Archive for March, 2012

Language, Thinking and Meditation

 In a “Radio Lab” episode on National Public Radio called “Words” (originally broadcast on August 9, 2010), listeners were introduced to a Susan Schaller, a woman who taught sign language to deaf people at a community college.  She described meeting a 27-year-old, Peruvian-born illiterate man who seemed to have trouble getting started with the lessons.  When she signed, “My name is Mary,” he responded by signing “My name is Mary” back to her. He didn’t seem to be getting the point that this was an invitation to sign, “My name is Jose.”  No matter what phrase she presented to him, he simply parroted it back to her, seemingly in a spirit of good-humored enthusiasm.  Finally, in a flash of insight, she concluded that the only way she was going to be able to get through to him was by ignoring him.  By turning her back on him and breaking all communication, she hoped that he would have an “aha” moment and start signing to her.  After several days of giving him the cold shoulder, her experiment finally paid off, and he did exactly what she hoped, but with an unexpected side effect.  When he signed his first original phrase to her, he exclaimed, “Everything has a name!” and promptly burst into tears, revealing that he had never before understood the concept of language.


Why did the young man burst into tears?  For an answer, “Radio Lab” provided an analogy, moving quickly on to an interview with the brain scientist, Jill Bolte Taylor, whose book, “My Stroke of Insight,” has received much attention in the media.  At the age of 37,Taylorsuffered a major stroke, which had the ultimate effect of severing the connections between the left and right hemispheres of her brain, leaving her to live for a time in the exclusive domain of her right brain.  Of course at the moment of the stroke,Taylor didn’t perceive the sensations she was experiencing as one, but being a brain scientist she actually reports concluding it was a stroke before the rupture between her two hemispheres became complete.  At first, she simply looked down at her hands, perceived them as “primitive claws,” and remembered having the thought as I paraphrase it, “I am a biological organism.”  Later, when the stroke had run its course, she experienced a continuing, enduring peace and felt  “at one with the universe.”  Essentially, she felt, saw and heard the sunlight in the room without suffering any disruptions from anxiety, perceptions of problems needing to be solved, or any other of the continual and on-going burrs-in-the-flesh that keep us rooted in the “real” world.


The experience of the Peruvian man and of Jill Taylor, who eventually recovered completely from her stroke and was able to write a book about it, are opposite sides of a coin, two halves of the same whole.  The Peruvian had grown up in a world of right-brain peace and wholeness that was suddenly shattered by the categorizations and compartmentalizations of language, whereas Jill moved from the daily grind of the fracturing compartmentalization we all face, to a peaceful state of wholeness.  WhenTaylorwas asked which she would most be willing to sacrifice, her ego which acts as the air-traffic controller of her thoughts, or that special sense of thoughtless peace, she said it would be a very tough choice.


These two interwoven “Radio Lab” stories have much to teach us about spirituality and what it means to be human.  On the program, the host-scientists moved on to present listeners with a startling hypothesis:  without the intervention of language, thought is not possible.  Presenting us with a sound body of evidence in support of this hypothesis, they explained that as a human child begins to learn words and the meaning of words, he begins to have conscious thoughts:  thoughts that are conveyed in words rather than in visual images.  It can be argued that the visual images that the child had experienced and encoded as memories before answering to his name, may not actually be thoughts at all, but simply a recording of emotions and sense impressions.  As we grow older and our command of language becomes more subtle and complex, our thoughts mushroom and grow and we become completely dependent on them, sacrificing the satisfying synesthesia of our early childhood.  In fact, we cannot function without them.


Or can we?  Isn’t a large part or even the sole purpose of a spiritual practice to transcend our thoughts, to move beyond them?  To reconstruct the world that Jill Taylor fell into with her brain injury and that the Peruvian man emerged from, but only with tears of regret?  To function in the world, we depend on the left hemisphere of our brain and nearly all of the curriculum of virtually any country’s formal education system is designed to support its growth and development.  The right-brain is left neglected and under-appreciated except by those enigmatic and mysterious spiritual leaders whose role seems to be to trick, kick and cajole us into recapturing our intimacy with it.  Apparently, we need gurus to connect us with the half of our brain that we’ve all allowed to atrophy, because we think our survival depends on a complete reliance on our left-brain. 


Eckhart Tolle likes to remind us that humanity is crazy.  Where does the craziness come from?  We all have a tendency to weave increasingly complicated webs of thought, which mixed with strong emotions of fear and anger, can lead to clever but irrational conclusions.  Every assassin and every suicide bomber acts violently due to a decision which he believes to be the inevitable conclusion of what he thinks is a logical thought process based on sound facts and notions.  Only meditation can teach us to set aside the web of deceptive thought and choose peace over aggression.


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Bringing God to Earth

I have always felt that I had a spiritual mission to accomplish; that somehow I was brought to Earth to accomplish this mission, whatever it was.  Maybe it’s not true that I always believed this, but I know that I recognized it as a personal truth after learning about Edgar Cayce’s trance-induced psychic “readings” of the people who were brought before him.  The problem was, I never knew what my mission was, I just knew I had a purpose and I needed to find it.  Even after consulting with two psychotherapists and a psychic in San Francisco in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, I still didn’t uncover my mission.  Then gradually, over time, I began to write a journal of spiritual insights which has evolved into “Bird of Spirit.”  Now at last I feel I have discovered my personal  mission in life.


This autobiographical background now brings me to an insight I’ve finally begun to feel in my core, although it is a truth so obvious that it’s a wonder it’s taken me more than 58 years to unearth it.  My insight is that whatever individual spiritual gift each one of us can and does contribute, we all share one general mission that is universal to all mankind, regardless of whether we are aware of it or not.  That mission is to bring divinity to Earth.


Divinity is already here on Earth.  It infuses everything and it is present everywhere.  The problem is that most of the time we don’t bother to sit up and take notice.  We dwell on the physical plane, in what has sometimes been referred to as “a lower realm.”  Is our physical realm ruled by bears and wolves baying at the moon, or does it hum with the divine nature of its Creator?  It is up to each one of us to help the creatures of planet Earth, most notably man, to evolve upwards toward the divine; to reach toward God’s embrace.  How do we do that?  By bringing the divine principle down to our lower realm with every small act of kindness and compassion we commit.  As the bumper sticker says, “practice random acts of kindness.” 


At every moment in life, we are presented with a choice between a kind and loving response and an angry, embittered one.  With every choice we make goes a small victory for God or for our wolf-nature.  This does not mean that we should go through life with tight, sanctimonious smiles pressed on our lips, or that we should ask, “what would Jesus do?” at every moment.  True kindness and compassion come from a well-spring of natural, un-self-conscious behavior.  They are no more forced than you can force water out of a dry well.  The dualism of our world, which the Hindus call “maya” and the Christians call the battle between good and evil, God and Satan, is not really best seen as a permanent war of opposites.  Instead, it is more useful to regard our dualistic world as presenting an infinite web of choice between a transcendent response and an animal reaction.  Every moment represents an opportunity either to elevate our world toward the Divine or to keep it mired in animalistic self-interest.  Earth can be as godly or satanic a place as we wish it to be,  through the aggregate of all our daily choices.

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