“You ought to understand how far life can be developed, to what highest degree, and be especially interested in that development.”
-Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, “Mindfulness of Breathing: Unveiling the Secrets of Life”
A few months ago I was running to the river and passed a large tree. I had a quick and sudden suspicion then that went through my mind exactly like this: If that tree wasn’t there I wouldn’t be here.
I wasn’t sure what it meant exactly, I just had a feeling it was important.
My friend wrote to me and said his uncle, who is wealthy and has just retired, is lost. I said in response that maybe being lost is a good thing. Maybe it shouldn’t have such a negative wrap. At least that implies you are still active, that you are searching for something. My friend said he saw my point, and he agrees to a degree, that being lost and therefore searching implies learning and then growing, further evolving. “Only,” he said, “he is just constantly buying and selling.” That is where his uncle is trying to find the anchor, trying to find his whole, in buying large things and then selling other large things. It seems like an empty cycle. With no anchor in sight. It’s only a distraction. I wrote back and said, Yes, I had forgotten about that point. Materialism. Being lost and turning to mass consumerism. Or overeating. It’s the same thing really. I forgot about that, uglier, side of it.
I read a good and inspiring article about a French scientist, David Servan-Schreiber, who has been studying alternative methods of curing depression and anxiety. He is receiving backlash now, from scientists who are driven by mammoth pharmaceutical corporations. “The problem is that doctors nearly all get their information from the same scientific sources, which are closely linked to the pharmaceutical industry.” Recently (or not so recently as my access to these sources are notably delayed), The New York Times ran an editorial highlighting the fact that two articles recently published in The American Journal of Science were written by authors tightly connected to the pharmaceutical industry. They went on to list the very large sums of money, both authors received, from the corporations to publish the articles, even though the facts were not properly researched. Servan-Schreiber notes, as many have before, “It’s crazy that there is copious and convincing research indicating that physical exercise has the same or better effect on stress and anxiety as medication- with out the side effects- and that virtually no doctor prescribes it.” (It’s true, I think, my bicycle has saved my life here about a hundred different times.) But that’s not the crust of his studies. A large part of what he stresses is the connection between the mind and the heart. “One of his most interesting discoveries was that the emotional brain—where our instinctive and emotional reactions come from—is directly influenced by the heart. Servan-Schreiber says, “There is a constant exchange between the heart and the brain. Research shows that a coherent heart rhythm is able to bring the emotional brain to rest. When your heart is beating in a healthy way, you can heal stress, depression, tension and other mental afflictions.”Ultimately, what he is saying is an old argument that I’m not completely sure why we dismiss as often as we do—but we do often dismiss this. “The most easily available remedy may be the most powerful of all. And Servan-Schreiber ends his book with it. Love. Studies show that nothing is as vital to our sense of well-being as a feeling of connection, of being loved and loving, of feeling we are a part of a greater whole.”
Kevin told me how he wants to explore a different area in his painting, based loosely on his friend’s Emilie’s idea that everything that happens in the world also happens inside of ourselves. (Like in Siddhartha, “Your soul is the whole world.”)
There is another scientist, Elisabet Sahtouris, the author of, among other things, “EarthDance: Living Systems in Evolution.” Sahtouris gave up her lab work at the Natural History Museum because the accepted Darwinian view of evolution had become too restrictive for her. So she left and bought a boat in a small fishing village in Greece. She says, “Darwin described a battleground among species that fought to survive at the expense of one another. As a result, domination and competition have become a part of the modern world view- a view that feeds a great deal of misery on our planet because of our inability to see the bigger picture due to an emphasis on the separation between living things rather than the connection.”
Sort of like Emilie’s idea, Sahtouris goes on to explain what is happening in the world to what could and couldn’t be happening in our bodies. “Global economics is a hierarchical system where one level survives at the expense of another level. This top-down approach is never seen in healthy biological systems. In mature natural systems there are no authororitarian governments. What species is in charge in a rainforest? What part is in charge of your body? Imagine doing world politics in our bodies. Imagine the brain deciding not to allocate resources to certain organs, but keeping them to itself. You can’t do world economics in your body. You can’t have some organs exploiting others. You would die.” She goes on to write, “This runs contrary to the laws of sustainable living systems, which hold that poverty ultimately spells disaster for the entire system.”
Both very different scientists are stressing here the necessity of being part of a whole. Whether the point is to cure depression or to stop exploiting poor countries, the solution, they both have found, is exactly the same. To acknowledge that we are part of a whole. Which to me, also translates to having true compassion. To announce firmly to everyone and everything around you, I need you. To say, if you weren’t here, well I don’t think I’d be here either. And to say thank you.
Meanwhile, in the middle of the East and the West and spilling all over the edges are those holy wars. All that dust and chard skin and twisted metal, fire and blood. Those people reading the Koran so closely, so literally. Those people reading the Bible so closely, so literally. Other people find the passage, that those suicide bombers were using as justification for blowing up a bus, and they say, look here, if you read this passage like I’m reading this passage it doesn’t say to do that at all!
Well, isn’t it nearly the exact same with science. Reading the earth. Rereading the earth. Different people see it different ways, argue it different ways, and in the end point to either the line in the holy book or to the single-celled bacteria in the holy ground and say look here, it says to do it this way if you only look at it like this.
In the end it feels like we all need something to justify our inklings. A bible or a rain forest, a dead civilization or a solar system, a doctor or a pill or a talk show, something. This winding path now leads me to spirituality.
I’m frying raw meat on a grill and I’m not exactly sure how long it takes to cook. I’m with Vicky, a woman from England. “So,” I say, trying to turn over the meat with a chop stick, “then you were here, for the tsunami.”
“Yeah,” she goes, “I lost my house, I lost my bar, I lost a lot of my friends.” I put the chopstick down. I wasn’t expecting that.
“You know, after it happened, when all the bodies were being shipped back into town from Phi Phi Island, I mean there were bodies everywhere. The Thai bodies were just being thrown into the burners but the white bodies all had to be identified, you know. They were just everywhere. And there were these psychiatrists who were shipped in. I still had to teach, at least I thought I did so I was doing that, just going to school—but no one was really there. I didn’t know what to do. I thought I should be helping but what could I do? I barely even knew the language then. I’d just be in the way.
“So this physiatrist comes up to me and just taps my shoulder and says, ‘Are you okay?’ That’s all he asked and I was like, you know, no I’m not okay. He said, ‘look at both of your hands. One hand represents getting stuck in this. Letting these feelings go into you completely and hardening you and making you feel guilty and angry and resentful. And the other hand represents you acknowledging what has happened, you stepping back and seeing it happen, but not to step INTO it. Don’t ignore it, see it, but don’t BE it. And get on with your life.”
“That’s all he said and I know it sounds silly, but it helped. To see it, things that occur in my life, from a distance. To be here, in the now, that’s where I let myself be, while the past and the future I process but also recognize that I am only witnessing these thoughts. I don’t let myself become tangled in it.”
Someone said this giant, sweeping, stupid generalization that Peace Corps Volunteers in South America become political, that PCVs in Africa become alcoholics and that PCVs in Asia become spiritual. I dismissed this quickly when I heard it but now as my time here lengthens and grows deeper I have to recognize that what I see developing the most here is in fact my spirituality. My search for it, at least. Trying my hardest to feel what is right for me. Trying my hardest to listen.
I have spent the vast majority of my life without having a conscious spiritual center. And when I talk about things that have to do with the nourishment of my spirit I always giggle. Even though I’m serious. Why do I have natural inclination to present it as a joke? It’s not a joke.
To me, it’s just becoming clearer and clearer that we can free ourselves from depression, from consumerism and from hatred by letting go of ourselves. By emptying ourselves of our “self.” Of being completely aware of what is around us and of respecting those things as we would respect ourselves. To free ourselves, to heal ourselves, we just have to let go of ourselves.
I was on a sailboat in the sea and a 16-year-old girl had an asthma attack and then an anxiety attack. (I gave her seven pills a day, for various reasons from anxiety to depression to chronic headaches.) I was the only one with her, below in the cabin. Her eyes were wild and horrified. Between gasps of air she managed to say, “I… can’t… breath,” and then, “I… can’t… stop… thinking… awful… awful… things.” She was freaking out and it was obvious oxygen wasn’t getting to her brain and I didn’t know what the hell I was supposed to do. “Sit down,” I said. We both fell down Indian style on the slanted floor squeezed between two walls. I held both her hands. Breathe with me, I said. “Breathe in,” and we did. “Breathe out,” and we did. And we kept doing this until I could see her come back to me. Her eyes focused on me.
It’s amazing how much we forgot to just stop and breathe. It’s amazing how the simplest things have become so foreign.
“In a world of lifelong learning, whatever the task or role to be played at a particular moment, participant observation can become a way of living. More- because it calls for a stance of humility and wonder, learning can be pursued as a form of spirituality.”
– Mary Catherine Bateson, “Full Circles, Overlapping Lives: Culture and Generation in Transition”