Distortions, Blind Spots and Practice

It is the task of our brain to make models. For humans, and some other mammals, this likely evolved because of complex social interactions.

Or brains/bodies also have emotional states that serve a purpose (to alert us that things are amiss). I few are emotionally uncomfortable we might think: wow, things are amiss. How did that happen? Can I fix this?

An unfortunate tendency is to be attached to these models and try and fit the world to our models and then think that is what the world is, how reality is, Truth with a capital T.

We create models out of our experiences to organize them, to have something we can grasp. It gives us the illusion of being able to know what is up, to predict what will happen, because that make us feel safe, in a world isn’t safe for embodied beings. Bodies are things that get hurt and don’t last.

But if the model is wrong, maybe we’re not as safe as we thought we were, and that kind of sucks.

All models are made with limited data and are subject to our hopes and fears. Some models are pretty good, they work most of the time, but all models are in some way wrong.

These models, our projections of our needs, fears, hopes and desires, gets very subtle, layer upon layer. At some point we forget they are models. We mistake them for Truth. We are conditioned. It’s the foundation of delusion, and it results in distorted views that cause pain and suffering.

These are part of us, our nature as embodied complex apes on a specific planet at a specific time and place, contingent, not of essence (or in the jargon, karma). I am not suggesting we try to ignore them or get away from them. Running and hiding is another delusion, another trick of the ego.

I have heard it said that the intellect is a good servant but poor master. So it is with ego, with our perspective. You can’t escape having a perspective when you are using perceptions and thinking thoughts. That’s what the words perceptions and perspective mean! But that doesn’t mean they are anything more than a temporary expedient to help you organize your reactions, your energy, to the energies you interact with.

Look straight at the O below with your left eye. Go back and forth slowly. If you are careful you will find a distance where the X disappears. Or if you don’t see well with your left eye, or seem to be right eye dominant, look at the X with your right eye and the O disappears. (To people middle aged and older: it may be hard with some progressive/bifocals!)

 

 

X                                                                                   O

 

 

 

It is your blind spot. You have one in each eye. Every human does. It’s where the optic nerve leaves your eye to go to the brain. There’s no light receptors (photoreceptors), no rods or cones, there to see anything.

Everywhere you look that blind spot is there, but your brain fills it in and projects a complete scene “out there” based on what it thinks it should see. You don’t have to think about it. It isn’t an intellectual choice. It evolved as a practical solution so we aren’t bothered by missing parts of our vision. But it’s a trick, a gimmick. That’s also ego, and it works. A fine servant.

But some blind spots are a bit more hurtful than this, deeper and more impactful on our lives, yet we also don’t even know that they are there, that we still fill them in with our stories. We are upset when the world doesn’t cooperate by not sharing our blind spots or by sneaking up on us in our blind spots!

Early Mahayana/Zen sutras discuss perception and projection and consciousness, in particular in the Lankavatara sutra, probably written about 2,000 years ago. It was the main text of early Chinese Chan (Zen) masters as long as 1,500 years ago, who were sometimes called the masters of the Lanka in the early Tang Dynasty.

Meditation and practice is geared toward getting a more and more subtle look at the models you project, the ways you deflect reality because it threatens your self image as an individual being that is safe and abiding in a world of blind spots, contingency, disappointed expectations, entropy, sickness, birth and death.

Suffering, in the Buddhist jargon.

I wrote years ago the difference between how I see the world and other scientists who are committed materialists see the world is  whether consciousness is primary.

 

I have a proposition that brings me to meditation practice: Brain processes do not create consciousness. Consciousness at its core is not this model making, projecting, and responding to friction between our models, our projections, and Truth. It’s not the words in our brain. Rather, consciousness is manifest through all of this. It is the water taking the color and shape of the container.

Yes that is dualistic, but it is only a metaphor, not meant to be literal. It expresses what can’t be expressed in limited words since words are based on our scale as four dimensional contingent beings, the scale that perceptions and emotions and intellect exist at.

We chant something at the Zen Center: reading words you should grasp the great reality. Don’t make war on your tools. That’s just more ego, another story.

In Zen there is a mistrust of having goals as they tend to be just more distortions, unreal expectations, distractions. Yet in Zen we do speak of aspirations. This is my aspiration, something I consider a valid quest worthy of my time and attention:

Is there a foundational consciousness, not limited by the idiosyncratic perceptions generated by our particular set of sense organs and brains? Can we experience this directly? Is there some way of being that is not contingent on our programming and conditioning?

Does Truth make us free, and is this indeed safe and abiding?

Does it walk us out of suffering?

This is my practice.

And I am very grateful for it.

 

 

It’s your party, cry if you want to

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Pain for me right this moment is my acute attack of arthritis.

I can’t sleep. I have a swollen red throbbing joint. Picture stubbing your toe hard every two seconds.

There are worse pains. I have had worse pains. Like when my gut perforated some years back.

And I have had suffering. This is pain, not suffering. There’s a big difference.

I suspect a billion or two billon people right now are in worse physical pain than I am. They are in pain from hunger, thirst, all manners of trauma and injury, illness, medical procedures, exposure, or for that matter, childbirth. Hundreds of people are probably in worse pain within a few of miles from where I am sitting writing at 2:30 AM my time.

Pain, not suffering. Billions and billions are suffering. Many more are suffering than are in physical pain. They are afraid. They are lost. They have experienced some deep loss. They are overwhelmed. They are threatened.

I think suffering for me would be seeing my son or daughter or one of my grandsons in this kind of pain. I am a doctor. Parents come in with their kids who have inflammatory eye disease and almost always they are suffering more than their kids. Even if the kids are going blind, it is the parents who seem to suffer more.

Helpless, worried, not my baby. Very hard.

And yet Buddhism talks about an end to suffering. I don’t think that means not caring or not feeling. I think it means not getting overwhelmed by all of the pain and suffering. Your own, your kids’, your lovers’ your friends’, the world’s.

Unless they were conditioned to need that form of attention, your kids (and lovers, friends and yes, even the world) don’t want you to suffer because of their pain. Unless they are very deluded or very damaged (and some are, of course) or very neglected they will soon figure out that your suffering doesn’t help them very much. It probably gets in the way.

What I see in the kids (or spouses, or lovers, or friends or parents) who are sick is they want their parents (or.. fill in the blank) to be cool, calm and collected. Sure there are cultural differences. In some cultures you need to be loud and demonstrative, but that’s just style.

Whether it’s your kids or the rest of the world, they want your attention. They may need help to navigate whatever they are going through. Maybe they are scared. Perhaps they don’t want you TOO cool, at least not all the time; a bit of coddling can go a long way. Sometimes crying helps. Because, well, it hurts and they want to know you know that. They want to know that you care and will do something to help if you can.

And you will help if you can, wont you? Even strangers? And even not pleasant strangers,real people, not just imaginary needy “deserving” people somewhere out there? Sometimes? Just keep your cool and do what you can when you can? Even if it is just to let them know you are there?

Sometimes you can’t make it all better. You try. You chant, you give, you try, you do something. But samsara, the way of the world, is that shit happens. As a parent, lover, doctor, citizen of the world, I know. That’s harsh. Sometimes you have to let go. “One person, one karma,” as we used to say on the commune. That sucks. You know it does. But there it is. That’s why those of us who do a practice, do it as best we can. Because sometimes it just sucks.

The crazy and greedy few aided by our lethargy and willful ignorance will continue to foster injustice, may destroy human life on earth and create a mass extinction event, but we’ll try anyway, right? At least a little, despite our despair and weakness? Because maybe, just maybe, just in case, we aren’t as useless as we think we are?

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There are stories in Zen about some Zen master crying over a death of someone in their life. Or it could just as easily be crying over a wayward child, lost to drugs or craziness. Or a parent or spouse with Alzheimer’s. Or victims of disasters, natural or man made. Or you name it.

For example, there is a story about a former student of the 18th century Japanese Zen master Hakuin who as a girl breezed through her Zen studies, a real prodigy. When she was older some neighbor took her to task when she cried and mourned her grandchild’s death.

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But you were the prized pupil of the great Hakuin, how can you still know suffering? How can you indulge yourself with such crying and wailing and all that? They asked. And that’s how these stories go. Oh you are so enlightened, why are you crying? Why are you so attached? Isn’t it all a dream, a projection, aren’t you beyond life and death? Haven’t you reached an end to suffering?

These stories always end with the Zen master, or the grandmother former Zen prodigy saying, in effect:

“Fuck you.”

Gotta love authenticity.

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Sometimes the right authentic response to someone who is judging others for suffering and wont try to help and doesn’t care and wont even try to be cool and be kind does seem to be “fuck you.”

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I have had it said to me in that context a few times, though not always in just so many words, and I deserved it. Can be a strong and compassionate teaching.

There is an ancient Chan Buddhist text called “The Ceasing of Notions.” It is some of the oldest Buddhist writings we have the original copies of (early Tang). Among the oldest attested Buddhist teachings, way before this text, going back to Greek reports of early Buddhism when the Greek poet and philosopher (and later Buddhist convert!) Pyrrho was with Alexander the Great cruising India 300 BCE, is basically the ceasing of notions (see Beckwith’s recent book “Greek Buddha” if you are interested; I’ll try to write more about that another time).

To cease notions means don’t limit the universe by your conditioned responses, your concepts of how it is. It means be open and aware.

It can lead to compassion.

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To cease notions also means having no fixed, concrete and conceptual notions about what it is to cease notions. It certainly does not mean creating new notions about notions, like that you should not know a rock from a potato because that would be just a notion to recognize you eat one not the other. Or that  you should not care about the suffering of others because suffering is a notion and we are all one, no separation, no duality, so it doesn’t matter anyway. Or because it is all just your life. Or you do not cry when it is crying time. Or you do cry when it is time to keep it together, because of some notion about crying or not crying.

Those are some stupid notions. There’s no end to stupid notions, even about no notions!

Be cool. Be kind. There’s a lot of suffering going around. Try, because what else can you do?

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Hmm, just for a while there, there was no joint, no throbbing, no pain, just writing; it’s funny how that works.

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Dear Marc Maron and others: Don’t Judge or indulge suffering

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Michelangelo could render suffering

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And he could mope about it. He felt VERY deeply. He was very repressed I think.  Talented guy though.

In his TV show Marc Maron recently asked the question: what is the relationship between creativity need suffering? He asks it honestly and movingly. I find him honest, funny and intelligent, but sometimes kind of hard to take.

In a sense all activity, all thoughts and motivations, all movement through the world of the senses, derives from suffering, or at least from delusion, from our deep and abiding dream, from our perceptions and projections, our stories about the world and efforts to deal with our confusion, disappointment and ultimately our death. From our karma, our intentions, from our uses of our body, mouth and thought, as the chant goes. From or projections, our concepts, our beliefs. That’s samsara in the Buddhist tradition.

The ten thousand things, the ‘dharmas.’

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Activity that takes a novel approach is deemed creative.

So yes, no drama, well, then no drama.

Marc suggests the “creative person,”  someone who does something self-consciously, and perhaps even professionally, recognized in our culture as an artistic endeavor, is somehow able to profit more from his or her suffering, whereas an accountant (his example) has no outlet other than maybe suicide.

Umm, poets, writers, painters, musicians and comics, the list of suicide, self-destructive behaviors and creating much pain for self and others, really, come on Marc, how long is that list? You know better!

The creative outlet does little or nothing. It might even make things worse by indulging delusion and garnering attention, a form of positive feedback for using talent to create, or at least justify, more pain.

Being talented, smart, cleaver, to be able to craft ideas, words or sounds or objects, in ways that amuse and hold the attention of others, is hardly in and of itself a ticket to decreasing suffering and creating a better world for anybody.

It may be seductive, even special, a potentially useful power, but that doesn’t make it inherently valuable.

As for that accountant, maybe she will use her suffering to learn and grow rather than indulge it and exploit it, justifying the pain she causes herself and others as part of her “process” or her “art”! Maybe she will not just say it feeds her creativity and wallow in it.

By the way, accountants can be quite creative. Ask any rich person or corporation who relies on their accountants’ creative abilities to enrich themselves further.

I hear this all the time, how someone’s problems are more “real” their suffering is deeper or less deep,  more intense or less intense, more useful or less important, more or less of their own making, more justified or just indulgent (“middle class suffering”) than the suffering of others.

It is the judging I am referring to; there is clearly truth in that relative view of suffering, of course. Nyogen recently told the story about the Zen master who at a wedding when asked for a blessing said “grandfather dies, son dies, grandson dies.” The guests thought well, that’s bit morbid for a wedding, eh? But no, there is less suffering if they die in that order! Some pains are certainly more painful. If you can take horrible pain and make it less horrible, that is compassion, that is a good thing. When that is the point, when that is what is in front of you, then it is true. But lets not get distracted by that, it is too obvious and not quite the point here.

Indulgences are indulgences, authenticity is authenticity.

If you embrace suffering for any “good” reasons, including ideas, philosophies, art or love, deserved or not deserved, some pre-fabricated inflexible idea of truth, justice and injustice, you are either trying to justify the pain you caused, wallowing or worse, or you are simply unaware that you are the problem.

In fact, this brings up the whole judging and comparing thing.

What do you know about that accountant? How deep is your perception, how sensitive to other people are you (not just how sensitive to and deeply do you feel your own concerns, that doesn’t make you sensitive, it makes you self centered)?

How easy it is to come to conclusions based on our prejudices, fears and desires.

Do you need others to fail, or simply be diminished in some way, to feel good about yourself? Does thinking an accountant has less resources and less creativity, rather than being less needy and yes, perhaps less funny and skilled with words (but so what?) make you feel more in tune with your Universe?

And this is true even when you are elevating the other. Comparisons are poison. They may spur you on, but only in the worse way. Acting out of jealousy, with unrealistic expectations is a recipe for disaster. It is pure delusion. There will ALWAYS be somebody with… more. Or less. Whatever is that you THINK you want or need. Does that person’s life seem so charmed when seen from afar, is their romantic partner so much better looking than yours, do they get more and better sex, is their salary and house bigger than yours? Are their successes more successful than yours, their failures less dismal and better justified? Will you get trapped feeling bad about it, about yourself, and end up chasing what others have?

You too subtle for that? Not a “materialist”? OK, is their creativity more creative, their genius more genius, their skills more skillful, their tastes more refined and elegant, their ability to meditate more profound, their spirituality more spiritual? Is their joy more joyful, their sadness more elegant and moving? They more of a Bodhisattva than you? More of a Buddha?

Will you get trapped chasing that, some ideal in your head you will never attain because you made it up?

Does it really mask the pain, to compare, to judge, even for a second?

Or does it become an itch you scratch till it hurts and bleeds?

We’re all dancing, hair just right, make up on, colorful kimonos flying.

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Belief traps: comparisons, stories, phantoms and chimeras.

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Authenticity: simple, not easy.

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Change and Phantoms, Suffering and Dreams

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Is the river the same river one moment to the next?

Change is the basis for everything that is. In Buddhism this is referred to as “impermanence.”  In Sanskrit the word is anitya (anicca in Pali, wuchang in Chinese, mujo in Japanese).

Anything that has component parts, that came together as aggregates in time and space as a result of some set of causes or conditions, presumably following the laws of science, is impermanent.

Nothing lasts forever. It all comes apart.

Causes and conditions will change, in part due to what they caused. Once something has been caused, it has changed the universe. Feedback loops; wheels within wheels. And when the causes and conditions change, all that they caused and all that is dependent on the conditions change as well.

Impermanence is considered one of the “three marks of existence” in Buddhism, the other two being suffering (dukha) and non-self (anatman). The insight that change is fundamental and its relationship to suffering is at the heart of the story of how a sheltered prince became the Buddha.

The Buddha is not an Asian God. Buddha means one who is awake. You might say Buddha is one who does not make chimeras or pursue phantoms as a way to cope with impermanence.

Gautama of the Shakya clan lived in what is now Northern India and Nepal about 2,500 years ago. Tradition has it that when he was born it was foretold that he would be either a great king or great spiritual leader. His father, the king, had the opinion that his son becoming a great king was the preferable outcome. The prince was coddled and protected from life’s harsh realities, and that worked for a while to distract him, keeping Gautama focused on having a good time and being a prince destined to rule. This changed when Gautama was traveling with a servant, kind of slumming it in town outside the palace gates. There he saw a sick person, an old person, and a corpse. Gautama was shaken up much like Gilgamesh was at the death of his friend.

That will happen to me, he asked. Yes, his servant, also a friend, answered, it will happen to everybody. Nobody, not even a king, can stop change.

The prince then saw a yogi, a spiritual seeker, who seemed to be at peace. How is it possible that the yogi was not totally crazed by all of this?

Great yogis can achieve wisdom and not be threatened by change, his companion replied. They can transcend the limitations of life and death.

What was a prince to do? Like Gilgamesh he set off on a quest, but for a different kind of immortality. It was not a permanent body or personality he sought, but the timelessness of enlightenment.

Stealing away at night, Gautama cut his long perfumed hair and gave away his princely clothes. For six years he took up yogic practices. He was very good at it, and his teachers wanted him to become a teacher and carry on their traditions, but while he had achieved great accomplishments in meditation, he knew that he wasn’t enlightened. He had not come to terms with change, with death. He was driven to go deeper, and took up such severe yogic austerities that he almost died and had to be revived by a drink of milk given to him by a young woman. He used his new energy to meditate and became enlightened.

His fellow yogis thought he had sold out by drinking that milk, so at first they wanted no part of him. But then they saw he was transformed. They asked him to teach them about what he had found and he laid out the Four Truths.

The first truth is the truth of suffering. At best, you can find bliss and have wonderful, ecstatic experiences, achieving prolonged periods of happiness. You can live that life of Gilgamesh, enjoying the things of your world. It isn’t all that bad for most of us most of the time. But somewhere along the line, no matter how hard you try, no matter how sincere and good and kind you are, there will be suffering. It may be no more than a small disappointment, some slight frustration, existential ennui, maybe just boredom, or it could be horrible and devastating pain, but suffering is inevitable. Look at everything you want to have. You either can’t get it, or if you can, you will lose it all someday, when you die if not before. Look at everybody you love. Either you will die first or those you love will die first. Which is better?

The second truth is the cause of suffering. Mistaking what is impermanent as being permanent is one of the traditional Buddhist “inverted views” (Sanskrit viparayasa, Pali vipallasa, Chinese diandao, Japanese tendo) that leads to suffering. The Chinese word literally means upside down; it is a matter of upside down thinking.

We only see our separate lives, our limitations and the world of change, beginnings and endings, birth and death, so we live in fear. We are afraid of change; it means loss. The loss of what we love, what we possess, the loss of our bodies and identities in the long run. Our lives, who and what we seem to be, are a lesson in impermanence. Everything changes by the second. Actually everything changes in incredibly small fractions of a second. So we attach to the bits and pieces of our lives, making up stories that help us stitch together chimeras, projections of our desire to hold on, endowing them in our minds with substance and continuity where there is really vast and uncompromising change. We suffer because we cling to the illusion that if we can stop the flow, stop evolving, just get our lives where we want them to be, we can get it right, keep things static, and live happily ever after.

That won’t happen.

The third truth is that there is a way out of suffering. And the fourth Truth is that way, the practice. It comes down to living in awareness, awake. Surf the wave of change, don’t fight it, don’t grasp at what can’t be grasped, trying to hold on to what won’t be held. Evolve. Live life based on love and compassion, not fears and desires and hidden agendas.

When I was in medical school I had some appreciation of this essential role of change in Buddhist terms, but it would also turn out to be the first means by which science entered my life in a deep way. Despite my earlier harsh judgments about science and progress, I surprised myself by enjoying my pre-med and medical school science courses. I applied myself, worked hard, and graduated at the top of my medical school class. Nonetheless, I was goal oriented, learning what I was told was required to be good doctor; I didn’t give much thought to science beyond the curriculum until I had a conversation with my cousin.

Warren is my first cousin, but he is older than I am and I didn’t really get to know him until I was in medical school. Warren is a medical doctor who didn’t practice clinical medicine after a stint in the Navy as a flight surgeon, but instead got a PhD and went into research. He was on a research team whose senior members won a Nobel Prize for their research on viruses, genes and cancer in the 1970s. His passion is teaching; Warren has taught microbiology to medical students in San Francisco and around the country for over 40 years and has been given many awards and accolades as a teacher.

Warren told me that evolution was critical to understanding anything about modern biology, and so to understanding life. Of course I understood evolution was important with implications, for example, for such practical issues like antibiotic resistance or the development of the immune system. I hadn’t thought about it as deeply as Warren was inviting me to before. Warren was very patient with me and he introduced me to a scientific view of the world.

I saw that evolution embraces a vision of change that is exquisitely fair and just. Evolution is fair because it is not something that judges at all. It is not about divine punishments for our sins or rewards for following a prescribed series of rituals, believing the right dogmas and thinking the right thoughts. Evolution is like the statue of justice with a blindfold. You can’t charm it, you can’t suck up to it, and you can’t bribe it or con it. Evolution is about what works, meaning in this context what makes more life. Change will happen, and when it does, and it works, that is what you get more of because that is what working means, surviving to have more babies. A bit of a tautology really, simple but effective.

Biologic evolution is not about creatures realizing some standard of perfection. It is not about nature striving to achieve the final perfect organism. It is a freeform dance, not a march toward some Platonic ideal, the perfect horse or the perfect beetle. It is life oozing and changing wherever it can, however it can, whenever it can.

It isn’t about us as humans, we are not the ultimate goal. Chimpanzees and bonobos are not small, powerful, dumb people. They are not losers who missed out in the race to be humans. From the biologic point of view we are being very arrogant when we think like that. Personally, in a world with no humans to destroy habitats or hunt apes down for meat, I think I’d rather be a bonobo. The females run their societies and they say hello with oral sex. That can’t be all bad.

Chimpanzees and bonobos are not our ancestors, but are our forest dwelling cousins. We all evolved from some ape that lived over 6 million years ago. A river separated chimp and bonobo ancestors almost two million years ago.  The genetics and fossils are compelling. But just look at chimps and Bonobos and you don’t even really need molecular biology or ancient stone fossilized skulls. It’s that obvious.

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This image is from Huxley’s “Evidence of Man’s Place in Nature” (1863). It has often been changed to show the evolutionary  progression from sea creatures  to land  animals, then to us walking upright, but this original is about comparative anatomy. There weren’t  many fossils or any genomes (and no real idea about genetics at all, for that matter) to go by back then, but the brilliant Darwin and Huxley grasped the relationship between us and our closest cousins, and the evolutionary implications of this relationship.

The slug on the lawn has also evolved for exactly as long as we have from the first living cell to the day we cross paths after a good rain. That slug is a distant cousin, and is clearly is a success story because there it is, slugging along living its slug life after 4 billion years of evolution. Slugs evolved into slugs long before we evolved into intellectual giants, and they may outlast us. Our big brains dedicated to the service of fear and greed may turn out to be a failed evolutionary experiment rather than the crown of creation!

There was even more to this biologic view of the world for me, above and beyond this value neutral, harsh but fair view of nature. Evolution explains so much about who and what we are in a way many of our religious traditions do not. Lets take sex as an example. Gonads and sexual desires are easy to explain from the point of view of evolution. They create diversity and keep life going. It isn’t a question of shame and blame, of a God who gives us raging hormones but judges and damns us for eternity if we use them in other than the acceptable fashion, that is, with no imagination and only to procreate. Sexuality is not intelligently designed to be a test of our will power, our ability to suppress desire, and success in life is not a matter of achieving some arbitrary state of purity. Sexuality is a question of what worked starting half a billion years ago to allow for a bit of variety in our offspring by mixing mom’s and dad’s genes and to drive us to make more of us, starting way back, before we were even fish.

It is up to us to deal with our sexuality in ways that don’t cause suffering for us as creatures that evolved for sophisticated social interactions and a need for loyalty in order to cooperate in raising our helpless slow-growing offspring. It’s a tall order in and of itself, and remains one of our greatest challenges, but it isn’t about being judged by some external standard of good and bad.

There was also the sublime vision of all life as one life in the scientific view of evolution. As Darwin wrote at the end of “The Origin of Species”:

“…there is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or onto one; and that, whilst this planet has gone on cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

To say “we are all one” may be new-age spiritual, but it is also an unadulterated scientific fact. There are the vast and elegant webs within webs that we are embedded in, that we all share. The laws of physics, the state of the universe, the solar system, the earth and all life together create what we are as living breathing, eating and secreting, reproducing organisms. There is the complex ecology of the earth we depend on and the ecology inside our bodies; we have 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells in our bodies, and they are necessary for us to survive. We can’t live outside of these external and internal ecologies, these wheels within wheels.

But it is even much more fundamental than that. All life on Earth is truly one living organism. Every cell is the same cell. Savor that. Every cell that ever was or is now, is the same cell morphing over time. No creature, large or small, makes a single cell from scratch. Every cell came from another cell.

We are each of us derived from a single cell: our mother’s ovum. The ovum is a big juicy cell that is released from the ovary in the middle of the woman’s monthly cycle between menses, whose job is to be fertilized by sperm. When the ovum is fertilized it triggers a cascade of events. The ovum changes and, then starts dividing, and chemical signals released from the altered ovum and then from the daughter cells initiates the development of differences between those cells. If it didn’t we’d just be a ball of cells, and not a very big ball or one that would last very long. This ball of cells grabs onto the inner uterine wall, sucking life from the mother’s tissues. This starts a cascade of signals and cellular interactions that leads to other cascades, an exquisitely timed series that keeps going throughout life. We ARE our mother’s ovum writ large. This is not a metaphor. Sure dad sprinkled a bit of genetic diversity into the cell, but that wasn’t really necessary. We need that first cell; we can’t make ourselves without a starter, like sourdough bread. In fact, there are some animals that can easily do without dad. Mom’s ova just start dividing and presto: babies happen. Look it up if you want to impress your friends, it’s called parthenogenesis.

Just as every one of our cells came from our mother’s ovum, with its cell membranes and other cell parts making up our first cell, that ovum came from her mother’s ovum and cell membranes and other cell parts, on back, mother to mother, to before there were ova, to way before we slithered out of the sea. And even further back, to before there were mothers and daughters, to our single cell ancestors and then back again to the first cell or group of proto-cells, whatever we were in deep, deep times past. We’re talking 4 billion years past.  All creatures alive today are at the base of an inverted mountain whose peak is that first replicating, living cell, in total continuity, with no break in the lineage. It is the same cell membrane for four billion years, just expanded and replenished with new atoms. It is the same DNA, also constantly replenished, but with just a bit of variation here and there, a little wiggle in the genes. When the wiggle works to make the organism better able to survive and multiply, then it persists. This is evolution.

You are at the same time the tip of a mountain of all living things. All life throughout history led to you. You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great great-grandparents, on and on, a geometric progression going back through time to before there were parents and grandparents. Doing the math (trust me, or do it yourself: 2 to the power of how many generations you want to look back times the average time per generation) it doesn’t take long before you have more ancestors than people who ever lived. About a thousand years should do it. Of course, that is a bit misleading, as it assumes no duplications, cousins marrying cousins, or dead ends, so you may have to go back over a hundred thousand years to find a common ancestor if you are looking at a specific gene. But for the most part, you don’t have to go back very far at all. Each one of us is the great, great … great, great-grandchild of slaves and sovereigns, saints and sinners, sages and simpletons.

Even if you have to go back as far as one or two hundred thousand years to find a human ancestor that you share with every person alive today, that is not all that long ago in the history of life or by geologic standards of time.

In fact, geologic time is the time frame of life. Life is geological. Not only because the drifting and shape-shifting continents crash into each other or tear each other apart and meteors colliding with earth change the environment, sometimes gradually and sometimes catastrophically fast, setting the scene for mass extinctions and subsequent spurts of evolution.

And not only because the elements and the flows of fluids and gases we rely on to make and maintain our bodies are all part of the geologic system, earth and atmosphere as Gaia, herself a living breathing, weeping, flowing, secreting, belching, entity. It is because we, and all living things, ARE the earth, little moving clumps of earth stuff, mini-mountains that wiggle and squirm and slither.  Spontaneous generation. Life came from non-life in the view of evolutionary science, chemistry and physics. There is no other valid materialistic scientific viewpoint.

Where can we draw an unimpeachable dividing line between life and non-life, between us and geology, geology and the universe?

We can define life as some subset of things in the universe.  We are fond of dividing, classifying and reifying, so that whatever we are thinking about is easier to grasp and fit into our limited notions of how it should and could be. Scientists who search for life on other planets have to have something to work with, so they think and write about how to define life. We can decide life is, say, those things that replicate. Are computer programs alive? What about a code that replicates itself, a computer virus or artificial computer life? Perhaps in a sense they are alive. What about defining life as things that have carbon based DNA? That leaves out the computer program, but why should we set that limit? Maybe there are such life forms on other planets or their moons that use different molecules to encode the information life needs to function.

What if we invent robots that are carbon based, can make more of themselves, and even use DNA for information storage? In these days of nanotechnology and 3-D printers and the first glimmering of quantum computation, it isn’t totally out of the question that we could achieve this in the near future.

In fact scientists do have a hard time defining life, and there is no universally accepted definition. A recent book, “What is Life,” references 40 different definitions.  The author’s starting point is the observation that life emerges from non-life. That seems obvious, but it is a critical premise. How are we, how can we be, in any way separate, outside, different, from the universe itself?

Some religious idealists don’t like the idea of spontaneous generation because it seems to fly in the face of a unique creation of life by a God outside of creation. Spontaneous generation, as conceived of before Pasteur, proved it wrong, was exemplified by the “spontaneous” appearance of maggots on rotting meat. The maggots were really hatched from flies’ eggs that were too small to be seen on the meat. That wasn’t considered proven until Pasteur in the late 19th century performed an experiment in which glass flasks with long elegantly curved necks were filled with a nutrient broth and found to remain sterile even when the end of the elegantly curved flasks’ necks were open to the air. You can still see the flasks in Paris at the Pasteur Institute. We might think Pasteur was challenging the delusions of foolish superstitious people who believed in the supernatural emergence of flies on meat, but that wasn’t what he was up to at all. Some biologists at the time thought that may be how life and evolution works, with new primitive forms being generated again and again as earlier ones evolved and became more complex. Pasteur was a devout Catholic and was not fond of the idea of spontaneous generation that was taken to imply that God didn’t have an original active role in a one time only, biblically mandated unique creation.

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“Emu Story in the Milky Way” by Gavan Urandali Flick of Kamilaroi (Australia) in which Emu becomes the Pleiades (the seven sisters) and Bundar the kangaroo sings to the wind to create changes to the waters and the dingo becomes the star Orion, howling to create storms .

Yet certainly every scientist believes ultimately in spontaneous generation, that life, the first cells, came from atoms of metals, minerals and water found in the clay of the early earth, in its oceans and in the gases of its atmosphere.

What else could we be but the product of those earth atoms, smaller atoms that were formed when the universe cooled enough for subatomic particles to congeal into atoms almost 14 billion years ago, and larger atoms forged later in supernovae, the massive explosions of large dying stars?

So while biologic time is geologic time, it is also cosmic time. And before 14 billion years ago, these subatomic particles came from the energy resulting from the birth of our universe that came from the infinite energy that …

And so where are we? What is this really all about? What is more fundamental even than energy?

I suggest we have come to the dreams stuff is made of, the source of phantoms, the fire that gives life to the equations, to what is not limited by “is” and “is not,” or to “changing” and “permanent.”  We come to Mind.

Photos courtesy of Susan Levinson

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