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Monday, December 12, 2011

What's Larger Than Us?

Over twenty years ago, I ventured into the halls of AA. I didn’t have a drinking problem so much as a thinking problem. I thought about driving off the road. I didn’t want to die: I just wanted relief from the profound dis-ease I felt inside myself all the time despite outward accomplishment: grad school, college instructorship, friends, a nice apartment. It was during the era when I taught in prison and the woman who invited me to accompany her to an AA meeting said, “It’s no wonder you work in a prison; you live in one.” Ouch! But she was right and I knew it. I couldn’t have told you exactly what was imprisoning me but I felt the constraint so I went with her to a meeting in an upscale Catholic church thinking I was on an anthropological field trip to observe another species: alcoholics. As I said, I didn’t having drinking problem because I did not drink. I avoided alcohol and didn’t care for the effects, but curiously, I found myself identifying heavily with everyone who spoke. Not the details about DUIs, hangovers or hidden bottles: but the feelings I heard described were my own.
Because the hour spent in a meeting provided the only hour of relief from that feeling of dis-ease, I kept going, still thinking myself a visitor but a grateful one nonetheless. For those of you unfamiliar with AA or the other Twelve Step programs, spirituality is a big piece. That first meeting, a big blue felt banner hung on the podium that read “But for the Grace of God.” I recall thinking, well that’s just fine for these people but what are the rest of us to do?

People in meetings kept mentioning a higher power. Everyone needed one, no matter what it was: Nature, God, the Goddess or G.O.D —good orderly direction or group of drunks. Something beyond the self to turn to, or turn it over to and let go. For me, the phrase conjured some sort of elevated sovereign being which just wasn’t a resonant metaphor so I would sit in meetings held in church basements and peer out a window usually at the street level, thinking there’s a world going on out there that gives no thought to those of us inside this room at ten on a Monday morning or eight on a Wednesday night; but here we are, all searching for something larger. And that’s when it hit me: the idea of a larger power, not a higher one. I realized each morning we wake unto a world already in action. We re-enter consciousness from the sleepy world of our dreams and there it is in all its glory: the universe humming along. As odd as it sounds, it might have been the first time I recognized, or more accurately, felt, for it was more sensation than cognition—that I belong, that we all belong to something larger than ourselves.

When I was a kid I used to terrify myself worrying that I had dreamed up the entire world: that it was just a figment of my imagination and when I woke up I would be all alone in the blackness of space. Finally, I told my best friend who said she had thought the same thing—which somehow instantly reassured me I was not in fact alone, unless of course I had dreamed her up, too. I suspect whether or not we have a childish moment of solipicism where we fear we might have thought up everything from string theory to the entire canon of Mozart, deep down many of us have experienced at least a flash of feeling terribly alone: not solitary in a contented way: but truly unstrung like the moment the obstetrician severs the umbilical cord. Suddenly the world is awash in unfamiliar sounds and smells, lights, temperatures, textures. Gone is the familiar slosh of amniotic fluid, the safe confines of a womb inside a larger being that notices and hopefully cares.

My students often presume humans created religion solely as a way to explain otherwise inexplicable natural phenomena. The new field of neurotheology examines where in our brains the religious impulse comes from and how the brain apprehends religious experience. But it occurs to me on some pre-conscious level, or perhaps simply a pre-natal one, we literally enter the world as we come to know it, with the initial experience of being part of something larger; and once we slip through the birth canal into the delivery room: be it home or hospital or the back of a cab, we sense the sudden shift and seek to recreate the experience of belonging we’ve already had.

When we study religion: eastern, western, animist, monotheist, polytheist, earth-based or otherwise, we encounter story. Great and often overlapping narratives that at the core offer us belonging. Creation stories may attempt to explain how we got here or how life first formed; but more essentially, they contextualize our individual beginning within a meta-origin that continues to hold us. We think of story as a human invention or impulse indicative of how our brain works: how memory, imagination and consciousness coalesce: all of which may be true.  But a bit like my child-self thinking I had dreamed up the world, we believe we have conjured story when in actuality we don’t create story so much as inhabit it.

As one of my students wrote in his research essay on what comprises reality, except for astronauts who have viewed the earth from space, humans don’t typically perceive the ground we live on as spherical. We know cognitively that the planet is round but our senses don’t relay that information; we encounter it as an idea. We experience our lives unfolding on a horizontal plane when in reality gravity affixes us to a point on an arc. In the same way, we appear to fabricate stories from memory and imagination, the gravitational pull of narrative connects us to the greater story of life unfolding.

We speak of our legacy, how we live on in the memory of others through the stories they tell that attest to our influence; but even after the last person who knows us dies, our story still exists. Whether or not it resides in human consciousness, our story remains in the narrative fabric of earth where we have trod and in the molecules of air we exhaled, in the long forgotten cells sloughed off our bodies and the heat that once emanated from us. Our very being belongs to a world that contains us regardless of corporeal form.

Such a perspective is what I call mosaic: enough distance to see the complete picture. Views from the Hubble telescope can depict Earth from multiple angles though not all at once; but even a telescope so powerful cannot capture the entirety of our galaxy, much less all the other solar systems out there. It’s not a readily available perspective so we create stories to stitch us into place, to mark the dot in the swirling galaxy that indicates: we are here. The distinctly tribal narratives of Genesis and Exodus reflect the need to know our place in the scheme of things. To identify with a particular clan or collective recreates a sense of prenatal belonging. Once again we know we are part of something larger.

We rely on stories, biblical or literary, scientific, even musical to instruct and assure us we belong.

That’s the power of AA and other Twelve-Step programs: creating a safe space for individual stories others identify with so that no one feels unique or more importantly isolated, unreachable, alone. As much as an insistence on having a higher or larger power may appear dictatorial, it isn’t. It’s just wise. The isolation of addiction is not unique. It is an intense and potentially deadly form, but as prosaic that the isolation of anyone else. Most if not all of us know the feeling of floating like a dust mote disconnected. The concept of a larger power is but a metaphor for the source of our being; be it a long-dead star, an accumulation of atoms, or the breath of the universe mysteriously and miraculously coalesced into human form.

Dust motes don’t exist in a vacuum. Well, they may end up in one, but dust though it seems disconnected gives evidence of what exists and has existed. Dust may be the original storyteller.

Macro- and microscopic worlds include us even when we don’t consciously perceive our inclusion. Many years ago on the Isle of Mull off the west coast of Scotland I noticed

the untamed grasses tickling

the clear belly of sky…

the ground plump with stories,

mist unfurling secrets

to the intricate workings

of villages blossoming

in the scrub brush

a world chattering around our ankles.

On woods walks with my dog, Zuki I often get lost in my thoughts but then she sniffs and upends a tuft of fur and I realize the woods teem with stories of life and death. The voles and mice, fox and deer, coyotes and porcupines, owls and woodpeckers, the hawks and wild turkeys inhabit an intricate expansive world far greater than my ability to imagine—and with each step that jostles a twig or rustles leaves, Zuki and I enter the narrative, leaving our scents and our dust, our spent oxygen, and she, her scat for other creatures to decipher just as intently as she reads theirs.

What’s larger than us? Everything. The trees more plentiful; the underground fungi more prolific; oceans, mountains, sky, galaxies. And stories. Something as vast as the Himalayas or as complex as the mathematical underpinnings of a multiverse lacks the intimacy we long to return to, the containment of belonging we seek, so we go in search of that and find it in AA drunkalogues and tall tales, in ballads and frescoes, poems and plays, quilts and recipes handed down for generations. We find it in archetypes and myths and pictographs etched into cave walls.

We craft stories to express ourselves: to exhale what we ingest; to make tangible what we imagine; to enrich the ongoing conversation; to demonstrate how our particular experience nuances the cosmic narrative. We engage with the stories of others to find the ways we fit and where we don’t because even when we feel we don’t fit in to this particular story or that particular crowd, we define ourselves within the meta-narrative.

When I was so sure I did not belong with the ones who talked about a higher power and kept saying “But for the grace of God,” I unwittingly returned to the story by Dr. Seuss where some of the sneetches had stars on their bellies while others did not. I spent my childhood and adolescence on the margins, and occasionally I wore that feeling of outsiderhood as a badge; but by early adulthood I remember wanting to be just another bozo on the bus. In my late twenties I spent several months sitting in AA meetings thinking I didn’t belong and wishing I did—because I felt better there, recognized and inside, no longer out. I’d been writing stories since childhood to understand the incomprehensible; and then years later, when and where I least expected, rooms full of strangers named and demystified the incomprehensible by telling their stories and nodding when I shared mine.

Thursday it snowed where I live so Zuki and I went trotting into the woods where the lattice of snow-laden branches sculpted a womb of trees and suddenly I knew why I have always sought to live at the forest’s edge.  As much as I love the beach and the expanse of ocean stretching toward the horizon, it is in the woods that I feel held. It is there I experience most vividly the sensation of belonging: where I meet what is larger and climb inside.

All of art, music, invention and discovery are larger than us. Grief and joy are larger. Hope and the indomitability of spirit are larger. The drive to survive, the replication of cells, the path of light traveling from red giants to our retinas here on earth, God, the ground of our being, the breath of the universe, mysteries and the ineffable: all larger than we are —and inseparable.  It is not just with our brains but with our sensory organs we can once again know how it feels to inhabit belonging. The more we notice, the more we listen to the stories that surround us in scrub-brush and anthills, in church basements and sanctuaries, in fallen logs and deer scat, supernovas and bacteria, the easier it is to feel again the pulsing umbilical cord that fastens us to the world wherever and whoever we are.