Intimations of Eternity, Glimpses of Nothingness
I received word this morning from the West Coast that my elderly father is in his last stages of life and is preparing to pass over. He apparently isn’t taking this very well. The prospect of his impending mortality has him “crying like a baby” according to my mother. And I thought of the contrast between that and Jean Gebser’s belief that we should pass on from existence “with a smile” (as he did himself, reputedly).
I may have to leave on a moment’s notice, although I wish I could be there right now to talk to my father about how he need not fear death and dying. We have never been very close, my father and I. In fact, our relationship was the very epitome of the “Generation Gap” of the sixties and seventies. His impending mortality brought me round to musing about that Gap and why it was largely unbridgeable, and about the processes of birth, dying, and death.
My father was a very stern and rigid — even crude — man. He was very much the child of his times, and very much the very image of Theodor Adorno’s Authoritarian Personality. “It is so because I say it’s so” was pretty much his whole life philosophy. He spent most of his career as a policeman with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and he was damned incurious about what was true or what was not as irrelevancies. Loyalty, obedience, and deference to authority — all the “martial virtues” in fact — he wove into the tapestry of his own self-image. There were only, in his world, “thinkers and doers” and, being an uneducated man himself, the former were useless as far as he was concerned. Unfortunately for me, I fell into the former category, and he was quite miffed about that. For him “questioning authority” was the great blasphemy and the great evil of the times, and that was, of course, the main issue of “the Generation Gap”. But he seemed to believe that survival in life depended upon taking orders and following orders, and the only real emotion I ever recall seeing from him was mostly anger, resentment, or rage. He was very rigidly conservative in his views, too.
Most of his authoritarianism and his esteem for the martial virtues was, for me as a child growing up, only a facade for someone who seemed deeply frightened and insecure about his existence and personality, and the more energy he invested in this self-image the more estranged we became. Family life was no “idyll” for me, as it seems to be for many others. It was suffocating, and I got out from under it as soon as I could. I had to escape what R.D. Laing once very ably described as the “double-bind” situation of pathological families.
It took many years before a reconciliation could occur, and only after he had long retired from the Force, after which he seemed to soften a little — enough, in any event, for us to even have the occasional pleasant and enjoyable conversation without re-opening old wounds. He lost interest in guns and hunting animals. He even took an interest in Greenpeace, going so far as to support them financially, and quite generously, until he apparently succumbed to the conservative “groupthink” that insisted that environmentalists were “the great danger to our civilisation”, and that supporting Greenpeace was practically synonymous with eco-terrorism.
Of all the “martial virtues” that my father esteemed and tried to appropriate as his own values, he omitted the only one that ever really counts — losing the fear of death; making friends with death or reconciling oneself with one’s own personal mortality. Until you actually do that, one’s “martial virtues” are just play-acting. And now that my father is facing his own “shock of the real” and his transition, the self-image he has so carefully cultivated during the course of his life is breaking down, and he’s left “crying like a baby”.
I feel very deeply for my father’s anguish at the prospect of his immanent death. I would like to be there and tell him that death is not to be feared; that birth is a far more traumatic event than death. Death is only a transition. Passing on is passing over. That is something I learned from my “dream of the fish”. I do not know whether, with the disintegration and falling apart of my father’s life-long constructed self-image/identity (the ego-nature or “mortal self in time” which I call the “point-of-view” self), there is now an opening for communicating that with him and for finally coming to an understanding, an understanding of why I had to do that which he couldn’t bring himself to do — question authority; question the “mind-forg’d manacles” that keep people trapped in a body of fear and anguish and mere “self-image”. What my father’s generation failed to do became necessary for the subsequent generation to do. That’s the meaning of the “Generation Gap”. That is simply a law of the spiritual life. And so life will have it until such time as the times are fulfilled.
I do not know whether my father’s weeping is for a lost life that was never really lived or in anguish and anxiety about his immanent personal death. Perhaps it is both. But I would like to tell him that death is the most momentous time of our lives, a great adventure, and that indeed, as Gebser says, we should die with a smile on our face. Death is not so much an ending as it is an instance of enantiodromia — a reversal the birth process. It’s a matter of waking up on the other side of the “veil”.
Where do you come from, baby dear?
Out of Everywhere into here.
I love this little snippet of verse that occurred to John Wren-Lewis after his own Near Death Experience (NDE). This “Everywhere” has been described in many ways, including Jill Bolte-Taylor’s TED talk and as “the Life Force Power of the Universe“. “Everywhere” is what Nicholas of Cusa meant by his description of “God” as a “circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere”. “Everywhere” is what William Blake means by “Heaven in a Wild Flower” and “Eternity in the hour” (or “eternity is in love with the productions of time” which draws into focus the relationship between Ultimate Truth and Relative Truth). “Everywhere” is the Eternal and Infinite. “Everywhere” is what is intimated at by terms like “oceanic feeling” and very much corresponds to Jean Gebser’s “archaic” consciousness (“when the soul slept in beams of light” as Blake puts it equivalently). “Everywhere” is what Castaneda’s don Juan calls “the nagual” as distinct from the “tonal”, which is the “here”.
Death is simply the reversal of this process of “Everywhere into here” and from “here” back to “Everywhere”. Every mystical or religious tradition teaches that one should “die before dying” precisely to realise the same sort of thing that those like Bolte-Taylor or Wren-Lewis experienced in their Near Death Experience. Rumi’s poetry is full of that, too. Death is the doorway to the Ultimate Truth of the unoriginated and unconditioned, and to insight of why everything, implicitly and latently, is connected with everything else. Rumi and Blake, especially, are excellent guides and witnesses to this “Everywhere”. “Everywhere” is what is typically described in the phrase “cosmic consciousness”. Everything and all beings are precipitates or flowerings or crystallisations from out of this “Everywhere”, which is what is known, in Buddhism as “Buddha Nature”. “We are all related” — Mitakye Oyasin — as the Lakota Sioux say.
There’s a very cryptic saying that goes “Nowhere to go. Nothing to do”. Only those who have experienced the relationship between “Here” and “Everywhere” know what that means. Time-bound, as we often feel ourselves to be, we have great difficulty understanding this paradoxical relationship between Now and Eternity, or Here and Everywhere. But this also bears on Jean Gebser’s equally paradoxical distinction between Origin and beginnings. A life well-lived, is a life that has never really left its source in “Everywhere”. This is the true meaning of “faith”.
Where do you come from, baby dear?
Out of Everywhere, into here.
This does not just apply to humans or animals alone. It applies to the Earth as a Being as well. This must be born in mind. “Here” — this present Earth — may very well be extinquished without in the least diminishing “Everywhere”. To put this another way, in faith we survive death, because every particular “Here” may be extinguished without diminishing “Everywhere” in the least. Likewise for the fate of the Earth. Faith is not some magical power that averts death or postpones death. Faith is not the same as “the power of positive thinking” which belongs more to the magical. Faith is no about “the power of positive thinking” which is only belief. That’s what distinguishes faith from belief. This should be a sobering reminder that this particular instantiation of”Here” called the Earth may well perish due to our hubris and our ignorance, but that will not in the least diminish or subtract from “the Life Force Power of the Universe” in any way. Everything in time reverts and returns to whence it came and comes, and that means — out of “here” into “Everywhere”.