In the Beginning

Introduction

miracleThe blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.

The angel who made it happen looks triumphantly at the skeptical monk who has been visiting. And the monk says “Yeah, but good luck getting it peer-reviewed.”

What I want to think about with you today is whether, in this age of reason and science, there is still room for mystery; whether there are some questions still that Google can’t answer; whether scientific knowledge, with its penchant for breaking things down into smaller and smaller parts, and creating conceptual models for them, is all there is to know.

I don’t come to this question lightly. I have devoted my life to knowledge and learning. Growing up, my favorite Hindu goddess was Saraswati, the Goddess of knowledge, music, arts, wisdom and learning. Not Laxmi, the Goddess of wealth. Not Shakti, the Goddess of Power. Saraswati was my Goddess. And I stand here acknowledging that perhaps my understanding of what knowledge is was limited.

Kind of like a fish acknowledging the limits of water, don’t you think?

The Beginning of Metaphysics

Before we get going, I’d like to draw attention to the double meaning in the title: In the Beginning doesn’t only refer to the past but also to the present moment which is the eternal now, the fundamental principle, the foundation on which everything else is based. The Latin version version of In the Beginning was the Word is “in principio erat verbum.” Meaning The Foundation is the Divine Word. Or I should say The Divine Word is the Foundation.

In every religion the origin of the cosmos and of man is identified as something which is conscious and in fact something that we could describe as absolute consciousness: Consciousness which is transcendent and yet the source of all consciousness in the cosmic realm including our own.

Whether we speak of Allah who commands things to be and they are, or the Tao, or the Word by which all things were made, or Brahman, we are speaking of Consciousness of an ever-living and present. This truth is made especially explicit in Hinduism where the original Reality (with a Capital R) which is the source of all things is described as at once Being, Consciousness and Ecstasy. Actually in the Hindu worldview, the existence of a thing, even a rock, is also a state of consciousness. Even in Buddhism, which does not speak of an objective Supreme Reality, nirvana is the supreme state of consciousness and Buddhahood is also inseparable from consciousness.

In the traditional world there was unanimity concerning the priority of consciousness in relation to what we call “matter” today. Prior to modern science, God had two functions. God was the creator of the universe. But he was first and foremost the redeemer of mankind. With modern science, God’s position as redeemer got shoved into the background. We took over, confident of our engineering prowess and the ability to solve problems and redeem ourselves from any sins we commit on this earth. All of the theological questions became about God the creator.

The Mystery Unravels

Descartes and Galileo, followed by many other men (each of them a high priest of physics, mathematics or philosophy), by taking away all qualitative aspects and reducing corporeal existence to pure quantity created a worldview in which there was such a thing as pure inert matter divorced totally from life and consciousness but somehow mysteriously known by the knowing subject or the mind.

To be fair to Descartes, his “I think, therefore I am” was probably intended not as support of the matter worldview but rather as asserting the supremacy of the mind. Irrespective of which side of the dualism Descartes favored, this dualism has led many to choose the primacy of matter over mind and for the establishment of the view that in the beginning was matter and not consciousness.

Then Darwin came along and stripped God of the creator role too. And if there were any doubts still left, the Big Bang theory nailed the coffin shut.

xkcd hard science One of my favorite cartoons arranges the sciences in order of purity or hardness. We already have a colloquial notion of what the hard sciences are. In this cartoon, a psychologist looks at a sociologist and says Sociology is just applied Psychology. And a biologist looks at the psychologist and says Psychology is just applied Biology. And a chemist says Biology is just applied Chemistry. And a physicist says Chemistry is just applied Physics, it’s nice to be on top. And in the distance a mathematician looks at them all and says Oh, Hey, I didn’t see you guys all the way over here.

But if all boils down to matter and energy, if everything is governed by the laws of physics, if our exploration of the mind is just about neurons firing, is choice an illusion? What happened to free will? And if there is no free will, no one can be responsible for their actions! We may as well shut down the police and the courts. They haven’t been working all that well anyway. (Stage whisper)

Problems with the Primacy of Matter

There are other problems with the matter-based conception of the universe.

It’s been known for about a hundred years that light can act as a wave or a particle. It just depends on how the experiment is set up. It’s as if light is schizophrenic about which it is, and will show the aspect we are measuring. So wait, is the light being schizophrenic? Maybe we can agree that light is doing what it has always done. Maybe we can agree that it’s not the light being schizophrenic. So is it our models that are schizophrenic?

Einstein said about quantum physics: I can’t believe God is playing dice with the universe. General relativity and quantum physics have each been experimentally proven to be true to 20 decimal places in their respective domains — relativity for big things like galaxies and black holes, quantum physics for atomic and sub-atomic particles. And yet they are at odds with each other. Again, maybe we can agree that the universe is doing just fine. Maybe it’s our models that need work.

Every religion is driving at our capacity to grow and change and shape and reshape how we deals with ourselves, with each other, with the planet and with the wider world around us. Are we really ready to let the laws of physics run the world? Our world?

Our world is more than particles and waves, energy and matter. In our world, pain is real, suffering is real, happiness is real, emotionality is real, love is real. We can’t glibly hand wave them as “exercises for the reader”.

I’d like to discuss two questions a bit further. The first being, What’s the Matter with China?

What’s the Matter with China?

A few months ago, you may have seen an article in the media talking about the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. It struck me as very funny in so many respects. Whether to believe in reincarnation — yours or the Dalai Lama’s — is not where I’m going. The Dalai Lama has been speculating recently that he might end his spiritual lineage and not reincarnate. That would confound the Chinese government’s plans to engineer a succession that would produce a putative 15th Dalai Lama who accepts China’s presence and policies in Tibet. Their anger welled up. A Communist Party official who has long dealt with Tibetan issues told reporters in Beijing that the Dalai Lama had, essentially, no say over whether he was reincarnated. He accused the Dalai Lama of trampling on sacred traditions. That was ultimately for the Chinese government to decide.

First, I hadn’t known that the Chinese government, with its atheistic or maybe a-religious creed, even cares about a topic such as reincarnation. If there is anything to the material-spiritual duality, we know reincarnation does not fall on the material side.

Second, the prospect of the Chinese Communist Party making decisions about the Dalai Lama’s afterlife seems so utterly absurd. While we’re still debating whether or not we believe in reincarnation, they have learned to master it and make policy on who gets reincarnated and who makes that decision!

Third, the speculation that he might not reincarnate is a brilliant rhetorical move in the Monty Python sense of the phrase.

Seriously though, the Dalai Lama said in an interview with the BBC in December. “Whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not is up to the Tibetan people, There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won’t come next, who will disgrace himself or herself. That would be very sad. So, much better that a centuries-old tradition should cease at the time of a quite popular Dalai Lama.”. He turned 80 on July 6th.

Personally, I would be deeply saddened by this despite the fact that the Dalai Lama would have ascended into Buddhahood. Call me selfish but what about us? Where would we get our guidance? Who would implore us to raise our consciousness, be good to the planet and to practice compassion towards all beings?

Perhaps Nietzsche was right, we’d have to become gods ourselves.

What’s the Matter with Kansas?

About 10 years ago, Thomas Frank wrote a book titled What’s the Matter with Kansas?. (In Australia, the same book was titled What’s the Matter with America? I guess it’s a matter of perspective.)

In a nutshell, his claim is that the political discourse of recent decades has dramatically shifted from social and economic equality to the use of “explosive” cultural issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, which are used to redirect anger toward “liberal elites.” and gets conservative Kansas Republicans to favor economic policies that do not benefit most of them.

Why does this work? The popular answer in the mainstream media is to suggest that the folks in Kansas are stupid or bigoted or somehow conned into supporting these policies. Stupidity of the other side is not a satisfying explanation for me. I mean, it is satisfying, because it strokes the ego, but perhaps we shouldn’t be lulled by that little dose of dopamine. Perhaps something else is going on?

Living in the shadow of Harvard and MIT and Princeton and Stanford and Berkeley and and … is it possible that we have leaned too far towards the observable and peer-reviewable? Just as we accuse Kansans of being stupid and anti-science, they could accuse us of being stupid and anti-religion? The only thing common is the word stupid!

We don’t control how Kansans think but we do control how we think. Perhaps we should make room for miracles in our own life? Perhaps a vision in a dream is just neurons firing but perhaps it really is a new path for us to follow in our life.

What’s the Matter with the Left Brain?

The left brain is the seat of reason. In our time, that’s considered a good thing, the ultimate virtue. That’s why Bertrand Russell and Alfred Whiteheads’s Principia Mathematica took over 300 pages to prove that 1+1=2. In its time, it became a bestseller that no one read, except Godel. Who dismissed it with a swift turn of logic.

Some of you may have seen the TED Talk by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: “My stroke of insight”. It’s been watched about 18 million times, maybe even by some in this room. She’s a neurologist at MGH. One day, she had a stroke which wiped out a part of her left brain. And in the process, she discovered that the left brain is the seat of linear thinking — what others have referred to as “slow thinking”.

I want to challenge the notion that the left brain is the be all and end all of thinking. That our creative side, the irrational side, the I’ll-believe-in-miracles-if-I-want-to side, the parallel processing right brain is something we ought to curb and control. Or just plain ignore. That right brain is there for a reason. Millions of years of evolution has kept it in place rather than have it go the way of our vestigial tail. To actively suppress it is to suppress half of ourselves, dare I say maybe the better half of ourselves.

Someone noticed a horseshoe above the door of Niels Bohr’s house. Niels was a philosopher and Nobel-winning physicist. They asked him, “I thought you didn’t believe in such things.” “I don’t”, he said, “but I understand it works whether you believe in it or not.”

The non-material Worlds

So what does this non-material, mystical world we’ve been talking about look like? Honestly, I don’t know but increasingly I feel that we have ventured too far in following The Gospel of Physics.

And I have a few hints.

The most accessible is the world of dreams and inner thought. I don’t mean the ones about being late for an exam or showing up naked for a job interview. I mean dreams about what we could be doing with the remainder of our life. I mean dreams of being compassionate, of serving people, animals, the planet. Dreams of following one’s inner calling. Dreams of courage, dreams of love.

Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita refers to the skill of union with the ultimate reality or the Absolute. In the Gita, Yoga is a lot more than downward dog. The eighteen chapters of the Bhagavad Gita have a progressive order, by which Krishna leads “Arjuna up the ladder of Yoga from one rung to another.” The Gita’s eighteen chapters can be divided into three sections of six chapters each. It’s characterized as a successive approach in which Karma yoga leads to Bhakti yoga, which in turn leads to Gyaana yoga:

  • Chapters 1–6 = Karma yoga, the means to the final goal
  • Chapters 7–12 = Bhakti yoga or devotion
  • Chapters 13–18 = Gyaana yoga or knowledge, the goal itself

In an echo of Niels Bohr’s comment, someone once told me I didn’t need to understand the 18 chapters of the Gita point by point. Just take in the recitation, he said. If it has been recited with love and reverence, it will bring you closer to God. It is traditional to recite the Bhagwad Gita when a loved one dies, as if they could hear it, as if they could understand it recited in the original Sanskrit. Because it works whether you believe in it or not.

From a different religious tradition we have Dante’s Divine Comedy. On the surface, the poem describes Dante’s travels through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso but at a deeper level, it represents, allegorically, the soul’s journey towards God. At this deeper level, Dante draws on medieval Christian theology and philosophy.

At the end of The Divine Comedy, Dante pierces the skin of the universe and comes face to face with the love that moves the sun and the other stars. What a glorious journey, what a glorious finale!

When Newtonian cosmology came into being, our conception of space became purely physical not allegorical as it had been in the 16th century. The result of this embrace has been that We can no longer describe the psychological or spiritual aspects of our being. We have moved away from the mystery of the natural world. We believe Facebook can help us form communities.

And as we think and describe the world in terms of matter, we assert dominion over it. Matter becomes just an object, just a resource. A rock is just a rock, a stream is just a source of water, a plant is just food, a hillside is just a coal deposit. They used to be evidence of the miracle of God. What happened?

I’d like to close with a reading from Barbara Kingsolver, from her book Small Wonder.

Closing Words

— Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonder

The writing has been on the wall for some years now, but we are a nation illiterate in the language of the wall. The writing just gets bigger. Something will eventually bring down the charming, infuriating naivete that allows us our blithe consumption and cheerful ignorance of the secret uglinesses that bring us whatever we want. I am not saying I’m in favor of the fall; it terrifies me. I’m saying something’s going to crash. Nostalgia for an earlier ignorance is not the domain of this discussion. Sitting here eating as fast as we can, while glancing around for the instruments of our demise, isn’t it either. Would that the instrument might be a reconstruction guided by our own foresight and discipline, rather than someone else’s hatred …

What I can find is this, and so it has to be: conquering my own despair by doing what little I can. Stealing thunder, tucking it in my pocket to save for the long drought. Dreaming in the color green, tasting the end of anger. Don’t ask me for the evidence. The possibility of a kinder future, the existence of God — these are just two of many things that fall into the category I would label ‘impossible to prove, and proof is not the point.’

Faith has a life of its own.

Sources

Order of Service

This talk fits into the order of service posted here.

In The Beginning

In the Beginning

Order of Service for the talk on July 26, 2015.

  • Worship Host: Carolyn Lee
  • Music: Jim Gish, piano.
  • Talk: me.

Prelude

Gymnopedie No. 1, by Erik Satie

Welcome and Announcements

Opening Words

  • One alone is the Dawn beaming over all this. It is the One that severally becomes all this. Rg-Veda, VIII, 58:2
  • The nameless [Tao] is the beginning of Heaven and Earth, The named [Tao] is the mother of ten thousand things. Tao Te Ching, ch. 1
  • In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Gospel of John, 1:1
  • But His command, when He intendeth a thing, is only that He saith unto it: “Be!” and it is. Quran, 36:81
  • In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. Genesis 1:1

Chalice Lighting

Today let this flame embody the energy of the universe, the miracle of creation and everyday miracles all around us.

Joys and Concerns

Reading I — Science and God

— Pope Francis, October 27 2014, reported in Catholic News

The Big Bang theory and evolution do not eliminate the existence of God, who remains the one who set all of creation into motion. And God’s existence does not contradict the discoveries of science.

When we read the account of creation in Genesis, we risk thinking that God was a magician, complete with a magic wand, able to do everything. But it is not like that, He created living beings and he let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave each one, so that they would develop and reach their full potential.

God gave creation full autonomy while also guaranteeing his constant presence in nature and people’s lives. The beginning of the world is not a result of “chaos” but comes directly from “a supreme principle that creates out of love.”

The Big Bang, which today is held as the beginning of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the divine creator, but requires it,

Evolution in nature is not at odds with the notion of creation because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.

Interlude

Hymn 203: All Creatures of the Earth and Sky

Reading II — Science and God

— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

God is dead.

God remains dead.

And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?

What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves?

What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?

Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Offering

Bittersweet, by Jim Brickman

Talk

Sources:

The text of the talk is published in a separate post.

Closing Words

On the Pulse of Morning — MAYA ANGELOU

A Rock, A River, A Tree

Hosts to species long since departed, Marked the mastodon, The dinosaur, who left dried tokens Of their sojourn here On our planet floor, Any broad alarm of their hastening doom Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully, Come, you may stand upon my Back and face your distant destiny, But seek no haven in my shadow, I will give you no hiding place down here.

You, created only a little lower than The angels, have crouched too long in The bruising darkness Have lain too long Facedown in ignorance, Your mouths spilling words Armed for slaughter.

The Rock cries out to us today, You may stand upon me, But do not hide your face.

Postlude

Devotion, by Jim Brickman

Talk Back

Readings for a Meditation on Memory

A meditation on Memory, August 24, 2014

Prelude

Unforgettable, sung by Hilary LockHart. Two candidate versions:

  1. Nina Simone.
  2. Aretha Franklin.

Opening Words

As soon as you hear it you know
it’s a melody, and that’s what you want.
Moreover, you don’t have to understand
anything to like it, nothing about scales
or keys, nothing about history

or the difficult life of the composer,
the women or men he loved or couldn’t love,
how much money he didn’t have, how cold
it would get when he tried to compose,
how he died. Those are some of the things

you don’t have to know because the melody
is like a small bird, maybe a yellow canary,
that wings its way into your mind
— no, into your heart —
where there’s a perch already

set up for it, a little trapeze
to swing back and forth on as it sings
and sings, since a good melody
stays with you, sometimes much longer
than you’d like, the reason being

the relatively small number of notes.
And these can repeat and repeat until you
have to replace them with another melody,
shoo that bird away, so to speak, invite
a different one in. Or else go to sleep.

— The Reason Being, Lawrence Raab: The History of Forgetting, 2009

Reading

The Attic Flew Out the Window, by Kent Bowker

So much in our lives is sent to the attic
a place for memories to decay, or hide,
the images of families, the nice, and the sick
in tea chests along with thin doilies and the pride
of handicraft, layered with daguerreotype
of stiff, remote relatives we never knew.

These are nothing to us now. It’s the living
we tried to bury in newer boxes, out of sight.
We sift through the unshuttered remains,
journals describing a shattered marriage, and lost children,
notes from friends and lovers
residues of a long life, class notes and skates, aluminum pans,
boxes of obtuse technical papers, all the useless receipts
and obligatory tax returns..

Rubbish Man simply flung it all
out the window.

For a moment the past flew by
descending, crashing to earth
three stories below
shattering attachments, and the voices
that roared out of the trunks
were stopped,.
leaving cluttered floppy disks in the grass,
smashed glass- framed honoraria,
and all the things we thought would be useful some time,
records and board games, monopoly houses underfoot.

Did clearing the attic encumber us less,
take the voices from our heads
bring quiet to our gut?
This we don’t know,
even though
Rubbish Man
charged a lot..

[silence]

Chalice Lighting

Today let this flame light the way as we walk in our unity and our differences down yet another street.

[silence]

Joys and Concerns

Offering

For the beauty of the earth

Talk

In a separate blog post.

Closing Words

When Adam and Eve lived in the garden
they hadn’t yet learned how to forget.
For them every day was the same day.
Flowers opened, then closed.
They went where the light told them to go.
They slept when it left, and did not dream.

It was the snake, of course, who knew
about the past — that such a place could exist.
He understood how people would yearn
for whatever the’d lost, and so to survive
they’d need to forget. Soon
the garden will be gone, the snake
thought, and in time God himself.

— title poem, Lawrence Raab: The History of Forgetting, 2009

Postlude

Hilary LockHart.

Talk Back

A Meditation on Memory

A meditation on Memory

August 24, 2014

Synopsis (not for reading aloud at the service):

We are — our identity is — shaped by our memory and our habits. If we want renewal of who we are, be born again, we have only to start laying out new memories to supersede the old. If we don’t control our memories and our habits, they will control us!

Introduction

steve_jobs_pearly_gatesSteve Jobs shows up at the Pearly Gates and discovers that St. Peter is no longer using his Book of Life — like almost everyone else, he has upgraded to an iPad to look up folks at the gate.

What? He’s using an iPad? And it’s connected to an iCloud? Doesn’t he know the NSA has its paws all over that? Doesn’t he know all those records could be hacked? And the wrong people would get into heaven? Oh wait, they already have!

Why does God’s gatekeeper at the Heavenly Kingdom need an iAnything? And why did he need the Book of Life in hard copy before the iPad came along? Why couldn’t he just remember? It’s just one bit of information for every person, good/not-good, it can’t be that hard, can it?

We all know the answer: remembering is hard, memory is often wrong, and it’s very subjective anyway. Mine has been going downhill ever since the teenage years. The trend shows no signs of slowing, let alone reversing.

To give us all a little break, there has been some recent research activity suggesting that our gradually-slowing-brains may just be slowing because they are too full, it takes more effort to locate things and more effort to retrieve things even after they’ve been located. Every time we go into the attic looking for something, we see other things up there, and take many trips down memory lane before actually coming back with what we went looking for. And sometimes we just forget what we came for and return empty-handed.

So next time you wonder why you get distracted, why the stove got left on, why you never returned the call you should have returned, maybe your brain isn’t declining, maybe it’s just stuffed with stuff, maybe it just needs a little clearing? OK, a lot of clearing!

Related to the same, there is some speculation that the forgetfulness associated with ADHD may be due to an extraordinary memory (how contradictory is that?).

And yet, memory is the glue that binds our inner mental life together and provides a sense of continuity in our lives. We are who we are because of what we learn and remember. It keeps assorted facts together and keeps them organized. It is also the keeper of habits, of everything we do without thinking deeply about it. Our memory is everything and without it we are nothing.

Our memory extends to form a collective memory. Back in 1915, the Ottomans began what is referred to as the first-ever genocide: the systematic annihilation of over a million Armenians. It had started with the murder of “just” 250 people. To this day, the Turks and the Armenians remember the arc of that genocide differently and with extreme bitterness toward the other.

Some have traced modern terrorism to the bitterness resulting from the fall of the Ottoman empire and the desire to re-establish the Caliphate. Such is the nature of memory! It’s an amazingly powerful force and it drives our emotions. It can get us to do things we wouldn’t do in our “saner moments”.

We get ourselves stuck in individual memories, in collective memories, in national memories, and there is no way out. A sharp sound can trigger it, or a smell, or a certain gesture. We forget that we’re not in Iraq any more, that someone reaching into his pocket isn’t necessarily reaching for a grenade. We lock our car when in Dorchester, even when passing in front of a church.

In other words, memory is a force that controls so much of our lives. This talk is my attempt at trying to understand the many ways we can be aware of its doings, and how we can compensate for its shortcomings.

About this talk

This talk is about getting unstuck from the trappings of memory and habits. But I’m skipping past a related topic — dementia. Therein lies proof that memory = identity, but that topic deserves its own talk, probably by someone who has been touched by it more than I have.

The title of the talk came from the song at the end — Memory — sung by Elaine Page, Barbra Streisand and countless others. I had been reflecting on it at Denny Donaldson’s memorial service. She used to sing it so well. One time, she was doing a summer service and at the end, in the talk-back period, I asked if she could sing it. She did, and the memory of her singing it has been etched in my memory ever since. This song brings me to tears every time I hear it, it’s a complex of emotions.

When you hear it again at the end of the service, I’d like you to notice the melancholy note it begins with and the bleak landscape it paints. I won’t try and sing it and as soon as you hear me recite a verse, you’ll know why.

Midnight, the darkest hour

Midnight
Not a sound from the pavement
Has the moon lost her memory?
She is smiling alone
In the lamplight
The withered leaves collect at my feet
And the wind begins to moan

Talk about bleak! And then she looks fondly back at how things were. It’s a celebration of that time but it’s also a trap, of course. More on that in a moment.

Memory of Joys Past

Memory
All alone in the moonlight
I can smile at the old days
I was beautiful then
I remember
The time I knew what happiness was
Let the memory live again

We’re pretty sure it wasn’t all roses back then but that’s what we get from the song. I tie it to the Daniel Kahneman notion of the remembering self vs. the experiencing self. He talks about an example where you go to a concert and hear an absolutely sublime piano sonata for 20 minutes. And just as it’s coming to an end, somewhere in the concert hall, a cell phone rings.

If we are asked about the sonata, the thing we remember is that cell phone. Those last 5 seconds seem to have been the ones that formed your memory; the 20 minutes of sublime music, all the enjoyment we felt without knowing about the cell phone call that was yet to come, was experienced by our experiencing self but not transferred to the remembering self.

Remember the old joke, “other than the incident at the end, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

All that is a way of saying: what we remember isn’t the whole thing, it’s often not the most pleasant thing either, so best not to dwell on it too much. Memory has a way of accentuating the negative, except at funerals, of course.

We have all met people who are so stuck, reliving events of the past over and over again, that they fail to imagine the future. We just want to say: get over it, move on, build yourself a future!

But it’s not like one can will oneself to forget. I offer as an example a very touching song called

Forget Ya, by Cee Lo Green. Anyone remember the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? In both of those cases, and in countless others, the protagonist tries to forget a past love but concludes in the end that he can’t. So are we really trapped by our memories forever?

I want to say no. I want to say we’re not condemned to this fate of ever-accumulating attics of the brain and ever-slower performance of our random access memories.

But first…

A fatalistic warning

Every street lamp
Seems to beat
A fatalistic warning
Someone mutters and the street lamp sputters
Soon it will be morning

Sounds really scary, doesn’t it? There’s a sense of foreboding, not knowing what’s to come.

Daniel Gilbert of Harvard has been doing some very interesting work. He asked people about the changes they had seen in their lives over the previous ten years and also about the next ten years of their lives. You’d think the expected change over the next 10 years would be, statistically speaking, similar to the change over the previous 10 years. Not so, he found out. He calls it a failure of imagination. I’m not quite sure. Maybe it fear of the future, this sense of foreboding? The past is so concrete, so easy to stick to — inaccuracies and all. The future? That’s a scary place! Better to let it happen to us rather than think about it.

Germany after the war found itself stuck in memories. On the one hand, the descendants of Nazis couldn’t just walk away from the horrors of WW-II. On the other hand how could they be held to blame for the past? How could they move on from that low point and still remain relevant on the world stage?

It seems that today’s generation of Germans does not feel personally guilty for the Nazi era, but yet they realize they cannot divorce themselves from it. This generation of Germans realize each new birth continues the story of their people, but it is the same story. that is carried on from generation to generation.

I know of no better symbol for this than the rebuilding of post-war Germany’s buildings, often with the same stones that stood as rubble for many years. The present is but a continuation of the past, even if in a totally different mode and direction. The past remains part of the scene, but you move on. You invest, you build. And maybe one day you win the Soccer World Cup in addition to winning the World Economy cup!

Daylight
I must wait for the sunrise
I must think of a new life
And I mustn’t give in
When the dawn comes
Tonight will be a memory too
And a new day will begin

I must think of a new life. And thus begins the transformation. At first it is just an act of imagination and will, a determination to not let our memories control us, a determination to move on. Nothing else. But soon it becomes more, a lot more.

I quote from Nelson Mandela on National Reconciliation Day, 16 December 1995.

There are few countries which dedicate a national public holiday to reconciliation. But then there are few nations with our history of enforced division, oppression and sustained conflict. And fewer still, which have undergone such a remarkable transition to reclaim their humanity.

We, the people of South Africa, have made a decisive and irreversible break with the past. We have, in real life, declared our shared allegiance to justice, non-racialism and democracy; our yearning for a peaceful and harmonious nation of equals.

[skipped…]

But we do know that healing the wounds of the past and freeing ourselves of its burden will be a long and demanding task. This Day of Reconciliation celebrates the progress we have made; it reaffirms our commitment; and it measures the challenges.

Reconciliation however, does not mean forgetting or trying to bury the pain of conflict.

[skipped…]

The Truth and National Reconciliation Commission which will soon begin its work, is one important institution created by our democratic Constitution and Parliament in order to help us manage the more difficult aspects of healing the nation`s wounds. Thus we shall free ourselves from the burden of yester-year; not to return there; but to move forward with the confidence of free men and women, committed to attain the best for ourselves and future generations.

This, to me, is the essence of getting unstuck — to move on without really forgetting, to reconcile with the past but stop dwelling on it. The reconciliation didn’t happen overnight.

You might say South Africa’s reconciliation is a work in progress, just as our own reconciliation around our own history with past wrongs is a work in progress.

The first glimmers of change

Burnt out ends of smoky days
The stale cold smell of morning
A street lamp dies, another night is over
Another day is dawning

The first glimmers of change, of awakening and noticing, perhaps, that the darkness won’t be forever.

A plea for reconciliation

Touch me
It’s so easy to leave me
All alone with my memory
Of my days in the sun
If you touch me
You’ll understand what happiness is
Look a new day has begun

I see it as a plea for reconciliation, for understanding, for compassion. I see it as a plea for helping her layer new memories on top of the old ones. That she will be helped by it is unquestionable. What is surprising about this stanza is the promise she lays out for you: You’ll understand what happiness is.

Reminds me of something Ralph Donaldson, Denny’s late husband, used to say about A Course in Miracles: Every loving thought is true, Everything else is a plea for help.

I’d like to conclude with a long-ish reading about forgiveness. It’s a pretty dominant theme in Christianity and an essential ingredient of what I think is necessary for us to move on. This one is from a Corrie TenBloom; who she was and the context of the reading will become clear during the reading.

A word about this reading. I haven’t yet been able to read it without choking up and I’ve asked Carolyn, our Worship Host, to complete it in case I can not. After the reading, please observe a 20-second silence and we’ll go to the closing words after that.

I’m still learning to forgive (Corrie TenBoom)

It was in a church in Munich that I saw him, a balding heavy-set man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.

And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!

Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent. …

“You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me.

“But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein, …” his hand came out, … “will you forgive me?”

And I stood there — I whose sins had every day to be forgiven — and could not. Betsie had died in that place — could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

For I had to do it — I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” …

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion — I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand, I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”

And so, woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”

For a long moment we grasped each others’ hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.

A Meditation on Memory — Order of Service

A meditation on Memory, August 24, 2014

Prelude

Unforgettable. Two candidate versions:

  1. Nina Simone.
  2. Aretha Franklin.

Opening Words

It’s the year 2100. Someone born in 2014 is now 86 years old. Electromagnetic Levitation Transporters have long since replaced airplanes as the preferred modes of transportation. ELTs are faster than airplanes used to be. Another thing that has changed since they were born is that people take off their clothes and their shoes before boarding an ELT.  All this undressing before boarding takes almost as long as a levitation flight does. No one knows what would happen if people were allowed to just board an ELT without taking their clothes off — would the ELT fall out of the sky? — the reason we do this has long faded into memory.

Reading

The Attic Flew Out the Window, by Kent Bowker

So much in our lives is sent to the attic
a place for memories to decay, or hide,
the images of families, the nice, and the sick
in tea chests along with thin doilies and the pride
of handicraft, layered with daguerreotype
of stiff, remote relatives we never knew.

These are nothing to us now. It’s the living
we tried to bury in newer boxes, out of sight.
We sift through the unshuttered remains,
journals describing a shattered marriage, and lost children,
notes from friends and lovers
residues of a long life, class notes and skates, aluminum pans,
boxes of obtuse technical papers, all the useless receipts
and obligatory tax returns..

Rubbish Man simply flung it all
out the window.

For a moment the past flew by
descending, crashing to earth
three stories below
shattering attachments, and the voices
that roared out of the trunks
were stopped,.
leaving cluttered floppy disks in the grass,
smashed glass- framed honoraria,
and all the things we thought would be useful some time,
records and board games, monopoly houses underfoot.

Did clearing the attic encumber us less,
take the voices from our heads
bring quiet to our gut?
This we don’t know,
even though
Rubbish Man
charged a lot..

[silence]

Chalice Lighting

Today let this flame light the way as we walk in our unity and our differences down yet another street.

[silence]

Joys and Concerns

Offering

For the beauty of the earth

Talk

About

I will note first that our gradually-slowing-brains may just be slowing because they are too full. And some speculation that the forgetfulness associated with ADHD may be due to an extraordinary memory (how contradictory is that?). Referencing Dan Gilbert (see references below), imagining a future is essential to growth and the more we hang on to memories of our past, the harder it becomes to imagine what can be and work to achieve it. Letting go is essential to getting unstuck. Maybe it’s not the past that’s holding us back, maybe our holding on to it is keeping us stuck?

The key in these cases is uncluttering that brain. Perhaps we should ask for regular tune-up for one’s mind. Perhaps we should be tending to the contents of our brain — specifically, our memories and our habits —  as we do our gardens and our dwellings. Perhaps such “memory therapy” can also help PTSD victims and victims of other psychological trauma.

Again, reminder to self: this talk is about moving past the memories, about moving on. It’s relevant to us in the personal context (as suggested by Pema Chödrön). It is equally relevant to us in a broader context, as done by Nelson Mandela in instituting a National Reconciliation Day

There are many who did not understand that to heal we had to lance the boil. There are many who still do not understand that the obedient silence of the enslaved is not the reward of peace which is our due. There are some who cannot comprehend that the right to rebellion against tyranny is the very guarantee of the permanence of freedom.

Memory is pretty plastic anyway, and not very reliable. Better to live life mindful of its unfaithful and ephemeral nature.

References

  1. The Shenpa Syndrome
  2. The Importance of Forgetting
  3. Daniel Kahneman
    When we experience things, there are actually two observers: the experiencing self and the remembering self. The remembering self creates the narrative. The experiencing self does the experiencing and “forgets about it”. What is remembered wasn’t what was experienced.
  4. Daniel Gilbert.
    We have a natural tendency to remember things and this is a lot easier than imagining our future. But imagining a future is essential to growth and the more we hang on to our memories, the harder it becomes to imagine what can be and work to achieve it.
  5. The Right Direction: Releasing the Past and Getting Unstuck
  6. The Older Mind May Just Be a Fuller Mind

Closing Words

I’m still learning to forgive (Corrie TenBoom)

It was in a church in Munich that I saw him, a balding heavy-set man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.

And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!

Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent. …

“You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me.

“I had to do it — I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us.” “But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein, …” his hand came out, … “will you forgive me?”

And I stood there — I whose sins had every day to be forgiven — and could not. Betsie had died in that place — could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

For I had to do it — I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” …

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion — I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand, I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”

And so, woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”

For a long moment we grasped each others’ hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.

Postlude

Memory

Divine Viewpoints

Eventually, a few years hence, these viewpoints will become the raw materials for a talk.

For now, they are independent thoughts. You are invited to suggest others but there is no rush, obviously.

This one is not so divine but may be worthy of the time spent reading it:

  • The Cancer Chronicles. I was struck by the closing paragraph of the review: But perhaps not since Susan Sontag has anyone put cancer so firmly and eloquently in its place as Mr. Johnson does, casting it as neither metaphor nor enemy, but simply a natural part of the orderly disorder of the natural world. If you have read it, please let me know what you think.

Mindless Mindfulness Service

Prelude:

Instrumental Medley — Peg Espinola

Opening Words:

  1. All of us, from time to time, need a plunge into freedom and novelty, after which routine and discipline will seem delightful by contrast.
    ― Andre Maurois
  2. “We all have our routines,” he said softly.”But they must have a purpose and provide an outcome that we can see and take some comfort from, or else they have no use at all. Without that, they are like the endless pacings of a caged animal. If they are not madness itself, then they are a prelude to it.”
    ― John Connolly, The Book of Lost Things

Reading:

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes me a long time to get out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

I walk down another street.

― Portia Nelson, There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery

[silence]

Chalice Lighting

Today let this flame light the way as we walk in our unity and our differences down yet another street.

[silence]

Joys and Concerns

Reading:

Late last night, I decided to
stop using English.
I had been using it all day—

talking all day,
listening all day,
thinking all day,
reading all day,
remembering all day,
feeling all day,

and even driving all day,
in English—

when finally I decided to
stop.

So I pulled off the main highway
onto a dark country road
and kept on going and going
until I emerged in another nation and . . .
stopped.

There, the insects
inspected my passport, the frogs
investigated my baggage, and the trees
pointed out lights in the sky,
saying,
“Shhhlllyyymmm”—

and I, of course, replied.
After all, I was a foreigner,
and had to comply . . .

Now don’t get me wrong:
There’s nothing “wrong”
with English,

and I’m not complaining
about the language
which is my native tongue.
I make my living with the lingo;
I was even in England once.
So you might say I’m actually
addicted to it;
yes, I’m an Angloholic,
and I can’t get along without the stuff:
It controls my life.

Until last night, that is.
Yes, I had had it
with the habit.

I was exhausted,
burned out,
by the habit.
And I decided to
kick the habit,
cold turkey,
right then and there
on the spot!

And, in so doing, I kicked
open the door of a cage
and stepped out from confinement
into the greater world.

Tentatively, I uttered,

“Chemawa?     Chinook?”

and the pines said

“Clackamas, Siskiyou.”

And before long, everything else
chimed in with their two cents’ worth
and we had a fluid and fluent
conversation going,

communicating, expressing,
echoing whatever we needed to
know, know, know . . .

What was it like?
Well, just listen:

Ah, the exquisite seasonings
of syllables, the consummate consonants, the vigorous
vowels of varied vocabularies

clicking, ticking, humming,
growling, throbbing, strumming—

coming from all parts of orifices, surfaces,
in creative combinations, orchestrations,
resonating in rhythm with the atmosphere!

I could have remained there
forever—as I did, a will.
And when I resumed my way,
my stay could no longer be

“ordinary”—

as they say,
as we say, in English.

For on the road of life,
in the code of life,

there’s much more to red than “stop,”

there’s much more to green than “go,”

and there’s much, much more to yellow than “caution,”

for as the yellow sun clearly enunciated to me this morning.

— Lawson Fusao Inada Kicking the habit

Offering

Instrumental medley — Peg Espinola

Talk:

Mindless Mindfulness

Closing Words:

In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again(15).

— Barbara Kingsolver High Tide In Tucson: Essays From Now Or Never

Postlude:

After the Vigil — Peg Espinola