the Roman Catholic Church to be false and even dangerous.  Little did I know then, either, that the Catholic faith could be every bit as dangerous as any other organized religion.

Sitting there in the empty church, the very first thing I noticed about silence was that it felt soothing, almost as if it were a kind of balm that calmed me, and this calmness was a state that my heart and my spirit needed and craved.  In those years, in fact, as strange as it may seem, I had formed a kind of habit of retreating into the church whenever I heard the sound of a siren.  I don’t know why, but for some reason I always made the assumption that the sirens came from fire trucks, not police cars, and I can still recall now, sixty years later, saying to myself:  “Everybody else is running to see the fire, but I’m going to church to pray for those whose house is burning down.”

All right, I’ll agree with you that maybe I was something of a strange child!  And why I always automatically assumed that it was a house burning I can’t really say.  A psychologist might possibly read much into this and interpret it like a dream, that is, as a symbol of the house-afire relationship I had with my father, or more widely still as a kind of generalized fear of living in the world.  Both of which might have been true.  At any rate, for whatever reason I would rush off to the church and pray earnestly for those who, I thought, no longer had a home, that they might soon find one, and that no one would suffer for long.  Such prayers, such musings, if you will, offered me the greatest solace.  Afterwards, I would leave feeling energized and uplifted, and frankly sometimes with a holier-than-thou sense in comparison with all those who, in my mind’s eye, had rushed to watch the fire instead of sitting tranquilly in the church praying for its victims.

Much of this, I now realize, masked for me the other side of silence, its opposite, if you will, that I also experienced as a child, a side that could make me feel sad and depressed.  I could not, and did not admit it then, but I sometimes felt oppressed by my own internalized fears and inhibitions.  I would have had trouble admitting that I also craved a very different thing, not silence, but the messiness, the unfettered and tangled clutter and chaotic disarray of living in a rebellious and bothersome body (or so I thought), in the midst of an exciting, confusing, frustrating, and terrifying world which existed out there, beyond the protective, silent, enclave of the church.

To an extent, I suppose, that dichotomy still exists for me.  Although over the years I have done much to embrace that chthonic chaos, and rightly so (it is the stuff of life, after all), still the older I get the more I seem to opt again for silence.  But is there a difference, it could be asked, between silence and quiet?  As a young boy, sitting in the cool darkness of St. Patrick’s church, I probably would have said no, but I have now come to think there is, and I that I like both of them.  Quiet, as I define it, has more to do with the absence of something, namely, all that is usually lumped under the catchall term of “noise:” cars, trucks, motorcycles (especially), airplanes, machines of all kinds, including radios and televisions and music making devices of every stripe (unless they happen to be playing Mozart), even the dull hum of appliances like that of the refrigerator in the quiet stillness of the morning before the world wakes up.

Even these words I’m writing, if read aloud, could well fit under the category of noise, depending on where and when or how they were uttered, or on the manner in which they were received by anyone listening.  If you were, for example, sitting by a quiet lake, and the most you could hear was the sound of water lapping gently against the shoreline, or the merest stirring of the breeze amid the pine needles above you, then everything else, these words included, might well be thought of as noise.  Indeed, if in such a place you had to speak, you’d better whisper in as quiet a voice as you could contrive.  But even in such circumstances, as hushed as it might be, it is still possible that you, yourself, might not be silent.  Not if silence is a quality of the mind, and if that mind or yours, or mine, were chattering with its long list of worries and obsessions.

So, it would seem that there is a difference between silence and quiet.  Could it even be said, in fact, that it might be possible to be in silence while in the midst of noise?  It is not an easy state to achieve, but I believe it is a possibility, because silence in this sense has more, much more, to do with an inner condition than with any outer circumstances.

But if that is the case, how do we go about finding such silence?  It is not as simple as slipping into a church at the sound of a siren, or even of retreating to the distant mountains with their pristine streams and cooling pine trees, far from the unending din of what passes for the civilized world.  After all, in some ultimate sense, the chatter and clatter of the world emanate from within.  If we did not feel such inner unquiet, would we feel the need to create such outer noise?

In the end, silence is not a place of no noise (although that may help); it is not a place at all, but instead a state of consciousness.   It is that “no place” where all things come together, time and eternity, and where vibration, the very stuff of noise making, loses itself in the endlessness of the conscious moment, where thought both begins and ends.

Whoever speaks of heaven and hell remains still in the thrall of the vibratory world.  Leave sin behind, and goodness, and right and wrong, too, for that matter.  Not that morality is unimportant, but only in the context of the universe of the play of opposites.  Leave heaven and hell, themselves artifacts of the dream of opposing sides.  And leave dreams, as well, as they wander the star paths of the shinning or the fiery.  Step instead where there is no step, and enter what cannot be entered.  Leave language, too, and seek the empty plenitude of silence.  Or, rather, do not seek at all, because there is nothing to be sought after.  This is the nowhere, where there is no longer any need to reach the Unreachable.

DON’T COUNT ON NOTHING

By Paul

Philosophers have deliberated for centuries about whether nothing exists. If nothing does exist, one argument goes, then it is paradoxically something. Otherwise, how can we say that it exists?

This is a topic where language begins to break down and trip us up pretty quickly, because if we then say that nothing does not exist, we come out to mean that it must somehow be something, since a double negative cancels itself out (as in the phrase, “It’s not that I don’t want to go,” for example). However, note that when a double negative is used consciously, and grammatically, the meaning does not always exactly equate to its positive counterpart. After all, most of us do recognize that there is some difference between “It’s not that I don’t want to go,” and “I want to go.” In the latter case, it’s a simple affirmative; in the former, we are hedging, hesitating, and saying that we would want to go, but something (perhaps our own real feelings, which we may prefer not to share) is keeping us back from doing so. And to make things even more complicated, the phrase “I don’t not want to go” may perhaps have yet another shade of meaning.

But we probably ought to admit up front that most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about nothingness, until and unless our own mortality, or that of a loved one, comes into play. What I am suggesting is that the thing that terrifies us most about death is this very concept of nothingness, more than any sort of suffering in an afterlife, the nature of which Dante so graphically depicted in his Inferno. Indeed, Dante lays out an entire world of pain for those accused and convicted of everything from lying to lust, from gluttony to avarice, from anger to sullenness, violence, thievery, and to those labeled as panderers, seducers, and even simoniacs, schismatics, and heretics. But where is his nothingness? All of his poor, suffering souls indeed possess full consciousness. Could it therefore be that even Dante was unable to imagine a horror worse than the utter loss of everything, including the very consciousness of being?

But let us think for a moment, if there truly were to be nothing at all after death, then does it not follow logically that there would also be no one there to witness it? Because, to experience nothingness, something must be there, if nothing other than our very selves. As such, could it be that what people fear most about death is not nothingness, since no one would be there to know its emptiness, but aloneness? Perhaps the greatest fear that humans can envision is that of being alone for all eternity.

Still, all this is not getting us very far in regard to the idea of nothingness. All we have seen so far is that the concept is most confusing. Perhaps we ought to approach it another way. What if nothingness were so empty, so void, so without form, shape, content, or limitation whatsoever that it actually impinged upon somethingness? This may seem ironic, not to say oxymoronic, but I bring it up because the very definition of nothingness appears to be brushing up against the limits of somethingness.

Take space itself, as an example. We know it “contains” all the stars, the planets, the countless galaxies, as well as myriad and untold amounts (if that is the proper word) of both dark matter and dark energy. But even if these things did not exist, even if we could imagine a universe empty of them, would there still not be space, as much as we might think of it as emptiness, the limitless void? In fact, it is true that, so far as we know at least, space has no borders. There is no center to it, and it contains no edges “out there” somewhere. Although there are physicists who posit that spacetime is both finite and without boundaries, a concept I frankly find difficult to wrap my head around. If something is boundless, it seems to me, what else could we say about it other than that it simply goes on and on, as it were, endlessly and infinitely? And does that not begin to sound a little like what we were saying above about nothingness?

It would appear that there are no good answers to the question of whether or not nothing, or nothingness, if you prefer, exists. Maybe nothingness is a corollary of somethingness, similar as we were saying to the difference between the use of a positive and a double negative in grammar, whereby the one seems somehow to contain at least some of what its normal antithetical opposite would suggest. If you remember, in grammar, a double negative (properly used, as it were) does not necessarily mean the binary opposite of its antecedent. Instead it can take what the positive form would be, twist it around a bit, and add a different shade of meaning (e.g., “I like him,” is not fully the same as “I don’t not like him”).

Is there, then, a yin-yang kind of complementarity, a bit of nothingness in what we think of as something, and a little of somethingness in nothingness? After all, speaking from the somethingness point of view, do we not all enter into nothingness every night in the utter unconsciousness of deep and dreamless sleep? And from the opposite side, scientists now believe that quantum particles can and regularly do appear out of nothing.

It could also be that there are no final answers to these kinds of questions. That we do not understand, nor will we ever experience, the true meaning of nothingness. Precisely perhaps because it has no meaning? Or is it just that we cannot currently imagine such a meaning? After all, just because we cannot see something in our minds, picture it, or in some way conceptualize it, does not mean that it doesn’t exist. Again, though, we are smacked up against the notion that nothingness cannot exist, because if it did exist, then it would (by definition) be something.

Which brings us more or less back to where we came into this motion picture in the first place. A mystic might say that there is no contradiction in any case. That is because God, Infinite Intelligence if you will, is surely both manifest and unmanifest. He (She, It, whichever ultimately inappropriate pronoun you may wish to choose) is surely capable of both form and no form, of material manifestation and unmanifest Spirit, of discernible and indescernible, of visible and invisible, of somethingness and nothingness.

Personally, I do not count on nothing, either at death or any other time. Unless by that we mean the nothingness which is beyond the manifestation of something, but which in the end it also contains, at least in potential. I think of Krishna saying to Arjuna: “Who, holy in act, informed, freed from the opposites, and fixed in faith, come to Me; who cleave, who seek in Me refuge from birth and death, these have the Truth.” I think, too, of William Butler Yeats, who in his Celtic wisdom writes:

“Birth-hour and death-hour meet.
Or, as great sages say,
Men dance on deathless feet.”

SOME THOUGHTS ON KEVIN’S COMMENTS AND HIS PAINTING

By Paul

What a fascinating and mysterious painting Kevin uses to accompany his piece below entitled “Being and Consciousness!”  And how appropriate an illustration of what it may mean to be conscious, at least in some larger sense of the term.

We have to wonder if the painting originates in the unconscious mind, either personal or collective (to use Jung’s term); or does it specifically depict the conscious mind of a gifted artist, which may be different from the consciousness most of us operate on as we go about our daily activities?  My guess, and my view, is that it is something else yet, something above and beyond either of these, associated neither with our normal everyday consciousness, nor with the unconscious mind, but instead with some higher level of awareness.    

Let us look a little more closely at the painting itself.  The two figures in the center are locked in a passionate embrace, a kiss that brings them as close to union as two beings can normally get.  They are male and female, I think that is clear, but not necessarily “man” and “woman.”  No, they are beings seemingly of some other time and place, representatives if you will, archetypes of maleness and femaleness, that each of us carries within.  They appear to be staring into each other’s eyes, and at the same time staring out at us.  That is, they are lost in each other (i.e. in oneness), but also cognizant of the otherness of the world “out there.”  In other words, they who were two have become one, while still rooted in the daily world of what the Daoists call “the 10,000 things.”  This is the realm of endless multiplicity that we see constantly surrounding us all the time.  However, through the union of their male and femaleness they have become enlightened, and they are now able to perceive the singleness of the One among the many.  They also appear to have a single nose to share between them; and so we assume they breathe as one.  This, I think, references the kundalini force, as the yogis call it, the spiritual, mystic energy that comes down from above (figuratively), rests at the base of the spine (in chakra one) and then rises, uncoiled, snake like, in yogic meditation until chakra seven, that of the Thousand Petal Lotus, has been achieved.  This is the energy that flows through the One, who otherwise appears to be two, because the state of consciousness they have reached is one wherein the duality of subject and object no longer pertain.   They – or no longer they – neither male nor female (because such duality is no longer pertinent), can now be called Enlightened.    

Each also has his or her own totem animal as a companion.  There is a long mythological tradition of enlightened beings having animal companions.  In Hinduism, for example, the Lord Vishnu is accompanied by Garuda, the golden bird with the face and wings of an eagle and the body of a man; Shiva sits astride his great Bull Nandi, and his consort (or one of them), Durga, rides a fierce tiger.   In Kevin’s painting, a serpent emerges from the forehead of the female figure.  This again refers to the great spiritual kundalini energy that has risen from the lowest level, and which is now at the sixth chakra, the Spiritual Eye.  In this state of consciousness, you see that all of creation is one with the Oneness of Spirit.  It is through love and intuition, the female “side,” that this level of awareness has been achieved.  On the male side, we see a strange creature.  It could be a dog, or a wolf, or a coyote, or some combination of all three.  The dog is the faithfulness of human affection spiritualized to that of Divine Love (bhakti yoga, the Way of Devotion), the wolf is the strength and braveness of truth and intellectual activity (jnana yoga, the Way of Knowledge), and the coyote, that great trickster of many an American Indian story, reminds us that delusion, maya, as the Hindus call it, is never far away, even when we have reached the highest levels of spiritual development, so long as one is still in the body. 

The last to appear (in my view) is the gnome-like creature below and beside the male figure.  Who is this strange fellow?  He appears to be part human, part skeleton, part dwarf.  In the old European fairy tales, gnomes are the guardians of underground treasure.  Here, the figure represents the lower consciousness of the male (i.e., chakras one through three), the part that once faithfully and even jealously guarded his coveted treasures of sex and power, but out of which the greater awareness of the unified figure has since emerged.  We can see his spine, or at least part of it.  This reminds us of and connects us once more with the kundalini power that has become fully manifest on the female side.  And his expression is both one of envy (in the lower aspect of his consciousness) of the ecstatic union that is emblematic of higher consciousness, but also of a kind of awe or prayerfulness, once he emerges more fully into human form. 

Finally, the colors in the painting are important, too.  The background behind the embracing figures is of deepest blue, as in the depths of the cosmic night. It is, however, studded with stars both golden and silver, reminiscent of the colors of the male and female figures.  They are the sun and the moon, the light of intellect and of love.  Interestingly, the artist has surprised us and switched the usual associations we have with these colors.  In this case, it is the male that is pale, moon-like, silvery-blue, a “cold color,” associated now (in my mind at least) with the precision and power of the active intellect.  The female is depicted as much warmer, with golden earth tones, associating her with the bounty of the planet, and the great humanness of the love that can and should very much be part of being in a body.  But in her case, her level of higher consciousness and enlightenment is such that even the body (i.e., in this case, her shoulder) “sees” with the light of spiritual discernment and discrimination. 

This is how I understand this lovely painting that Kevin has used to accompany his reaction to my earlier article on the nature of consciousness.  In it, and in a wholly different and, obviously, non-verbal way, he has taken the discussion to a very different level.  As he says later (in the verbal part), we cannot forget that there are many forms of consciousness, other than the merely human.  Animals, too, have their own awareness, as do plants, and even the great silent mineral life of Mother Earth. 

All of these things are reflected, and referenced, and depicted in Kevin’s painting, and in his thoughts on Being and Consciousness, and I am grateful to him for taking the time to extend so fully my own initial musings on the nature of consciousness. 

 

 

 

HURRAY FOR THE HIGGS BOSON!

By Paul

It’s not for nothing that theoretical physicists have been searching for the so-called Higgs boson for decades now.  It may sound to most of us like some indescribably arcane piece of scientific trivia, and arcane it may be (at least to the layman), but trivial it definitely is not. 

What is at the heart of all this is one of the most basic questions that humans can ask, namely, why is there “stuff” in the universe instead of nothing at all?  Why and how did matter form in the first place?  This is what is being asked.  And without matter, it goes without saying, we would not have stars or galaxies or planets, or things upon planets, like animals and plants and people, and all of the things that people appear to cherish so dearly.  We know that, at the time of the Big Bang, intense and unimaginably powerful energy suddenly exploded and radiated outward into space.  That energy, in fact, continues to expand today at velocities that seem to exceed even the speed of light itself.  So, wouldn’t it be logical to think that this energy would just keep on going and going and going, ultimately infinitely, if we can imagine such a thing?  What caused some of this energy instead to slow down, to cohere, and to begin forming the molecular structures which eventually themselves bound together to form what we think of as matter today? 

Physicists have long had their theories, of course.  That’s in large part what physicist do, they think about such subjects and they theorize ways in which, given the currently understood laws of the physical universe, it might be logical that things could have proceeded.  It was thus that the physicist Peter Higgs theorized many decades ago about an elemental particle so small that it could not be seen, even with the most sophisticated technology of his day.  He further posited that this particle would travel through an energy field, subsequently called a Higgs field, and slow down, in the process taking on some of the energy from that field.  The particle itself was called the Higgs boson.  The Higgs boson, however, would be a highly unstable form, and would quickly disintegrate into other forms, which themselves would be more stable, and which would then go on to form the basic building blocks of molecules. Molecules would form atoms, and atoms would create the various forms which we have come to know and to love. 

The problem was that it remained only an untested theory.  And in the end, scientists are nothing, if not practical.  If you cannot see it, not with the naked eye, of course (we can’t really see much with our eyes, at least not unaided), but with the technology that we create in order to “see more clearly,” then who was to say if Peter Higgs was right?  Higgs, himself, didn’t know, couldn’t know, for sure.  Maybe it was something else that “created matter,” and not his boson at all?  This, by the way, is why the Higgs boson has sometimes been referred to as the “God Particle,” because in most theologies, it is God who “creates the firmament.”  He (or in very old mythologies, She) it was who made something out of nothing, and brought about the world as we see and know and experience it today. 

Now we know that we do not have to rely on God in order for matter to be created.  Matter came into being, as it were, of its own accord, because an inconceivably tiny particle happened to travel through a certain kind of energy field, thus slowing down long enough for that energy to “stick” to it, and ultimately form what we know as matter. In my book, that is a big very deal!

But what’s an ever bigger deal is that scientists at CERN (the European Center for Nuclear Research – or according to its French title, le Centre Européen de Recherche Nucléaire) have been spinning tiny particles around at enormous speeds for several years, crashing them into each other, and then focusing their powerfully sophisticated computers in order to analyze the results.  The machine they used in order to do this, called the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC for short, has brought about as many as 400 trillion collisions just since June.  Now, 400 trillion as probably as close as I’d ever care to get to an unimaginably big number.  But in the process, they found actual evidence of the Higgs boson!  And that’s the big news in today’s paper, which will continue to roil the scientific world maybe for years, or even decades, to come.  At this point, they know it, or something very close to it, is no longer merely an elegant theory.  They know that it is actually the way things happen in nature.  They have been able to peer into these processes, see them, record them, and analyze them.  The theory has been proven. 

So, what now?  Do theoretical physicists sit back on their haunches and smoke a nice big cigar, sip a glass of champagne, and say we’ve done it?  Hardly!  Most scientists believe that this is really just the beginning of new and exciting research to come.  It appears as though this now opens the door into other, perhaps yet unimagined, ways of exploring the mass-generating capability of the universe.  And in another article, coincidentally simultaneously published in today’s same paper (the Los Angeles Times), there is a report that the bigger-picture cousins of theoretical physicists, astrophysicists, have discovered something of their own in regard to dark matter.  Dark matter is that mysterious stuff which fills a far, far greater percentage of the universe than does ordinary (perceivable) matter.  They have seen evidence of filaments of dark matter connecting whole galaxy clusters, and these filaments extend into many millions of light years in length.   Can it in fact be a total coincidence that these two discoveries, the unimaginably small and the unimaginably big, have come about so close to each other in time?  Perhaps, but then I guess it’s my bias that I’m just not so much of a believer in coincidence. 

How, after all, did energy itself come about, that massless something that we in a sense intuitively understand but cannot see or fully conceive of?  Why did the Big Bang bang in the first place?   Is it possible that such an otherwise inconceivably enormous explosion took place on its own?  Indeed, what was it that actually exploded?  And is thought, and our own energy, tied in some mysterious way to all of this other energy in the universe?  How could it be otherwise?  We are after all, at least in our bodies, made of star stuff; and the same kinds of Higgs bosons that created us also created dark matter, to say nothing of the trillions of whirling galaxies all around us. 

I don’t like to use the word God, because that appears to me to be so limited, so human in form and conception.  I imagine bigger, more immense, more utterly unfathomable.  The God of most religions is tiny and limited and concerned with whether or not we follow certain moral principles, which in the end are essentially man-made principles.   The Higgs boson may be the God particle of the physical universe, and I have no problem accepting this.  But the Divine Spirit that I see, or do not “see,” but feel and open myself to, in my own meditation is beyond any human category.  Whatever we say about God can at best only be a partial truth, because whatever that is will, in the end, only be expressed within the limitations of our ordinary human understanding. 

So, hurray today for the Higgs boson, and hurray, too, for limitless, inconceivable, unimaginable Spirit, who both is and is not within the compass of this, our glorious little universe.

THE BIG QUESTIONS, OR HOW I OUGHT TO FILL MY DAYS

By Paul

For whatever reasons, I have long been fascinated by what I think of as the “Big Questions.”  Is there a God, and what is he like, or He, if you will (using the masculine for want of a better, more inclusive pronoun)?  What happens after death?  Is there eternal life, a thing taught by most religions?  What, if anything, is the meaning of life, and how do we understand or achieve it, or align ourselves with it?   Why are we here in the first place?  Who created us?  What sustains us?  What do we actually mean when we say that we are alive?  What is consciousness?  How did life come about?  How did the universe itself begin, and will it someday end? 

I have read whatever I could find in both scientific and what might be called mystical literature, and I have meditated as well for most of my adult life, trying to grapple with even one of these questions.  I cannot tell you that I have found the answer.  Perhaps it is not given to any human being to be able to lay such a claim.  I believe there will, in fact, always be mysteries that we cannot grasp and fully understand with our limited human intelligence.  Having said that, however, I still believe that this in no way means that we ought not to keep on trying. 

As I get older, I have become more comfortable with the idea of mystery, (or again Mystery, if you prefer), what some mystics of the Middle Ages called the Mysterium Tremendum.  Nietzsche famously claimed that God was dead.  What could he have meant by that?  Some consider Nietzsche to be a kind of secular mystic, an individual who had somehow gotten beyond the need, if that is the right word, for a personal God.  If that is so, what he was able to achieve was an understanding of a Being beyond all characteristics that can be assigned by mere human categorization.  In that sense, it could be said that any anthropomorphized view of God that he may once have held had died.

But today philosophy itself is, in a sense, also dead.  The big questions that philosophers like Nietzsche and Kant, all the way back to Aristotle, once concerned themselves with have been taken over by scientists. Aside from the great mystics, physicists like Stephen Hawking now hold center stage in delving into the Great Mystery.  And the answers they give, as well as the questions they pose, must give all of us pause. 

Let us look for a moment, as an example, at the beginning of the universe.  Unless one posits esoteric and not well understood notions of so-called imaginary time, most scientists think that there was a beginning to the universe at an event called the Big Bang.  This event is thought of as a “singularity,” meaning a point in space-time at which the space-time curvature is infinite. What “came before” the Big Bang is therefore not a question that science can grapple with, inasmuch as all known laws of physics break down.  Who is to say that a Divine Spirit may have not have been, as it were, the initial energy of this initial singularity?  And, as to the question of who (or Who) made the Divine Spirit, such a question makes little sense, inasmuch as it assumes a “time before time.”  This puts us back again to an anthropomorphized view of “God,” that is, of some being (or Being) who operates within the limits of human understanding, or even of the laws of physics. 

The question all this raises, at least in my mind, is what may be the possibility of knowing this “God beyond God”?   Mystics the world over, of every religious stripe and tradition, as well as outside of any religious tradition, all point to experiences they have had which seems to answer “yes” to this question.  But this ultimately has to be left to each individual to know or to experience for him or herself.  If it is to happen, every mystic must ultimately be willing to “kill God,” that is, to move beyond formerly constructed conditions, notions, or images of God, to what is beyond, or more than, or simply outside of all such every day human categories. 

And what of life, too?  I recently read a fascinating article in the Los Angeles Times about subterranean bacteria found in a portion of the Lechuguilla Cave deep within Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.  There scientists have discovered bacteria which have lived and thrived for at least 4 million years in total darkness with almost no water.  Life has been known to thrive, too, at great depths in the world’s oceans under conditions which we normally consider to be totally inimical to it.  The question this raises is not so much how that is, but more so, why that is. What does it mean?  If virtually all of our experience points to the fact that life requires sunlight in order to exits, how do we explain life that needs no sunlight?  And what does that do to our definition of what it means to “be alive”?   Does living mean being able to grow?  If so, are crystals alive, since we know that under the right conditions they grow?  Indeed, everything that is physical consists of atoms and molecules and their smaller subparts, elementary particles such as protons and neutrons and quarks.  These in a sense grow by combining with each other, and they move as well.  Indeed, they are in constant motion.  Could it be that everything, all matter, is in some sense alive?  Could it be said that it is imbued with the life or the energy of the Divine Spirit, that God who is beyond all of our notions of God?

As I’ve said above, I have no absolute answers to these Big Questions.  However, I believe that grappling with them is one of the most meaningful things that a human being can do.  Of course, at some point it is necessary to accept the fact that we will never be able to plumb such questions to their very core.  Not that this is an excuse for ceasing to try, or for throwing up our hands and saying that it’s all impossible. 

Mystery and our attempts to understand it have always been and will always be a sublime part of what it means to be alive.  In my view, most religions are inclined to give simplistic answers to the Big Questions.  We are told to believe in this dogma or that, in this incarnation of the Divine or that, and that He (almost always masculine) is the one and only true God.   I do not wish to claim here that there may not also be some good found in organized religion.  And if people feel that they need the support of a structured system, of a hierarchy that interprets for them, or of a book that is believed to be inspired, then who am I to say they are wrong?  But what I am talking about is beyond questions of right or wrong; I am trying to address what lies beneath, or beyond, or outside the categories we normally associate with religion. 

That is surely what is meant by the Mysterium Tremendum, the Holy Grail, the Cup that endless refills itself.  This knowledge is what is most worthy to strive for in life, even as we know that, at least with our every day human intelligence, it is a goal beyond our reach.  But if the great scientists of the world are right, we need to strive all the same, although this may be one place where science and mysticism part ways.  Scientists reason and make hypotheses, they test and experiment and observe and verify, while mystics sit and look within.  Both approaches have their champions, as well as their benefits.  In the end, perhaps it all comes down to intent.  What is it that we think is most important? 

There’s no doubt that humans seem more inclined to talk and to act than they do to sit and listen.  But either way, the Big Questions remain with us, and they await our humble and our thoughtful consideration.