Thursday, March 12, 2009
A typical sunrise, on the way to the barn...
Some people are convinced that they know what is going to happen to them when they die. They are convinced they know exactly what is expected of them as they live their lives. There have been periods of time in my life when I have convinced myself of such matters but mostly I realize that I simply do not know.
I have read hundreds and hundreds of books in my life, including the Christian Bible. I began reading the Old Testament about age eight, and those old stories scared me spitless. I skipped over the most boring parts but I gave it a darned good effort, for a child. I had questions I needed answered!
I felt better when I read Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. Aside from absorbing that the man Jesus loved others beyond my imagining, and healed them from an infinite depth of heart, the New Testament also brought up as many scary questions as the Old Testament. Why would anyone kill a man like Jesus? It broke my heart.
Eventually I realized the Bible must be read with the historical context in mind, but it still did not answer my questions.
Thankfully, my parents never interfered in that aspect of my life. I was never force-fed any dogma. Amazingly enough, reading Ray Bradbury early on seemed to influence my thinking more than the Bible. I still fondly recall the innocence with which I read all of Bradbury's glowing, poetic stories. I did not always consciously "get" the stories, being a rather pragmatic thinker, but his ideas went deep.
I am not a well educated person. I never read any of the heavy philosophers, nor many of the classics. As a teenager, I waded through Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. I was depressed for weeks after reading each book. It was so depressing that I have never tried to read any of his work again. I sadly report that I do not believe I "got" any of it.
By the time I got to college, I was reading Kurt Vonnegut, the Lord of the Rings, Frank Herbert's Dune trilogy, and all of Richard Brautigan's books, my favorite being "A Confederate General from Big Sur". I read all of Hemingway and some of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I read T. S. Elliot and Walt Whitman.
The author that truly lit a fire for me was the infamous Carlos Castaneda. He continues to be a controversial figure, and all of his work is under a cloud of doubt and suspicion. I devoured each of his books, read them repeatedly, and accepted everything in them as fact. Everything resonated with me. I once finished a Castaneda book and excitedly ran to my husband, waving the book in his face, "I knew there was more to life. I just knew it!" My husband had been raised in a seriously Catholic home, and he was absolutely appalled. But, it was Castaneda and his adventures with Don Juan - the sorcerers, witches, dreamers and stalkers, and their ancient Toltec philosophies that truly opened my mind. Don Juan was quoted as saying "When death comes, it is nothing. It could be the period in one of your books." Somehow, I knew exactly what that meant. It was terrifying, unbelievably sad and absolutely energizing. It was an explanation of death that I could understand viscerally.
Castaneda was the first of many such authors. Right or wrong, frauds or not, who genuinely knows? I read them all and my mind opened to the possibilities. Castaneda apparently influenced an entire generation of intellectuals and scholars. I found Alberto Villoldo on a remaindered table for $1. He is similar to Castaneda, but Villoldo's path led him back to "respectable" American academia. He looked for ways to incorporate the ancient sorcerer's knowledge into the modern world of psychiatry, education, and health.
There are others I have read and reread. Ken Carey's books are likely as strange and beautiful and mind-expanding as anything I have ever read. Doug Boyd, whose work was for some time associated with the famous Menninger clinic, wrote of real people: Mad Bear Anderson, a Tuscarora Medicine Man; the famous Rolling Thunder, a Cherokee/Shoshone Medicine Man; a genuine Swami. Boyd founded the Cross Cultural Studies Program/Flint Hills Wisdom Keepers. The annual conference continues in Council Grove, Kansas, though Doug Boyd is deceased.
Thanks to the New Age, I have had access to many books over the last thirty years dealing with a variety of subjects: near death, reincarnation, expanded consciousness, ghosts, paranormal, UFO's - the list goes on. In the last ten years I have read many layman's books on the theory of relativity, string theory, M theory. I do not pretend I understand any of the theories, but the attempt is fun.
Coupled with all the reading, life has taught me a thing or two, as well. I still have my questions. We all have basically the same questions: why am I here? What is death? Why is it that we can not recall this supposed prior spiritual existence? If we reincarnate, would we not all eventually recall some common themes from that "other" existence? Why would there not be some collective subconscious memory to illuminate and inform all human beings, and give their creation myths some commonality? Why do human beings fight religious wars? What process is it that makes humans so certain of "their god" that they go to war, or commit acts of terrorism, or put people to death, or shun others who do not believe the same? Why do humans starve, rape and kill one another? Why do some people die horrible deaths? Why do some get away with murder? I do not know.
I have never been visited by a dead loved one. No one has ever come back and told me not to worry. When I was nine, my father died unexpectedly. In the days after his death, when I could sleep, I would fall into a deep, healing sleep. Sometimes my father was in those dreams, and sometimes I was in a place of comfort and peace. As I would begin to wake, I would struggle mightily to remain in that place because coming awake was returning to emotional agony and suffering. For a long time, those dreams helped me believe that my father still existed. But now I think they were simply my mind trying to cope with an overwhelming loss.
I was at my mother's bedside when she died. She suffered for many years with emphysema but she died from a fall in the hospital, suffering a mighty blow to her head. The instant her spirit slipped from that ruined body, I felt the room fill with joy. I got the distinct impression that her overwhelming thought was "That was not difficult. What was I worried about?" Also, something rock solid and tangible came into my mind: the absolute certainty that my mother still existed. Any psychology student would say I was in denial. But it did not feel like denial. It felt like the truth.
Yet, I have never seen nor heard from either of my parents in a three dimensional, five senses manner since their respective deaths. When I was a little girl, and loved the Jesus taught in Sunday school, he never appeared in my life, no matter how hard I prayed to him. Eventually he simply became like Santa Claus: a fairy tale.
Some time ago it dawned on me that perhaps the answer to my questions were not to be found in books, nor study. The answers are to come from my own mind and from my own life. It began one day when I was considering the pyramids. For thousands of years, the Egyptian culture built the most astounding structures the world has ever known out of nothing but stone, using methods we can not duplicate today. They thought they knew. They were so certain, their entire society was focused on building the pyramids - for centuries! If anyone thinks they know the answers to life's biggest questions, I have to refer them to the Egyptian pyramids. Are you so sure that you would force an entire civilization to build a pyramid just to entomb your crazy king in it?
My questions are too simple for the infinite universe and beyond. My questions are simply "baby talk" in a universe that defies imagination. I am too simple-minded to even know what questions truly matter, but I can not be anything other than a human being. Perhaps Popeye, that old cartoon character, gave me the answer on Saturday mornings long ago: "I yam what I yam!"
The last fifteen years or so, I have been going into prayer lodge with my Indian friends. I sit on the ground, in the dark, in the heat, singing those old songs, and sweating back onto the earth some of the water that allows me to live. The Indians say that is all we truly have to give back to our Creator, for all else belongs to Him. Sitting on the earth makes my prayers humble and clear. Sitting in the heat, I can not escape myself. Crammed in the dark with others, even some people I do not like, we become transparent and it is easy to love one another, easy to remember that we are merely human beings.
It is just one way. There are infinite ways to make sense of this life. Now, when I pray, I simply pray to the most high, the most sacred, to whomever is responsible for me being here. Because I simply do not know how I got here, or why I am here, or where I am going when I leave. Maybe I simply cease to exist. Or maybe I will reincarnate. That made a lot of sense to me for awhile, and conveniently explained why I was born knowing all about the terrible injustice done to the Indians. It was an explanation of why I love the prairie and mourn its demise with such a soul-felt grief. It explained why hearing the drums at a powwow moves me to tears. I have no other explanation for it. A lot of Indians make fun of people like me, saying we are of the Wannabe Tribe. I take no offense because I agree. I wannabe an Indian! But, I do not know why.
I guess when it gets right down to it, I do not know very much at all. I am no closer to finding the answers to my questions than I was when I was a little girl reading those scary Old Testament books. I have at least deduced one truth, and I am fairly certain of this one. Free will is the single greatest gift of this universe. Apparently we can do anything, believe anything, say anything whatsoever we can imagine to do, say or believe. Interfering in another's free will is tricky business. Perhaps the Creator has given us free will in order to teach us how to choose wisely.
I read one time about a man who lived by the sea. As a daily ritual he would stand in silent witness each evening as the sun slipped below the horizon, usually amid spectacular colors and cloudscapes. He eventually noticed that the rabbits living on the hillside below also paused each evening in those silent, mysterious moments of sunset, enjoying the beauty, too. Even the gentle, simple rabbit wonders. I always feel a kinship with those rabbits. I know exactly how they feel.