The universe is in us.
Dispatches from the Borderland of the Mind
The universe is in us.
Do you ever feel like you get “stuck in your head”?
You know what I mean by that: you start thinking about some question or some problem in your life and it just takes over your whole mental process for hours or even days at a time. Later on, when you look back at the situation with the benefit of hindsight, you can’t understand how in the world you got yourself so worked up over such a little thing!
Personally, this kind of thing happens to me a lot. For those who don’t know my back story, I have been engaged in a lifelong battle with a particularly severe form of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). One of the most counter-intuitive symptoms of this disorder is something called hyperfocus. It sounds weird because ADD is typically associated with an inability to focus on one thing for an extended period of time, but thanks to whatever chemical imbalance causes the disorder, many of us who have ADD also have this involuntary capacity to occasionally hyperfocus or fixate on something past the point where it’s rational or healthy to do so. In other words, it’s really easy for us to get “stuck in our heads” over some relatively small and insignificant issue.
For example, there was a time in my life when I was thinking about joining a new church, but I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be Presbyterian, Lutheran, or Episcopal. For most people, this would not be a big deal. Most mainline Protestants are pretty similar to each other, but my hyperfocus kicked in and I was up until all hours of the night, reading each tradition’s history and theology. You could find me at 4am, pacing the floors of my apartment and wringing my hands because I couldn’t figure out which church was the right one for me. How irrational is that?! At the time, it felt like the most important decision I would ever make. In hindsight, it all seems pretty silly. That’s ADD in action.
If I had been born only a generation earlier, I would have been dismissed as lazy, slow, absent-minded, or scatter-brained. However, recent advances in medical science combined with the attentive care of my parents and teachers allowed me to rise above my limitations and achieve my full potential as a human being. These days, I’m on medication that keeps my brain from running away with itself like it used to. I’m far less prone to fixate on particular problems or get “stuck in my head” over little things.
How about you? Even if you don’t have ADD, there comes a time in every life when one is liable to get carried away or “stuck in your own head” over some issue or another. We all have ways of putting up mental filters like horse blinders in moments of crisis. Sometimes, this is necessary: a particular problem is so big or so important that it needs your full attention for a moment. However, the trouble comes when we leave those blinders up all the time so that we never see the joys and concerns of the wider world around us.
Personally, I think our whole North American culture has become “stuck in its head” in a number of unhealthy ways. First of all, we’ve been trained by over 200 years of philosophy since the Enlightenment to prize the life of the individual mind over the life of the body and the community. This tendency goes back to a very famous philosopher named Rene Descartes. He was the philosopher who first said, “Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).” When he said that, he was trying to use his powers of reason to prove one and for all that there is such a thing as a soul. He was a brilliant person. We owe a lot to him. He lived and wrote during the Thirty Years War: a time when religious division fueled political conflicts. After fighting as a soldier in that war, Rene Descartes became convinced that he could use reason to construct the kind of belief system that both Protestants and Catholics could confirm. That way, he thought, these bitter religious wars would become unnecessary and naturally fizzle out over time. It was a noble intention.
Furthermore, Descartes method of reasoning was a major step in the development of individualism, wherein the rights and responsibilities of even a single person matter in the grand scheme of things. Up to that point in history, the needs of individuals were always subjected to the needs of the group. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that all people are “created equal” and possess certain “unalienable rights”: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Jefferson could not have written those words were it not for the groundwork of individualism laid by Rene Descartes. So, that’s the good part of individualism. We need it. We wouldn’t be who we are today without its influence.
However, there is also a downside. Individualism can lead us to get “stuck in our heads” in an unhealthy way. Ironically, it can lead us to disregard the rights and needs of other individuals. Through it, we have learned to justify selfishness over compassion. We are told that “greed is good” and generosity only encourages laziness. We have a tendency to get so obsessed with our own “pursuit of Happiness” that we would deny that same “unalienable right” to our equals. The culture of individualism unfortunately leads people to the hypocritical place where the “unalienable” rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” are only granted to those who can afford them. Unchecked individualism is damaging to the life of a community.
The second way in which our whole culture has a tendency to get “stuck in its head” has to do with the way in which we value the life of the mind over the life of the body. This takes us back to Rene Descartes as well. He believed that a person’s identity could be identified with his or her ability to reason. Descartes decided that he could doubt every aspect of his existence: his body, his sense perceptions, and his thoughts. The one thing that a person cannot doubt or deny is the fact that he or she is thinking. That’s where Descartes got his famous phrase: “I think, therefore I am.”
Once again, this development has had a positive effect. Through it, we have learned to use the power of reason to improve our lives. Descartes himself helped to lay the foundation upon which the Scientific Method was later developed. Much of what we take for granted in science and technology would not have been possible without the way in which he shaped our thinking.
However, there is a downside to this as well. Western European and North American cultures have had a tendency to value the mind at the expense of the body. For example, jobs where people work with their brains tend to be more socially prestigious than jobs where people work with their hands. A doctor (in this culture) is generally considered to have a “better” job than a nurse. It’s not a matter of skill or hard work. There are nurses who have doctoral degrees in their field, yet they are constantly under pressure from some MDs to not use their title, “doctor”, even though they’ve earned it. “Doctors” are generally thought of as mental laborers while “nurses” are generally thought of as physical laborers. Never mind that we can’t run a hospital without people to do both jobs. Our culture has trained us to value the one and take the other for granted. We’re all “stuck in our heads” when it comes to career prestige.
Likewise, our valuation of the mind over the body has led North Americans to abuse and mistreat the earth in so many ways. Organisms and ecosystems are our partners on this planet, but many in our culture have come to see them as resources to be exploited. We’re “stuck in our heads” here as well. We’ve become so myopic about the survival and prosperity of our own species that we’ve forgotten about the basic state of interdependence in which we already exist. When we damage the water and the air, we are only hurting ourselves. We roll our eyes when some activist talks about “the environment” because we forget that we are the environment. When we recklessly drive species after species into extinction, we are only hastening the moment of our own extinction. Where the planet itself is concerned, there is no “survival of the fittest”. There comes a time when competition must give way to cooperation or else everyone loses.
We can’t afford to stay “stuck in our heads” anymore.
A few minutes ago, I mentioned that I am now on medication that prevents me from getting “stuck in my head” because of my ADD. I wonder, is there some kind of “medicine” for our cultural tendency to get “stuck in our heads” in these ways that I just talked about? I think there is.
We read a passage this morning from Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. He addresses his own culture’s tendency to get “stuck in its head”. He says to his followers, “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Like us, Jesus’ listeners are “stuck in their heads” and caught up in their own little worlds where everything revolves around them and their immediate needs and wants.
Jesus is trying to get them to take their blinders off and see the bigger picture of reality. He’s taking them on a journey from being self-centered people to becoming reality-centered people. This is a path followed by people from every religious tradition, although they might understand and express it differently. I don’t say that in order to minimize or disrespect the very real differences between religions, but it’s worth noting that we do share some common elements with each other, not the least of which is this sense that (A) “there is something wrong with the world” and (B) “there is a way out of the wrongness”. Christians have traditionally called the wrongness, “sin”, and the way out, “salvation”. Here in this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is showing people a way out of the wrongness.
What is the way out? How does Jesus propose to take us on that journey from being “stuck in our heads” to seeing the big picture? What is the medicine that he prescribes for treating our cultural myopia? The medicine is the universe itself. He says, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns… Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”
Jesus draws his listeners’ attention to the natural balance of life and creation. In order to liberate people from being stuck inside their own self-centered obsession, he asks them a rhetorical question: “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” The answer, of course, is yes. There is more to life than all that. We ought to lift our vision higher and examine our individual needs in the context of the big picture. There is more to see, if only we can remove these horse blinders of selfishness and meditate on the sacred harmony we find in the universe around us.
We are part of the big picture. We are gifted with life in the context of our ecosystem. Our planet is delicately balanced in its orbit around the sun, not so close that we burn up and not so far away that we freeze. Our sun is one of several hundred billion stars that make up the beautiful spirals of the Milky Way galaxy. Our galaxy is one of 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe that got started with a Big Bang approximately 13.75 billion years ago. This is the big picture. In the grand scheme of things, our self-centered obsessions are pretty small. Jesus was right: life is more than food and the body more than clothing. There is more. WAY more! And the amazing thing is that it all flows together so well, without our being able to control or direct the process in any way. It’s just there. It’s just happening. Meditating on that reality can help us to maintain an attitude of humility before the mystery of existence. It reminds us that we can never know all the answers to the secrets of the universe. It keeps us from getting “stuck in our heads” with our own petty little problems. Humanity is told in the book of Genesis, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We are small, this is true.
But on the other hand, meditation on creation reminds us that we are also big. We are more than those problems that threaten to keep us “stuck in our heads”. As Jesus said, our lives are more than food and clothing. According to legend in the book of Genesis, human beings are dust into which the breath of life has been breathed. Our bodies are vessels for the Ruach HaKodesh, which is Hebrew for “the Sacred Breath”. Another way to translate that same phrase is “Holy Spirit”. We all hold this mysterious gift called Life for the limited time that we are on this earth. The Sacred Breath (Ruach HaKodesh, “Holy Spirit) flows into and out of us all. We don’t get to decide where and when we live or what will happen to us while we are here. The only thing we get to choose is what we will do with the time we have. Will we stay “stuck in our own heads” or will we lift our vision higher in order to see the big picture?
You are bigger and smaller than you think. You are a speck of dust into which has been breathed the Holy Spirit, the Sacred Breath of Life. You were born into a nest of cosmic harmony as part of “the interdependent web of all existence”. As Jesus taught us to do, use this time you are given to honor that sacred harmony and contribute to it by living a life of service and compassion toward your fellow creatures.
Reblogged from the PC(USA) news feed.
Original post by Erin Cox-Holmes
The universe is so vast that trying to understand it makes our minds melt. So said Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, speaker at the Science and Faith lunch on Thursday (July 5) at the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
An astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Wiseman is the director of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
It would make sense to conclude that since the universe is so overwhelming, we are small, tiny and insignificant. But, said Wiseman, what we can learn from astrophysics is that we can see the universe tuned for life… (Click here for full article)
One of my students in class jokingly compared God to the famous stripey-shirted figure of Where’s Waldo? fame. In the funniest rendering of the “God of the gaps” problem, he depicted the divine as constantly reshaping the earth and changing the laws of physics in order to stay hidden from the eyes of humanity.
Not quite plausible, but still hilarious!
Anyway, it reminded me of this passage from Diarmuid O’Murchu:
The universe knows what it’s about. The fact that it does not make sense to us humans, that it often baffles us to extremes and undermines all our theories and expectations, is not a problem for the universe; it is a problem for us. We, therefore, impetuously conclude that the universe does not care about us or about anything else; like the selfish genes, it too unfolds along its blind, lifeless path.
But is a blind, lifeless path likely to produce stars and galaxies, supernova explosions and quasars, planets and atoms, bacteria and photosynthesis, and creatures of such enormous diversity? Instead of viewing it all as mindless, why not work with the opinion that it is mindful? Not only would that make exploration more productive and hopeful; it would also make it a great deal more exciting, energizing, and engaging.
We also need to transcend this fretful preoccupation with where or how God comes into the whole picture. Theologians seem to be nervously concerned with keeping God in, while scientists are desperate to keep God out. I suspect that God is bemusedly puzzled by our human reactions.
–Diarmuid O’Murchu, Evolutionary Faith, p. 199