One day I will lie on my deathbed and reflect on my life. Will my final thoughts be about my stock portfolio or the nature of quantum gravity? I doubt it. As a doctor, I watched many people journey through the process of dying. It is never easy, no matter how well you may think you’re prepared.
The people I accompanied on this passage usually didn’t die “well”. Astounding as it may seem, most were shocked or surprised by the notion of their mortality. Death would never happen to them today. Maybe it was a possibility in the distant future, but not today.
In a world where everything dies, why were they stunned? At this precarious time, they stood in quicksand up to their necks. There was no life ring to grasp and they generally died without the sense their lives had meaning or purpose. They never asked the questions or did the work necessary to answer anything more than their superficial needs. They were frightened and lost.
I am not suggesting anyone goes happily into that dark night. In the few patients who I felt died “well”, they possessed a sense of peace, as though they accomplished their mission in life and were ready for whatever came next. Most didn’t seem worried about anything being next. They felt at ease with whatever was to happen without angst. They possessed a faith they had run the race well.
Most of the patients who died in peace seemed not to have words for their own end-of-life journey. Fully understanding the gravity of the storm swirling around them, they also depended on the heart’s way of knowing to sustain them. Contributions from both head and heart were necessary to sustain them in navigating their final days.
Our society doesn’t value questions about life and meaning that can’t be placed on a bumper sticker. We are mostly about the superficial and material and neglect the deep and meaningful. The answers that stick, are formed over years, not at the moment of last breath. These questions are not easily answered. Thoughts of personal demise are painful and usually avoided. It’s difficult to imagine a world without me.
Are there answers revealing meaning and purpose, and if so, how do we find them? Historically, religion was the source most of us turned to for answers about
meaning and purpose. The reference, at least in the Christian West, was an all-powerful God. This Deity created something from nothing, the first miracle. No mechanism existed other than God said it.
Growing up in the 1950s, I learned the Bible was the story of God creating the Universe and humanity’s relationship to the Creator. Much of the Old Testament seemed to me to be how God’s plan for Creation was continually thwarted by less than clever humans trying to live as though we are the only reason the Universe existed.
It’s difficult enough understanding stories written in the present in our common culture and language. I find it almost impossible to travel back two millennia and dig out wisdom from civilizations and world views so different from my own. Many people are able to bridge the gap in time and traditions, I am not one of them.
Then, in about the 4th century AD, the story stopped, and no more chapters are found. What happened? Why did the story of God and Creation stop in mid-stream? Little boys in the 1950s were not supposed to ask such questions, but it continued to bother me.
Growing up in the 1950s was a heady time. Science was on the ascendency, as jet airplanes, nuclear power, antibiotics and rockets, held out a utopian future satisfying human reason. We know how that turned out, forgetting the shadow side of progress. Science also fell short of fulfilling our deepest longings: for meaning, belonging and purpose. Head knowledge is not the same as wisdom.
Fast forward a few decades and now I am a retired surgeon living with my wife of over fifty years. I did work on resolutions of those nagging questions causing dissonance in my life for so long, but it wasn’t an easy slog. It also wasn’t a straight line leading from where I began to today. Many detours and blind alleys littered my path.
What did I have to offer those people who entrusted their lives to my often-clumsy care? I didn’t have the wisdom to help them on the final passages of life. Other than being concerned and hopefully compassionate, I was mute. Hadn’t I learned anything through science and medicine? Why couldn’t I articulate how to answer questions of who am I, what is my place in the Universe, and what is the purpose and meaning of my, soon to be departed, life?
My religion consisted of a series of clichés of little use. There remained too much dissonance in the common understanding of Christianity to help guide my life. Obstacles in applying ancient principles to modern living led to a dis-connect between belief and daily life. In the background lurked a feeling of incompleteness. Has anything happened in the last sixteen hundred years to fill in the blanks and generate a sense of harmony and peace?
Two competing world views, one of religion and the other of science profess answers to our deepest questions of meaning and purpose. Religion supplied heart knowledge while science delivered head knowledge and yet neither completely satisfies. Instead, we now have many disaffected and distrustful of both science and religion. Is there nowhere else to turn?
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to teach a course to mature adults on the wonders of the Universe. Light-years, black holes and colliding galaxies filled my first presentation. It was stunning in scope. Two problems raised their heads. First, the story was so full of enormous distances and powers it dwarfed most people’s experience in daily life. They enjoyed the bright colors and grandeur, but it remained a cerebral exercise. Second, the concern surfaced of how this amazing new story related to their lives. In essence, they said, so what? I fed their heads but starved their hearts.
In the first part of my life, I avoided lessons of the heart, looking only toward the factual for answers of meaning and purpose. I assumed science alone possessed the power to deliver fulfilling answers. No matter how hard I pushed science, the answers were always lacking in some quality I couldn’t quite grasp. It was like chasing a mirage, always just out of sight. I know now the missing quality was heart, where knowledge becomes wisdom and is lived day in and day out. My students told me the images and unimaginable powers were awesome, but not enough by themselves. More is needed.
The next time I taught the course, I decided to go all out. I would combine the stunning images and narrative of science with wisdom of the heart. Science would lay the foundation, leaving heart knowledge to complete the picture with meaning and purpose. A hurdle remained, little is written about how to carry out reconciling concerns of head and heart.
Using modern science and cosmology and aided by gorgeous pictures scattered around the internet, I took them on a tour of creation. Billion of years and trillions of miles became the ground of our search for meaning and purpose. We followed the evolution of the Universe as it progressed from nothing to the vast array of galaxies, stars, planets and life. We always looked for where our lives fit into this always expanding tapestry. There remained a problem.
While most of the class got the idea of using the Universe as a metaphor for our search for meaning, the scale presented a problem. The vastness and energies were so far beyond anything experienced in daily life some of the class was left adrift. I needed to find a smaller scale story more in keeping with daily experience.
Fortunately, the Universe possesses an economy of scale and pattern. Meaning creation, at many levels, follows similar general templates. It’s like the ripples we see in clouds miles high being the same pattern as the sand on a creek bottom. The story may be told, in all its wonder and meaning, at a scale anyone can experience. It is vast and personal at the same time.
No story is the reality it describes. We are creating a new myth or metaphor, consistent with the science of today and satisfying to the heart. Its value lies not in the words, but how our lives are affected and given purpose. The narrative I presented revealed a cosmology valid from anywhere in the Universe. It remains open to growth and discovery, consistent with the unfolding of the Universe. Unless the story maintains its flexibility and is subject to new knowledge, it will become ossified and suffer the same fate as our present metaphor of life.
The same wisdom and lessons, as of the Universe, can be discovered at a smaller scale. Our tale is how a human child arises from nothing to become the wonder it evolves into. It’s different but totally embedded in the creation of the Universe. Our human story begins before the first act of creation and doesn’t end with our personal death.
Each step is supported by but not limited to science. The scientific method was never intended to encompass all of existence. Questions of meaning, purpose and wisdom are beyond any scientific theory. In the final account, the reader should be able to develop answers to some of the profoundest questions humanity can ask: Who am I? What is my place in the Universe? What is my purpose in life?
Much happened in the last sixteen hundred years. A bridge is needed to span the gap in time and make sense of the new metaphor. We’ll start at the beginning of the Universe. I described the original state as Mystery. It is unknowable and larger than our concept of Universe. I used this porous, undefinable word as both a noun and verb. After one session, a retired minister came up and asked why didn’t I just call Mystery, God? Surely, that is what I was referring to. I told him the “G” word is a fighting word.
Everyone has strongly held ideas of what God is or isn’t, or whether God exists. If I used that word, blood would stain the floor. Instead, I chose the word Mystery. The other reason was I have no idea of what Mystery is. If I did, it wouldn’t be Mystery. Think of it as the primordial stuff or principle of the Universe.
Science calls this a singularity or Oneness, beyond human language and concepts, and yet it describes the entire Universe, a nothingness. This state is before the Universe unfolded according to the Big Bang Theory. (Search Google: Big Bang Theory Cosmology).
I cannot conceive of “nothingness”, another reason to use Mystery, but I also use singularity or Oneness. I call it by different names because none apply. It is a word without definition and open in all directions. With no definition, it can’t be hemmed in or fit into a box. It also saves much bloodshed. It’s hard to fight over Mystery.
It has no physical characteristics, but a few attributes are distinguishable. One is it has infinite potential to become all that ever was, is or will be. Another related to its turning from potential into the things and properties of our material world. I call it creative becoming.
Another point about Mystery, it’s the only reference point for all that follows in creation and our story. Any other viewpoint may be skewed and unreliable. Humanity is important but not the center of existence. It’s not always about us. The wisdom of the Universe may be the same as understood by us, or it may be radically different and not understandable from our limited viewpoint. Shifting our perspective to the Universe clears much of the dissonance found in our ancient stories and cosmology.
As we observe and study the evolution of the Universe, an additional principle stands out, nothing is destroyed, only transformed. Nothing is wasted and everything is of value in the unfolding drama of existence. Things are only destroyed when viewed from our smaller perspective and not from that of the Mystery. Often, we can’t see what’s going on behind the curtain.
The Universe is a self-disclosing drama, beginning as nothing or “nothingness” and becoming something. No mechanism exists, it just is. We continue to marvel at the myriad ways it manifests throughout the cosmos. We think the general flow of how the Universe comes into being is described in the Big Bang Theory. It isn’t the story of an explosion, like a firecracker, going off somewhere in space far away, and us observing the pieces flying everywhere. Instead, we are embedded in this flowering of existence. It is the entire Universe coming into being. It is impossible to sit outside and watch it happen. Outside doesn’t exist.
The characteristics I call infinite potential and creative becoming have a flow and it’s like breathing, in and out and back again. The most famous equation in science is Einstein’s . This describes a symmetry or flow between energy and matter. They go back and forth; both are forms of the same thing. Potential and becoming are similar.
I also describe an imaginary “arrow” representing this circular flow. It has nothing to do with physical properties like entropy. It is just a metaphor of the way the Universe becomes.
The arrow flies as though guided by an unseen compass exerting a creative pressure on the becoming process. The general flow is toward “more”: capability, adaptivity, fullness and any other “more” qualification you might wish to add. It breathes between potential and becoming. They reinforce each other.
Dead ends and mistakes happen along the way. When potential becomes a material object and brushes up with the rest of the world, the new form may not be able to survive or may need modifications. The material form flows back to potential and the arrow tries again. Nothing is destroyed, only transformed. We call this movement evolution.
One of the consequences of the flow is it only operates from the viewpoint of the Mystery, meaning we humans may not understand why or how events happen. An element of faith is necessary to accept the Universe is evolving and becoming as it should.
The story is ready to be written both in our minds and our hearts. Only there will it find meaning and transform into wisdom.
A Story for the Ages
The formation of a human child is embedded in the unfolding of the Universe. Only the scale is different. Both accounts are full of Mystery and wonder. Neither is understood beyond a cursory level.
The Universe becomes something from nothing, and a human child follows the same pattern. On the larger scale, the “nothingness” becomes some form of energy. This energy is the fullness of the Universe at a specific time and contains the potential for all that follows. You might say the original energy contains the cosmic DNA of the Universe.
On our human scale, two non-viable cells, a sperm and egg represent our “nothingness”. In textbook line drawings, the merger of egg and sperm is simple. The reality of this merger is elegant and beyond comprehension. It happens, but how is as mysterious as the first becoming of the Universe. The creation of a fertilized egg is pure potential, containing within itself everything necessary to guide and form the body of a human child.
The language used to describe these events and flow, require poetic license since no words or concepts describing many of these becoming’s exist. Just as the Universe contains everything by definition, so does a developing human embryo. Thought, imagination, creativity and wonder are not physical things but are still real. Most of the reality of both the Universe and a human are invisible and immaterial. The potential for all this is embedded in the Universe and child from their inception.
The Universe progresses from nothing to energy to matter and all the invisible unknown forms of existence. This is the general direction of the arrow as nothing becomes something, taking on many forms. The arrow flies toward more capability, creativity, fullness, diversity and adaptability.
A human embryo does the same using the pattern of building with cells, the LEGO block of life. The fertilized egg is the first cell with the potential to become a human being. Each step of the way, from one cell to a trillion, is guided by the arrow toward “more”. There is a sense of each step knowing what comes next, even though the cells never completed a similar process before. Starting with a simpler form, more complexity and capability follows with each step.
In human form, the original nothingness is the sperm and egg. These two half cells unite and form a single fertilized egg. The single cell is almost pure potential, with very little physicality. Within this cell is the complete genetic potential and fullness of a human baby. Implicit in this single cell is an arrow knowing where it’s going. The exact sequence of events leading up to the birth of a child and beyond is present in a single bit of material and its embedded potential. As the result, the Mystery becomes incarnate.
As an example, follow the development of a human heart. (Search: Google Images, Embryology of human heart). Simpler, more primitive cells start to form parallel tubes which then undergo a transformation in shape and structure. In only two weeks, the heart is formed and beating. The final product is the result of the arrow becoming more at each step of the way as if it knows its target, a heart. How this is embedded in our DNA is a mystery.
The Big Bang begins as nothing and becomes something, energy. The potential for all that follows is embedded in a bit of energy. The arrow works everywhere at all scales. Human development is the same. Nine months after conception, a trillion-celled baby emerges, beginning the lifelong process of becoming fully human.
Human evolution begins as pure potential and incorporates material from the physical world as it progresses. Continuing throughout life, bodily change generally follows the patterns set down by the child’s genetic endowment. Height, sex, hair color and all the rest of the characteristics we associate with ourselves aren’t easily or quickly changed.
One part of our body is governed by a different flight path of the arrow, our brain. While it has a fixed component, it is both flexible and changeable. It can adapt to new environments like no other bodily system. If our environment turns cold, we can either wait for the evolutionary process to grow a thick fur coat, or we can quickly add a layer of clothes for comfort and safety.
The arrow changed directions. Before, it concerned itself with bodily changes leading to more adaptability to our environment. With the formation of our brains, there is less emphasis on bodily changes and more on an entirely new set of targets. These would be sentience, knowledge, imagination and creativity.
The power of these changes is unprecedented. Imagination, wonder, awe, and abstract thinking become possible. Humans can ponder questions of our origins and the meaning of life. Perhaps for the first time, the Universe developed the ability to reflect on itself. The lights went on and humanity became more than just unreflective creatures.
As the arrow flies, its course can be altered, at least for a time. The arrow points toward personal growth, understanding, creativity and fullness, from before birth through death. What we call free will allows us to help or hinder its path. Our lives and purpose are entwined in its judicious use.
Humans are not separate creatures divorced from other forms of life, the cosmos and Earth. We are embedded in a reality far surpassing our senses. Just as there are no single-celled creatures living separated from life on Earth, our bodies are made of more than human cells. Humans are composite creatures, consisting of human derived cells and an entire ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, viruses and single-celled creatures all working together giving the experience of one single human.
Our minds are now free to roam the depths of interstellar space and return to the beginning of time. The evolution of the entire Universe goes into creating a human being. The Mystery of the Universe is fully present in us. It is us, as it lives itself.
Two processes, the formation of the Universe and a human child are different, yet use the same template. Both are complex beyond human understanding and remain mysterious, full of potential and capability. Being embedded in the Universe gives us the perspective and knowledge to move forward. Our story is brought up to date and written in terms we can begin to appreciate. The foundation is laid and those questions plaguing us for the ages are ready for answers.
Use your experience when answering these questions and ask whether the earlier discussion rings true. The wisdom you encounter should be meaningful to your life and consistent with what we understand and experience of the Universe.
One reward is a sense of peace, as the dissonances between the old story and the reality of daily life resolve. The contemporary story doesn’t negate the old, instead it provides a much-needed update. The Universe is our teacher. She wants us to know her wisdom. Listen to her voice.
Who am I?
I am not my job, social status, gender, family relationship, or any other description society uses. These are like the clothes I wear. They are removed and discarded with no eternal consequences. Who I am, relates to my fundamental relationship with Mystery.
Everything that was, is or will be is One with the original Mystery before the Universe began its great transformation. That relationship is still in effect. I have seen where I come from, the Mystery of creation. I am part of it and it is what I am. Creation and I are more than just connected; the Oneness is embedded in us here and now in the 21st century.
Because of this primal relationship, all my fellow humans are closer to me than an identical twin. This close relationship extends to all life and the inanimate world as well. We are all interdependent, and I must use my will, talent and effort to help creation become, more.
From this relationship, I have responsibilities. I must respect and value not just fellow humans but the entirety of creation. To harm any part, harms all. To disrespect or injure any part of creation goes against the flight path of the arrow. A high price is exacted for attempting to divert its course. The Mystery created me and every human as part of a greater whole. Humanity is a significant part, but not the sole focus of the Mystery.
What is my home?
My home is the Mystery or Oneness and has been since before the beginning of time. This is where I am from, live and where I will return, when this phase of life is complete. There is no other place to go.
Earth is the only known place in the Universe with life. I only flourish when I live in harmony, respect and love with my fellow humans, the natural world and Earth. Any other way, flies against the course of the arrow and cannot succeed for long. To injure Earth harms myself.
My home is not a physical place or temporary dwelling subject to storms and decay. I am embedded in this Mystery, as it is embedded in me. Due to this relationship, any idea of separation from any part of creation is an illusion.
What is the purpose of my life?
My purpose is to first know who I am and where I am from, then to live in harmony with that experience. If I am to live a life of meaning and purpose, it requires both head and heart knowledge. The arrow always wants me, in my life, to become more. As a sentient being, my responsibility is to push the envelope of becoming and aid in the creative process which has been going on for over thirteen billion years. My energy, creativity, and effort should aim toward this goal.
My free will is the ability to help or hinder evolution move toward more, to help guide the arrow or try to knock it off course for limited and misguided short-term gain.
In a sentence, my purpose is to recognize and incorporate into my life the original Oneness. It is always present even if I don’t recognize it.
What is the frame of reference for finding meaning?
Only one viewpoint is true, that of the Universe or Mystery. What may be a tragedy to humans will instead be transformative, looking at the entire tapestry. Nothing is destroyed.
From the viewpoint of humanity, life is full of dissonance. Due to our tunnel vision, I can see only an infinitesimal part of creation at one time. From my restricted perch, it may be impossible to decipher what the Universe is doing. At some point, an element of faith has to develop; the Universe is evolving as it should. My job is to help the arrow find its mark, even if I don’t see its target.
What is our common story or cosmology?
Everything in the Universe originates from the Mystery or the singularity before the unfolding of creation begins. No matter the knowledge we discover, an undefinable Oneness will be our common heritage. Every sentient being in the cosmos should be able to discover the same. We are of the same origin, including the animate and inanimate worlds. There are no lesser beings. Everything and everyone have a place for a time, transform, and then return to Mystery. We, along with creation, are children of the Universe, no matter what corner is called home.
What are life and death?
To me, these may appear to be different states of existence. Both are delusions stemming from my distorted point of view. There is only one valid perspective, the Universe, and it transforms. It destroys nothing.
Life and death are part of a continual flow of nothing becoming something and then back again. Life and death are not separate states of being. Nothingness and somethingness are two sides of the same coin. From the viewpoint of the coin, one side can’t see the other. The Mystery sees both, as it is both. I contain elements of both sides at all times during my life. The Universe prepared for over thirteen billion years to bring me into being.
Starting as pure potential, I gradually put on the cloak of a material body. Now I retain elements of both. Life is a rough and tumble experience. My body, as part of the material world, will one day wear out. It will no longer be able to sustain the non-material potential present during my life. Both my material body and non-material potential are immersed in the Mystery. I will be transformed as I return to the place I never left. Nothing is destroyed, only transformed. Hopefully, the arrow will be a bit closer to its target. This is the way of the Universe.
I have used metaphors of the Universe and the coming into being of a human child. The reality is there are probably an infinite number of ways to find the same timeless truth. If the smallest part of what I am describing is right, all becoming points to the same wonder and awe. Something comes from nothing. Only the details are different.
This new metaphor helps find meaning and purpose in a vast and wonderful place we call Universe. No matter at what scale the cosmos is examined, the storyline is consistent. The key is to behold, and to experience, both with the mind and heart, the wonders and meaning prepared for us to discover.
Mystery may be called by many names. It doesn’t care. Just don’t put it into a box or limit the unfolding. Observe and listen attentively to your surroundings. Imagine your life as experienced by the Mystery. There is profound meaning to be discovered.
Remember the goal of your personal arrow, to become “more” yourself and aid the Universe to do the same. To not try is thwarting the flight of the arrow. It wants you, me and the Universe to be more. Journey on.