Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What I've Learned

It’s been a while, NIP…

            I apologize for the two month hiatus. Life has been rather hectic lately, and I will be sure to write about it in my next letter. What you will find below is more of a speech for the 2013 graduates of DHS, the school at which I work. For the last several years, we have held an Honor Court Banquet for the top students and they usually chose a special guest speaker. I had been anticipating being selected again and had for some time thought about what I would have liked to say, only to discover that they were changing the format and there would no longer be a special guest speaker as part of the program. Needless to say, I was rather bummed by this news. I had hoped to try something new by just speaking from my heart, but I never got that chance. So, in an effort to reach out and still say what has been on my mind for some time, I decided to write a speech and record it for my students or anyone else who would like to watch it (hint, hint, that’s you, NIP!).

Congrats 2013 Durant Seniors…you will be missed more than you know.
      - H.  

Dear 2013 DHS Grad / NIP,

     I have heard that the first step on the road to recovery is admitting one has a problem. If that is true, then I guess I should begin by saying, “Hello, my name is Ryan, and I am an addict.” My addiction is rather severe, and I have been hooked for as long as I can remember. Though some people might think I have a rather innocuous compulsion, others may believe that my condition is serious and leads to complications with living. I happen to rather enjoy my habit and view it as falling between the two extremes—harmless overall with occasional bouts of bewilderment. So what is my addiction? Learning. And in an effort to offer some insight to the drug that is inquiry in all its forms, I hope to share with you what I’ve learned.

     I am nearly 38 years old at this point, and have lived a sufficient amount of time to have gleaned a modicum of wisdom from my obsession. And though it may be true that I am a learner in the universal sense, I will confine myself to two areas of special interest—religion and science. While many people consider these two topics completely incongruent, I hope to illustrate that they are not only similar, but in fact two methods of inquiry that inevitably arrive at the same fundamental conclusion if one delves deeply enough into each.

     I first became fascinated with the concept of the Sacred when I was five years old after my mother took me to see the original Clash of the Titans. Though I was raised Catholic and found my first foray into religion fascinating, I also greedily gobbled up books of magnificent mythological tales, attended occasional Eckankar meetings with my grandmother, and generally felt at home in any house of worship.

     Disillusionment set in when my parents got divorced, however, and I spent my teens and early twenties looking for logical, coherent explanations in the realms of science and philosophy. It came as a surprise to many, then, when I abruptly switched my majors from Philosophy and Mathematics to Religious Studies and Classics. Though I did not understand at the time, I have come to realize that the initial impulse I felt during my youth had never left, that the Sacred acted upon me with some strange gravity that I could not, cannot, and will not ever fully comprehend nor be able to accurately portray in words. The nature of the ineffable transcends terms and defies description, but that does not make it any less real when intuitively apprehended by our hearts and minds.

     Seeking answers to my questions, I spent more than a decade studying humanity’s various expressions of religiosity and they have moved me deeply. My students sometimes ask what my religion is and I have no honest answer. In one sense I feel I have crossed the boundaries of traditional religion and don’t necessarily believe in any of them in an orthodox manner, yet in the same breath I will admit that in some way I believe in all of the major faith traditions of the world. If anything, my religion is a complex pastiche of pragmatic beliefs that have concerted to effect a change in me for the better, which one could claim is the purpose of all religions.

     Hinduism taught me about the symbiotic unity of the pantheistic presence and pulchritude pulsing through all life. Hinduism also gave me yoga, which has not only allowed me to reunite my mind and body, but brought about the recognition of my existence as an integral part of the oneness in this web of wonder we call life. Through the practice of meditation and the dharma, Siddhartha showed me how to be an agent in my own awakening, giving me the clarity to cut through the clouds of suffering and delusion known as dukkha. Jainism instructed me to alleviate and prevent suffering by being non-violent not only physically, but verbally and emotionally as well. Lao-Tzu’s sagacious advice allowed me to constantly commune with nature and seek out the Tao’s wisdom of wu-wei whispered in the winds. Confucian ideals instilled in me the importance of serving and educating others, in addition to seeking harmony in all social relationships. Judaism tutored me in the art of asking questions, constantly grappling with one’s faith, and having chutzpah to stand up for oneself and others in the face of injustice. Jesus counseled me in the ways of patience, persistence, passion, and—perhaps most importantly—doing my best to love everyone openly and freely. Islam’s lessons fostered honesty, modesty, and integrity, while its focus on charity for those less fortunate helped me realize the importance of aligning one’s life with the numinous reality rather than the mindless materialism that consumes so many others.

     And while all of these contributions are integral to my spiritual life and worldview, they could just as easily be summed up by the common threads that tie all of the world’s major religions together: to do our best to lead ethical lives through the cultivation of virtues such as love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience; to welcome and treat others—even total strangers—with the same dignity and respect one would have for family and friends; to help, support, encourage, and serve others in whatever capacity we can, whenever assistance is needed.

     Religion has certainly taught me much over the years, but so has the pursuit of scientific knowledge. As a sophomore in high school I was instantly enamored with Chemistry, even going so far as to contemplate becoming a chemical engineer. What I especially loved about science 20 years ago was the certainty with which it espoused its claims. I came to discover, though, that on the grandest and most miniscule of scales, science is much like the minds of human beings in that it is fallible and prone to revision in the wake of new discoveries. Beyond my traditional scientific training, I have continued to read heavily in the areas of cosmology and quantum physics, ever fascinated by the mysteries of the potential multiverse in which we live.

     Then again, the area of science that has had me spellbound the last several years is neuroscience. Humanity has made incredible progress toward understanding the brain, and I have done my best to harness the benefits of these discoveries to help myself and others, especially my students. Out of all the knowledge I’ve cultivated from the cognitive sciences in recent years, one fact towers above others in its ramifications for how we shape and view our lives—neuroplasticity.

     The human brain is rather malleable as it turns out, which directly contradicts the older views that one’s capabilities, dispositions and the like became fixed and rigid by a certain age. In reality, we are very much what we constantly reinforce in our minds. Almost every single book I have read on the subject repeats the troupe of “neurons that fire together, wire together.” This is why I believe mindfulness meditation practices can help so many people. If we are willing to develop the power and focus of our minds to choose the thoughts that are most beneficial to ourselves and others, we become architects of our destinies. Why be passive recipients of circumstance when we can become active agents who work to sculpt our own magnum opus out of life’s beauty and bounty? By selecting and strengthening thoughts that foster positive habits of mind, we all have the potential to fundamentally alter our lives for the better.

     Perhaps what is most intriguing about probing the depths and expanse of space or the sub-atomic realms is that these ruminations have instilled in me the same sense of awe and majesty that I feel in moments when the Sacred is present and palpable. Many people may make the mistake of thinking science is the opposite of religion, but the truth is that they are actually complementary modes of human inquiry and understanding. Albert Einstein once remarked that “religion without science is blind; science without religion is lame” and I concur completely. Essentially, I think they are two sides of the same coin, both of which point to the paradoxical nature of the only single absolute truth that I have been able to discern in what I’ve learned thus far—that we are alive. One does not have to choose a correct side of the coin to comprehend or appreciate this ultimate fact. To demand one worldview over the other invariably leads to dogmatism and intransigence, which stifles open dialogue and impedes understanding. When taken as a whole, however, these would-be diametrically divergent views of life and our place in it only reinforce one another. To be alive is the greatest gift we have all received, and any trifling quarrels between science and religion should be shelved in the recognition that neither one of them has a monopoly on the capacity to inspire our imaginations and fill our spirits with the sublime. Both of them may serve different purposes, but they both begin from the same premise—trying to contemplate the nature of life and our place within it.

     Once I recognized and fully grasped this paradoxical truth, I unearthed another fundamental irony that eluded me all along, one which has only heightened the sense of the Sacred in my life. While it is true that being alive is the most important of all gifts we will ever receive, it made me ponder all the more what exactly constitutes “life.” At its bare essence, the foundation of life is consciousness itself. The simple fact that there is sentience in the universe and that it alone is the engine for all of our human understanding is both plain and perplexing. Religion might call this awareness a soul, science may claim it as an emergent property of the brain—something that not been proven, as there are no apparent physical, measurable correlates for consciousness—but neither of these suppositions change the fact that consciousness exists. Quite simply, consciousness is responsible for everything we think we know.

     But what do we know? Yet again another fundamental irony emerges when we realize that our knowledge is something generated within. All understanding of ourselves and the phenomena external to us is predicated on language, and at best words are clumsy conventions that we attach to ourselves, others, and objects in an effort to communicate and comprehend. Far too often, though, we misguidedly take these empty abstractions to be more substantial and solid than the reality of which we are directly aware through the interplay of consciousness and its interpretive sensory inputs. What’s worse, we are often apt to use words as weapons, labeling and denigrating those with whom we disagree. Words are helpful, to be sure, but when we allow them to distract us from the totality of a person or our experience of life they only act as impediments to our intuitive wisdom.

     Ultimately, we must be careful not to let ourselves become full of intellectual hubris. By recognizing that all of humanity’s knowledge and wisdom arises within our individual and collective consciousnesses, it frees us from the confines of the need to be right and focuses us squarely on the simple fact that we are. And what are we? Living, breathing, sentient beings who have been given a discerning intellect that allows us to probe, to wonder, to inquire, to communicate, to love. As philosophy taught me a long time ago, it is not the answers at which we arrive but the questions we ask. And the more questions I ask, the deeper I sink into the marvel of what it means to be alive, to be human, to have been given this incredible gift of life. It stands to reason that if we have all been given this gift, it imbues us all with a certain sense of dignity as individuals along with an inherent measure of respect for and responsibility to each other.

     What I’ve learned is that—like Socrates famously quipped—“I know nothing.” True, I have my personal beliefs, but beliefs and knowledge are two concepts that are separated by a vast ocean of difference. I will admit that I have learned a great deal in my first 38 years of existence, but no matter how many thousands of books I will have read by the time this corporeal consciousness vehicle expires not one iota of those abstractions could ever be more real or valuable than the direct perception of phenomena through the lens of sentience. This, I think, is the strange gravity I felt as a child. In moments when the mind is completely still, consciousness arrives at a place where there are no words, no explanations, only ephemeral, ecstatic experience. Call it the Sacred, call it God, call it Life, call it what you will, all those labels fail precisely because in the flashing, fleeting instances we feel most alive there is only consciousness arriving at the ground of being. In those placid points of intersection between becoming and being, perceiver and perceived, consciousness rests in a state of wholeness in which all subject-object duality falls away and we come into direct contact with all that is.

     What more does one really need to know other than this? There can be nothing more amazing than simply being alive, a fact that far too many people take for granted due to a misguided view that they “know” everything and that life makes perfect, logical sense. It is an easy enough mistake to make, mainly because I did it too for the middle third of my life. The truth is that the miraculous and the mundane are one and the same, and it is only a matter of how an individual chooses to see this truth. Some people are more impressed by the latest material goods, but I find all of our technological innovations largely a distraction from what matters most—the other sentient beings who have been given the same gift that we all have.

     My passion for learning has taught me innumerable things, but none as elemental or important as appreciating the fact that I am alive. To me, this is where all learning should be grounded, and I would encourage you to learn as much as possible because it ultimately leads to a sense of radical humility. It is difficult not to be humbled by the mysterious, marvelous life of which we are all playing an important part. And if you are not addicted to learning, then I would hope you pursue your personal passion the best of your ability.

     This life that you have been given is your one shot to make the most of yourself and your dreams. Pursuing your passion, however, is only one half of the equation. In order to truly gain something of substance from it, you must share it with as many others as possible. Though I had not originally planned on being a teacher, it makes perfect sense that I embarked on that path because it has allowed me to share my love of learning and hopefully instill it in my students. By sharing what we love with others I believe we become fully human and are well on our way to achieving what Aristotle called eudaemonia, which is often translated as “happiness” yet is more accurately described as “human flourishing.” Whatever word you choose to describe this process, be rest assured that you will “feel” it happening in your life more than you will “know” it through any intellection. But it all begins and ends with the simple, powerful fact that you are alive. This is a fact not to be dismissed nor ever taken for granted. Ideally, you will wake from this day forward grateful to have been given another day, another chance to work at becoming a better person. What you have done with this most incredible gift up to this point may have been extraordinary or less than so, but that does not matter. It doesn’t matter because every new day—each new moment, in fact—is pregnant with potential for us to begin our life’s great work, and I wish you all the best in transforming your dearest dreams into your living reality.

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