Feelings & Reality, Life & Death & the Samhain Gate

There are two parts to this that need each other — the first is science (or opinion) and the other is magic (or science) (or religion). First, the science —

I read something in Second Life (a virtual world) yesterday on someone’s profile page. She (or possibly he) wrote, “The only things that are real in Second Life are feelings.” I suspect she assumes that the feelings are firmly attached to “real” people outside the computers.

So, feelings are real and everything else in Second life is pixels, and pixels ultimately are just excited dots of energy on a computer screen. Ideas are what we manifest there — ideas of objects or people or whatever we fancy. They appear to have three dimensions, but that’s just an illusion on a flat two-dimensional screen. Wait… they also have the dimension of linear time — or appear to do so. If I think too much about this, it may give me a headache.

In our current version of our so-called “real” world, there seems to be a huge muddle about the differences between truth and opinion and reality and belief and experience and fact. I think this may be important — this idea that only feelings are real. I do know this “feeling thing” was only being said about a “virtual world” that only exists inside a computer.

But I’m not so sure about the “reality” of our world where a lot of people seem to feel that only free range opinions matter — certainly more than science or facts, which according to them are only opinions too. In that view, no one’s opinions matter more than another (except mine, of course, and that’s sort of a secret until there is conflict). This seems to soon turn into a sort of “my way or the highway” kind of thinking, where the biggest gun matters the most.

Think about it. Physicists believe that everything is composed of sub-atomic pixels sorry, particles. These are said to be tiny bits of energy in a whole lot of nothing. They even have names in the Standard Model that include: Six “flavors” of quarks: up, down, bottom, top, strange, and charm; and six types of leptons: electron, electron neutrino, muon, muon neutrino, tau, tau neutrino.

(I think perhaps I love physicists more than I knew — anyone who thinks up names like this has to be delightfully whimsical at least some of the time. The same is true of the philosophers who come up with an elaborate notion called the Raven Paradox, which is, in part: The raven paradox, also known as Hempel’s paradox or Hempel’s ravens, is a paradox arising from the question of what constitutes evidence for a statement. Observing objects that are neither black nor ravens may formally increase the likelihood that all ravens are black even though, intuitively, these observations are unrelated.)

This problem was proposed by the logician Carl Gustav Hempel in the 1940s to illustrate a contradiction between inductive logic and intuition.

It goes on from there quite extensively and even dizzyingly. But the whole thing is based on the concept that “all ravens are black.” Any one real, actual white raven (not an albino) brings the whole structure down. And we now know there are actual white ravens</a>. They may not have existed in Hempel’s time. But they do now, and it’s no longer factual to say “all ravens are black” even though it may be an opinion still strongly held by many, who may choose to say that a white raven is a “fake”.

Or, perhaps the physicists and the philosophers who come up with these knackerty knotions are, like the white raven, so rare as to be virtually non-existent. If you find one, perhaps you should record it carefully as proof that whimsical scientists do exist. Or perhaps these bursts of whimsicality happen as rarely as white ravens, promptly dissolving into vapor like brief whistles of steam from an overheated boiler. Forgive me, I get… Ooo! Shiny! Ahem. So…

All of those wee bits of energy/matter would crumple into nearly nothing at all but empty space if their excitement didn’t keep them spinning or whatever they really do. Now that I think about it, this sounds a lot like pixels on a screen. To understand why I say this, you can find more than I wanted to know about pixels here.

Back when I first went into Second Life, I was doing a lot of thinking about Buddha and Buddhism, and I had an interesting experience. Flying along (you can do that in Second Life) I got distracted and fell. My avatar fell ungracefully to the ground and splatted right on my belly. Then, without me doing a thing, she/I scrambled up onto my feet and brushed the (imaginary?) dust off.

I was shocked.

I hadn’t told her to do that!

Then I wondered (also involuntarily, with what felt like the back of my mind looking over my shoulder) if there was someone behind me, watching me as I was watching my avatar, and if I sometimes did things that surprised it, things I hadn’t been told to do. And it felt like this someone was nodding and being amused.

I immediately shut Second Life down, turned the computer right off, and unplugged it, which was not something I usually did. Then, I went outside where I dug holes and planted bulbs until I felt like one simple, ordinary, real person again. But I remembered (and have never forgotten) that feeling of someone (me) sitting behind this me (this one that is typing), almost laughing, certainly amused at the confused typing-me and my surprise and shock — and thoughts. Then I thought how amused the Buddha might have been if he’d seen Second Life. It so beautifully demonstrates so many of his concepts.

This brings me to what I really wanted to talk about here. I’ve always meant to write this down and here in the liminal space-time of Samhain (All Hallows’ Eve) seems like an appropriate time to consider Life and Death and What Comes After, especially just after reading Michael Tomlinson’s story, Two Men and a Dog this morning. I quote a bit from the middle: One of the men spoke of a friend of theirs who had died this year. A rich and robust character of a man, impossible to not like the instant you spotted him. “I heard him today, no shit. It was real. He was right there with me and laughing. I asked him aloud if he’d seen my mom and he just laughed really loudly in that way of his and said, ‘It’s not at all —ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, — nothing at all like you think it is,’ and then he just laughed louder and more happily until I didn’t hear him any more. I’ve been thinking about that all day.”

You know, dear reader, I’ve had very similar messages from a few people. I used to do a lot of counseling and healing with people in hospice or terminally ill, and some of them came back briefly after they’d gone on. It usually happened when I was half-asleep or in deep meditation. In one instance, Vera came back to tell me, “It isn’t anything like I thought it would be.” She paused and laughed. “But it isn’t like you thought it would be either!” And she chuckled again and faded away.

There was always that sense of wonderment and laughter — a kind of mellow, companionable chuckle or delighted laughter — and when there were words, they were always something like that — except…

One time was different from the others. No words were involved — only scents and touches and feelings. Well, there may have been words, but not words I understood. It was about four in the morning, and one of our weeks-old kittens was dying. In my lap, Mamacat Samantha washed and cuddled the baby as it went down and down, weaker every moment. At last it gave a tiny shudder as its soul shook loose from the body.

The space we were in suddenly seemed to be much larger, and in front of us stars and nebula formed an opening — rather like a tunnel made of light, with a brilliant light at the far end. Hidden in that star-filled glory I could hear a mother cat calling a kitten, and a warm, milky scent drifted through to us. Something in my lap (not the little dead body) stood up with a wobble and set off into the light on tiny skaky legs, calling back to the Voice we heard. As Samantha and I watched, the babe grew stronger and faster, scampering toward that Voice. Then it was gone, and Samantha and I were alone in an ordinary bedroom, silent.

Samantha leaned against me as she washed the tiny body one last time, then she pressed her face against my tear-wet face, and we both sighed. Slowly, she went to sit in the window and watch for the dawn. But we both knew.

From this and other experiences, I have hopefully concluded, that when you die, there is someone who loves you there to meet and care for you. But I could be wrong about this — we are not all as adorable and innocent as kittens. When I once spent 10 days sitting at Death’s door, there was no one waiting, no light to guide me, just a wonderfully peaceful and restful place to sit and wait for whatever happened next — and I hadn’t a clue what that might be and knew only that I just didn’t know.

Recently someone asked one of those Facebook questions — if you could live forever, would you want to? I was surprised by the number of people who virtually shouted NO! Several others said “for a while” and no one said “yes” — which says pretty terrible things about the society we have created. My own answer was, “I don’t know how long I would like to live. I still have a lot more that I want to do. BUT I shall know when I’m ready to go.”

At 80, it is nice to be clear about that. And there! I finished this before the witching hour, even if WordPress thinks I didn’t!

Buddhism on Wings

or
How I Became Kinda Buddhist

Once upon a time, many ages ago when I was in my thirties, I was walking back to my office in San Diego on a blustery spring day. Stray scraps of paper were leaping and dancing in the gusty wind. It was a game to grab them as they passed by and then tuck them neatly in the next trash can. In the distance, one, about a half of a page, lifted lightly into the air. Something about it caught me—it swooped so low and twirled so high and with such lithesome grace, never quite touching the ground or the buildings. As I continued walking, I watched it, hoping it would come close enough to catch. Its wild gyrations carried it up almost to the roof level of two-story buildings before spiraling down—and rising again. It pirouetted at roof height right across the street before diving down and back the way it had come. With a sudden reverse, it swerved toward me… and gently settled against my chest.

I stood there, stunned, for a moment as it nestled there, held close by the breeze, until I reached slowly up and peeled it carefully from my breast. The first side was blank. The other side had been written on in hard pencil, not easy to read as it flapped gently in my hand. I smoothed it against a handy wall and held it there. It was a simple list of eight concepts, each with a few words of explanation after it. They were Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

I remember that the first was “Right View. To see things as they really are. To see the true nature of all things.” I don’t remember the exact wording of the others, but as I read down through the list, I became quite excited. Here, concise and clear, was a description of the path I’d been trying to follow in my own fumbling way. It was like hearing a huge bell ring, the kind that makes your bones vibrate. For several minutes, I just stood there on the street, reverberating. Carefully, I rolled the paper and carried it to my office where I sat and just looked at it until it was almost time for the next client. I can’t say I was thinking or reading— just there, gently humming like a Tibetan bowl being rung.

My office consisted of three main rooms—the front, public room where I taught classes and met individual clients for counseling, the middle room for healing and massage, and the private back room for paperwork and writing. I took the page to the back room and pinned it to the wall above my desk so I only needed to raise my eyes to see it.

Gradually, it became a habit to look at it whenever there was an important decision to make. The checklist helped me keep on track more easily. Then it seemed obvious to begin applying it more widely. Did what I wrote, the classes I prepared, my actions and reactions concerning clients and students measure up to those standards? One of the first things learned (from a Sufi) was that “right” in this context meant “most appropriate, most loving, most healing.” It was a constant challenge, and I fell by the wayside a lot.

About a half a year or so later, a fellow teacher was in the back room as we checked through some class plans. He saw the half-sheet and said, “Oh, I didn’t know you were into Buddhism.”

I didn’t know that either and told him so. He said, “But that’s the eightfold path, the core of Buddhism.”

I looked at it and shrugged. “I found this list and use it for a checklist for stuff. It’s what I’m trying to do. I didn’t realize it was Buddhist.” Though I loved and trusted the man, I didn’t feel like telling him about the paper whirling through the air and plastering itself to my heart. If that happened now, I’d think that Faery brought it to me, the spirits of the wind and air, perhaps, and would probably say so, but I was more shy about these things back then.

“I’ll bring you a book about Buddhism. You’ll like it.”

He did, and I did, and it was the first of a number of books I’ve read on Buddhism, mostly Zen, but also other branches growing from the root of the Buddha’s teachings. And I’ve also gone to a number of classes and meetings to try to learn more. Buddhism is vast. But I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist. If asked and if I have to come up with a “religion” I usually say “Zen Pagan” and leave it at that.

As far as my current practice goes, I’m human and often mess up. I’m still not perfect at those eight simple guidelines. What is “perfection” anyway? The word itself may be a kind of a trap. Eight little guidelines for living and loving, for compassion and healthy relationships with self and universe. Just eight. Amazingly difficult. Subtle, too. They sound so straightforward — and they are, but things have a tendency to complicate in human minds. We seem to have to start from simplicity, go through a great deal of complexity until our understanding expands enough to move on to a higher level of simplicity. It seems like all these lessons are quite simple once we truly get them. And it also seems that once we truly get them, a little time passes and they start complicating again… because there is yet another level to reach that we couldn’t see before we got to this one.

Somewhere along my rather vagabond way through life, the original piece of paper disappeared. I’ve read a lot since then, and applied what felt appropriate. I made and still make mistakes; hopefully, I learn from them. Things are still checked by the “right guidelines” when there is doubt. You’d be astonished at how much time I spend on some of my responses on Facebook as I work through these. Some responses take days to get past the immediate reaction and into a space of reasonable clarity and “rightness”—as best I understand it.

There may be an end to developing wisdom, but I don’t know if humans ever find it or if we have to progress far beyond the limits of the human mind before we get there. In fact, it may be that the consciousness of the entire universe isn’t there yet. I wonder what would happen if the One became fully enlightened—reaching some state we can’t even begin to imagine. What would that do to us, the tiny cells in Its being? Or does enlightenment work the other way and we small cells have to each and every one reach that ultimate Beingness before the One can?

Meanwhile, I’m still working on trying to find the heart of simplicity in the seeming tangle of complexity. We learn interesting things that way. And I watch carefully what the wind brings me.

© Copyright 2013 by Jessica Macbeth. All rights reserved.