The Flames of Life

As I write, there is a single candle burning in front of me, its flame dancing in the corner; the light bouncing off the wall behind it and beside it sends tumultuous shadows dancing across the wall. A selection of beautiful music accompanies the swirling shadows. At the heart of the candle, at the very center of the flame, where it appears to be white hot, I consider how my life is like the wick, slowly being consumed by the flame. A common candle burning in the darkness clearly has the advantage of being so small and yet still representative of fire in all its manifestations. Like so many similar phenomena in the world, in the extreme, not all flames are as comforting or as benign.

The wild fires burning in California and Australia are the opposite in every way. The consequences of such extremes are not at all like the flames on a birthday cake; the sight of such dangerous extremes do not make us feel the same way a collection of candles can as they cast a beautiful, shadowy panorama around a room. Even a campfire or a carefully controlled bonfire wouldn’t qualify as anything more than a benign pleasure deliberately chosen.

Fires can be destructive and lethal. They can be the result of negligence or deliberate malice. They can be initiated by lightning in remote areas where they clear away the dead trees and undergrowth, thus making possible the renewal of a natural balance in a natural setting. There is a clear connection between our intentions in igniting a flame under certain conditions, and the havoc which results when control is lost or momentum is gained in other conditions. The full range of possible scenarios can alter in significant ways, the future consequences of whatever choices are made and whatever results occur.

In the same way, our lives consist of both deliberate choices and happenstances from the realm of what is possible. They also can be altered significantly by how we envision our futures, and on what aspirations and opportunities are either present or absent.

Visions and imaginings are potentials—possibilities not certainties, but when I arrive at that place where these potentials exist within me, I cannot easily tear myself away. I linger there, not wanting to relinquish the potent inner affinity for the ideas embodied in that state of mind. So often, I struggle to sustain the momentum gathered during these episodes, to relish the sensations they produce, to savor the moments of bliss which sometimes occur, and to cherish the memories they can sometimes create. We live out our lives as they unfold, having made a whole host of choices along the way, which did not include a broad range of other choices, which could have altered our trajectory through the life we did choose.

What we seldom consider is how even the smallest changes to the course of our lives can potentially represent enormous consequences to the path which results. What if the world had gone in a different direction or what if my life had been even slightly altered in a way that did not include certain subsequent events? It seems likely that moving forward at that point would have a totally different direction and a host of other subsequent events. The visions and imaginings in my mind’s eye—my vision of the future—both remarkable and beautiful, and not without pain and suffering—those tend to come along no matter what choices we make—but I believe that no matter how we envision our future lives, if we carry that vision with us; hold onto it and follow it through whatever pain and suffering we encounter, embrace the moments of joy while we continue to persist in the face of adversity, we may then be able to look back and recognize a degree of fulfillment of that vision.

Part of my vision of the future is to help to inspire the upcoming generations, to look more deeply at life, to try harder to make the life they envision to be realized, to expand, and to blossom. In order to do this, one must fall in love with life, and embrace what is possible; the realm of possibility is wide. It contains all possible outcomes—all that is possible—and I want to dive head-first into that realm, to explore, to discover, and bring to the world, that which I uncover.

And so I am grateful to be in the presence of this little flame in the corner this day. I am the beneficiary of the light, the dance, and the white hot center, which is the center of me; we are consumed by life, gradually if we are lucky, and for a time, our light burns brightly, especially in our youth. If we are fortunate to arrive in the later stages of life, we can look back on numbers of days, hours, minutes, and seconds, where a flame illuminates everything.

My Reply to the Expression, “Everything Happens for a Reason.”

A recent visit to a fellow blogger’s site which featured the statement above prompted me to express my response to it, and to address the role of destiny and fate. They aren’t interchangeable terms in my view, and while I understand why it may be comforting to suppose that there is an underlying order to everything in the physical universe, chaos theory posits a degree of randomness that’s hard to ignore.

We all would like to think that there is some good cause for everything that happens in the world, especially for what might happen to us personally in our own lives, but the truth is that sometimes things happen TO us or AROUND us, and sometimes things happen BECAUSE of us or our actions or inactions. In many instances, there may be an EXPLANATION for what happens. There may be causes we can identify for our suffering, just as there are causes for our success. There may be a way to figure out why CERTAIN things come about, but just as often, we may not be ABLE to discern a cause or source or rationale for the events that take place in our life experiences. Such blanket expressions like, “everything happens for a reason,” are not particularly useful nor do they make our lives seem any easier in the face of challenges or troubles.

We cannot control what happens TO us many times, but we can often decide how we are going to act as a RESULT of what happens. We can take whatever talents we manage to acquire and SQUANDER them, or we can strive to improve them and put them to good use. Even when doing so, we may not succeed at what we are striving to accomplish, but life isn’t just about RESULTS; it’s also about the journey itself. We may or may not become successful no matter what happens to us or because of us, but if we want to truly make a deliberate and important contribution to the OUTCOME of our efforts, we must apply whatever resources we can muster and CHOOSE our path when we can, and follow wherever it leads us. Destiny is something we can choose to do or to attempt to do, but we can also ignore it or abandon it.

When we FAIL to choose, or fail to TRY, or fail to act when we should, that’s when fate takes over. What we work toward to the best of our ability is our destiny, fulfilled or not, and we have to acknowledge that our participation is essential if we truly seek to achieve our destiny. Whatever happens will have some sort of explanation ultimately, but the outcome may NOT be for any particular reason, or it may have AS a reason, our determination to achieve it. It’s really up to us.

Celebrating Life and Love

By coincidence, all day today, I was working at my part-time job, which places me in a position of interacting with a large number of random people, and as I am naturally inclined to be social, as the opportunity presents itself, I try to engage each one in a brief conversation, mostly as a polite way to greet them and maybe get a smile out of them. Apparently, marking this particular day as one in which we celebrate love in all its many forms; love clearly was on the mind of just about everyone. Most often, the exchange would be brief, and took the form of well-wishing and polite banter, but several of the exchanges, while also positive in nature, revealed a different layer of attention to the subject of love, including a few which required diplomacy on my part to acknowledge the gestures, without slighting the intention of the well-wishing, but also maintaining the appropriate demeanor. As I contemplated my responses in the brief minute or so in which they were required, it occurred to me that the subject was fairly challenging to address under these circumstances, and upon completing my shift, I began to consider the subject at length.

There’s almost no telling how love will unfold in our personal lives or as we move through the world-at-large. As we progress through our lives, we all seem to arrive at our own understanding of what it means to love someone. We learn first about love from our parents or primary caretakers whoever they end up being, and often it’s amazing to us as adults what sticks with us through all the changes and stages of growth we go through. In some circumstances, where our lives are most often in balance as we grow, we learn to appreciate the love we are given, and have a fair idea of how to demonstrate our love based on these experiences. For most of us, though, the balance is often tipped in one direction or the other, and it can take a long time to appreciate how other people might differ in their understanding of what it means to love another person.

It seems to me that, as a rule, we are far too rigid in our views of what reasonably might constitute a loving relationship between parents and children, amongst siblings, between extended family groups, and between the many different levels of friendship that we encounter as we age. Our best friend in grammar school can still be our best friend in our adult life, or they can vanish from our lives for any number of reasons, and every variety of circumstance can either contribute to the longevity of friendship or make it impossible to continue, just as every other sort of relationship can experience long periods of enriching and enduring affection, or be lost or mitigated by extenuating circumstances.

I have often encountered circumstances in my life, where people have inspired me to feel a loving connection in one way or another, but who have a difficult time understanding how it could be that such a connection is even possible. I have often thought that there should be some guidance in our educational system, particularly when children are approaching adolescence, to begin to appreciate the many different varieties of emotional connection that people feel, and to broaden the definitions of love across the whole spectrum of human interactions.

history of the world

The amount of time in which a life takes place, which includes everything from a few moments to, at times, nearly a century of life, is one of the least important measures of a life. Each of us is given a certain amount of time to live our lives, and none of us knows in advance how long it will be before we must relinquish our lives. This is the very nature of life–uncertainty. In some ways, uncertainty DEFINES life. If we knew about everything that would happen in our lives in advance, and the exact moment when life would end, there would be no mystery, no wonder, no sense of anticipation, no expectation, no reason to try anything. Because life is unpredictable, it is worth getting up in the morning to see what will happen! Life is about potentiality. When we DON’T know what will happen, or how long we will have to do anything, it’s up to us to discover how our lives will unfold. It is always sad, as an observer of life, when we see a life that is, from our perspective, cut short, before it has had sufficient time to unfold in the normal way. But really, each life, no matter how long it is, is precious, and worth every effort to live each moment fully, for however long we have to live it.

I do not claim to be an expert. I am not a scholar, or a magician, or a superstar quarterback. Even though I attended two universities for more than four years, I haven’t turned my education into a platform for expertise or exploited those opportunities into a particularly abundant life. What I can say about my life, given the measures we normally apply to accomplishments in education, in my case at least, the results were not especially impressive, but my life EXPERIENCES have been extraordinary.

Every memory I have is precious to me. I have been the father to six amazing children. I have served my country in the military, traveled to Europe for two years, and met many extraordinary people. I have experienced great joy, as well as terrible sadness. I have experienced hunger, deprivation, loneliness, bitterness, rejection, loss, and just about every sort of unhappiness imaginable, but I have also been a witness to and a participant in spectacular experiences of loving; I have attended feasts, and eaten at fine restaurants; I have vacationed in beautiful natural settings; I have attended family reunions with some of the most fabulous people on the planet; I have been satisfied in many different ways, and cried tears of joy as I held precious newborn children in my arms.

I could go on, but you can see from just these few examples that no matter what we accomplish in our lives, when it comes right down to it, what we EXPERIENCE is what means the most to us; it’s what hurts us the most; it’s what drives us and what slays us; what we experience is more important than what we accomplish almost always, and all the skills and knowledge we acquire, as vital as these aspects are in helping us to function in and to understand our world, we must BE IN the world and experiencing our lives in order to make any good use of any of it.

The dynamics of each unique personal relationship has always been a subject of interest for me, especially since I began to explore the nature of human interactions as they relate to our very human spirit. As we make our way through our lives, we probably encounter hundreds of other individuals through our educational and social circles, but normally only a very select few become particularly significant to us in one way or another. We generally become aware of these connections when proximity permits sufficient opportunity to do so, but proximity alone cannot account for the development of close, personal (and dare I say…spiritual) connections, particularly those which endure across great distance and long years. While there are many different foundations for our unique relationships, and much that is not necessarily self-evident regarding the psychology which supports them, the existence of a powerful personal and emotional affinity for another clearly infers a greater degree of connection not explicable by simple biology, psychology, chemistry or mere chance.

As is the case with the many forms and degrees of love which we celebrate today, there are also other more subtle and more mysterious forces at work in our lives, some of which we may eventually comprehend and predict reliably, and others that are part of the life of the human spirit within us. The power to alter our lives at any time is within our grasp. We have the means to evaluate and discern which choice is best for us. We can choose to act in our own self-interest, or in consideration of what is in the best interests of others. Depending on our choices, a whole variety of alternate realities are possible.

If our minds are simply and only the result of neuronal functioning and the basic electro-chemical balance in our brains, then none of us can be held truly accountable for our actions, since we are at the mercy of brain chemistry and the endowment of adequate neuronal functioning. My contention is that while we are clearly dependent on a nominally functional nervous system to interact in a meaningful way with other sentient beings, the delicate balance of brain chemistry and neuronal functionality only provides a platform from which we can launch our lives as cognitive creatures.

Our current social structure in the Western World has evolved significantly in the last hundred years or so, and we are beginning to understand and appreciate the value of our unique personal relationships as part of a broader and completely natural social adaptation, which has been part and parcel of our continued evolution as a species since upright humans first walked the earth.

What I have Come To Understand

“When someone enters your life unexpectedly, look for the gift that person has come to receive from you. I have sent you nothing but angels. Others see their possibility in the reality of you.”

–Neale Donald Walsch from his book series, “Conversations With God.”

Have you ever been momentarily captured by the strains of a melody in a song or musical piece that you were hearing for the first time?

 

Have you ever stumbled upon a broad vista or panoramic view while hiking and been momentarily overwhelmed by how beautiful it was?

 

Have you ever held a newborn child in your arms and marveled at the miracle of a new life?

 

There are many examples of extraordinary events that can occur in our lives, which are unexpected or have unexpected effects when we are made aware of them, and it suggests some sort of connection that exists between people and places, and the realization of a degree of resonance that can exist even without prior knowledge of or exposure to specific stimuli.

Over the course of my nearly seven decades of life, and considering the number of extraordinary events that have punctuated those years along the way, you might think I would have become a bit more adept at deciphering them when they occur these days, but life always has opportunities for learning and expanding our understanding and awareness, and right alongside of the challenges and struggles we often face each day, if we are fortunate, we also encounter moments that lift us up and result in degrees of enrichment we never expected.

 

Reviewing the positive and negative events in the world at any given time, it can seem that one or the other may be dominating, but as I consider what has been most often the case for me personally, on balance, I would say that trying to understand the character of each has been one of the main reasons I have been driven to investigate our very human nature, by both researching the many aspects of subjective experience and consciousness, and comparing them with my own experiential reality to raise my awareness of the extraordinary aspects of being a living, breathing, human being.

It also has occurred to me that I may be so thoroughly out of sync with the times—an outlier in the modern world—that any hope of progress toward my goal of raising the awareness of what I have come to understand about the world-at-large may be overly optimistic. Nearly all of my responses to individuals who, for one reason or another, impress me as being extraordinary or potent in some way, seem often to be inexplicable in temporal terms, and attempting to express the importance of these interactions sometimes creates a degree of confusion or uncertainty as a result. I have long since passed that point in my life where refraining from expressing my honest responses to others in this situation feels like the correct thing to do.

 

Since crossing over the mid-sixties in age, I am painfully aware that I can no longer suppose that there might be plenty of time left to engage in genuine expression of my feelings. Naturally, most of us have no idea how long our lives will be no matter what age we have attained, but it becomes more apparent in the upper ranges of human aging that, even barring unforeseen circumstances, we still realize more readily how precious life has become, especially in view of the smaller portion of life one might have to experience and to share our insights.

The events of my life have been particularly instructive in this regard, since I often refrained from freely expressing my genuine responses to individuals in the past, and I realize more clearly now, that tomorrow is not a guaranteed gift for any of us. If there is a feeling we wish to express, or an experience we hope to share, it becomes a matter of greater urgency, since there are fewer tomorrows within which to do so.

I understand that others, especially those who are not as familiar with these ideas and who are not approaching the age of seventy, as I am, may not fully appreciate this urgency in the same way that I do, but I cannot change the arrangement of the circumstances which exist currently, and must act upon the urgencies which present themselves to me in a way that is responsive to my own character and disposition. There is now little time to waste in hedging or delaying expression.

 

 

While I acknowledge that others also have their own circumstances to consider, as a general principle, I tend to defer to the inclinations of those with whom I interact. Conversely, I also no longer feel as though my own inclinations aren’t worthy of attention either. I express whatever it is that I feel in as measured and considerate a manner as I can, and if the response is positive, I allow the interaction to unfold as it will, and if not, I am fond of saying, “I am easily discouraged.”

I normally rely on mutual agreement to determine whatever degree of sharing might take place, and would not ever seek to impose my own inclinations on anyone. Many times, the initial circumstances which ensue upon meeting an individual who captures my attention in a big way, far from being automatically engaged, are now much more likely to prompt caution at first, at least until some reciprocal response is detected.

Once it becomes clear that there is sufficient encouragement to continue, I usually will, and if it becomes clear that continuing would impose some difficulty, I tend to step back or away from further interactions, recognizing that anything other than a positive response must be acknowledged as well. The real challenge comes when the individual is uncertain or vague in their response, and doesn’t give a clear indication of a negative or positive response. In cases like these, I tend to err on the side of caution, or, at the very least, refrain from any overt response, until such time as a more definitive indication is forthcoming.

Over the years, I have become a better observer of body language, facial expressions, and other circumstantial indicators, and have learned to better trust my own instincts. Self-doubt is still a factor in some cases, particularly when the interactions are intense or disproportional to reasonable expectations, but having suffered through a number of emotionally agonizing consequences from miscues or misunderstandings, I am far less inclined to go where angels fear to tread.

All of these machinations and interpretations of previous encounters still haven’t prevented me from suffering to some degree when an extraordinary individual arrives and presses me to respond in a more immediate way. The recent encounter with a “kindred soul,” which prompted the creation of the previous poem, was similar in character to some others, but, as the poem indicated, it was surprising in its complexity, and stunning in the degree of delight it produced with no apparent outward cause.

These are the truly mysterious kinds of unexpected encounters that occur so infrequently, and strike with such suddenness and intensity that I am typically thrown back on my heels, holding my breath, and uncertain as to how it was even possible.

In this case, I was fortunate to have time in between encounters to consider what my response might be, but even these advantages seem to have failed to prevent me from feeling completely confident in determining just what my response should be. Clearly, the initial response warranted an additional opening to the interaction which occurred several days later, but I am now beginning to wonder if I have tested the patience of an angel.

Underneath all of our temporal inclinations, beyond the considerations of brain physiology and neuroscience, and in spite of uncertainty surrounding the basic understanding of our subjective experience, the human spirit remains for me the “élan vital,” at the heart of all contemplation of human nature, and I savor the delight of interacting with every positive moment, and strive at all times to learn from the others, and to grow and share what I have come to understand.

 

Samsara

This week, I was finally able to view a film I’ve been wanting to see for some time called, “Samsara,” directed by Ron Fricke and produced by Mark Magidson, and was stunned at the richness of the diversity of locations filmed, and was both inspired and disturbed by the powerful effect of the contrasts presented in the film.

In Indonesia, Balinese Tari Legong Dancers perform a dance in a tradition that goes back over 100 years. Kilauea Volcano erupts and spews forth massive clouds of steam and smoke and lava in a process that began billions of years ago on the primitive Earth. A human child developing in the womb, almost fully formed, shown in the tiniest graphic detail, with the very beginnings of human life hanging in the balance.

A human corpse of the anonymous Tollund Man, discovered in 1950 in a peat bog in Denmark, perfectly preserved, lies frozen in time, from the 4th century B.C., with the tiniest details of skin and facial hair preserved in its most raw form. The death mask of Tutankhamun displayed in brilliant detail, painted and golden, preserved with equally astonishing verity, from thousands of years ago. Each of these scenarios, in exquisite 70mm format, is part of the lead which introduces the film, “Samsara,” from the creators of the film, “Baraka.”

An extraordinary, almost alien landscape in the early morning haze, presents testimony to the extraordinary contributions that human beings sometimes make to the scenery of the natural world. Thiksey Monastery boys in Ladakh, India turning a prayer wheel. Monks making sand Mandalas. Switch from the barren deserts of Saudia Arabia, to the lush waters of Erupa Falls, in Angola.

Utter destruction from a modern catastrophe is followed by the exquisite beauty and grandeur of a palace in Europe. Natural wonders like spectacular waterfalls in Africa, rock formations in Utah, and volcanos in Hawaii, are contrasted with human-made wonders from ancient times like the pyramids, the Mayan ruins, the Hindu Temples of Angkor Wat, and the great Cathedral of Notre Dame.

According to Wikipedia:

“The official website describes the film, “Expanding on the themes they developed in Baraka (1992) and Chronos (1985), Samsara explores the wonders of our world from the mundane to the miraculous, looking into the unfathomable reaches of humanity’s spirituality and the human experience.”

Consulting the BBC.com website, I found a reasonably good explanation of the term, “samsara.”

“Hindus believe that human beings can create good or bad consequences for their actions and might reap the rewards of action in this life, in a future human rebirth in which the self is reborn for a period of time, as a result of their karma, which operates not only in this lifetime but across lifetimes: the results of an action might only be experienced after the present life in a new life.

This process of reincarnation is called samsara, a continuous cycle in which the soul is reborn over and over again according to the law of action and reaction. The goal of liberation (moksha) is to make us free from this cycle of action and reaction, and from rebirth.

An individual under the influence of Samsara will re-incarnate over and over again (not on purpose – only due to lack of knowledge) and always believe in the concept of death. Samsara is the world as created by ego; Samsara is the world of Maya—the world of illusions.”

For me, the most significant takeaway from this extraordinary film was the astonishing variety within the collection of depictions of the works of humanity and of Mother Nature. The presentation is exquisitely executed and it provides a great deal of material for thoughtful reflection without a single word being uttered throughout. It is, at times, mesmerizing and uplifting, and at other times, it is deeply disturbing and thought-provoking. I recommend viewing it when you have sufficient time afterwards to consider the impact it will no doubt have and to allow the messages it carries to sink in.