Published in The Quest, Journal of Science, Religion & Philosophy
The Place Where the Eye Sees Too Far
“When you live at the edge of the mountain,
you see the abyss, but you also see very far.”
There is a place I go when my spirit feels small, the path to get there a steep incline. I like to take it in the heat of the sun, my body longing for the strain.
This arid mountainous terrain is not the least self-conscious; it is ravaged, convulsed, exposed, like the features of a face in ecstasy or pain. The lower hills are a tumbling of dry brush and dust; branches bleached a raw bone-white reach upward, a slender-armed congregation crying silent hosannas in the sky. Parched fields flow lilac gray along the valley floor, comfortable and combed by the warm west wind, like gently graying beards.
I set out along a familiar path late in the afternoon, thinking of nothing. Seen harshly, from a place emptied of thought and judgment, the world intrudes upon my senses with a vitality and intensity that take my breath away. Mountainsides, deep in shadow, seem saturated with unseasonal color – magentas, purples, a rich, burnt bronze – the colors of a dream. As I breathe deep the sage-scented desert air, my smallness begins to melt into the immensity of this space. Suddenly I am no longer sure of my footing here, as my own colors bleed into the surround. Like Alice, I step through the looking glass crack, that crack we all agreed not to step upon, as the long lifeline of self and solidity and the known reels out before me.
What is this self, this construct of convention and passion, from which I look out upon the world? Where do my colors end and the reality dream begin? What is mountain, what is me?
And just who is it that wants to know?
There is a deep, substrate fear of letting go, of losing something essential, when we come upon the edges of agreed-upon boundaries. Especially those that hold us together - separate, distinct, skin-bound. And just who was it that agreed? The Bible says that at the turn of Eden, Adam began naming things, creating mountains and me-ness. Biologists tell us that fearful genes in some primordial pool erected a wall for protection and created the first cell, that first insistent seed of identity, safe and discrete from the world around.
And it is all, it seems, a matter of cubits and stature. Atoms, we are told, agreed to no such thing. They seem to display an astonishing array of unboundaried behaviors; gleefully leaping backward and forward in time, popping up several places at once. They do not even exist so much as occur, as vague “groupings of events” that “infinitely shade into their environments.” Peering down into the subatomic realms, we encounter a world governed by paradox and uncertainty, an up-down quixotic world where we savor the flavors of strangeness and charm. These, our basic building blocks of matter, dissolve into waves of energy, potential, probability fields; and, ultimately, cease to exist at all. So outrageous is the true basis of reality that Plato referred to even the basic physics of his time as “a likely story.”
Is life at a quantum level truly intended to be that different from the world we know? I wonder. What magic would life hold for us, freed from the constraints of fear and separation? If we are able to evolve beyond this, will we, too, display an “astonishing array of unboundaried behaviors”? Is there less of a division between the quantum and celestial realms – and we beings poised somewhere in between – than one might think? Paul Davies has described the universe itself as a “frolic of convoluted nothingness.” Teilhard de Chardin has likened the entire cosmos to a gigantic atom: nebulous, indivisible, utterly relational and utterly one. “It is impossible to cut into the network, to isolate a portion of it, without it becoming frayed and unraveled at all its edges.”
The afternoon is strong and startlingly clear, cloudless. It is late spring, a hot and sultry spring, and a profusion of purple wildflowers erupt improbably along the barren path. A warm wind whistles through the huge, mountainous silence; I press on as the trail widens and ascends. My mind feels like so much tangled yarn, unraveling; I leave a trail of loose, knotted, colorful skeins lying about the hillside.
Perhaps it is language itself that shapes and colors the experience of being alive. Our cultural intelligence is sparse and linguistic, not allowing for the delightful spontaneity, the innate fluidity of form that somewhere, deep in our cells, we remember. There is a vast, crazy improbability to life that we tend to talk ourselves out of. In the East, they say something like, “A whale has happened.” More to the point, I think. When encountering a stranger, some tribes in Africa will ask simply, “What do you dance?” We in the West stretch the lexicon of science – and our own credulity – and say, referring to a subatomic particle’s location, “Well, it seems to be spread all over a probability field.”
Or, as physicist Fred Alan Wolf states with a smile and a shrug, “It’s loony toons out there, folks.”
A hawk glides soundlessly down, a fleet black shadow along the canyon crevasse. This is a landscape not unlike the mind: chaotic, brown, tumbledown, a geography of loony possibility. My mind spins with a thousand koans. What can be said of this self that we hold onto so dearly? A local condensation of some vast, improbable field – tentative, provisional, excursionary, existing only in relation. Self as preposition. I am reminded of Nietzsche: “I think of myself as the scrawl which an unknown power scribbles across a sheet of paper, to try out a new pen.”
Summer sage dusts my cheek; my calves are nettled and burred. The path steepens and I keep on, surrendering, surrendering to some prior wholeness deep in my cells all that is troubled and bound within me: fear, that dark and dangerous liquid that swirls through the heart and arteries, like radioactive dye; doubt, those screaming shadows of logic and conflict that break protective barriers in the brain.
How rarely we are able to meet the moment unburdened, in a dance of delightful spontaneity, like electrons. We carry our care mightily; we can dance if we choose. Life is all potential transformation: successive shatterings, moment by moment, of crystal pattern and form. Kaleidoscope turns. Physicists and monks seem to concur: at each eternal turn of the Now, crazy electrons buzz into infinite possibilities – new templates, new worlds, the boundaries of which are none but our own.
Awareness settles softly in the whitening glare of the sun, as my mind comes slowly to stillness. I am aware only of breathing, difficult and measured, the moistening skin between my breasts. At this rare moment of suspension, all that is troubled and bound within me gets pinched into dusty nuance and scattered to the wind. I am what remains: freedom, emptiness, moments infinitely shaded into the sheets of my cells. And when I reach the summit clearing, the liberty in me spreads open like a flag, shaken and unfurled.
I love this mountain, its steadying bulk, its achieved wholeness. I can breathe here, its distances billow and enfold. Fog sweeps in silently from the sea, bathing far hills in a soft gray sameness. Distant mountaintops form a vague, dark outline through the mist, a gentle Zen brushstroke of the real.
There is a tribe in some remote, marginal land, who call the furthest their bodies and minds can reach – the edge of the forest – “The place where the eye sees too far.” I know this place, this place at the edge of the forest that expands beyond limit into unimaginable terrain. It is a place inside that I am trying to find.
It is said that the human eye, at rest, focuses on infinity. Perhaps we are too myopic. Perhaps, as many ancient traditions held, we have been banished from the realm of true sight and oneness by jealous gods. Or perhaps we simply experience the expected. I have read that at the time of the Spanish conquest, the Indians of Tierra del Fuego were caught completely unaware. Accustomed to a fairly predictable reality, they literally couldn’t see the ships in full view in their harbors.
We, too, accept as real our limitations and boundaries, the tiny windows through which we view the vastness. We can’t see probability waves, soft vibrations of unconditional delight, which just happen to involve us totally. Rays enter our brain and flip-flop and cross; our lives occur in a mirror, upside down, reversed. Perhaps truth exists where the lines cross, if we can find it.
If you ask a Zen master what is the ultimate Truth or Reality, he will answer without hesitation: “The hedge at the edge of the garden,” or “The snow is falling fast and all is enveloped in mist.” Perhaps there is nothing more real than the ordinary, seen with a gutted and open attention, the circumference of our lives paradoxically enlarging with a focus on the center point. Perhaps it is only with our hearts and our cells that we truly see, after all.
I come down the mountain past a nearby farm. The almond trees are in bloom, in pink and exuberant song. A soft breeze blows a rush of small blossoms through the air, a powdering of pink. A pregnant woman in a Rose Bowl sweatshirt folds old sheets in the sun, under a delicate spring snow.
Published in Seeds of Unfolding, Spiritual Ideas for Daily Living
A Geometry of Light
“God ever geometrizes."
It is late afternoon, a large afternoon, the kind of afternoon that can contain contradictions. The air smells of warm sage and moist earth, of ripeness and decay. Deer lope across the lower field; a moving sea of quail and rabbit feed on the brambled hillside outside my window. We gaze at one another in equal astonishment. Sunlight filters in and out of crescent clouds, angling long over hillocks a deepening violet, wild roses the color of blood: a changing geometry of light and shadow, pleasure and pain, meaning and form. Something of timelessness is touched within my cells as time and light curve together toward black, something of the complex circularity of nature, like the spiraling of a gene or a conch shell. And when I hold timelessness to my ear, I hear an ancient sea, and taste something soft and salted.
I am sitting at my desk, in a small guesthouse in the country. I am 36 years old, and at a time when friends are at the height of careers and upward mobility, I have, in a series of rather unlikely moves, taken a part-time job tending horses, chosen to live with my parents, and become a minister. Answering a Higher Call, some say; foolishness, say others. All I can say is that I am answering to something vast and unknown, to the essence of mystery and question, paradox and pain: I am answering to Love. A bold prayer, to be sure, but the only one my heart can utter.
I am learning to let go, to release the need for boundary, substance, identity. I am learning the mindfulness and dignity of living simply. I watch robins bathe in the spring with my morning coffee; I tend the garden, seeding and feeding with my own fertile cyclings. I bake Irish herb bread, I who could never even find the kitchen; I hang clothes on the line under the pines, with an indescribable pleasure. I read the classics, books that require that you give of yourself in the reading. Friends call, and I have the time to listen.
I am no longer concerned with goals, strivings. I am learning that there is only process, only moments, and each teaches: the gentle closure of my foot against earth wet and yielding on a walk in the rain; the way aging leaves decline the morning light; the resistance of a rose to touch or cutting. Every moment of pure awareness is holy, holy, holy, and speaks to us powerfully of truth. All we need do is listen, in open silence; listen, with all our hearts.
My parents continue to teach me; of caring, compassion, the deep patina beauty takes on with time. I watch as my father reaches over, with unspeakable tenderness, to stroke my mother’s softly lined cheek as she rolls her hair. I watch them work in ridiculous sunhats, side by side on their hands and knees, weeding the lower field. Giggling.
They have come to their own sense of allowing and acceptance, only they don’t call it Taoism, they call it living. My mother and I sit sometimes at the old kitchen table, sharing a glass of watered wine as the sun sets. I talk of Buddhism and physics, my mind frenzied with concepts; she smoothes the calico tablecloth with her frail fingers, listening. “You know what I think?” she’ll smile inexplicably and grab my neck, her embrace eloquent. “I think I love this wine and you both, to bits and pieces.” I call our afternoon tea, “Taking zazen with Mom.”
My father is a photographer, and photographs are his life. He holds them tenderly, reverently in his large hands, coarse and gentled with the wounds of a lifetime. He is silently struck by the beauty of a moment in time, and feels he must preserve it somehow. I walk with him on an autumn afternoon, and he teaches me the art of seeing the dappling play of light on a burnished leaf, the craft of capturing form and event on film; an intuitional geometry. He teaches photography as the art of awareness: joyous, drunken, sublime awareness. We roam the mountain together with our cameras every Sunday, netting time.
“Slowness is beauty,” Rodin once wrote, and I find the dappling play of light in life takes on new depths of tone, as the rhythms slow to stillness. The price here is the sensitivity; the difficulty in going back to the city, to the jangling congestion of streets and minds. All things open and bleed within me: gratitude, compassion, my heart. I don’t shed delicate tears at this; I cry hugely. The soul as silver emulsion, upon which is etched, in excruciating detail, the moments of my life.
I believe we are all possessed of some deep impulse to widen and expand beyond ourselves, like galaxies. The spaces simply grow larger with living, heaving and hallowing the human heart, making it ever more able to embrace the sorrows and splendors that lie within it. It is to this embrace and this Love that I have given my life. Perhaps it is not an answer to the dangerous frailties of our planet and our time. We all live in sleek diagonals of available light; we do what we can. This is simply the gift I have to give.