TRYING TO KEEP AN EYE ON THINGS

By Paul M. Lewis

You know you’re getting old when… I suppose there’s an endless string of completions that could be made to that sad beginning.

I was faced with one of my own the other morning when I woke up, opened my eyes, and saw a weird kind of amorphous, squiggly, circular outline dancing in the center of my vision. I remember saying to myself, “I don’t think that was there yesterday, was it?” As if some other person, other than the I of the dancing squiggle, might have been there to answer. The reply came back swiftly enough as a fairly definite “no, not that I recall!”

So, what to do, I wondered. Should I just ignore it and hope really hard that it would go away? This is a strategy that has worked for me in the past, sometimes with better results than others, to be sure. Or should I mention it to my partner? That, I knew, could have only one consequence: he would insist that I call the eye doctor as soon as his office opened up and try to get an appointment. And not that he wouldn’t have been right about it. Sometimes I may have the tiniest tendency to procrastinate, especially when it comes to dealing with doctors.

In this case, however, it was clear even to me that I really had to act. The background is that, for whatever reasons of genetics, or karma, or just the simplest of unfortunate happenstances, I was born with amblyopia in one eye. Sometimes called “lazy eye,” amblyopia is a condition wherein the brain favors the stronger eye over the weaker one. It can be corrected, if caught in childhood, which mine unfortunately was not. This means that my vision today mostly relies on my one good eye. I’m more or less legally blind in the other, and it was of course the good eye that now displayed the wavy lines.

I won’t go into a lot of detail about the visit to the doctor’s office. Suffice it to say that I did get in the same day, and he told me that this is just something that happens as people get older. Something about the vitreous humour, the clear gel between the lens and the retina, pulling away from the back of the eye. Most of the time, the moving circle that results eventually goes away, but you never know how long it may take, and if there are other symptoms, worse ones (e.g., exploding lights, whole darkened areas), then I needed to call him anytime, night or day, which I have to admit got my attention. I pictured myself no longer able to drive a car, maybe even not able to go to the gym anymore because I couldn’t make out the machines, or at least the buttons and levers you need to make the machines operate. I imagined bumping into grumbling people, while I stood there mumbling, “Oh, very sorry, but I can’t see a damn thing.” And what about reading? My God, what about reading?

The good news is that my worst fears have not come true, at least not yet. The darkened outline of the jostling circle seems to be diminishing. As a result, I’m having fewer fantasies about running into people while attempting to get on the treadmill. Still, all this makes me wonder: Is the body beginning to fall apart? In one sense, I suppose the answer is as simple and direct as, yes, absolutely! It could be said that the body begins to fall apart as soon as we’re born. It’s just that the process starts to get more apparent when you enter into your 70’s. Who ever called these the golden years?

All of this made me reflect further about the whole notion of what it means to fall apart. There’s a scientific term referring to this sort of thing that I have long been fascinated by. It’s called “entropy.” Stephen Hawking defines entropy as “a measure of the disorder of a physical system.” He goes on to talk about entropy as it relates to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which he defines as “the law stating that entropy always increases and can never decrease.”

That’s technical speak, of course, but here’s my take, using less scientific verbiage. What we’re talking about is the increasing unavailability of a system’s energy source and the gradual decline of that system into disorder. In other words, the demise of the body’s physical energy, the slow and steady contracting of the circle of life, ending in the diminution of our physical abilities as we age. When we’re young and full of energy, we’re eager to explore the world, to make our mark, to do something that makes a difference. With age, the energy it takes to do such things becomes less available. In extreme old age, or catastrophic illness (whichever comes first), we no longer have any energy at all to expand outwardly. Everything becomes focused inward.

This is what it means for a body when entropy begins to set in. At first, the gel of the eye pulls away from the back of the socket, creating peculiar shadowy shapes. If we’re lucky, that eventually dissipates. If not, it pulls away, tearing the retina and causing permanent damage to your ability to see and interact with the world out there. But note the part about being lucky. Is it really true, does chance, or random happening, have anything to do with entropy? It might in the detail of it, that is, in terms of how things happen (such as wavy lines in front of your eyes, or something else), but not in terms of its ultimate eventuality. As Hawking says, entropy always has its way.

Even so, the bigger issue isn’t so much about it simply happening, but about whether or not there is a larger, a greater scheme of things, a plan that our lives follow that has a meaning we can point to, beyond the stark imposition of natural law in our lives. These are questions that science has nothing to do with. Does religion, or philosophy, or even mysticism? That’s a question only each of us can answer on his or her own.

Who knew that waking up one fine day and seeing zigzaggy, undulating lines could bring about such thoughts? Even if the lines do go away, as I think mine are, or eventually will, it leaves me to wonder when some other morning will come when I might wake up and something is there that won’t go away. When will entropy finally catch up with my personal system, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics begin to exert its final, inexorable effects? As in physics, so in life, there are no reprieves from such laws.

Steven Hawking comes to mind yet again while reflecting on all of this. There’s someone who really understands entropy, not just in the abstract, scientific sense, but in terms of what it has done to his body. Talk about disorder and the break down of a physical system! How has he handled it? How has he managed to hold things together all these years? I don’t know him, but I can only imagine that it is surely with determination, definitely with dignity, and probably even with a measure of humor.

To me, this raises the question of whether there’s an even more fundamental law of the universe, one that charges us with facing our inevitable disbanding, the failing of our personal physical universe, and the release of the atoms of our bodies into the cosmos; in other words, the dissolution of our bodies. Human laws can be broken, even if there may be consequences to pay. The physical laws of the universe cannot be. They are inexorable, fixed forever, inevitable, utterly inescapable.

Whether there are yet other laws still, higher ones if you will, that require us to face ultimate questions of meaning, of purpose, or of cosmic design, is again up to each of us to answer on our own. But in the end, what could be more worth our time to look into? My own hope is that, maybe someday, I will get to see beyond the entropy of physical systems, past the universal laws of dissolution and disintegration into something higher and grander, something permanent and unmoving, beyond questions of unwinding or decay. Call these laws what you will, the word matters little, but this is what I would like to catch a glimpse of, wonky eye and all.

MYTH AND THE MODERN WORLD

By Paul

When most of us in the western world think of mythology, images of Greek and Roman gods probably first spring to mind: old stories of Zeus hurling his thunderbolts, of Hera his jealous wife and sister, of Zeus’ Roman counterpart, Almighty Jupiter, or Mercury of the wingéd sandals, who reminded Aeneas that it was his duty to found the city of Rome etc.   And doubtless these are good examples, although only a very few among an endless number of such stories that have come down to us over the millennia from every part of the globe. 

But what really do we mean when we talk about mythology?  What is its essence?  Why has it been so powerful a force throughout human history?  And another equally important question suggests itself, as well – is mythology still with us today?  Is it a force in our lives currently, or was it a thing only of the past?  I believe the answer to all these questions is actually not quite as complicated as it may at first appear. 

First of all, let us consider what mythology is.  It can be relatively easily defined as having two parts.  The first is as a force, a desire really, a need on the part of human beings to explain what otherwise appears to us as unexplainable.  By this I mean what are sometimes referred to as the big questions in life.  Why are we here?  Does life have a meaning?  Who (if anyone) made us?  Why is there suffering in life; why do we die; and after we die do we live on in some form, or do we simply cease to exist altogether?   These and other similar questions have both intrigued and plagued humanity since the very beginning, when ape-like creatures first evolved and begin to engage in reflective thinking.  The second part of the definition is as important as the first, and it has to do with the fact that humans, for the most part, seem to be either unwilling or unable to live without some kind of hope.  Who among us, for example, does not wish for his or her life to be on some kind of trajectory whereby things are somehow “getting better”?  This is true whether we are rich or poor, atheists or believers, members of an organized religion or among those who eschews such groups.  And if, somehow, we have lost hope for ourselves, as some do, still we may hold on to it for our children or for our loved ones.  Those without any hope for the future are the saddest of the sad among us, and some, most regretfully, decide that life is no longer worth living.

So, myth making has been the way which humans have used over the millennia to explain the world to themselves, and through which they envision a better, more hopeful future.  If anyone doubts this, just familiarize yourself with the almost countless number of “creation myths” that people the world over have concocted in order to explain how the world was made.  Virtually every culture has had it own story at one time or another.  And many Christians still hold as literally true the story of God creating the world in seven days.  In every case we see a Creator Being of some sort giving form to things, taking what had been unformed chaos and making it into the familiar forms we have come to know and feel comfortable with. 

If it is true, then, that the making of these kinds of stories about ourselves and our world is so essential to human beings, it seems equally reasonable to posit that modern peoples too must continue to do so.  It is my contention, in fact, that all religions are a form of mythology.  This includes the major religions practiced today, Christianity (in all of its subsets), Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism etc.  Each one makes a valiant stab at explaining to its followers the world and its great mysteries of life and death and suffering and good and evil. 

Take Christianity, with which most of us are very familiar, as an example.  As Joseph Campbell points out in his master work “The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology,” a great shift began to take place in the Europe of the 12th and the 13th centuries.  Prior to that, the Church ruled with an iron fist, and its priests were the sole explainers and arbiters of all mystery in the world.  However, beginning with the wonders of the Grail stories, and moving on from there to the Reformation and the European Enlightenment, individuals gradually began to realize that they themselves are quite capable of making their own way.  Indeed, people began to see that it is an absolute requirement for them to do so. Campbell calls this “the rise of the principle of individual conscience over ecclesiastical authority.”  But just how far have we progressed?    

Many of the major world religions of today have come down to us from the almost incredible fertility of what Campbell calls “the nuclear Near East.”  Certainly, this is true for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  In each case, the stories, the myths if you will, that they are composed of are now many centuries old.  But they all have a sacred book or books considered to have been dictated by a Deity.  As such, the book and what it teaches are thought to be “outside of time,” that is, applicable to every era of human history.  Some followers even take these stories in their most literal form – which was never the real intent of myth making – and contrive to apply their rules and their strictures to life in the 21st century, with sometimes disastrous results. 

This is in fact the great danger of myth making, that many take the stories quite literally, instead of symbolically.  Take for example the story of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption into Heaven.  There are those who believe that her literal body was taken into a place called heaven, accompanied by a host of rejoicing angels, instead of understanding the story the way it was meant to be, that is, as a symbol of what it means to raise our consciousness above the everyday cares and worries of the world.  

My own view is that these stories are beginning to wear thin.  Yes, many still hold to them, but that is because some great New Myth has yet to emerge out of human consciousness to form itself in the world.  Mormonism, some New Age religions, and such oddities as Scientology have made an attempt, but most seem to come down to either a rehashing of the same old stories with a few tweaks here and there, or something so outlandish that they appeal only to the fringes of society.  Communism, too, is a kind of mythology, and it was tried and found horribly wanting.  It has been suggested by some, as well, that science itself may be the new mythology of the modern world.  It does, after all, attempt to explain many of the world’s mysteries, including creation and life itself.  However, such explanations are at best both provisional and tentative, nor do they provide any understanding of such questions as why there is evil or suffering in the world, or give us hope in the face of a perilous and uncertain future.  Such answers, if you will, come only with true myth making. 

So, we seem to be left either with what I will call the old forms, that is, the millennia-old religions and their waning stories, or – with what?  I would tentatively suggest that perhaps what is left is the very flowering of the greatest form of individualism that began to slowly and laboriously emerge from the High Middle Ages.  I would put forward that what may be needed today is a greater willingness and effort on the part of each individual to create his or her own mythic story, which ultimately attempts to grapple with all of life’s mysteries.  This means that it is ultimately incumbent on each person to go within and to search out what cannot be explained or even fully understood by our everyday consciousness.  I am not talking about a new religion, but a new way of being in the world, one whereby every human takes full responsibility for his or her own story, as well as for its ramifications on the world around us and on other people. 

We are individuals, but we do not live alone in the world; nor do we own the world.  Whatever story we come to understand and to live by must therefore take into consideration the needs and the rights of all other life forms, indeed, of the planet itself.  No longer is it necessary to read and abide by what was dictated by a Deity to prophets who lived thousands of years ago. Neither priests nor popes nor preachers need tell us what it means to lead a good life.  But this can only be true if we go deeply within, anchor ourselves in the Great Mystery that is beyond all explaining and understanding, and humbly seek what is best for ourselves as individuals and as members of the collective. 

In this way, a New Mythology may slowly begin to emerge, one that is fashioned for the challenges of the rapidly changing 21st century in which we live, but which still addresses the great mysteries that defy explanation, and gives us courage to continue on, as well as hope that a better day is yet to come.

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.