I strolled through Central Park today with a different consciousness. For most of my life I have spent the Jewish New Year in synagogue. Today I was worshipping in a larger venue. The sights and sounds were different. The sky was a bright, astounding blue, the air luxuriant and healing. A hint of autumn was evident. I observed squirrels, birds, turtles, people. There was an intensity to the feeling of peace. I found equanimity in a world constantly and continuously dancing with chaos. It was about communion, about gratitude for having the opportunity to be alive, about humility in the face of existence, about new beginnings–a truly spiritual experience. My wish is for everyone to find that place and that peace even for a moment….for a moment is all that we truly have. L’shana tova
I listened to a fascinating story on NPR radio as told by a 20 year prison inmate about his experience with a stray cat. I don’t recall his name but he was clearly extremely bright and articulate. I have no idea why he was imprisoned but the point of his essay is worthy of consideration.
He described finding a stray cat on the prison grounds. He began to fondle and play with it–something he had not done since his incarceration. The cat responded to him. Other inmates began to befriend the cat. He observed that many were hardened criminals who had previously kept to themselves, sullen and rarely smiled.
Their reaction to this stray cat, their experience of offering affection and the cat’s response was astounding. Many seemed to temporarily shed the emotional walls so long erected during those spontaneous moments with the animal.
The inmate’s observations were compelling. Offering unconditional kindness to this small creature seemed to touch these prisoners in a way that therapists, social workers, prison guards, clergy had not.
The point here is rather simple but profound. Offering love and kindness to another creature without thoughts of our own ‘needs’, ‘preconditions’ or pretext may be the simplest and most powerful healing tool we have.
While trying to sleep last night I thought about the nature of sleep and its role in the creative process. Of particular interest was the article on the same subject in today’s NY Times page 4 of the Business Section.
It essentially promoted the same notion–that sleep is not a ‘waste of time’ but a useful adjunct to creativity.
Personally, I have always found a short nap to be invigorating and refreshing. During periods of stress it serves as a mental and emotional ‘time out’. Something most be occurring on a biochemical level as well. I have found it to be a welcome source of solace and renewal.
As I was ‘dreaming’ or ‘thinking’ in my sleep last night, I observed that sleep allows the brain/mind to juggle a variety of previous sensory inputs and to possibly reconfigure them in new ways.
In our normal waking consciousness, we are continually bombarded by new sights, sounds, impressions. Ultimately these are necessary for survival and evolution. But sleep allows the new input to dissipate and the old material to be re-examined.
I recall in my pre-med days struggling over a course in physics. The exams were difficult and I am not mathematically inclined. I recall the night after an examination in which I ‘solved’ a question on the test–one which I had failed to do during the alloted time.
Studies of sleep deprivation in the past demonstrated that the human brain requires sleep in order to ‘discharge’ certain toxic chemicals–to reboot itself in some way. Those prevented from sleep began to hallucinate while still awake–simulating the experience of psychosis.
So to those work-a-holics who regard sleep as a waste of time–think again. This time, think creatively because that is exactly what you may be missing.
I have been working on a talk that I will be giving in before a synagogue group in November. The topic is OVERCOMING ADVERSITY and it is a tremendously relevant as well as challenging topic for me.
It clearly will tap into much that I have written and spoken about regarding happiness, sadness and healing. It will also confront the issue of suffering and redemption. Clearly, how we confront the difficulties within our own lives will determine our level of serenity and happiness.
To experience painful situations is natural, the degree of suffering that follows involves our choice as how to process these experiences.
It brings me to the issue of overcoming adversity–do we ever truly overcome the difficulties we face ? It may very well be that we do not.
Overcoming may not be possible because we are not capable of rising above any experience that we have. Particularly painful and difficult experiences leave an indelible mark upon our minds and hearts.
A better term, I believe, is transformation. Adversity allows us to transform ourselves. We are not capable of denying our feelings or escaping from our dark emotions when we suffer. To attempt to do so can only lead to addictions and future suffering.
Accepting the reality of suffering and learning from it is transformation. When we move through adversity, when we struggle to heal ourselves, we learn that we can survive events and circumstances we would not have deemed possible.
Suffering may be the most powerful teacher of compassion for others. If our own adversity allows us to open our hearts to the pain of others then we can truly regard adversity as a spiritual gift of healing.
You must have already noticed, politics brings out the best and worst in people. Emotions quickly rise to the surface during political discussions. Reasoned arguments, looking at both sides of a discussion is quickly abandoned. But who is right? Who wrong? Who experiences ultimate reality, who illusion?
How is it possible that two equally intelligent, compassionate and worthy individuals can have totally divergent and contradictory political view points regarding the same politician or event?
Notice how the actions of one political leader can be viewed with suspicion and derision by political opponents, while supporters of their views will consider the very same actions to be defensible or at least understandable.
So who is ‘correct’ and who ‘incorrect’? Who speaks the truth, and who lies?
This is a key and complex metaphysical question. Can we actually decide what is real and what not?.
Quite simply but profoundly–our reality is determined by our perspective on what occurs. All events are filtered through our individual minds with its own set of experiences and prejudices. Our feelings become our thoughts. How we interpret events becomes our reality.
What we are talking about is choice. How we choose to view events defines the nature of that event or that action. But often that choice is subliminal and not conscious. We tend to justify the actions of those we agree with, or love or defend. We understand the positive aspects of their actions, or diminish their negative consequences. The same behavior demonstrated by someone whose beliefs we disagree with, or whose personality offends us in some way, is seen as ridiculous and indefensible.
Events and actions can be identified and acknowledged by one and all. But there is strong emotional component to how we interpret them.
This should alert us to the dangers inherent in how anyone interprets the actions of others. Although we would like to regard the world as ‘black & white’ or ‘good & evil’ there are factors which blur these distinctions and lead to confusion and chaos.
To a large extent, however, reality is in the eyes of the beholder and it is the rare individual who ventures to put themselves in the shoes of their opponents, to consider the opposition’s perspective–there is no better example of this than politics.
In truth, much of human behavior falls into a zone of interpretation–but we need to be careful not to too easily justify the hurtful, deceitful, harmful and hateful actions of those who we otherwise identify with. Reality is how we see it, so be careful to take all sides into account, all viewpoints before determining what is true.
The age old cry–how can there be a loving God, or any spiritual universe when the innocent suffer ?
I’m not referring to the usual day to day struggle we refer to as adversity but to the truly horrendous–the acts of violence, abuse, murder, 9/11s genocide etc. We know these terms all too well. And what about diseases striking down the innocent? What about children born with horrendous birth defects? Or sudden death?
The philosophical term theodicy addresses this concept. But it is too sterile, too intellectual to satisfy the broken heart, the deep cry of despair and chaos that comes from a world without meaning.
Just consider this response and judge for yourself—- We live in a universe in which human beings are capable of making their own choices–this is free will. Free will ‘allows’ for all of these horrendous acts I mentioned .
But why can’t God intervene and save the innocent? Because then our actions would not be totally free. As unsatisfactory as that answer may be, free will also means that our acts of kindness, empathy, compassion have real meaning as well.
Where is God when mankind suffers? The reply is God ‘sends’ other people. In truth God doesn’t ‘send’ anyone. It is our choice to act as we do.
What about punishment and reward for our actions? Why do the good suffer and the evil-doers seem to escape retribution?
In order to rationalize further we must accept two other notions: 1] a form of ‘karma’ in which our souls eventually recognize their mistakes and often seek to compensate by experiencing the suffering they caused others, and 2] reincarnation in which we all return over multiple lifetimes in order to progress spiritually.The suffering reflects the difficulty of choosing to come into this world. Can we ever rationalize an innocent child’s suffering? Could their souls ‘sacrifice’ their life in order for others to learn humility and compassion?
In a sense, each lifetime is a ‘survival weekend’. But this can only be understood in the context of karma & reincarnation.
Why should we believe any of this? Do we need to accept the teachings of a religion in which we were NOT raised ?
NO ! But–now for the evidence…..that requires reading, listening and speaking to the ordinary individuals who have had their own personal extraordinary experiences of awareness.
Do the hard work of exploring these deep and confusing metaphysical issues–the rewards may be to begin to find meaning in chaos and suffering.
There are various metaphors which serve to place our lives within a metaphysical context. We are all aware of the hypothetical location ‘between a rock and a hard place’ as indicative of life’s difficulties and adversities.
Another Buddhist story comes in several varieites–essentially it involves a monk who is being chased by a wild panther. He sees a large whole in the ground with a rope leading down. He begins his descent as the big cat approaches. Looking down he sees a gigantic python below, slithering and looking up in anticipation.
To add to the image, a mouse is gnawing on the rope just above him. In the midst of all of this he spies a large red berry before his eyes.
He plucks it, pops it into his mouth closes his eyes and deeply enjoys the experience of eating it…..
The message here is similar–we truly live only in the present moment. Birth and death surround us. Danger and fear are our companions. Pain and suffering are never far away.
Yet we must grab the fruit that is before us–it is the only way to live life–in the present moment, between a rock and a hard place.
The topic of forgiveness is complex and often confusing. We usually regard it as an issue between ourselves and someone else. Yet often the most difficult aspect of forgiveness involves forgiving ourselves for our failings.
This can be a powerful tool for self-healing in this lifetime, one that allows us to break the bond of self-doubt, of the need to punish ourselves over and over and to remain stuck in whatever place of negativity binds us.
But what about on the soul level? Does this notion bring us any closer to an awareness of the survival of the soul after death?
There is an interesting story that I’ve heard [an EEA–or Extraordinary Experience of Awareness as I like to call it.] The source is a Filipino nurse I know quite well who I will refer to as Maria. She claims to be able to communicate with souls who have crossed over.
Maria described trying to reach the soul of a young man who had committed suicide. He was the son of a family member and Maria had never met him. She described the ‘connection’ in which he claimed to be in some sort of ‘hell’. Now there are many who will dispute the existence of ‘hell’ but somehow this young man came through to Maria as being there.
She waited several weeks to attempt to reach him. At first unsuccessful she eventually reconnected with him. This time he appeared to be quite joyous and content. When he inquired how and why he changed, he responded. ‘I was able to forgive myself’.
It seemed as if his own soul-consciousness had created a prison for himself, a place of self-punishment for the unfortunate and self-defeating act of committing suicide.
Most suicides expect the act to bring them peace from their suffering in this existence. The persistence of consciousness after life assures that not only do they not escape from their earthly troubles, but they are compounded by becoming aware of all the suffering that follows their death. Their guilt at having put their loved-ones through such unnecessary grief compounds their anguish–they sentence themselves to a state of punishment–to hell.
What brought this story back to me was some that I just read in Dianne Arcangel’s book AFTERLIFE ENCOUNTERS. In it she relates a similar experience in which an individual who had committed suicide explains his personal release from a self-imposed hell. ‘I got out the moment I forgave myself’ he noted.
The fact that Maria had never read or heard of this book or of similar experiences adds credence to her experience as being true.
It also fits into a pattern, a pattern which can lead even the open-minded skeptic to consider such an experience as ‘evidence’ for survival of consciousness after death.
But even more important–it give us a needed reminder that we must forgive our imperfections in this lifetime. We need to face up to our mistakes and to atone for them–that is for certain. But then we need to let go and forgive ourselves…. It is a necessary step in the path to healing.
Just a quick posting prompted by the prior one in which a nurse described the bloody and upsetting picture of the death of her patient with terminal lung cancer.
Not only did she bleed from her mouth/lung probably as a result of her tumor eroding into these organs, but the cardiac arrest procedure itself can be quite ‘brutal’ and bloody.
This is the reality for some types of death. For many others, death is like going to sleep. But we should realize that life and death are not ‘neat’ and sanitized.
Neither is birth itself. Most of us enter life in a gush of amniotic fluid and blood. He cough and sputter as we enter the world–some of us do so when leaving it.
What is crucial to keep in mind is when all reasonable efforts have failed, to allow death to proceed as the natural process that it is. Vain, well-intentioned attempts to stave it off will only produced more suffering without changing the inevitable.
I was pleased to see an article in this weeks New York Times science section written by a nurse, a former college English professor, describing the upsetting and bloody death of a patient with terminal cancer.
The patient had carried a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer and apparently ‘bled out’ in front of her. A complete cardiac arrest was called and carried out including, an attempt at intubation, tracheostomy, chest compression, cardiac ‘shocking’ with defibrillation equipment–in other words, the complete process.
There was a bemoaning of the bloody and ultimately unsuccessful ‘mess’–reality was far worse than TV or movies offer. The nurse was clearly traumatized by what she experienced–and rightfully so.
What was interesting to me were the myriad comments which responded to her article. Those that interested me the most were the ones which questioned why the cardiac arrest had been allowed to take place to begin with.
I totally agree with that sentiment–her diagnosis and prognosis should have placed her into a category of DNR [do not resuscitate]. She would have begun to bleed, then quickly allowed to die without the ‘brutality’ of the entire process which unfolded.
For those who have never seen a full code in progress–it is rather ‘brutal’ –but this procedure can and has saved many lives. It should be reserved to those who can benefit from it.
Those with terminal diseases, in which there is no chance of improvement or recovery, should not be subjected to this procedure. Death must be allowed to mercifully intervene and relieve them of their suffering. But there must first be an understanding that without clear and definite expressions of will such as appropriate legal documents–a ‘code’ will be called.
The placement and response to this article is an encouraging sign. We must foster more such dialog in the media and in society in general. Only in this way will be cease to ignore the natural process of dying and continue to consider it a ‘disease’ which must always be ‘treated’ even when there is no hope of restoring a reasonable quality of life.