Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Bearing Witness

There is a story, an old indigenous story, that goes like this.
Once, all the creatures in the world, gathered in a great council to clarify the jobs they each perform in the service of Creation. One by one, they step forward. The beaver is here to look after the wetlands and to monitor how the streams flow. The worm is here to burrow through the earth so that the roots of plants may find air and nutrients. The deer is here to slip through the woodlands, to watch what is happening.
The council is progressing well — but one poor creature stands away from the fire, in the shadows, uncertain of its role. This is the human. At last, this being steps forward, and haltingly addresses the assembly, “We are confused. What is the purpose of human beings?” The animals and the plants, the insects and the trees — all are surprised. They laugh, but then the laughter gives way to stunned silence.  “Don’t you know? It’s so obvious!!” “No,” replied the human, “we need you to tell us.” And the other creatures of the world all responded,    
“Your purpose is to glory in it all. Your job is to praise Creation.”
                                                                                                                                          (pg. 96 from Embracing Life)

I am overwhelmed with awe and unknowing. I know, from my stroke experience, that there is no going back. The world is changing. I marvel at how quickly, and efficiently, the Corona virus is unraveling everything. Staying in my home is re-assuring. Even as a shut-in, I take only a small measure of pleasure knowing that others are experiencing some of what I have known. Instead, I am drowning in a lonely uncertainty. Daily, I am assailed with images of death and human misery. It all fills me with a strange wonder. I am alive and vulnerable as never before.

I had the flu last week. I was really sick, afraid that maybe I had somehow contracted the virus. It was a different virus, and after wrecking me, it passed. For a time, I was desperately ill. Enough so, my loneliness and energy-less-ness, had me contemplating, even inviting, death. I was, for a moment, in pain and beyond my aspirations for life. 

As an old person, someone who has been anticipating collapse for a long time, I feel, as I watch, things like the markets dissolving, hoarding, and the disbelief of some, a surreal sense of satisfaction. Proving, I guess, how utterly human and insensitive I can be. The years of wondering how it was all going to come down have taken a toll on my compassion. Now, I am mainly grateful I had the time to attain my wrinkles, and to know the perspective that is currently shaping my suffering. I see too much.

The story of humanity’s role, the high privilege that has been granted to us, to have the wherewithal to praise creation, has been with me for a long time. It haunts me now. Does glorying in it all, praising Creation, also mean praising creative destruction? 

Unknowingness bids me to consider it. I chafe at the idea. I’m not ready to face that much reality. But, I know this is a time, like during my stroke era, when something else ultimately determines what I must face. I have often said that I am “Lucky” because I didn’t get to choose, Life instead determined the way for me. I think something like that is happening now. The virus is Life altering us forever.

I take some solace from the idea that Life might be shepherding us (humankind) through a necessarily narrow initiation. Of course, I don’t know. That is what makes this such an awesome time. Maybe, I have to steep in unknowing to become capable. 

In the meantime, I am witnessing something so huge that it grinds me into the nothingness I am. Now, I understand the bearing in bearing witness. It isn’t just bearing a weight, it is feeling open heart surgery, as the patient without anesthesia.
Pain and unknowing are essential parts of the surgery.

May we bear what we must, and become what is necessary.

Wisdom & Unknowing(part 2)

“I know enough now, to know, that I don’t know anything.”

Some say, “Life is unfair.” It is true, there is this seemingly random thing, that is throwing a major monkey wrench in all of our ideas about how life should go. This is one of the most predictable aspects of the unpredictability of our lives. Unknowing reigns — from the time and means of our death, to the chances of making it from here to there — we don’t know. It is all a crapshoot, and we have to make a life without knowing what each moment may bring.

This is a fact of our existence. Uncertainty is inconvenient, messing with all our plans, and liberating us from our ruts. It has a capacity to change us that we envy and fear. Unknowing, like it or not, plays a major role in our lives, shaping us in unpredictable ways and forming who we are.

Unknowing is sort of like the monster in the closet. It doesn’t really exist, except it does. As we age and get more experienced, uncertainty grows. The monster of unknowing comes out of the closet, and the horrible realization that we live at the mercy of something else comes with it. 

Coming to terms with what you cannot understand, or even anticipate, is part of life. There are many strange discoveries that accompany a life. Amongst the strangest, and oddly most surprising, is the discovery that not-knowing is a friend. Aging, because it brings more experience, convinces us. 

The truth is that unknowing doesn’t grow; we do. There is no more unlikelihood now then there was then. Life, by throwing us screwball after screwball, has softened us up. The experience of being off balance — and knowing one is off balance — becomes too overwhelming to ignore. 

As the awareness of the depth of unknowing dawns, so does the capacity to begin accepting and coming to terms with it. From the vulnerability that such a realization generates there is born a new way of seeing and operating. This change occurs as the self ripens.

It introduces one to a world that is fluid, changing, and where things are not just what they seem. This “through the looking glass” reality is closer to home. Proportion shifts. Uncertainty turns us around. It introduces us first to probability, then to not knowing, the deeper vulnerability that, like death, means that things can change in an instant, and that nothing about life is predictable. 

Long ago (in the 18th century) a French mathematician created a model that captures the paradox that lies at the heart unknowing. He pointed out that if all knowledge formed a sphere, then when knowledge grew, so grew the surface area of the sphere. What this meant, was that as the sphere of knowledge grew, its surface came into greater contact with the unknown. As we grow, as we know and experience more, we come into contact with more of the unknown, and it seems that we know even less. When Mystery dawns; the world comes alive in a new way. 

There is a poignancy to not-knowing that characterizes the elder experience. 
Unknowing is a kind of innocence that is unlike the innocence of childhood. Instead of ignorance —the unknowing described here — is a deliberate awareness, a kind of surrender, a reverence for a larger un-comprehended reality. 

Unknowingness is characteristic of late life development. Not-knowing is the way many old people are. They aren’t demented, and aren’t suffering from some other form of addled thinking, instead they have a handle on the true nature of reality. Life is festooned with uncertainty.  The Mystery that haunts and defines the moment is always disguised. Life has seen to it, and some old people have become in tune with it.

Wisdom & Unknowing

(part 3)

“I know enough now, to know, that I don’t know anything.”

The ancient Chinese were said to have a curse, “May you live in interesting times.” We certainly are. As a species we are learning to live with more uncertainty and unknowing than most of us are comfortable with. The Corona virus, as disruptive and deadly as it is, is providing us with a glimpse at how truly vulnerable we are. That came home to me when I learned that March Madness had been cancelled. Suddenly, Life, which generated this particular virus, was the terrorist, and it has means far beyond anything known.

In some respect, this isn’t the age of the virus — it is the age of unknowing. Nobody knows how long this uncertainty is going to go on. It seems that we, especially of the modern world, have forgotten what we as a species have always known. We are, and always have been, existentially vulnerable. Our lives, species-wide have always belonged to bigger unknown forces. The virus, bad as it is, is just another manifestation of the mystery we live in.

While, it is killing many like me off, it is doing the rest of us a favor. Reminding us about how truly vulnerable we are, and how uncertain existence is. Given the global environmental crisis that is unfolding around us, it seems, Nature is compassionately warning us. Times like this, bring out the best and the worst of us. Unknowing blooms. But, the bloom can be beautiful, leading to a realization that we all are in the same uncertain situation, or, it can turn into a battle, a fear-ridden run through the heart of darkness.

Unknowing is how this species came about. We know how to weather uncertainty. Yes, the businessmen are panicking, the stock market is tanking, demonstrating how dependent we’ve become on the illusion of certainty, but the greater truth is, that we humans have been around long enough to know that we don’t know. The Universe, we find ourselves within, has a life of its own. It always has. We are only a part of it, and we succeeded making a home here because we knew there was something larger going on. Mystery is having its way with us.

In fact, mystery is us. Just as the Universe humbles us, and reminds us of our place, it puts its arm around us, as an extension of itself. Who really knows what we are doing here? Somehow the Cosmos deemed it so. And, strangely, at least to some of us, being a social animal has helped. Mirroring the rest of the Universe, and its reliance on relationship for innovation, synergy, and creativity, we are capable, like the Universe, of turning toward the unknown together.  We can panic, and be afraid, or we can rally around each other, and become what we have been made capable of.

Social distancing has become one of the methods used to defeat the advance of the virus, well the truth is, that the virus is forcing us to see, how much we need each other, and how much our distrust of each other, has eaten away the foundation of our resilience. With the appropriate distance — there is a strength available to us — that is not ours, but what we are part of. It is possible to relax into that connection, even as the virus shakes us into the vulnerability, that comes with living deep in mystery.

The unknown is wising us up. This is, despite the panic and uncertainty, a period of great sensitization. Life is putting us to the test, offering us a chance to be squeezed and pressured, and to find out what we are really made of. Wisdom arises, when knowing is shattered, as in these ‘interesting times.’

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Wisdom & Unknowing (part 1)

“I know enough now, to know, that I don’t know anything.”

You may have heard someone say that, or maybe you have. Maybe it has just lingered, as a thought, in the back of your disbelieving mind. Or, you realized that everything you thought you knew, hasn’t been enough to see you through what’s facing you now. However, you have come to this insight, you just came to the leading-edge of wisdom. It can happen to anyone, but it most often comes to old people, those who have been humbled by a long life. That is one of the reasons older people are considered to be wise. Life has worked some of them over, and conferred on some of them, a reverence for mystery.

A long time ago, so the story goes, Socrates got in trouble. He was charged with corrupting the young, and tried by his peers, the citizens of Athens. In this ancient Greek story, Socrates was found guilty, and ended his own life by drinking hemlock. He realized that he was doomed to be an irritating gadfly, challenging the self-satisfying knowledge of his fellow citizens. His awareness, that he didn’t know, was toxic to his society, and the source of both his wisdom and unpopularity.

Wisdom came from his not knowing. His knowing he didn’t know, elevated his awareness, and pretty much assured his fate. His neighbors didn’t recognize and welcome a view that went beyond their own. They proved that being wise can be dangerous. Socrates knew too much, by not knowing. He became the embodiment of wisdom, and it was his commitment to integrity that led to his death — and revealed the connection between not knowing and wisdom. 

So, why is any of this important? I don’t know, maybe because linking not knowing with wisdom is interesting, and having an example of how wisdom (not knowing) can be risky, suggests another reason why real wisdom may be so rare. Not knowing is frowned on in this culture. Expertise is valued. It goes beyond wanting a knowledgeable brain surgeon, to an insistence that creativity follows laws. There isn’t room in the market place for not knowing, and so wisdom isn’t valued as it should be.

There is a paradox at the doorway to wisdom. To access the place of mysterious     awareness, one must give up knowing. Typically, that paradox is too daunting for most people. Old folks, on the other hand, are being taught by Life, the essential skill of letting go. They, by virtue of heading toward disappearance, are busy surrendering — this includes giving up knowing — of being certain of anything. It is part of being stripped down, and preparing for what is to come.

Giving up knowing can feel like loss. Gaining wisdom isn’t always something one wants. Losing is a humiliating process. In this culture it often means becoming less. For this reason, one of the hallmarks of wisdom is humility, along with not knowing, the wise frequently appear as anything but knowledgeable. Gaining wisdom, the capacity to not know, is such a harrowing reversal, that almost no one seeks it out. Wisdom, much like aging, is a surprise, not the outcome of some practice. It comes with the mysterious wind of evolution. 

The unknown is a benefactor. Not knowing is the root of all knowing, it is the heart of wisdom, which always goes beyond what we know. When you feel yourself relying on what you know, then hubris is much more likely to be what’s happening. 

Wisdom is really needed in this crumbling time, and what we don’t know is more likely to bring us to the unexpected than anything. Surprise is the best indicator.  Evolution wears many guises.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

In The Deep

I used to think I knew who I was, and where I was, now I know better. I’ve had awhile to discover that very little is what I think it is. Getting older has introduced me to Mystery and I’ve found myself in the deep.

Somehow, I went down the rabbit hole, and now everything is topsy-turvy and unfamiliar. The world I woke-up in, is not the world I’m occupying at this minute. The hallucinogens I used in the past, don’t compare to the depth of distortion I’m now experiencing. And, I haven’t taken anything, but I am in the deep.

All my life I’ve been treading unknowing, trying to keep my head above the surface. I managed, or so the delusion went, until I collapsed from fatigue. There is no rest for the existing — in the deep.

Tumbling seems to be the most real part of my experience. I am adrift in a soupy darkness. There is no day or night, or they are both the same — some form of blindness has set in. Distinctions have no lasting value, in the deep.

Journeying isn’t a good metaphor anymore. There is no place to go, no form of movement, no discernable here or there. Life seems like an endless moment, an eternity of sameness. In the deep, one swims aimlessly, and gets nowhere.

The deep is neither warm nor cold, comfortable or uncomfortable, familiar or even unknown. It just is. I could say, “I sank into it,” but it has always been my home. I simply am in the deep.

I’d like to put my life back together again, but I no longer possess the illusory belief that would seem to make it so. I am weightless, waiting for I don’t know what.  A mirage to myself. I am some part of the deep.

Strangely, I don’t feel alone. In the deep there is presence. I can’t explain it, but I know that I’m being held — hostage or latency, I don’t know. The uniformity of all I know mesmerizes me, delivering me to a calmer darkness. I am swallowed in the deep. 

All my living has come to this.  The many shores I thought I inhabited were here all along. I have come to be where I have always been.  I am floating, or is it sinking?  I really don’t know, no sensation gives away any orientation, in the deep.

I am not happy, or sad. I don’t have a feeling of resoluteness, or failure, rather a kind of elated weariness. I have labored hard to find myself here. No more will I go down or up. In some strange fashion, I seem to be the Universe expanding without moving. Anyway, all I know is that it’s all happening, without happening, in the deep.

Is there somewhere the Universe is expanding into?  Into the deep. 

Saturday, January 11, 2020


It’s Sunday morning and I want to write a Slow Lane. But, I’m hesitating. The things I thought I might write about, are either too cool or too hot. Neither will really do.  So, I’m just sitting here wondering. I want to write, to enjoy the respite from being so physically broken, that these little writing meditations allow. Now, I’m just sitting in silence, waiting for some inspiration to strike me.

As I do, my mind wanders.  I’m remembering the new men’s group that met for the first time yesterday. It was a complex, uncomfortable event. Every time I start-up with a set of new men, it feels like trying to start a conversation with my father — awkward silence, or small talk. 

Eventually a lot got surfaced. We marveled at being a group of old men meeting. All of us wanted to compare notes, we were sharing in something men in this culture don’t do, and never really get to experience so thoroughly. Getting old, publicly, becoming vulnerable, visibly. Out of our first meeting came a sense of wonder. We seemed to know enough, that there was widespread agreement, that we didn’t know much of anything. This left us with a lot to wonder about.

We never tried for any kind of agreement, but it seemed to me, we shared bafflement — at getting so old, at having slipping bodies, at wondering what we were for, at aching with uncertainty about what we might have to give. Losing so much left us feeling raw.

It was a good and unusual experience. There is no way to evaluate it. We were all virgins, meeting together, to do something we didn’t know how to do. Pretty extraordinary for a group of men. I liked it, except I can’t exactly say why. I guess I think meeting — if only this once — was such a courageous, and counter-cultural thing to do.

It left me wondering. I notice I’ve been doing that a lot lately. Feeling awed by what’s happening, or overwhelmed, by the mystery that seems folded into everything. There was a point in yesterday’s group, when we men surmised, that perhaps, our ability to wonder was what we have to offer. I like the notion of being aged into wonder. It makes me feel like Life knows what it is doing.

So, anyway, as I’m getting older — heading toward the horizon — I’ve found myself thinking, about whether I have anything to leave behind — for other’s coming along? My guess is no. It seems that people benefit by discovering for themselves. I care, but I’ve learned from my disability helplessness, that caring is complicated, and that people, no matter their circumstances, seem to thrive best, when they have weathered uncertainty, for what matters to them. 

In the meantime, I ponder. It seems like it is good that I’m getting slower and slower, more silent, less confident, and more uncertain. I’m slowly sinking into non-existence, becoming invisible, a shade, soon to be forgotten. I expect I’ll make a good anonymous ancestor. Though, of course, I wonder about that.

Conjecture, that is what I seem to be good at now. Living has taken away all of my certainties. It fascinates me, that all of my lifetime of losses, has brought me to this place. I wonder, if there is something inevitable, and natural, about wondering this much.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Here After

“What did I come in here after?” That’s what she says every time her memory fails, and she finds herself, in someplace, on a mystery quest. She has taken to calling, these increasingly occurring failures of her short-term memory, “here after” moments, as in, what am I here after?

When I heard this story, recounted by a friend, I knew I had to write about it. The only thing is, I can no longer remember what it was about this, that made me motivated to focus upon it. It rang some writerly bell.  So, hold on, I’m about to go off.

I like the sense of irony, or desperate humor, that is conveyed by her encapsulation of this little aspect of getting older. A ‘here after’ moment. It reminds me of the fairytales, and other stories I’ve heard, that all end the same way. They lived happily ever after. As if there is some place where things don’t change, where the moment goes on, despite the grip of time.

I don’t know about you, but when I have such a forgetful moment, when I can’t find a word, or I’ve screwed up my schedule again, forgetting something or someone, I feel like I’ve just suffered a psycho-emotional fall. Suddenly, I’ve been reduced, some form of gravity just brought me back into my decaying orbit. I am having my own form of ‘here after’ moment. Death seems closer than ever, and I find, something in myself is getting prepared, by falling, in this way.

Isn’t the time after death also referred to as the “here after?” There is something eternal about these kinds of moments. Oh yeah, that’s why I was so touched — by her seeing the everlasting aspect of these moments. It isn’t the first, or last, time I have arrived at the realization — I have no idea why I am here. What did I come here for? Am I in this scene for a reason? I don’t know. Is this a memory failure, or success? Whatever it is — it’s my “ever after” moment — just arriving.

What am I here after? The uncertainty implicit in that question haunts me. I spend so much of my life energy on other things. Some are very compelling distractions. But, no matter what I do, I can’t forget, that even as I am forgetting, I don’t really know what I am here after. This life seems to be my ‘here after’ moment.

I feel chagrined when my memory goes south. De-pantsed. Nakedly human. For a moment I am a flower with a broken stem. I wouldn’t pick me. I might admire the poignancy of my beauty, but I would move on. Out of the corner of my memory’s eye, I notice a long-misperceived latency. Something tells me, I am here, for this moment of uncertainty. 

What seems to be unchanging, in this parade of constant change, is the level of uncertainty that is omnipresent. How can that be a quality of ever after? I guess that is the ‘ever’ part, and the rest is the ‘after,’ that I clearly don’t remember.

Anyway, the “ever after” seems to be a place where things go when they slip the mind or, a moment when the mind is really working. I haven’t quite figured it out yet. And to be honest, I can’t really remember why I want to.