Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Local Multiverse

Sophia asks me: "What do you and Laura talk about these days?"

I think: My goddess!

I-- supposedly have this (is "have" the proper verb??) ...'have' this Guardian Angel, Who hath spake with me about some of the innermost secrets of existence... and Who has very ably guided me in far, uh, more practical matters, including a Romance for Dummies course that allowed me to attract, woo, and marry the incomparable Sophia who has just asked me this question...

yet-- I hardly
speak with this Angel at all! Except to ask Her, every so often, "Are You still there? Do You love me? Are You going to stay with me?"

* * *

Not long after Sophia asks me about Laura: I go for a walk, one very foggy morning, around my school. It's the first day back after Christmas; no one's around yet and the mist of burned-up holidays, of budget cuts, of layoffs hangs heavy in the air.

I used to talk to Laura lot while walking... so I do now, and soon I'm having a quite serious conversation with her about money, about how I really would like these two books but each costs around $50 and is there some way I could raise this money and satisfy my carnal lust for print??? I have probably, what-- $20 or so worth of change in my top dresser drawer... but soon I catch myself.

"Laura! I'm talking to an Angel about scrounging money to buy a couple of damn books! How low is that???"

"My dear, you can talk to me about whatever you wish. I'm just happy to speak with you."

"Well, that's very sweet and all, but what kind of loser am I? OK--here's something more like it: Laura, please guide me to be the most loving husband and step-father I can possibly be."

"That is your path."

I hope so. You nearly killed me to get me here.

We walk past a complex of tennis courts, more a small town of tennis courts, that stretches off into the fog as though the world has become Wimbledon.

* * *

Black chain-link mesh surrounds the courts, little diamond links gently poking through the fog. At a nexus in the fence I see a cobweb trying to glitter in the dim morning--it's a little knot of silver fleece, a miniature ghostly cloud. My love for webs and spiders draws me close, nose-close, and in the tiny cloud's dizzily enfolded layers hang hundreds of perfect dew-spheres, whorl within whorl of silver globes, some so small I can barely see them, others a full quarter-inch in circumference.

Folded in on itself, the web is woven into folds of what would have been invisible, self-involved chaos except for the dew, the uncountable crystal balls, period dots of sentences of dew, of night, of fog, of morning... I think of the "myriads of worlds" mentioned in the Zohar.

...and suddenly I feel so confused-- it washes over me, shakes me: how it's all so big, even this tennis park seems like a city... my school (with barely a thousand students), my job, my life-- all so vast and befuddling... my head feels tight with the fog that's filling it.

"What is all this??," I ask Laura, sweeping my arm out to the horizons. "Where is She? You don't exist!"

"You don't either!" my Angel laughs. "This is Her culmination. This moment is All, all of Her, all that is."

But it can't be. This? Raindrops in sand? Tennis courts? A guy walking around all confused? I stroke my beard--it, too, damp, strung with droplets by the fog...

Then another mental tremor hits: I've seen that cobweb and its diamond droplets before: in a picture of a dark matter model that I stumbled across after reading a Science Daily story.

"See? It's very simple," Laura smiles. "This-- is-- it."

I look at the ground, which is beginning to glow now from a sun more fire than smoky pearl. "Is that dog poop?" I ask of an ochre clump peeking through the grass. "Is that a beer bottle? Is that an ant nest?" And yes, a kingdom of ants rises golden-spired into the day, a day dawning like all others, dawning like awareness, arising from night like the universe arose from its last slumber... a phoenix of a day alight in the thurible of Her.

Friday, January 16, 2009

R.I.P. Patrick McGoohan

"Number Six has finally escaped the Village," said grigorss in his email... Patrick McGoohan, creator and star of The Prisoner, has died. This show was on TV when I was four and five and thanks to an indulgent babysitter who vastly preferred The Secret Storm, it had a huge influence on me (and on a generation of film, television, musical, and visual artists, as well as a lot of other people who wonder where the line between the individual and society really falls). The entire 1967-68 series can be viewed for free here.

Though I'm an English professor, I'm not the type who believes that Madonna and
The Simpsons (on which McGoohan guest-starred) have supplanted Milton and the Symbolists... but still, if you've never watched The Prisoner I'd go out on a limb and say you have a large gap of cultural knowledge waiting to be deliciously filled. Unlike many philosophical or "message" shows, even very good ones, The Prisoner resolutely resists neat categories and easy answers, uttering that "No! In thunder" that Melville (and Leslie Fiedler) so admired.

Visually, intellectually, and on the visceral levels of fright, (com)passion, and dark humor,
The Prisoner has rarely been equaled... it was so formative for me that I felt, at one point in my life, the need to escape it myself-- to cease to be the cornered rebel, the raging, lost isolato ... which I did through the grace of my dear Kali, lot of Al-Anon meetings and journaling, and probably just plain growing up. The mystical path, as I pontificated to grigorss, is a lot like Number Six's journey in the show: you struggle and you search and you finally figure out who Number One, your jailer, is... and you walk free, aware of your eternal bondage, whether in Westminster or East Berlin.

I know that last sentence made utterly no sense, but that's another thing McGoohan wasn't afraid to do in
The Prisoner: confront and make art out of the paradox coiled at the center of every instant, of all life and all our experience. The freer we are, the more intimately we perceive what the sage called "the myth of freedom." A devout Christian, Patrick McGoohan surely lived easily with his eventual death, and I like to think that it was his faith that helped him to do crazy stuff like turning down the roles of (get ready) James Bond, Gandalf, and Dumbeldore-- not that he had anything against Fleming, Tolkien, or Rowling--his drum just wasn't beating that way.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Brit Atheist Postscript + Hollywood Hajj

Disparate data on self-programming and faith:

This New York Times story goes nicely with the previously cited London
Times op-ed about religion's ability to transform people's minds and therefore their realities. Research shows that religious people (those who actively ritualize their lives, not just reflect 'pon matters ethereal) have higher levels of self-discipline and-- I would add a "therefore"-- higher levels of happiness and satisfaction. It's likely, given the areas of the brain typically activated by religious ritual, meditation, etc., that this self-control is less a product of commandments and moral precepts than a by-product of exercising brain regions related to "self-regulation and control of attention and emotion," in the words of Dr. Michael McCullough of the University of Miami. I'm a Gator myself, but from my experience and observations I can endorse their findings, which are based on a review of "eight decades of research."

The brain evolves just as species and star-systems evolve. Cognitive pressure serves as the do-or-die influence, and we all know of those calamities, personal or social, that can darken our worlds like a Yucatan meteorite. These are the times when we grow or we die--but you can add to those times the slow, steady growth given by regular practice or the riskier, more steroidal growth afforded by hardcore sadhana, and there are plenty of stations between. John Lilly called it "metaprogamming"-- the practice of accessing, reviewing, and rewriting one's mental scripts. Lilly, of course, was aware that he was only the latest neuronaut in a long, long tradition of conscious evolution: meditation, magick,
dhikr, twelve-step programs, Kabbalah, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, bhakti, contemplative prayer, dreamwork, satyagraha... brain-editing software goes by many names.

One recent hajji is also aware of the interplay of ritual and neuroplasticity: the screenwriter Kamran Pasha has blogged a fascinating and moving account of his journey to Mecca, including some perceptive comments on pilgrimages in general and their ability to re-program us (I'll link to the latter, but track back to see all the posts).

With my constant emphasis on skepticism and the neurological aspects of spirituality, I imagine I would sound like damn near an atheist to the former fundamentalist me, the ancestor who began this journey 30 years ago not knowing where I was going, just trying to trust my Heavenly Father to keep the trespasses to a minimum since the daily bread was taken care of by my earthly father. And I probably would sound like a simp to the post-fundie atheist me, the least self-confident of my incarnations but the most fired-up... but to Dead Christian Me I'd have to say, "Get off your ass! [quoting Andrew Harvey] Reading is great; the Bible and Bible commentaries and church and C. S. Lewis and St. Augustine and all that stuff is fine, but
live your faith. You can't do that in books and you can't do it very well in a pea-pod of like-minded religious lazy-asses."

To Dead Atheist Me I'd say, "You're not sure of yourself because, unlike your shriller counterparts, you actually know a few things about religion. And not just the Abrahamic strain-- you've connected the dots between voodoo and shamanism and the Dreamtime and you can't unconnect them now. You have tasted the fruit, you have seen the dharmakaya light. And even if you hadn't, all you'd have to do was some serious spiritual practice and the doors would open a crack. Then you'd be free to conjure all the neurology you wanted to, invoke "the power of suggestion" until half-past dawn, but the reality would be there to do what thou wilted with. If you've been made aware of ways to brainwash yourself into being happier and leading a better life, don't you have a duty to use them, regardless of their ultimate origin?"

Looking back on it, this is pretty much what I did... engaged in spiritual practice sans belief or expectation until, one day, *poof!*: God sprang into door-yard existence. No worries with "duty" or any of that nonsense; I was just curious and wanted to keep an open mind. But... does this mean I was smarter
then than I am now?? I'm supposed to be evolving!!!