A Bowl Full of the Universe

There are helpers and elders all around us; there is wisdom, if we open to it. There are animals and plants and fungal networks, and rivers and mountains and the wild winds. We can enter into relationship with all beings, and find help from them for the great struggles of our time. We have not been looking to our relatives and our ancestors for connection, and so we often are unaware of the powers that exist all around us. When Paula Gunn Allen speaks of consciousness as an attribute of being, it helps me to move beyond the narrow vision of my own culture, and claim my own experience of relationship with other beings.

Once, after the difficult ending to a relationship, I was rocking in a hammock on the back porch of the home I would soon have to leave. In that place of loneliness and unknown futures, I saw something like an image, felt a presence. Later I described it in a poem:

How can I trust my senses
in a moment full of loneliness
when the old dark woman appears
gray hair gathered in a bun in the back
squatting near a fire holding
a bowl full of the universe?

It was an ancient Innu grandmother, my ancient Innu grandmother from many generations ago, and in her hands she was holding a bowl. I could see the darkness and the stars swirling inside.

Image from the Hubble Telescope

Image from the Hubble Telescope

What is a bowl full of the universe? What did it mean? I am continuing to learn about that.

I know that a bowl is a container, a shape that can hold something. When we are facing the great mysteries of the universe, we need some sort of container. That might be the definition of a spiritual practice. We create a container to be able to connect with the earth, with each other, with Mystery. And even though the container is small, humble, it opens up to so much more―the whole universe is there, the oneness of everything, the larger whole of which we are a part, infinity.

The Innu grandmother says to me, “The universe is in your heart, and you are in the heart of the universe.”

 

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Consciousness is an Attribute of Being

Remember the sky you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories…
Remember you are all people and that all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you…
Remember.
                                   Joy Harjo

I think it was Laguna Pueblo author, Paula Gunn Allen, who said it, but now I can’t find the original quote. She said something like this: “Many people think of consciousness as an attribute of being human, but we know that consciousness is an attribute of being.”

I have been intrigued and transformed by her observation. What might it mean that human beings are not alone in perceiving, in awareness, in communication? Sometimes the scientists ask those questions about beings most like humans—the apes, the dolphins, the dogs. But beyond that—and not even merely for beings with eyes as we know them? I think about it. Trees are sensitive to light and plants turn toward the sun. Isn’t it less lonely to imagine that trees, birds, water, and stones are conscious, too.

Our culture has wanted to feel that human beings are unique. That we are above the rest of the created world, special. Even in our growing ecological understanding there is a sense that we are the privileged children of the universe. I think it was Carl Sagan who said it, though many ecologists have echoed the sentiment: “We are the universe becoming conscious of itself.” And it is a tremendous gift that we are able to perceive and explore and study the universe of which we are a part. But how do we know that we are the only ones? How do we dare to assume that we are the only ones? Why would we want to be the only ones?

I want to stay with this thought for a few days, and see what changes if we change that one assumption.  If we open to the idea that being itself includes consciousness.

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Prayer Links our Smallness to the Larger Kindness

You can only pray what’s in your heart
so if your heart is being ripped from your chest
pray the tearing
if your heart is full of bitterness
pray it to the last dreg…
pray your heart into the great quiet hands that can hold it
like the small bird it is.
                                          Elizabeth Cunningham

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

The spiritual journey brings us into experience of our connection to the larger Mystery of which we are a part. But spirituality is not only about something we experience, something we receive with awe and gratitude. Spirituality is also about the power we hold to shape, to create, to cause change in the larger whole. Sometimes this power has been called prayer. I have also heard it called magic. But we don’t usually think of prayer as a power we hold. We usually think of prayer when we feel powerless, when we feel our need.

Why do we pray when we are in need? During our day to day lives, many of us often feel a sense of control over our lives, a sense that we are making choices, and things can be expected to turn out based on our work and our effort. But when things go wrong—when someone we love is ill, or we lose a job, or we face death, or a child is in trouble—we are confronted with our limits as human beings, we are face to face with our utter vulnerability. Think about the saddest or scariest or most difficult moments of our lives. In those difficult moments, we feel our smallness in this world.

Prayer is an appeal to the kindness in the universe, to the mysterious power of goodness and blessing that some call God. Prayer is a reaching out from that place of smallness to the larger reality in which we find ourselves. When we were very small, when we were children, we needed the help of someone larger than us. We relied on our parents or other caregivers for everything—our food, our shelter, our learning, our basic needs. That may have been a blessed experience or a painful one. And growing up in any situation, we feel a pull to become independent, to be able to do things for our selves.

As adults we are working out a balance: between giving and receiving, between helping others and getting help when we need it. But for many of us asking for help is difficult. Probably because we don’t really like to experience our vulnerability, our smallness. Possibly because we’ve had the experience of asking for help and not receiving it. In some settings in our world, to show our weakness might mean to be taken advantage of.

Prayer has this baggage attached to it. It requires that we face our vulnerability, and be willing to ask for help. Prayer is like letting go into a kind of floating—a hope that if we are in over our heads, the ocean will hold us up, rather than swallow us. Prayer opens a link from our smallness to the larger kindness in the universe.  The Sufi poet Rumi said,

Don’t do daily prayers like a bird pecking,
moving its head up and down.
Prayer is an egg.
Hatch out the total helplessness inside.

How Can a Mystery as Large as the Universe Connect to a Being Like Me?

Hubble Image of Spiral Galaxy

Hubble Image of Spiral Galaxy

Another reason that fractals matter, and why I want to explore them, has to do with a very old spiritual quandary. Human beings have long imagined the possibility of an infinite being, a divine being, who is creator and sustainer of the universe, commonly known in our culture as God. Not all human beings resonate with this idea, and the details vary as to what God might be like, but most peoples have some sort of divine being or beings as a part of the stories and values of their culture. I have spoken of God as the larger Mystery of which we are a part.

Many human beings have also imagined that they can have a personal relationship with this divine Mystery. Most cultures have forms of prayer to entreat help from God, and forms of prayer to thank God for help given. Many people also directly experience the presence of the divine in their hearts, the intimate presence of the Mystery.

I know that I have had moments in my life when I felt held in the arms of divine love, that I felt cared for by a Mystery greater than myself. Those feelings are so tangible, that they help me get through my most difficult days. When I feel afraid, I can trust that all will be well, because of that tangible presence of love. When I feel overwhelmed, I can keep on walking forward, held in the memory of that love. But if God is infinite, or if the Mystery is all that is, how can that be? How can a Mystery as large as the universe connect to a being like me, small as a speck of dust?

Fractals have given me a new way to think about this spiritual dilemma. A fractal is a pattern that repeats itself, from an infinitely large scale to an infinitely small scale. What if God is a fractal? What if God is a pattern that repeats itself from the infinitely large to the infinitely small.

Here is how I imagine it. The divine pattern is a pattern of life and love and creativity—it expresses itself in the creative unfolding of the universe. It repeats in the attractions of planets and stars, and in the evolution of life itself. Because fractals continue to repeat in self-similar ways at all scales of size, the same divine pattern emerges at the size of our own human consciousness. We can find that pattern in our hearts, the expression of life and love and creativity. Thus we can find the Mystery in our hearts, as well as in the larger whole.

In this way, fractals offer a solution to the old quandary of an infinite God relating to a tiny human being. By understanding fractals, my intellect can make sense of what my heart experiences of the Mystery. It helps me to make sense of the tender feelings I feel, and to welcome their help for the troubles that life brings. I feel less lonely, when I feel connected to the divine love. It becomes possible to believe that I matter, that I am not just a speck of dust in a vast uncaring universe. I have within me the fractal beauty of the infinite MysteryFerns More DSC03600

Why Fractals Matter-Reading the Book of the Universe

Why should fractal geometry matter to those of us who are not mathematicians? First of all, fractals give human beings a new way to look at the universe. When we can describe something, we can see it better than if we cannot describe it. Because we are better able to see the natural world, fractals enable us to have a deeper relationship to the natural world.

It reminds me of learning to read a book. In order to read, we need to understand the patterns of squiggly lines that form the letters of the alphabet. And then we need to understand how those squiggly lines are combined in multiple ways to form words, and then sentences, and so on. A person who cannot read may look at a book, and it might seem beautiful, or there might be pictures in it to be curious about, but that person cannot understand what it means. When we learn to read the patterns of squiggly lines, the book becomes a doorway into a whole story, and suddenly we have access to a wealth of ideas and thoughts and understandings.

The natural world is like a sacred book; it is the place where we search for truth and beauty and goodness. We might say that the universe itself is our bible. We don’t have to understand the world to appreciate its beauty. Even a baby can laugh with delight at the bright colors of flowers, or try to catch a butterfly. But the more we understand the natural world, the deeper can be our appreciation, and the more its mystery opens up to us. Fractals help us to read the book of the universe.

Fractals give us a way to measure and describe the complex patterns in the natural world. Fractal geometry, in fact, reveals to us the inherent patterning that permeates the universe. A fractal is a pattern that repeats itself, from an infinitely small scale to an infinitely large scale. Complex entities are created from simple designs extended out to many dimensions. We see in the patterns and shapes of nature that there is self-similarity at all levels. Ferns DSC05288

Dancing Out of Time

Fireworks

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Individual consciousness is simultaneously familiar and mysterious. Rene DesCartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” Jill Bolte Taylor was a brain scientist who had a debilitating stroke at the age of thirty-seven. A blood vessel burst in the left side of her brain. Because of her training, she was able to observe her own mind deteriorate as she lost the capacity to think, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life.

But there was a surprise in this—as her left brain shut down, her right brain took over, and she experienced a different form of consciousness—an all-encompassing sense of bliss, a sense of timeless unity with the universe. Years later, after she recovered the skills of the left brain, she wrote the book, My Stroke of Insight, to describe her journey and what she learned. She said:

To the right mind, no time exists other than the present moment, and each moment is vibrant with sensation. Life or death occurs in the present moment. The experience of joy happens in the present moment. Our perception and experience of connection with something that is greater than ourselves occurs in the present moment. To our right mind, the moment of now is timeless and abundant.

During her stroke, Taylor lost the sense of herself as a separate being, she lost the memories that identified her self to her self, yet she gained an experience of herself as the whole universe—there were no boundaries that separated her from everything else. What she describes resonates with the Buddhist understanding of enlightenment, or Nirvana, a shift of consciousness from experiencing time, to experiencing “all is now,” from experiencing space, to experiencing “all is one.”

When I was growing up, eternity was described as what happened to us after we died. But Taylor speaks of eternity as something that can be experienced right now within our own minds. The experience of total peace and total connection is available at any moment. She writes:

The first thing I do to experience my inner peace is to remember that I am part of a greater structure, an eternal flow of energy and molecules from which I cannot be separated. Knowing that I am a part of the cosmic flow makes me feel innately safe and experience my life as heaven on earth. How can I feel vulnerable when I cannot be separated from the greater whole? My left mind thinks of me as a fragile individual capable of losing my life. My right mind realizes that the essence of my being has eternal life.

Since Taylor is a scientist, she brings a different perspective to what is usually perceived as the mystical. She can help our left brain understand and make sense out of the right brain. She can help us to rationally comprehend what the mystics speak of when they talk of being one with the universe, or finding eternity in the present moment. And so perhaps we must reshape our understanding of the spiritual journey. It may be not so much a journey through time, as a journey out of time, from one form of consciousness to another.

Quotes from Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, p. 30 &160.

Part of the Whole

GiverofStarsA Human Being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.

                                                                                           Albert Einstein

From a 1950 letter, published in Howard Eves Mathematical Circles Adieu, (Boston: Prindle, Weber and Schmidt, 1977).