The Third Face of God

I have been struggling with a dilemma for many years. The more my consciousness evolved, the less likely traditional theology and religion were satisfying and meaningful. The symbols of my faith tradition lost their efficacy and potency. The hymns sung as part of the devotional practice of my church did not inspire spiritual awareness. Prayer became less important than meditative practice. I could not reconcile the faith of my childhood with the developing post modern view found in revelations of Integral spirituality, with its inclusion of Eastern religions and meditative practice.

I found myself in the position of many in the modern and post-modern era who would announce that they were “spiritual” but not religious.

I initially concluded that these two world views, these two theologies, were incompatible. Evolution of consciousness transcends devotional religion, I decided. What we may call the Eastern traditions, which include the teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism, are problematical to traditional Western theologies.

Western traditions separate divinity from the material secular world. The two interact, but are never the same. One need only remember the fresco which adorns the Sistine Chapel to understand this point of view. Michelangelo portrays God (the Divine essence) reaching out to, but not quite touching Adam (the human representative of the physical world). We can be in relationship with God, but we can never be Gods. Jesus is the only entity who is both divine and human.

The Eastern traditions by contrast, do not separate the material world from divinity. Everything is divine. Thus, in meditative practice, one comes to the awareness of one’s own divinity. This was considered Christian heresy in the early Church. In part, one may conclude that this was a necessary reaction to some of the religious traditions of the West in which gods and humans were combined, or the reaction to the Roman Emperors who declared that they were divine.

It was through my study of Ken Wilber’s Integral Spirituality, that I began the process of reconciling this dilemma in my own spiritual practice. Wilber integrates these theological traditions in his descriptions of the three faces of God. It may make more sense to translate “face” as “experience of,” or “manifestation of.” The three faces of God are infinite God; intimate god; and inner god.

Infinite God is the God described in the Old and New Testaments who is high and lifted up. This is the God of Moses burning bush whose very name cannot be spoken without potential consequences. This is the God who reveals Himself through Jesus, but who can never be fully known. This is the God who is worshipped through religious behaviors of devotion. This is the God of our historical tradition who demands obedience, and to whom we bring offerings, hymns, and commitment to a lifestyle. This is the God I feared as a youngster in the conservative church in which I was raised. This is the God I learned to love when my mother took me out of the sermons of hell and brimstone, and introduced me to a different understanding in a different church.

In that new church of my adolescent years, I came to experience the second face of God: Intimate God. This was the “face” of God revealed through Jesus of Nazareth. I began to develop a prayer life in which it was very clear that I was in a relationship with my God. I did things, not out of fear of punishment, but out of love for someone who first loved me, and sacrificed for my forgiveness. I did not want to disappoint this God. This relationship propelled me into a decision to dedicate my life to full time Christian service and ministry.

It was in theological school, some years later that I first began to experience confusion and doubt. Perhaps it was part of systematic theology studies, or looking at the New Testament in a more scientific way to determine its origins. My faith sustained me through most of my doubts well into midlife. However, during this time I also discovered transpersonal psychology (which later became part of Integral psychology) and Eastern traditions. And then, through meditative practice, I began to work actively on my evolution of consciousness.

This brought me ultimately to understand and experience the third Face of God: Inner God. This was the experience of my own divinity, as part of everything which is divine.

This is referred to as “no boundary” or “One Taste” in Integral spirituality. The separation of reality into spiritual and material; sacred and secular, falls away. The problem is that my church had not evolved along with me. My minister still talked only about the first two faces of God. The devotional practices of my church lost their meaning because the Third Face of God was missing on Sunday mornings. When asked by close friends “What are you, religiously speaking”? I could only react by saying “I guess I am a Christian/Buddhist.” This was an unsatisfying answer to me. And I missed my Church. I was not looking for a Sangha instead.

Paul Smith, in his book “Integral Christianity” helped me to move through this period of confusion. I began to understand that I needed to overcome the dichotomy between my childhood and adolescent experience of God, and the evolution of my consciousness into the awareness of my own divinity. It did not have to be either/or. It could be both/and. I could participate in the religious practices of my church which are oriented to the First and Second Faces of God, while still recognizing that there was more. It was the evolution from fear, to love, to self awareness. I didn’t have to exclude devotional practice, I could include it with meditative practice.

In Eastern traditions this is the journey of the bodhisattva, the enlightened being who returns to the world with “bliss bestowing hands.” It is an awe inspiring journey. I have much work to do. Recognizing that I am one of the “Faces of God” and perhaps the only face of God some people will ever see, fills me with a sense of great responsibility. I fall so short of putting my own beliefs/awareness/evolution of consciousness into practice. It makes me want to say:”Oh well, I’m only human.”

 

APOCOLYPTIC VAUDEVILLE

The title of this production at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA, portrays a strange juxtaposition. Yet, these two concepts have been linked for a very long time.

The essence of the connection is that humans have responded to overwhelming catastrophe, or pending doom through the ages, by engaging in a variety of defense mechanisms: diverting attention; denial; ignoring; and in some cases–song and dance. This reaction is familiar when you consider it. When nothing seems to be able to be done, rather than slopping into paralysis, or depression, or running away while screaming, it may seem better to just become cavalier. Something about “thumbing one’s nose at it.” Whistling past the graveyard. Pretending to be brave. Reminds me of the movie in which Gene
Wilder and Richard Prior portray characters forced to spend some time in a jail filled with the worst of the worst criminals. They walk through the bad guys portraying themselves to be “bad” –“we bad, we bad” they chant, announcing that they are “street wise” thugs, in hopes that they will not be attacked.

This is the basis of the musical performed at the A.R.T.

The theater is intimate. The staging is minimal. The music is provided by a solo pianist who remains hidden to the audience. Not Broadway…Off Broadway… Avant-garde.

The audience learns from the Playbill that the performance is based on the aftermath of the powerful and damaging storm that struck the east coast of the US, hurricane Sandy. It portends the coming era of climate change with the potential for even more devastation. This topic of climate change has been featured at the A.R.T. through a partnership with the Harvard Center for the Environment.

The musical begins. Flashing lights, loud claps of thunder. The sound of high winds and things breaking.

The curtain opens to a ragamuffin individual who is dragging/rowing a life raft to a small bit of dry land. He is dressed in the traditional vaudevillian outfit of baggy pants and bowler hat. Just as he begins to settle into this respite by spreading a colorful picnic blanket on the ground, he is surprised by the appearance of yet another, older, more ragged individual who has taken shelter in a large box. The action is pantomime, but it is clear that the older guy is some sort of miscreant, grumpy old man, depressed, forlorn, and wishing to be alone.

They are the last two people on earth.

There is a halting, tentative interaction between them. The older one looks and acts depressed. The younger is more playful, engaging, outgoing, as he attempts to coax the older one into a song and dance.

Perhaps these are the two options for all in these circumstances: depression and hopelessness or playfulness and spunk.

The younger picks up two canes from the life raft. He gives one to his scowling companion and they break into song. There are some thirty songs, interspersed with dance in this production.

The songs lead to funny moments, poignant moments, and sad moments.

Some are familiar and modern. Others are taken from a different era, reminiscent of the roaring twenties of vaudeville. Others are from Broadway or popular music.

They all seem to have the theme of responding to troubled times with a “devil may care” attitude.

The first song is an old one from Irving Berlin: “The weather is frightening, The thunder and lightning. Seem to be having their way. But as far as I am concerned, It’s a lovely day. Isn’t this a lovely day to be caught in the rain?”

Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen): “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide. No escape from reality…Anyway the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me.”

(Kingston Trio): “They’re rioting in Africa—da da da da da da. There’s strife in Iran. The whole world is festering with unhappy souls…”

(Eddie Lawrence) Questions are posed of ridiculous mishaps followed by “Is that what’s bothering you brother? Then lift your head up high and take a walk in the sun. Never give up, Never give up…that ship!”

And so it goes for 90 minutes without a break.

I think of other connections in which history is filled with references to song and catastrophe. Nero playing while Rome burns. Musicians aboard the Titanic. Jazz at funerals in New Orleans.

Do all musicians struggle with this?

I am left wondering if I have gotten the real meaning of the performance. It is not depressing, though it would seem to be. Perhaps it is a tribute to the unsinkable Molly Brown in all of us. Or perhaps it points out clearly that we can’t agree upon the consequences of human activity on global warming and the potential disaster that awaits. So we sing and dance about what is real and what is fantasy.

The final song is sung as the last two humans paddle through the stormy seas in their life boat, to an uncertain destination, and inevitable death:

“Row, row, row your boat, Gently down the stream, Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, Life is but a dream.”

It was Voltaire, the 17th Century French philosopher who summed it all up: “Life is a shipwreck…. Those in the lifeboats must not forget to sing.”

Thankfulness

How amazing to be alive in another time of struggle and opportunity.

It is always thus,

No matter when.

How thankful we should be for our incredible human brain and our capacity for consciousness.

Evolution paid us forward with incredible capacity for good or ill. It is time to pay this debt as best we can.

We cannot fix the troubled world we see, but we can give and love those whom we already know, and share our awakening with them.

So show up, wake up, grow up for all sentient beings past, present, and future.

And God, thank you for another chance,

for another day, season, year, and the wonder of our beautiful family gathered here.

Another chance to be with bliss bestowing hands.

Incredible gifts, amazing grace awaits

We bow in deep gratitude and thanksgiving.

 

History of Me

Some call it luck.
Some see the “Hand of God”.
Others call it “Fate.”
And there is “hard work” too.
No matter
It is all of these,
blending, merging, pushing against, and working with.
I am blessed by all these–
their manifestation leaving behind
the history of me.

THE WINTERS OF OUR DISCONTENTS

Clouds hide the platform on which the Inti Raymi is performed. It is the Festival of the Sun performed by the shaman priests of Macchu Picchu, high in the Andes mountains of Peru. The procession materializes out of the billowing clouds. Elaborate headdresses and flowing robes appear. The sound of the Peruvian flute wafts across the ridgetop. When the clouds dissipate, a breathtaking view emerges of distant valleys and rivers, some thousands of feet below, with mountain peaks beyond, framing the scene. It is amazing to think that people actually thrived here, clinging to the sides of the mountain ridge.

They have come to perform the ancient ritual to secure the sun in its flight from the heavens by attaching it to the large column of stone called the Intihuatana (in-tee-wha-tan-ya), the “hitching post of the sun.” In Inca mythology, this ceremony prevented the sun from disappearing altogether below the horizon on the shortest day of the year.

As we approach the shortest day of the year in our hemisphere, December 21st, I wonder if our culture also needs to perform rituals to make certain that the sun will return to us as well. Steeped in modernity, with my scientific understanding of the rotating wobble of our planet around the sun, I am reassured that the days will grow longer and the nights shorter as we progress through the calendar year towards summer.

We humans have developed a variety of festivals, holidays, rituals, and other celebrations, focused on this important day in the year. The Winter solstice is the day in which the sun appears, at noon, at its lowest altitude above the horizon. Neolithic archeological sites such as Stonehenge identify the interest our ancestors had in marking this day.

The following months, January through April, were known, up until modern times, as the famine months. Many did not make it through those tough times when food was scarce. Some archeologists suggest that many of the celebrations associated with this day, were the result of needing to cull the herds before this long season. Feeding livestock through the long winter months was not common. Thus fresh meat was available at this time. In addition, the fermenting wines and beers, prepared during the end of the summer harvest, would be ready to consume about this point in the year. A celebration of a successful year and a preparation for the winter to come, seems an appropriate mix.

We moderns have a mix of responses to this time of the year as well. There are certainly elements of celebration: “Tis the season to be jolly…”; office parties abound; New Year’s Eve is the occasion for revelry; and so on.

We have also designated this as a time of increasing concern, anxiety, and even depression: seasonal affective disorder; the holiday blues; dread of winter approaching.

These are our months of emotional famine. Shakespeare identified this, in Richard III, in his phrase the “winter of our discontent…” though he was referring to historical political events in British Royal history.

I suspect we need this mix of celebration and preparation. We do seem a bit heavy on the celebration part, to the detriment of preparation. Some additional attention to preparing for the winters of our discontents would be useful. This might include grearing up on information, strategies of coping, or mindsets to practice. In particular, we can focus on our connectedness to friends and family. This can be our version of the Intihuatana, the hitching post of the sun, to make certain that we will have the experience of our winter discontents “made summer” by maintaining these connections.

And so, as we celebrate this special time, let us also prepare by wrapping ourselves in the warmth of great friends and a loving family, to guard against the cold of whatever winters lie ahead.

PROOF OF HEAVEN: TWO STORIES

In 1964 my wife had a near death experience following a tubal pregnancy that ruptured. She had coded upon arrival to the emergency room. After her recovery, she reported that during the time the medical team was working on reviving her, she experienced being in Heaven, and being held in the arms of God. It was clear to her that she had a choice between staying in a comforting embrace surrounded by light and loving warmth, or returning to her previous life. Her choice was to return. This is the first story of Heaven.

As a doctoral student in psychology, I remember being uncomfortable when my wife would talk about her experience with my associates. They would immediately offer explanations for her experience which were biologically based on brain processes or chemistry. They were dismissive of her mystical experience, considering it to be some sort of psychological issue. This is a version of the second story.

There is a universal truth about such conflicting stories. Neither can be proven. What counts for scientific proof is actually a belief system, just as a personal mystical experience understood through a religious faith, is a belief system. The choice is left to the observer, to determine which system will be used to understand.

My wife spoke less and less about this event as the years passed. She often remarked that people seemed either politely skeptical, or uncomfortable when hearing her story.

Over the years, there have been increasing accounts of personal mystical journeys to Heaven published in books and articles. I know of at least five books which document such journeys made by ordinary persons or even a child. There are remarkable similarities in all of these accounts.

One of the most recent of these books directly addresses the scientific conclusion that brain processes and chemistry account for the reported experiences of being in Heaven during a near death experience. The book was written by a neurosurgeon, Eban Alexander, MD, who has his medical degree from Harvard University. In his book “Proof of Heaven” he documents that his brain cortex was not functional for at least one week, due to a medical emergency. An infection had entered his brain and was destroying it. The sensors monitoring brain activity flat lined during his coma. There was therefore no biological basis for his experience of being with God, yet that was what he reported when he recovered. One can imagine that his scientifically minded colleagues would certainly be skeptical and dismissive.

This clash of two stories was explored in the wonderful novel “Life of Pi.” The author proposed that the reader will “find God” through this story. For those who have not had the opportunity to read the novel, or did not see the motion picture, the story is told of a teenager from Delhi, named Pi. The main story begins aboard a ship destined for Canada with Pi, his family, and the animals from their family zoo. The ship is disabled and sunk during a violent storm at sea, leaving Pi with four of the animals aboard a life boat as the only survivors. The predatory animal attacks the other two and is in turn killed by the Bengal Tiger. Pi is left alone in a small raft with a tiger for over 200 days of drifting at sea. He miraculously survives and is washed ashore along with the tiger, who then disappears into the jungle and is never seen again.

When the representatives from the shipping company come to interview Pi, he initially tells them the story of his survival with the tiger. The representatives are immediately skeptical. No one could survive such an ordeal, they say. They ask Pi to tell them an alternative story which is more believable. A story they can present to their home office and to the insurance adjusters.

Pi then tells a second story of three people, not animals, on the life boat who succumbed to starvation; injury sustained during the sinking of the ship; violence; and the threat of cannibalism. The reader is left to conclude that the tiger was actually a manifestation of Pi’s aggression and will to survive.

Pi then asks the representatives which story they believe. Neither can be proven. That is also the essence of the truth about near death experiences.

Two stories about Heaven will continue to be told. One is told by people who describe light, warmth, bliss, heavenly beings, or loved ones who have died. The other is told by skeptics and scientifically oriented persons who continue to look for more logical and physically based reasons for reported mystical experiences of heaven. Which story is true? It is up to the audience to choose.

These two stories of proof of heaven are still being told. Recent scientific research demonstrates that laboratory animals, when euthanized, exhibit a spike of brain activity as the point of death. The scientists conclude that this parallels human experiences of near death, and therefore is proof of brain chemistry as the basis of mystical experiences.

But those who hear this story with a religious faith system, come to a different conclusion. They suggest that scientists may have discovered that animals must be able to experience God too.

AT THE BRAIN GYM

Exercise keeps your brain young. That’s what the experts are telling us.

Adding brain exercise to physical exercise in how highly recommended. With a more nimble, oxygenated brain, the chances of developing memory loss, and other age related difficulties, are lessened. However, what is a fitness exercise for the brain? Used loosely, the term might include everything we do during waking hours. Perhaps the analogy of physical exercise helps. While walking is helpful, running leads to higher levels of fitness. In the same way, ordinary life experiences are helpful, but some exercises target cognitive processes directly.

I had the following experience in exploring this subject. I, for instance, enjoy solving one Sudoku puzzle a day, but that is not enough to count as a brain fitness exercise program. I inquired about what might be available to add to what I already do. What should be included in brain fitness exercises? Who develops these programs? Are they based on research? Where would I find them? I wasn’t aware of anyone I could ask. I hadn’t seen any brain gyms around.

Well, I discovered that brain gyms do exist, on-line. These are mainly commercial web sites that charge membership fees. I looked into: lumosity; brainTivity;, and MindSparke.

The testimonials are interesting for lumosity. Most of the users appear to be in their 20s and 30s. They say they have benefitted from the focus on attention; memory; speed; problem solving; and flexibility. I was surprized to see among the testimonials, a picture of one woman who was sitting with two large Bengal tigers inside their cage. She stated that she “liked a challenge.” Perhaps the developers of the program should add “common sense” to the categories in their program.

BrainTivity offers prizes for winning competitions in memory and attention. They say you can “get a full brain workout in only minutes.” If I am running late, can I get half a brain done in less time?

MindSparke states that they can help with your career, or test prep through “unparalleled training for your hippocampus.” Their program is “like a boot camp for the brain.”

I did find one on-line brain gym that targeted my age group: brain.AARP.org. I liked the fact that they offered a free trial. So I signed on to sample exercises designed to: focus on attention; increase brain speed; improve memory; enhance people skills; and sharpen intelligence.

In general, the programs I found do seem viable, well designed, and based on research protocols. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to join a brain gym. I already practice one frustrating eye-hand coordination exercise called golf.

Though it may not seem likely, a recent report suggested that playing ordinary video games might fend off degenerative brain processes. My grandkids tell me I have to get some game apps for my phone. Frankly, I find myself thinking about getting rid of the flock of seagulls who gather on my boat this time of the year, rather than angry birds on my phone. Candy Crush Saga? What kind of game can that be?

There are free collections of brain puzzles on-line to practice reasoning and logic. You will find them on “Addicting Games.com.” Some of these are fun. Some are frustrating. Some are impossible!

After reviewing everything I had explored, I knew there was only one course of action. The benefit of exercise comes from regular and consistant practice, and having someone else with whom you can share the experience. So I’m heading for the AARP brain gym, rather than trying to put a program together myself.

Now if I can just talk some of my friends into joining…..without implying that their brains are getting…..uhmmm……fat.

LEGACY

A legacy is traditionally defined as a gift, or an inheritance of money or property. The term dates from the 15th Century in England during the era when citizens began to accumulate property or wealth, which could be passed down to the next generation. The term has evolved to include other gifts as well. I received a different kind of legacy just the other day.

I had spent the morning of a very hot day, doing yard work. My soaked shirt proclaimed that the humidity was really high. I was covered with speckles of dirt and grass clippings, and my torn work shorts were smudged by work gloves. I suspect those who know me from my professional settings would not have recognized me that day.

I think it was around noon, when I took a break, to run an errand to a local convenience store. While there I remembered that I also wanted to fill the tires of my car, since they looked a bit too soft. This was my beach car, with age and mileage showing. (Just like me, I suppose).

Having left in a rush, I neglected to take any change with me, and of course, the tire pump outside the store only took quarters. This is one the the unforeseen consequences of living in the modern era where credit cards can be used most everywhere. So I looked in the glove compartment, where I was able to find a small collection of pennies, nickels and dimes.

I went back into the store and was counting pennies and placing them in stacks of five, when a 30-something came to the counter to pay for a coffee he had just gotten. He looked at me and asked “What’s all that?” pointing to the stacks of pennies in front of me. I said “Oh, I’m just counting pennies because I need quarters…” He finished my sentence, “…for the air compressor outside!” I said “Yes”.

When he finished paying for his coffee, he gave the lady behind the counter a dollar bill with the instructions, as he nodded toward me, “Give him the quarters.” And he turned and started to walk out of the store.

I was stunned. I managed to say something like “Oh you don’t have to do that.”

But he just waved and told me to have a good day. I managed to blurt out “Thanks.” And he was gone.

Several thoughts raced through my mind. He must think I need the money. Or maybe it was just a generous, kindly thing to do.

I couldn’t decide how to feel about this extraordinary simple event. It was only later that I began to entertain the idea that this could be thought of as a legacy, of the most important kind. It really didn’t matter what he thought about me, or my situation. What mattered was that he took the action that he did. I certainly remember this event, and will for a long time. I have enjoyed looking for opportunities to pass this lagacy along.

Now this is certainly not like the legacy one sees on a program such as the Antique Roadshow. Heirlooms, passed down through generations are appraised and given staggering estimates of worth if sold at auction.

I am not sure those gifts are really important anyway, in the grand scheme of things. There aren’t many who can pass down valuable objects to future generations. And I wonder, if you receive one of these gifts, what do you do with it? Store it in a vault? I suppose it can bring a sense of connectedness to those who have gove before. But how could you possibly ever sell it? It really doesn’t belong to you. You are only the caretaker for future generations. And how do you decide which child will inherit it?

I, on the other hand, had received the legacy of a simple act of kindness. And I knew immediately what to do. I would pass it along as soon, and as often, as I could. Not that is a real gift.

The most important legacy can never be a thing. It is found in the personhood of the one who bestows the gift. Recently the comedian, Stephen Colbert, have a moving on-air tribute to his mother following her recent passing. He pointed to the values which she held and expressed, not to any thing which she had left. He appreciated and remembered her faith, gratitude, focus on family, and fun.

I suspect this is always the case. I too remember the values, traits, and acts of kindness that my parents exhibited. I value the legacy of their wisdom, and the character that showed during adversity. Those are the most precious gifts. I can only hope that the legacy I leave as a husband, parent, friend, and citizen of the world, will continue the gifts which were given to me.

ON THE BEACH

The front yard of the town I live in, is the beach. It is a fragile string of low lying dunes which struggle to hold back the surges of the north Atlantic during the winter storms. Then in the spring, the beach becomes host to migrating birds, residents, and out of towners, who drive their vehicles to a favorite spot to spend the day. Children squeal with delight, parents collapse into lounge chairs, gulls stalk scraps from picnics, as the tide encroaches or flees. The sun makes its joourney to the horizon, and “..purple velvet fingers mark the end of day.”

This almost mystical place, where land, sea and air meet, must be connected to our very distant past, when small groups of hominoids likely settled near resources for food and water. Passed down memory over thousands of years, or perhaps genetic coding, serves to make this special place feel comfortable and inviting. In our wooded town, as in much of New England, it is probably one of the few places to experience the vista of an unobstructed view of a distant horizon, which always creates moments of reflection in me.

We visit regularly with a group of close friends, usually around a bonfire, to share experiences, memories, and reflections. The wives, over the years, have been the most comfortable in bringing up the ebbs and flows or our lives. Lately though, the guys have participated more as the topic of aging has become a focus of concern. We have all begun to experience what “old” might mean.

We are all “retired”, though a couple of the group members continue to keep up with the demands of work schedules, or business management. The term “on the beach” is actually an old Royal Navy term meaning “retired from the Service.” So we gather, retirees from ordinary work and family service, on the beach of our town, to continue to connect with those we care about, those whose children grew up with ours, and those who share this era of life with its peculiar ups and downs.

This setting of the beach has long attracted poets, artists, and writers, who use it as the backdrop for their explorations into the human condition.

T.S. Elliot, for example, in his famous poem, “The Hollow Men”, describes a moribund scene of the beach as a final meeting place: “…in this last of meeting places//we grope together//and avoid speech//gathered on this beach…//this is the way the world ends//not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Unlike Eliot’s dark vision, we are a lively crew, comparing notes on this or that political issue, or biological happenstance, or trip planned to some distant place, or issue with kids and grandkids. We have not gathered to grope in silence. No whimper here either.

Laughter and spirited conversation abound. Voices rise, as those across the bonfire ask for comments or information to be repeated. We acknowledge we all need to check out our hearing—but maybe not just yet.

Nevil Shute, probably having been influenced by Eliot, chose “On The Beach” as the title of his existential novel. This work, published in 1957, describes the ending of human existence following a nuclear war. In keeping with the existential stance, the characters in the novel exhibit various choices as ways of coping with their inevitable demise, as the radioactive fallout spreads to the remaining outposts of life in the southern hemisphere.

In the novel, some of the main characters, who are in the military, seem to cling to the las vestiges of hope for survival. They set out to look for other possible survivors, or regions not contaminated by radiation. Their hopes are dashed when they find that an intermittent Morse code they have received from the American west coast is the result of a shutter in the wind. Others abandon caution and sensibility, and start participating in high risk activities, rather than passively await their demise. Yet others, in some form of denial, continue their daily routines of mundane activities such as planting and tending their gardens, opting to use the pills provided by the government when they become ill. Shute gather a bleak bouquet of possible responses to an inevitable outcome.

Our group, on our beach, agains seems very different from the vision created in the novel. Fortunately, there is no spreading cloud of radioactive fallout approaching. But we are well aware of inevitabilities. We know time is limited. The aging process has already taken some of its toll from all of us. Yes, there are shades of denial, and bucket list adventures, and submersions into the mundane in all of us. But our shared choice in response to the tides which will sweep away all our sand castles, has been evolving over the years of being together.

We choose to enjoy our weekly outing on the beach as testament to our common journey. We gether to celebrate. It is our “Life Is Good” party.

We choose to adopt the stance that the joy of life, and the response to inevitabilities, is not found in a final destination. Rather, it is a manner of traveling together. And that is what makes all the difference–as we gather– on the beach.

 

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS

Wintering in Florida, with its large population of seniors, leads one to contemplate Donne’s poem. Despite his suggestion to “ask not for whom the bell tolls”, each January, those who are returning to the same location where we stay, check in with one another. Inevitably the topic turns to determining who will not be there. It is our own version of the popular course taught by Shelly Kagan at Yale. In his course, and in his book titled starkly, “Death”, he explores several of the many perspectives which are proposed by religious faiths and secular culture.

Though there is no lengthy theological and philosophical discussion among our friends, there is the sharing of perspectives which each one holds, and a common recognition that time must be spent wisely and thankfully, for the bell “tolls for thee”.

Kagan identifies a number of perspectives on the topic of death which are alternatives to the traditional religious teachings of Christianity and the other monotheistic religions. I can understand how this exploration might stretch and challenge students into identifying and owning their own belief systems. However, I imagine this as an intellectual exercise rather than a face to face coming to terms with one’s own mortality. It becomes a personal, not intellectual, encounter as one ages. What follows is a brief review of some of the alternatives identified by Kagan.

1. Buddhism: the only thing permanent is change, therefore we must strive to exist only in the current moment.

According to tradition, the Buddha’s enlightenment included coming to understand that death was simply a part of the reality that all things change. Acceptance of that reality can release one from the struggle to cling to anything, including oneself. Our “self” or identity, so prized in western culture, in fact is an illusion of permanence. Since the self does not really exist as a permanent thing, it cannot die. What “dies” is the constructed self. It simply dissolves, as does everything else. In the words of Thich Nat Hahn: “There is no birth, there is no death, there is no coming, there is no going… there is no permanent self, there is no annihilation. We only think there is.” In this view it is as though death is an illusion of ordinary consciousness. We fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.

Though I can intellectually understand this perspective, I do not personally find it a comforting one, except from time to time in brief moments of epiphany.

2. Existentialism: The Need to Construct Meaning

This position is the direct opposite of Buddhism. Rather than death being viewed as an illusion, it is the awareness of the inevitability of death which enables each individual to create their own meaning of life. (That, in fact, was what happened to the Buddha). The existentialists whould agree with the Buddhist tradition that life has no intrinsic meaning. But they maintain that we thus have the burden of creating meaning out of our experiences. This is an inevitable process which leads some to despair and others to a religious belief system in which meaning is given.

3. Death and Reincarnation. Death is simply a part of the cycles of rebirth.

In Hindu philosophy, as well as Buddhism, reincarnation is understood as a fundamental part of existence. Reincarnation is not a continuation of the personal self, and only in rare circumstances can one have memory of a previous life. Rather, it is the mechanism by which the “soul” purges itself of past wrongs until purified, and therefore it no longer returns to the physical world. One’s current life is determined by one’s previous lives. Though we cannot understand the overall “plan”, there is one unfolding. In the words of the manager of the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” ( a movie which has its setting in India) “everything works out perfectly in the end, so if things are not working out currently,… it is not the end…”. 

There are other perspectives as well, of course: death as deliverance from intractable pain and therefore not to be feared but welcomed as respite; those who experienced near death and report profound experiences; those who “rage against the coming of the night” as Dylan Thomas instructed; and so on.

My own conclusions, from having explored the realms of theology, philosophy and integral psychology, and worked with many individuals who were searching for answers to life and death mysteries, are fairly simple.

When it comes down to it–

Live long enough and well enough;

Love and be loved, long enough and well enough;

to be able to say at the inevitable end:

Whatever happens next, this has been good, and it is enough.