Looking Backwards, Looking Forwards, Looking at my Feet!


How synchronistic is it that, after posting the very post in which I complained about the limitations imposed upon my mind by watching my feet for three solid weeks while I walked the John Muir Trail last summer, I should fail to watch them one recent winter day and have fallen over backwards, breaking ribs in the process? So I have been derailed by broken ribs, and thus sunk deeply into the quiet season of reflection and rest. My body has been somewhat limited and my mind has been free to roam.

I reflected on the year behind me and the year before me, thinking that my intentions have something to do with what happens in a year of life. And of course we have to live as though our intentions have something to do with our lives, because we have intentions by nature in what Jaak Panksepp calls the seeking system of our mammalian brains. We try to guide our little ships, these paper boats on the wide ocean of life, so that they keep going as smoothly and happily as they might before reaching saturation and the inevitable giving up of their momentary forms as they fall back into the salty sea.

Back into the sea? Sure. I read Richard Dawkins’ Greatest Show on Earth and Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish as we crossed from 2010 into 2011. Though the transition of years was certainly not one of the great life transitions (as when cells formed organized unions of labor, or fish walked onto the land), my psyche was pleased to be dipped into evolutionary thinking. I love to wonder what those whale brains think about? Go have a look: they are huge brains, very convoluted with lots of surface area, all indicators of a smart creature, thinking. What do whales think? Do they think about us? If so, how do they perceive us? Not in smell dreams, like those of my dog, because they’ve given up smell entirely in order to breathe through the tops of their heads. And they don’t think about making things with their hands because they’ve given up hands, too. So maybe they don’t think about us, even though we have a hard time imagining that. And they don’t think like us because they have different hardware. But they are mammals with hair and teeth and breasts. Maybe they think whaley thoughts of love (oh, I mean “social bonding!”) after thinking about food of course. What do whales seek? Do they mark time? Do they set their intentions for the next time period?

Back on terra firma, is there anything we can take into our oceanic formlessness with us when our little paper boats sink? If so, wouldn’t that be a good thing to seek? Huston Smith suggested that we should identify with our consciousness as a way to deal with the fact that we are ultimately required to loosen our grip on material form until we’ve given it up entirely. I’m not so sure about this. I hear people say on an almost daily basis, we’re not “this,” referring to their bodies. But something deep inside me says, “Yes, we are!” To deny the experience of life in a body is to deny the only experience of life we have access to. I think the denial is just that, denial; the plain old psychological defense mechanism called denial. To be spiritual is, I think, to be here now, as deeply responsive as we can be, to be courageously here. . . because it takes courage. And to be here now is to be in a body. Even allowing for the occasional out of body experience, here in the body is essentially the only way we can know anything at all. Sure it’s painful at times, but it’s real and even the greatest pain doesn’t last forever. No reason not to be here while we are here, no reason that convinces me anyway (’ceptin cowardliness).

In a certain way, 2010 was not a big year for me. Not like 2008 when I sailed around the world. Not like 2009, when I was ordained an Episcopal priest, a mere 40 years after having set off in that general direction; and when the essay on neuroscience and spirituality was accepted by the University of Chicago Press, and when Elizabeth and I presented this work at the Parliament for the World’s Religions in Australia. In 2010, these big tasks so many years in the doing had come to completion and I kind of grew into them, like learning to walk in a bigger self. I integrated this sense of priesthood; it so quickly felt like something I’ve been all my life. And in 2010, I walked the John Muir Trail, which was also, in some way I can only dimly articulate, an act of integration.

I think of one of my favorite quotes from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “Se hace camino al andar” (you make the road by walking). I feel tired; not depressed, not exhausted; but as though it’s time to exhale and release after a long and intense inhale. It’s hard in our culture to respect the times of exhalation, of sleeping, of picking our teeth and pondering. But if we don’t do these things, if we never “loaf and invite our souls” (to invoke now Walt Whitman), we become miserable exhausted pawns in someone else’s game. So. I’ve been exhaling.

For 2011 the thing I found myself most deeply wanting, amongst all my wants, is that old wanting to just be there for daily life, loving it as it comes up and goes down, caring for my body, caring for my spouse and family and friends and dogs and cats, seeing the birds at the feeder, and noticing their dawn and evening songs. I want to be up for more sunrises. I’m tired of thinking about the economy. Sure, a Nobel Prize would be nice, but it’s just not in my seeking system this year.