January 20, 2019
The Inbuilt Manual for Life
Volker Brendel: A couple of weeks ago, a colleague from the biology department here died. He was a little bit older, having just retired, and he was known to be in ill health, so his death was not unexpected. An email was sent out to everyone in the department, passing on the news, with a short write-up attached that had been penned at the occasion of the deceased's retirement, listing some of his considerable achievements. The colleague had been at Indiana University for 50 years as a faculty member, and thus he certainly lived through and created a good part of the history of the department. He was also a very accomplished scientist and laid the foundation of a new field of research in biology.
Last week we had a faculty meeting, and the department chair spent another couple of minutes lauding the deceased colleague and stressing how much we owe him. After those couple of minutes, we went on with the daily business of the department.
It really struck me how quickly Life moves on. Obviously, there are things to be done by the living: classes to teach, research to be conducted, and so forth (in this particular context). But overall, this experience reminded me of the analogy of life as a snowflake. A snowflake is born up in the skies, in the clouds, takes a long journey, falls to the ground, and may have a brief period of rest on the ground—but eventually, of course, the snow flake will melt away and be no more.
There are some philosophical approaches to life that take the experience of the snowflake as an example: let us live our lives in that way—be born, be beautiful, take our journey, do what we need to do, and melt away without a trace. Now, whether we like it or not, certainly that is the experience of most people as well as our experience of most people!
However, we can also see that while the snowflake disappears, the very substance of the snowflake (the water molecules) continues. As they melt into the ground, they find their way to a rivulet probably that eventually ends up in a lake, and sooner or later, being subject to evaporation, the water molecules rise up again into the clouds, to later fall in another cycle of rain or snow. And here we see a characteristic of Life: that there is a continuous cycle in which every atom and every molecule participates.
Human beings feel that there should be more to life. They feel there should be more meaning to all this. We are born into a rather helpless state. We need parental help to survive and get going. Then there is a lot of learning to be done—presumably a phase of productivity—and then it all begins to fade away and we are gone.
During this cycle, there certainly are times of questioning. Often this would be true of young people. Their conscious thinking is awakening, ideas are forming, they observe critically, developing their own character and philosophies, and they certainly ask questions about the meaning of it all. Of course, another period of questioning comes in the older ages when the end is nigh—time for reflection on what we have accomplished and how will it continue and end. The years in between are often spent less thoughtfully. People are getting on with business, as it were, and there's a lot of assistance with squelching any bothersome questioning. Obviously, one convenient solution is to subscribe to one of many popular belief systems that provide all the answers for us. Take any of the major religions—you join the organization, you learn what needs to be learned, you read the right book and follow the prescribed rituals, and the questions of meaning are settled for you. Of course, this is not restricted to religions. There are other belief systems and approaches, but more or less we externalize the intense questioning and certainly the answering; smarter people than us, more inspired people than us, have given the answers. Maybe they were inspired by God directly and down came the answers, so all that is settled, and on we go.
Now, obviously, then one immediate question is: on we go with what exactly? What is there to do? Well, again, for many people what is there to do is to make a living. Get an education. Get a job. The greatest thing you can do is have kids—join the club of parents. This is a fairly absorbing job, well recognized as meaningful and wonderful. And you can be busy, very busy, so that there is conveniently no time left for any soul-searching on your part!
If we take a little time to reflect, we must acknowledge a rather remarkable but obvious feature of life. We have to say that in life nothing is permanent but life itself. All living forms have a birth to death cycle. Every organism of any species comes from a seed, grows up, and eventually goes back into the cycle of life. On a large timescale, ecosystems and species come and go. Some 70 million years ago, apparently the planet was ruled by dinosaurs. A very successful group of animals, you might say, top of the food chain, developing all kinds of species. Eventually, an asteroid hit, and dinosaurs were no longer. Life prevailed; other branches on the tree of life came into prominence. Now these are of course human theories, our best guesses of how to make sense out of some data that we collect, and so forth. And the human mind has a very limited capacity of understanding. So, whether these things exactly happened that way or some other way, that's not part of what I'm developing here. The line of thought I am trying to emphasize is the very nature of life moving on through different forms; creating forms; discarding forms; building new communities, and so forth; constantly on the move. That to me is the inevitable realization of what life is all about, wherever we look, in whatever framework.
As we acknowledge this, one of our first realizations should be that all the achievements that human beings strive for in the human world will come to naught. Now that might be maybe a shock to many! We may think: well, I'm going to live a worthwhile life. After all, like today, this person here is giving this wonderful talk. It should be preserved; it will be useful; all the words are true. The transcript of this might be inspiring generations to come!
Well, it's unlikely that this particular transcript will be in that category. But certainly, many pieces of art and intellectual achievement and spiritual insight have been usefully propagated for up to thousands of years. But then, thousands of years in the universe is a very tiny time period! Will Beethoven be played 1000 years from now? Or maybe still in 2000, 5000, and 10000, or 100000 years? Obviously, we don't have to answer this. Because of the nature of life not being permanent in form, it behooves us to simply express life to the fullest in the present moment, in the present circumstances, without thought of the potential utility and acclaim in the future.
We have sometimes said, "Let love radiate without concern for results," and we've looked at that in many different ways. But to me the correct interpretation of this wonderful statement is to be fully alert in the present and express through the capacities at hand what Life wants to bring forth.
From my experience as an educator, one of the most under-taught topics is learning how to learn. Obviously, there is learning in our cycle on earth. As we said, we start as youngsters, we grow up, we learn, we fall into systems, and hopefully are productive. But how do we teach that process of learning? Closest to my direct experience right now is undergraduate and graduate teaching at the university. But my considerations, I'm sure, apply in all kinds of other contexts. If you take undergraduate teaching and learning, much of what is being taught worldwide is in the paradigm of lecture, textbook absorption of the material, and regurgitation. As a professor, you give a lecture; if you use a textbook, you refer to which chapter is being covered; the students sit in the lecture and hopefully pay attention; maybe there are some questions; they go home; they read the chapter; and they are examined on certain problems derived from the material. Although this is the adopted method in many places, it's well known that as a teaching method this is very ineffective. What students can learn in this way is temporary, mostly pattern recognition. They pick up certain items that are being presented, they learn how they fit, and until test time they learn how to work with these patterns and put things together. If you were to give a test on the same material a few weeks later, most of that is gone. That is to say, the students haven't really learned the material and they have forgotten the pattern matching that got them through the exam. So what do we really want to do in teaching? What do we want students to learn? And how do we teach them how to learn?
There is no substitute for learning by doing, and ultimately for owning the material. As you teach, let's say mathematical problems, the very initial steps might be pattern recognition. Try a few things mechanically. But eventually, for students to actually learn the material, they have to develop their own curiosity, their own understanding of the problem, devise their own problems, do it for themselves, and own the material. Teaching chemistry is no different. There are far too many reactions possible and happening in the universe. The only chance of understanding you have is understanding the principles and deriving the insight for particular reactions with the given reagents from general principles. Last example: language teaching. To learn a new language, do you learn the language from listening to tapes, from reading a book? I think unless you have a very special talent, the answer is no. You learn the language by immersion, by speaking the language, by listening to live conversations, by being immersed in the culture that speaks the language—essentially by doing.
Now the most important topic for anyone should be the art of living. As mentioned, probably most people have some periods of questioning in their life, but mostly little concern for this vital topic. Why? Maybe the art of living is not as accessible as a course in mathematics and chemistry initially, unless we subscribe to one of these prepackaged mythologies that we discussed already. Now if there is an internal stirring, and you show some interest in the art of living, and you have an inkling of your identity as something larger than a temporary snowflake, then you might say, well I still need help; I should get some guidance. Interestingly, for almost everything that we acquire, we expect to have instructions. If you buy some do-it-yourself assembly furniture from a well-known, worldwide, originally Scandinavian company, you will find a little booklet that says, okay put this piece of wood together with that one, with these screws, and so forth. More or less clear instructions. Follow the instructions. If you buy a new car, it will come with the booklet of how to operate it, of how to change tires, and of how to operate the computer these days. Or, if you get a new phone or computer, there are instructions.
So as I'm emerging into my divine identity and say, okay I get that, I have this equipment, I can see that I have a mind, I have emotions, I have my body, and I'm not all of that, that's my equipment, but then did somebody forget to give me the manual? Where are the instructions of how to use it from a divine perspective, from this identity that is larger than the snowflake? And in frustration, I think, many people settle for fake instructions, one of those prepackaged mythologies that are not accurate to Life; there may be part here, there may be part there, maybe good intention, but it's not what Life really is, because of the overlay of human mental constructs.
Nikki and I live rather remotely here, but every few years one of our missionary-type churches makes a mark on the map and says okay we have to check on the people in this area. And some of their members will come by, very well dressed, very polite, and want to hand me leaflets and engage me with their church doctrine. I always smile at them and say, well I know your mythology and you have got a few things wrong, and if you want to sit down and think a little bit about this, we can do that, but if you just want me to subscribe to it, then probably somewhere else would bring you more success and be a better use of your time. Typically, we then smile again and go our separate ways. If we exclusively pay attention to these prepackaged solutions, we will overlook the greatest gift of Life. It's amusing that technology in some ways has caught up with that. What do I mean? Well, your computer, your phone, do they come with a paper copy booklet of instructions? No, most of modern devices come with an online manual; it's all in the device. Now that's an invention by Life itself, because amazingly, if we pay attention, we do have an online manual built into our own heart and mind and body! Do we need to go to a special spiritual place somewhere to find beauty and grace? No. I can look at my own temple. Look at these beautiful hands. How wonderful that device is. All of our personal equipment, how it functions; maybe not entirely correctly, maybe there could be some improvements I can think of, but it's functioning and alive. I'm thinking. I'm speaking. I'm feeling. How does it all happen? Beauty of life is right here!
In terms of the art of living, we do have an inbuilt manual. We have referred to this as the Tone. There is a Tone, there is, if you will, a tuning fork built in by which we can tune our instrument accurately. There is Life speaking to us, to guide us to do the right thing in the right moment. It is all available, it's here, now. That doesn't mean that there would be no external help. On the contrary, there is; but it comes in all kinds of ways. There are mentors; there is inspiration from many different sources; there are our own thoughts coming up. There are plants and animals that make us smile and acknowledge the beauty of life. All kinds of ways. But the central part is this: if I stop short for some convenient mental construct of how life should be and get busy with operating by rote, then I am a passing snowflake of little relevance, because our relevance comes from recognizing the Tone, you might say hearing the voice of God in the moment and then transmitting that into our living expression. And as we do this, we find, as we find this morning, that there is a larger design to this. I don't have to do it all myself. In fact. it's one coordinated program that is expressing itself through all the different avenues where there is a crack in the hard shell of the human mental apparatus. It starts with listening. In internal stillness, the voice of Life will be there. And as we express that voice, our capacity for expression increases. If you ever let a faucet in your house be unused for a long period, when you try to turn it on again, problems may well occur. It's rusty. If you don't use a bicycle for a year and try to run it again, it won't work. It is the constant expression that oils the machinery. That's the beauty of our association in our meeting place, virtually for most of us, in person for subgroups at different times. We do what we came to do and as we do this, we marvel at the tapestry of the larger whole and the larger works fill out, well beyond our individual responsibility, well beyond our understanding. But we understand what we need to understand and what we need to contribute, and we can delight in how it all works together.
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