Jul 142018
 

Having completed nearly 67 years of this human journey, I can recount hundreds of gatherings I have summoned into existence. I wonder what, if anything, has been accomplished. In a world heavily dependent on to-do lists and action items, most people believe there is little hope of change unless a gathering concludes with a list of items to be accomplished, with attendant assignments and due dates. If, after six months or a year, we cannot identify and quantify how the world changed, the gathering was clearly a waste of time.

Einstein reminded us that “problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.” When we set out to change the world with well-worn thinking, the solutions will leave us wanting. If, on the other hand, you change the way a person thinks, they can’t help but act differently. What we can never know is how new thinking will evolve into new actions and ways of being in the world. They are unpredictable and unknowable. Further, since inquisitives continually challenge their thinking, the new ways in which they show up, and actions they take, can never be understood as the result of any one interaction with the Universe.

The human brain is too puny, and the Universe too complex, to even begin to imagine the implications of the things we do. The butterfly effect informs us that small perturbations in initial conditions change the course of history over time and distance in ways that are unknowable and unpredictable. Dee Hock once said, “Every action we take has intended and unintended consequences. The intended ones sometimes happen, the unintended ones always happen!”

Most wisdom traditions echo the words of the Bhagavad Gita: “You have a right to your actions, but never to your actions’ fruits. Do your work, then step back.”

In moments when I feel disappointment with the outcome of things I attempt, a friend reminds me my worth is unrelated to the results of my efforts. “Why is it,” she asks again and again, “you cannot know you have value absent of accomplishments?”

I will continue to summon gatherings. I will endeavor to be faithfully inquisitive and open to new ways of understanding the world, and I will invite those who join me to do the same. Then I will attempt, as difficult as it is, to step back and trust in the generative, creative nature of the Universe.

Jan 042016
 

Neil Armstrong, on his return from the moon said “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

What if the same were true of human knowledge? What if all human knowledge could, metaphorically, be hidden behind a carefully placed thumb? What if the entirety of human thought is similarly small in relation to the vast innate wisdom that permeates the Universe? What if, in reality, we actually understand very little? What then? What do we do? How should we act, if we must proceed into the next moment with the understanding that we have little understanding? If true, this might be one of the greatest of human paradoxes.

There are, I believe, reasons to question the scope of human knowledge.

The Universe is 14 billion years in the making—the Earth some 4.5 billion—yet we believe we have come close to understanding its deepest secrets in the four or five hundred years since Galileo, Newton and Descartes. On this trajectory, if we complete our understanding in the next two hundred years, or, being conservative, one thousand, what then for the rest of humanity’s future? Will there be nothing for them to ponder about the Universe and how it works?

Even worse, what if our “knowledge” actually drags us further and further from the infinity of the Universe? Is there a possibility our thinking is so mired in orthodoxy we can no longer see beyond the limits of our current beliefs? What if, by insisting we only look through certain lenses, we are becoming more and more blind rather that more and more wise?

Is it possible that 1000 years from now, rather than having used the scientific method to find ultimate answers, we will have set aside that entire belief system as an infinitely constricted lens into the nature of reality? Might we eventually come to understand that any human view of reality will one day be similarly viewed as infinitely constricted? Is it possible we will someday discover that reality is so far beyond any potential human capability we will find our most enduring satisfaction and happiness in the not knowing?

I believe humans will always be in love with the search for the most profound wisdom the Universe is willing to share. So in love, in fact, that even if we discover the deepest wisdom comes from not knowing, we will learn to love the not knowing.

Sep 152013
 
Note: I am submitting this for publication in the November/December issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine. 
 
“Imagination is the organ that allows us to thrive on the cusp between danger and opportunity.”
Lee Smolin in Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe


Every morning we wake into a world fraught with both danger and opportunity. If imagination is what allows us to thrive on the cusp between them, how is it we imagine—and reimagine—the world in ways that animate our lives and give them meaning?

We have as many as 100 billion neurons. Line yours up end to end and they would stretch 600 miles. (Of course you’d be dead, so don’t try this at home!) Each neuron can have thousands of branches, and connect with tens of thousands of other neurons.

At any given moment, billions of neuronal pathways can be activated as we interact with the world, but they are most active when we engage with life…allow ourselves to be challenged by new circumstances, unusual problems, different ideas, and unique and difficult experiences. When faced with novelty, we can retreat to well-worn, comfortable ways of thinking…or allow life to captivate us, spawn new neurons and connections, and cultivate our brain and its capacity. Provided we are not struck down by the ravages of dementia, we are capable of mental and emotional growth until late in life.

There are times when being challenged is intriguing, energizing and not overly difficult. I was confronted with new and different ideas when I read Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe by Lee Smolin. Smolin suggests there are billions of universes, and they reproduce inside black holes—of which there are as many as a billion, billion in our universe alone. I feel insignificant in the face of billions of stars and galaxies, but if this is only one of billions of universes, how can I even begin to comprehend the immensity? I could disregard Smolin’s ideas and choose not to be changed by them, but if, instead, I sit quietly and ponder, “What if that’s true?”, I can almost feel the growth of new pathways as my brain considers the astonishing implications.

But engaging with life is often difficult, or even heartbreaking. There is a sliver of the brain—the ancient, reptilian limbic system—from which joy, love, fear, anger and sadness emerge. This tiny lobe activates even before the newer, thinking, imagining frontal cortex is invited to the cognitive party. It’s one thing to read ideas about billions of universes that churn my thinking but leave my emotions relatively undisturbed. It is quite another to engage in ways that roil my emotions, and light up pathways that prevent me from even thinking. In a moment when sadness, anger or fear wells up inside, it’s not thoughts and ideas, but emotions that are the greatest challenge to my brain and its journey on the cusp.

I have been inspired by a woman I did not know well…until recently. Life has challenged her in a way I cannot even begin to understand. Some months ago her twin sister passed away—I have since learned that losing a twin is as horrifying as losing a child. And yet, she has reengaged with life in ways that have amazed me. I asked how she learned to reimagine her life in the new world without her sister. “When my sister died,” she told me, “I had two options: lie down and die or live my life. I chose to live! My heart aches beyond belief some days and that will probably happen for a very long time, but, I will continue to plunge forward. I will not give up.”

So what allows us to imagine and reimagine our world in ways that lead us toward opportunity and away from danger? Choice. We always have the choice to disregard, cower in fear, be overwhelmed by sadness, or overtaken by anger. Alternatively, we can imagine the opportunities present in every trial—no matter how faint and difficult to discern—create new neurons, new neural pathways, new knowledge…and “choose to live” in the new universe in which we find ourselves.

Dec 082012
 
Note: The following appeared in the January-February, 2013 issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
 

I have read many books in my life, and always viewed the time spent dwelling in the pages as no more than a conversation between me and the author. I have been wondering recently, however, how those moments are made possible by far more than just two individuals. How much more remains a great mystery.

No author can arrange words into meaningful thoughts without the voices of teachers breathing their influence into the subtleties of the wisdom. The teachers in my life not only held up a candle to illuminate new ways to understand the world, but also held up a mirror to enable me to see something within to which I might have been blind; given me the gift of self-understanding. As I read, it is stunning to consider the thousands of voices speaking through every thought as an author sits at a keyboard or with pen in hand; the author, midwife to wisdom inspired by those who have come before and articulated through the author’s unique life and experiences.

And reader, it’s useful to remember that I comprehend the world through unique lenses life has given me. Those lenses, too, have been ground and tinted by thousands who have helped me birth the language of my life. I see through a grandmother who gave me unconditional love; a Math teacher who helped me learn about learning; a thirteen year-old on the suicide hotline desperate for words of comfort and reassurance; a wife who remains my most loving and helpful critic; teens at Operation Snowball who have helped me peer into my blindness; the homeless and disabled who teach me the limits of my ability to come to their aid. The list goes on and on. With each new experience, the language of my life becomes more complex and nuanced, and I understand others in new ways.

But the moment of meeting between me and an author is not limited to the thousands of voices that speak through them and those that shaped the language through which I listen. The book itself could not exist without hundreds who felled trees, turned them into pulp and paper, and those who carefully printed and bound the pages. There were those who critiqued, edited and refined the author’s ideas, and thousands who distributed the volume to warehouses, booksellers and eventually to the hands that cradle and read.

But it is short-sighted to suggest that this moment of meeting contains only the wisdom and efforts of humanity. What of the miracles of nature that preceded them? What of the fibers and ink used to reveal the words, thoughts and wisdom. The fibers emerged when raindrops from the heavens and a beam of light from a star collided with seeds buried in the Earth to create new life. If the inks are oil-based, the molecules you touch as you turn the pages could literally be from mammals that lived millions of years ago.

And finally, take a moment to look at your hand. Each molecule you see, and each one you touch on every page, were, billions of years ago, part of an ancient star that exploded, coalesced into the Earth and became the trees, inks and humans that made a moment of meeting between author and reader a reality.

William Blake once wrote, “To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wildflower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.” What you might have thought, moments ago, to be simply a community magazine, you might now see as infinity in the palm of your hand.

As I am gifted with one more new year in my life, I hope to see more of the moments of 2013 as infinity in the palm of my hand. And to know that, as many ancient traditions suggest, if we listen carefully…and perceive deeply…each moment contains much, if not the entirety, of the Universe.

Dec 022012
 

 

Note: I beg your indulgence for this particularly long post. I have pulled it from a book I am trying to birth. It speaks to the confusion I face as I try to discern how humanity might find its way home.
The more I learn, the more the explanations I grew up with are being called into question—like mental and emotional rugs being yanked out from under me. For every book or article that proposes one worldview, there is another equally well-documented volume to propose another, often contradictory, view. I wonder if reality exists, or which author’s reality makes the most sense. Then I wonder if sense-making is even what I should be seeking. I wonder if I know anything at all. Are there really any pillars of truth on which I can build my belief systems?
I grew up in a world composed of atoms and molecules that were substantial, measurable particles. I grew into a Universe of quantum entities that zip in and out of existence at a whim, and show up as particles or waves depending on how we observe them.
I grew up in a world of answers and certainty—a world frightened by questions and confusion. I grew into a Universe in which Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle guarantees that I can never have all the answers. Knowledge of one aspect of the Universe makes another unknowable. I have come to learn that answers have a way of ending discovery and learning—while captivating questions open possibilities.
I grew up in a world in which my existence was primarily biological. My soul had a clean slate and one shot, using this body only, to make or break its infinite future in either heaven or hell. I grew into a Universe with legitimate discussion of my soul’s journey through many lifetimes to continue its growth in wisdom and enlightenment.
I grew up in a world where nature versus nurture was the only disagreement about how I came to be the person I am. I grew into a Universe in which some, like psychologist James Hillman and author Gary Zukav, suggest that my soul chose this life, with its possibilities for both joy and pain, because of the work it had to do in order to continue its journey.
I grew up in a world in which dreams were the random firings of 100 billion neurons that yielded meaningless images to be ignored, laughed at or forgotten. I grew into a Universe in which dreams might contain information about what I am called to do, or messages with deep meaning for my life’s journey. My children used Native American dream catchers to keep bad dreams out of their lives, rather than for their original purpose—to capture the meaning of dreams for insight about one’s life and calling.
I grew up in a world that actually had an “other side.” I grew into a Universe where communication technology, especially the Internet, invites the entire world into my living room. The “other side” is now on this side.
I grew up in a world where the American way of life was the envy of all. Consumerism and our market economy were great gifts that had the potential to make every human wealthy. I grew into a Universe in which it is increasingly clear there aren’t nearly enough resources to raise the world’s living standards to those of the United States. Our wasteful ways are raising the global temperature and destroying large portions of the biosphere and may eventually bankrupt the species—financially and emotionally.
I grew up in a world in which every theory, supposition, and belief had, at its heart, the fundamental importance, intelligence and superiority of humanity. Our extraordinary talents and abilities would eventually, I was led to believe, enable us to remake this place into a safe, risk-free and stable home for humans. We either were, or soon would be, the masters of all we surveyed. I grew into a Universe in which order is inherent—order that contains chaos as an integral component—and this orderliness does not require humanity to hold it together or build on it. Not only are we not required, we may be superfluous!
I grew up in a world where lives could be planned and made predictable. It was my job as a youth to find the right career so I could support a certain and stable family. Middle age was for amassing wealth because money was the only route to a bright and happy retirement. I grew into a Universe where the wisest, most deeply spiritual people I know live lives that show up in unexpected ways because they listen carefully to what they are called to do. Their lives are unpredictable and unplanned—filled with terrifying uncertainty, profound confusion…and deep satisfaction. They live lives with unimaginable wealth—sometimes they even have money.
I am slipping from youth to old age with the fear that somewhere along the way, I was supposed to have found wisdom—answers to life’s deep and imponderable questions. What I have learned is that the answers become more elusive with age and the questions grow in number and complexity.
I am a man with significant formal education who knows that his most precious and profound learning was uncovered outside the classroom.
I am a former teacher who discovered that it was not the content, but the context of my relationships with young people that had the greatest impact. And it was they who were the teachers and I the reluctant student.
I am a former manager from a Fortune 500 company who left because there seemed little room for humanity…little time in between sales calls, business meetings and strategy sessions for us to discover who we are as human beings or what we long for. Too much of the conversation was about a bigger bottom line and higher ROI, and not enough about building a spiritual legacy for future generations. There was too much of the masculine voice of decision-making and action planning and not enough of the feminine voice calling us to meaning through relationship.
It is a deeply confusing time. I have many “answers” for the challenges I face. The irony is that most of those answers only work in the world in which I grew up. They are often useless in the Universe into which I grew. The confusion is often so intense I find myself on early-morning walks moving moment-to-moment from despair to joy, terror to ecstasy, sadness to deep gratitude, with tears running down my face to signify any and all of these emotions. I wonder what I am called to think…to believe…to do. While the world offers many “answers” to each of my myriad questions, I know that few will work. I must find my own. I know where I have been—or at least I think I do—but I am profoundly confused about where I am headed.
Apr 072012
 

 

As I reflect on the human journey, today is the eve of the most holy of holy days on the Christian calendar. I am informed, and confused, by words attributed to Jesus as he neared death: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”that is, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” In this moment, I wonder if even Jesus, who tradition tells us could see beyond the reality of this world—what I call the finite—into the Infinite, had moments of doubt about the Infinite? In his excruciating moment of pain, it would not be surprising if, even Jesus’ understanding of the Infinite was obfuscated by his experience of the finite?
Even though I hope never to experience the finite in that same horrific way, I wonder if the Infinite is hidden from me also by my experience of the finite. For more than 60 years I have read hundreds of books that attempt to describe this world—from Quantum Physics, Evolutionary Biology and Moral Psychology to Buddhism, Confucianism and New Age Spirituality. Each with its explanation of what this world really is, and why we are here. What if every explanation we attempt actually prevents us from seeing what is beyond them?
I have come to believe the Universe is ineffable—beyond words. It is beyond anything we can understand from the perspective of the finite. And yet, we continue to manufacture concepts, images and paradigms to help us understand that which is ineffable. What if, instead of helping us understand, the paradigms obfuscate, distort and confuse?
What if we are actually in the Infinite—what many refer to as Heaven—right now, but are unable to see it, or experience it, because we remain so confused by what our minds think they are supposed to see? What if nothing I see is what I think it is? What if life has been gifted to me, not to comprehend the finite, but as a brief opportunity for me to see that what lies beyond is not beyond at all, but right in front of me, concealed by my thinking? But then, that too would be a paradigm, perhaps also keeping me from witnessing what is beyond. It is as if the paradigms that make up my world keep me locked in this place…keep me from the Infinite. It is as if, every time I try to see beyond, another view from the finite reflects me back to this world and this place.
Hundreds of teachers ask me to see that life is in being, not doing. They encourage me to see this moment—as I allow life to be lived through me and, to the extent I can, give up my ego—as filled with grace. It is in not knowing that I even glimpse what might be beyond the finite. The Buddha would have called this Beginner’s Mind. True knowledge is not found by thinking, I am instructed. But how do I approach their thinking, if it is about the non-belief in thoughts?  Is it permissible to use thoughts to get beyond thought? All truly is paradox. Yet somehow I feel that beyond the paradox…beyond the thinking…beyond the paradigms is the Infinite.
If the wisdom of the ages is to let go of all, to stop trying and simply be, then the ultimate paradox, the meta-paradigm if you will, is that it has taken so many words, concepts and paradigms for me to see that the Infinite is only available when I let go of all that led me to this moment.
Apr 062012
 

 

Note: This piece was recently submitted for publication in the May-June issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
Many years ago, I taught in a private high school on the outskirts of Princeton, New Jersey. As faculty advisor in the dorm, I began each day at breakfast with the students. One freshman would frequently catch me in the dining room. “Mr. Breisch,” Sam would intone, “may I ask you a question?” I’d turn and say, “You just did! Would you like to ask another?” At the time, I felt our early morning repartee was nothing more than a way to point out a bit of irony Sam seemed unable to grasp. I now believe he was pointing me towards my future…a future in which life’s questions have become infinitely important; and answers are often more destructive than constructive.
So, even though we are not in line awaiting breakfast, may I ask a question? Or two? Have we lost the art of assembling provocative words into questions that inquire into the great mysteries of the Universe? To what extent do the answers we summon imprison our thinking and hold it hostage? When was the last time you heard a question so profound it left you in wonderment and awe? How often, in the face of questions, do we find ourselves in search of the nearest convenient answer, regardless of its ability to add a bit of wisdom to the human narrative? How often do we formulate questions for which we truly have no answer, as opposed to those whose sole purpose is to allow us to loose a carefully crafted declarative response?
Questions open us to possibilities; answers limit the future. Nowhere is this more clear than when facing a caller on the suicide hotline. In the presence of extreme desperation, which of the following do you imagine might invite you and the caller into a deeper conversation? “Suicide is not the answer.” Or “Would you be willing to share with me why you want to live?”
Lest you think my wandering through the subterranean jungle of human conversation relates only to deeply philosophical questions, or those regarding the end of life, allow me to stroll through a few of the forests that more often characterize day-to-day life.
In conversations with my wife and children I find myself too willing to jump in with a statement ending in a period, often a very large period at that. I wonder how our lives might have evolved differently if, when faced with a thought I found difficult to accept, I might respond with “That’s very interesting. Would you tell me more?”
Over the years, I have listened as many community issues have traveled the highways and byways of our public discourse. After acrimonious debate, we decided we did not want a hotel on south Batavia Avenue, but we would permit a shopping center on a portion of the Braeburn Marsh. We decided not to decide the fate of the north dam on the Fox River. Even now we find ourselves in the midst of a debate regarding the proper placement of a drugstore in our downtown and have begun to take sides on the future of a forest preserve just to the north of Fabyan Parkway.
Because of my unique position near the center of many debates, I am often privy to the edges that bound the questions. As I have listened over the years, I have been struck by the dearth of sentences that end with the extraordinary question mark. Our “public hearings” are too often attended by people who have stopped listening.
The word “discussion” itself calls into question our intentions. Its evolution from Latin meant to “smash apart” or to “scatter and disperse.” Shouldn’t our community conversations begin with an intention to gather our ideas in a generative fashion rather than scatter and disperse them?
In the coming years, humanity will face moral and ethical issues more profound than any we have ever faced. Brain scans will allow us to know what others are thinking, thus obliterating even the most intimate forms of human privacy. Genetics will allow us to custom design our children. The harvesting of human organs will blur the line between life and death. These deeply challenging issues will require intricate, new answers. Unless these answers are preceded by the most profound questions we can conjure, I fear we will be forever lost in the subterranean jungle.
Aug 262011
 
Last night at Operation Snowball, the evening ended with a conversation about spirituality and how often we find ourselves in a spiritual state. The discussion ended with me. I quoted a friend who, before she died, expressed concern that her life might have been a “throw-away line.” I said I did not want my life to end without meaning and that spirituality was the search for that meaning. I am not sure that answer matched the grandeur of the question. Perhaps no answer could, but allow me one more attempt.
If I glance at my hand, I am aware that every atom of which it is composed was once part of a star. Suddenly I am in awe of the miracle that the trillions of atoms in my gaze have come together to form this body and consciousness. In light of the incomprehensible nature of such an occurrence in this Universe, how could any life possibly be a throw-away line in the play being written amongst the stars?
Spirituality for me is to simply be in awe, and to discover, in my own feeble way, how and why such a miracle could take place. And now that it has, to contemplate my responsibility to those stars, the Universe in which they existed and the force that created them. I have a role in the play; I just need to discover my lines.
I hope to live many of the remaining moments of this life in deep awareness and extraordinary gratitude.