Sunday, September 30, 2012

Eating the Sun

Quid agis, NIP?

            I have a deep and abiding love for astronomy. I have for nearly 15 years now, and if I could distill it down to a single reason for why I feel this way about the discipline it could be summed up in three words: Professor James Wysong. Of all the instructors I had while attending Hillsborough Community College for my Associate’s degree, he stands above the rest. Whether it was his anecdotes about Disney World where he worked as a young man or how he made the science of the stars come alive through his interesting and entertaining lectures, I was fascinated by this man and his passion for his subject. As a teacher myself now, I can see why students enjoy educators who are energetic and love their subject matter. Wysong made such an indelible impression on me that to this day if I hear a senior student say s/he will be attending HCC in Brandon I recommend taking one of his classes (and I always suggest astronomy first). This love for astronomy that he instilled in me has only grown over the years and, whether looking up at the night sky or reading a book on the subject, I often fondly reflect on my time spent in his class.

            This was certainly the case while I was reading Caleb Scharf’s most recent work, Gravity’s Engines: How Bubble Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Cosmos. Scharf is the director of the Columbia Astrobiology Center and is a prolific writer on matters concerning the cosmos. His most recent book deals with the new data being discovered about black holes and how they may be instrumental for giving spacetime its particular warp and woof as we know it. Not only did the book force me to reflect on what I had learned from Professor Wysong, it also impressed upon me (even more than usual) how miraculous and amazing it is to be alive on this third planet from a decent sized star in the galactic suburbs of the Milky Way. Even as I type this now I can’t help look out the window to see the sunlight streaking down through the leaves of the trees in the backyard upon which birds are perched and singing to one another. That simple sunlight took eight minutes to arrive from our neighborhood star, a wonder of heat and pressure creating helium through the fusion of hydrogen molecules yielding a mind-boggling amount of energy that races across 93 million miles of space and comes slamming into the surface of the Earth. And without it there would be no life. Every single thing you see on this planet, NIP, would not be here if it were not for the sun.

            If you know me personally, you know that I can come off as somewhat of a weirdo. If you have never met me, then you might have deduced the same thing if you’ve read enough of these letters. My new students this year probably thought the very same thing on the first day of school when I explained that I eat an organic peanut butter and tupelo honey on whole wheat bread sandwich every day. Incredulous, they asked me how I could eat the same thing every day; I explained that we all eat the same thing every day because we are, in essence, eating the sun. The sun is directly responsible for all life on Earth. Those photons of light grow the wheat in the fields, the peanuts in the ground, the flowers that the bees pollinate to make the honey, and so forth. No matter what they eat, I told them, it is simply energy that has been converted to some other form that we ingest to keep our own lives sustained.

            As I’ve mentioned in past letters, I feel the biggest reason I’ve been able to change my perspective on life so much has a great deal to do with trying to cultivate five crucial qualities in my life: love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience. Though I never intentionally meant to put that characteristic of gratitude in the middle, it’s interesting that it is. I think it fits well in the center because to have gratitude for all things in our lives keeps us grounded and tethered to all of existence and helps us appreciate all of the beauty and bounty in our lives. While I never was one to say “grace” before meals out of religious sentiment when I was younger, I feel that I do now yet in a different way. I typically begin each meal with three deep breaths. On the first, I remind myself that I am grateful for all of life holistically, from the sun that beams its way through space to our planet to the food that is grown because of it. On the second inhalation I reflect on all of the people who made the meal possible, from the farmers who harvested the wheat to the bakers who made the bread—even the cashier at the grocery store who allowed me to take it home, every single person in that chain of being is important because without them my food would not be possible. On the final breath I am grateful for the food itself, which—in another beatific miracle of nature—will be converted by my digestive system into energy that will sustain my body, mind, and spirit. I cannot even begin to describe the rapture I feel while eating my meals now because of the simple reflection of gratitude that comes beforehand.

            Carl Sagan once said in order to make an apple pie you first have to create the universe. He was a brilliant astronomer/cosmologist and this insight is so true yet often overlooked. As human beings, we have a tendency to focus on the small matters of our lives rather than the grandeur of life itself. This isn’t to belittle the small matters of our lives, but to recognize that they are not of consequence when it comes to the big picture. We are all part of a miraculous chain of being, and whether we choose to acknowledge or ignore that fact can make all the difference in how we view ourselves and our contribution to the miracle of life that surrounds us at all times. Though we are only specks of cosmic dust in the 15 billion light year diameter of the known/observable universe, we are part of an amazingly complex web of life on this planet. Perhaps if we were to recognize this fact on a daily basis we might be more willing to appreciate others as part of the same miracle. I cannot begin to explain how being grateful for all of life has changed me, but it has. I owe a debt of gratitude to many, many people, from my family and friends, to my students and teachers, especially teachers like Professor Wysong who were instrumental in shaping my appreciation and thinking concerning the mysteries of the universe. I am also grateful for you, NIP. Without you I’d have no real reason to write these letters. It is my ardent hope that this one and others have brought you some measure of solace and inspiration. Be grateful for life and your particular place in it. Whether you realize it or not, you play a pivotal role in the miracle that surrounds you.

If you have some time and skies are clear tonight, go do a little stargazing, NIP.

- Ryan

P.S. - Mentioning Carl Sagan made me think of an animated piece a student shared with me last year. I think it puts the miracle of life on this planet into perspective quite nicely. Hope you enjoy it, NIP.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Help Wanted? Inquire Within

How are you, NIP?

            Well, I hope. Life has been a little on the rough side lately, as it seems that challenges continually arise from one moment to the next these last few weeks. I like challenges, though, because they are a continual reminder that I have so much work to do in my own life. Each one to arise is another lesson in the art of living well, constantly reinforcing the paramount question of ethics, “How am I to live?” I’m not sure that there is any one single answer to that question, mainly because life and the challenges we face are too dynamic for a categorical response (Kant might say otherwise). Be that as it may, I have found a source of inspiration and strength that goes beyond words, which is what I hope to share with you in this brief letter, NIP.

            In the last letter I wrote, I said that—substantively speaking—I am a “Jesusist.” I grew up as a Christian in the Roman Catholic Church, and still have much respect for it because it will always be my roots, my home, in terms of my initial inculcation into the mystery of the sacred. After studying religion for many years at the university level, that respect branched out to all other cultural incarnations of the concept of the sacred, to the point that I cannot and will not elevate one over another. Who am I, after all, other than a simple person with a very finite understanding of what life is and all that its mystery entails. When asked what my religion is, I often say “none,” but I could just as easily say “all.” I often think of the Dalai Lama’s answer: “My religion is kindness”; perhaps even better is Ziggy Marley’s statement in a song of the same name, “Love is my religion.” And when one thinks about these statements, they are in some sense the essence of Jesus’ teachings in the synoptic Gospels (and with many other spiritual sages such as Siddhartha, Lao-Tzu, etc). But I’ve always had a difficult time putting into words what that term “Jesusist” means to me; it was something I felt more than analytically understood.

            This past week, however, the words I had been searching for were explained in great detail by Stephen Mitchell, a famous translator who has done work on the Tao Te Ching, The Book of Job, and The Bhagavad Gita (my favorite translation that I often read). The book that I am currently reading, however, is The Gospel According to Jesus, which effectively clears away the clutter of early evangelical accretions. Having studied the Gospels in the koine Greek in which they were written, my views of the texts had been fundamentally altered. Many of the issues that I could never directly put my finger on yet intuitively felt in my heart have been made clear by Mitchell’s exquisite scholarship. Time and again Mitchell makes cross cultural comparisons with other wisdom literature to Jesus’ insights, all of which only add to the beauty and depth of Jesus’ sagacity. To be a “Jesusist,” then, is to place primacy on his social ministry, his fundamental teachings (parables, Sermon on the Mount, etc) rather than the dogma and doctrine that was added by others decades and centuries later.

            While there are many passages I like in the synoptic Gospels, Mitchell’s book time and again returned to one of my favorites (Luke 17:21): “The kingdom of God is within you.” When one reflects on all of the times this teaching comes up, it makes perfect sense that this is his primary lesson for human beings to learn (which is not easy, to be sure). And this brings me to my main point—mindfulness/meditation is perhaps the best way to cultivate this awareness. As someone who has been practicing mindfulness meditation for nearly 3 years, I can say with assuredness that the practice has profoundly changed me for the better. While I know I have much work to be done in terms of becoming a better husband, a better brother, a better son, a better teacher, a better friend, a better human being in general, I can also say that I’ve made tremendous inroads toward these goals because of the practice. I still consider myself a novice, to be sure, but there are moments…moments when the discursive mind settles into a state of equilibrium and—though brief these moments may be—a profound, quiescent state of calm equanimity emerges. There are no words for the feeling, precisely because it is an experience and not an explanation. If there were words that come close, they would be Jesus’ insistence that all we ever need is within; a close second would be Howard Thurman’s phrase of “God comes to the quiet mind.”

            Whether you are a religious person or not, NIP, I would strongly suggest you begin a mindfulness practice. While there is a huge body of scientific evidence that illustrates its efficacy in myriad aspects (stress reduction, emotional control, improved working memory, etc) of our lives, none of those can come close to the reservoir of resiliency we build within ourselves over time. This cultivated quiescence becomes a source of strength to which we can turn inwardly at any time. It is always there, waiting to be tapped. And once you do, you will perhaps find that it is inexhaustible. Facing the current challenges in my life have been all the more rewarding because I have been able to put them in the proper perspective: they are lessons to be learned from the greatest teacher we all share, life itself. Every time we settle into any moment mindfully, even for a single minute, it’s a chance for us to get into touch with that eternal source; whether we call it the Higher Self (the Gita), Witness Mind (the yoga sutras), or the Kingdom of God (the Gospels/Jesus), they are all appellations for the same experience, one that transcends words and touches the ground of being, the sacred, the essence of all of life itself.

If you need help with any aspect of your life, NIP, look no further than within yourself.

Namaste and Pax Vobiscum,

- Ryan

P.S. – While I could never find the exact words to describe my take on being a “Jesusist,” I think these words by Leo Tolstoy come really close (interestingly enough, Tolstoy had a profound conversion experience late in life, much of which he writes about in his lesser known yet incredible book, The Kingdom of God is Within You):

That (Jesus’) teaching tells us nothing about the beginning, or about the end, of the world, or about God and His purpose, or in general about things which we cannot, and need not, know; but it speaks only of what man must do to save himself, that is, how to best live the life he has come into, in this world, from birth to death. For this purpose it is only necessary to treat others as we wish them to treat us. In that is all the Law and the prophets, as Jesus said. And to act that way, we need neither icons, nor relics, nor church services, nor priests, nor catechisms, nor governments, but on the contrary, we need perfect freedom from all of that; for to treat others as we wish them to treat us is possible only when a man is free from the fables which the priests give out as the truth, and is not bound by promises to act as other people may order. Only such a man will be capable of fulfilling, not his own will nor that of other men, but the will of God.   

P.P.S. (updated 9/14) - One of my students asked me about whether or not I had seen this video the day after I originally posted this letter. I was shocked to hear Chaplin mention the very same line I mentioned in this letter, which is part of the reason I am sharing it with you (the main part of the reason is simply that it's a good message).