(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
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Several years ago a woman named Pam Reynolds was diagnosed with a very large arterial aneurysm in her brain. Normally, such a condition is terminal and doctors can only prescribe limited drug treatment. The patient must simply wait for the inevitable time when the aneurysm will burst and he or she will internally bleed to death.
In this case, however, Pam was referred to a pioneering neurosurgeon who attempts to surgically remove such arterial aneurysms of the brain by essentially killing the patient. In an operating room, the patient’s body is chilled to 60 degrees, the heart is stopped, blood is drained from the body and all brain activity stops. For all intents and purposes, the patient is clinically dead. Then, the surgeons cut into the cerebral artery and remove the aneurysm. The person is slowly warmed and the heart is hopefully restarted. There is great risk in the process and not all patients can be revived.
In Pam’s case, all went well. She was effectively dead for approximately two hours but she was revived after the successful procedure. What is remarkable, however, is that afterwards she recounted all of the circumstances that took place during the time she was clinically dead. She described in layman’s terms what the surgeons did, the instruments they used and even recounted, nearly verbatim, the comments made by nurses during her surgery. She relates that she essentially hovered over her body and looked down as the doctors and nurses worked on her.
Pam’s experience is not unique. Similar experiences have been described by many other people. For a person to have some form of consciousness without a heartbeat or brainwaves seems impossible. As yet, this has NOT been medically or scientifically explained. Skeptics argue that patients describe what they imagine a procedure to have been like and that details come from hearing things after they have been revived. In most instances, however, such explanations are not possible. Doctors and neuroscientists are left without any firm conclusion on how these near death observations take place.
My purpose is not to consider the question of life after death but, instead, to dive into the spiritual idea of having a dual reality – however this might be explained – of a physical body and an inner spirit existence. Do we each have an inner spirit? How might be find it? And, if we do, what is its value to us?
As someone who believes in the ability of the human mind to understand and ultimately explain most things, this subject is difficult for me to fully appreciate. I lean far more toward the rational and shy away from matters of the apparently supernatural.
I greatly admire, for instance, the seventeenth century philosopher Rene Descartes who coined the phrase, “Je pense, donc je suis”, “Cogito ergo sum” or, in English, “I think, therefore I am.” In his book Discourse on Method, Descartes revolutionized Western thought. His proposition said that all things – including creation and life itself, can be proven by reason and science ALONE. The realm of the supernatural has no role in fact finding. Naturally, the Church was aghast at Descartes and his implicit rejection of God and the supernatural.
Indeed, the consequences of Descartes’ proposition have been the gradual elevation of science to a near religion. Science, as this thinking goes, has the ability to explain everything and we must turn to it for answers about any matter. Most Western thinking and philosophy has thus determined that God is dead and that there can be nothing that is outside what can be rationally explained.
The result for many people, especially those of us of Progressive faith, is that we are left adrift and alone without the opportunity for mystery, myth, intuition and an inner spirit to offer any insight. There are, however, many scientists, theologians and philosophers who are pushing us beyond the age of pure science into a post-modern world where rational thinking and some form of spirituality exist side by side. Stephen Jay Gould, a well-known physicist and cosmologist, has proposed a truce between science and faith, saying that science looks into the realm of empirical fact and explanation while spirituality explores the realm of meaning, morality and values. Other physicists and scientists have proposed that meaning and morality DO exist within science and are not separate from it.
A recent paper out of Cambridge University indicates that from the moment life first began, it was inevitable that intelligent life – like humanity – would evolve. This would indicate that we are not random creatures but there was and is a purposeful meaning, whatever its source, to be found in evolution and science.
A neuroscientist out of the University of Pennsylvania has shown that the brain waves of meditating monks and praying Franciscan nuns are nearly identical. While this doctor can explain the science behind brain waves, he cannot explain why they are almost identical in these two groups. There is something universal, perhaps an inner spirit, that animates spiritual emotion, thought and feeling.
Philosophers and writers like Karen Armstrong have argued that western rational thinking, by itself, is a dead end street. It is incomplete, determinist and a dogmatic form of belief itself. Rationalism denies the experiential reality that myth, mystery, faith, spirituality, and intuition have played in human history. No matter where such beliefs and practices come from – God or human imagination – such feelings, practices and rituals are real and they shape our behavior and understanding of the world. They have provided meaning to billions of people since humans first evolved. To reject spiritual mythos, as Anderson calls it, is to reject the truth of ourselves, our traditions and our history. Existence and the universe are far more complex than reducing them to just one way of understanding them – through science. Myth, mystery and our inner spirits add vital nuance and truth to our ultimate reality.
What this means for me and for us here at the Gathering is, I hope, what I often propose. Between the two seemingly opposite poles of scientific rational thinking on the one side, and a total belief in God or the supernatural realm on the other side, there is a gray area somewhere in between. Truth is rarely at the extremes. It is always found in the messy and confusing middle. In this instance, science and the spiritual realm – the stuff of meaning and morality – they merge at some point.
As someone who leans strongly towards the rational, I must push myself towards the spiritual realm of the unexplainable if I hope to find greater insight. I must search for and continually find that inner spirit within me that feels, hurts, loves and exists apart from my rational mind and physical being.
As I said, this is difficult stuff for me – to dive into the core of my essence and find the inner soul. That is the place, for instance, that loves my daughters unconditionally and without reason. They could do a thousand things to hurt me and it would not matter. I don’t how that emotion happened – that I can love them and could die for them no matter what. This is also an inner place that cries for no reason at hurts I see around me, the place that dreams and yearns for good things and bad.
Others describe this inner spirit as existence outside the body – a sense of being that does not think but merely is; a sense of being that feels, emotes, perceives and drifts. As quickly as I struggle to define this spirit essence, I fail because it is beyond words and beyond rational explanation. In truth, we can only experience it and perceive its reality.
Read with me now two poems by the Islamic Sufi mystic Rumi that offer some insight and encouragement to find our inner spirits.
As regards feeling pain, like a hand cut in battle,
consider the body a robe you wear.
When you meet someone you love,
do you kiss their clothes?
Search out who’s inside.
Union with God is sweeter than body comforts.
We have hands and feet different from these.
Sometimes in dream we see them.
That is not illusion. It’s seeing truly. You do have a spirit body.
Don’t dread leaving the physical one.
Sometimes someone feels this truth so strongly
that he or she can live in mountain solitude totally refreshed.
The worried, heroic doings of men and women
seem weary and futile
to dervishes enjoying the light breeze of spirit.
The Spirit Self
Late, by myself, in the boat of myself,
no light and no land anywhere,
cloud cover thick. I try to stay
just above the surface,
yet I’m already under
and living with the ocean.
What I find interesting about these poems from Rumi are their call to live a more transcendent life – to plunge into the deep waters of oneself and find the god force or whatever it is that animates one’s inner spirit of love, compassion and feeling. As Rumi writes, when we do so, we go inward – away from memory and intellect – and into our mystery selves.
Some have likened this process as similar to watching a sunrise or sunset. Just before the sun finally sets or finally rises, there is a pause – a moment of transition that is neither night nor day. The sun is there and yet it is not.
When I visit my parents in California, I often enjoy going to some rock formations just above the ocean to watch the sun set. At the transition point when the sun just sets, a rare phenomenon sometimes happens. At the split second when the sun seemingly descends into the ocean, a green flash of light will occasionally appear. This can happen anywhere in the world and is the result of sunlight shining through the upper edge of ocean water at the horizon. It is a brilliant but momentary display that quickly fills the sky and then is gone.
Despite knowing the science behind the flash, I have felt in the very few times I’ve seen this, something wonderful and uncommon. I remember one time likening it to seeing the face of God. As Rumi implied, many people in mountain solitudes or witnessing sunsets find transcendent moments of not only great beauty but a mysterious inner peace. One feels the sacred power of the universe, the life giving light and force that made us and sustains us.
Others suggest finding the inner spirit simply by letting go of thoughts and awareness of physical sensations. Finding a totally dark and quiet room will often help. And for me, that is what works best besides moments of seeing beauty in nature. In bed and in the dark of night, I sometimes find small glimpses of my inner spirit. The house is still, all is black and if I lie motionless, I can cross a threshold from hearing my heartbeat and the sound of my breathing into a state of great peace. I perceive things more clearly – who I am, my role in life, the wonder of existence.
I find in such elusive moments a time without worry or fear. It’s just me, and all is good. I used to believe that these moments were when God revealed himself or herself to me – when I could somehow touch eternity.
A cancer survivor talks of once seeing a mass of thousands of monarch butterflies overhead. As she watched them, and thinking to herself they were migrating on their annual pilgrimage to warmer climates, the butterfly mass appeared to form a large face – undulating, colorful, smiling and floating across the sky. In that moment, the sun broke through the clouds and bathed the butterflies in halo beams of light. Such a time was, for her, almost an out of body experience – one where she felt totally at peace and in the presence of a god force. That source of all love was assuring her spirit that she would be OK. Over a year later, she was told she is in remission from her cancer and she is convinced that resulted from her spiritual communion with a love beyond explanation.
Reinhold Niebuhr, the great progressive theologian, once said that when he sought to get in touch with his spirit, he went to a quiet place and then contemplated the meaning of infinity. He would ponder the idea that when you subtract a million million from infinity, you still have infinity. He said that as his mind exhausted of trying to grasp that unreachable idea, he gave in to its power and thus found the unfindable. Like walking to the edge of a steep cliff and then jumping off, such an experience for him was one of surrender to the fall and then finding he was not falling at all. In his progressive Christian beliefs, this was finding the trust and love of God.
One poor soul is said to have once asked Louis Armstrong to describe jazz. His reply was, “Man, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know!” And that applies to the mystery of our spirit selves. You can only know it. For each person, it is a different doorway to enter and a different reality to feel. Ultimately, one must simply drop one’s rational thinking and self-awareness. Like Rumi describes in his poetry, one submerges into a figurative ocean and dreams of a body wholly apart and disconnected to the physical.
For us, the question is why we should seek our inner spirit. Is this not a form of self-absorption and effort to remove oneself from the reality of life and all that we are called to give and do? If we find our inner spirits, even on rare occasions, might we find a greater peace? For me, such rare times are often the only moments when I feel totally free of worry – when I don’t think about my health, my work, my finances or other concerns. Indeed, far from being a journey into self-focused thinking, finding the inner spirit can be a way to tap into the powerful forces that govern the universe – forces like love, altruism, intuition, empathy, generosity, compassion, justice and freedom.
Paul, in the Biblical book of Galatians, wrote that if we talk about being spiritual people, then we must walk and act as if we are spiritual people. We must walk our talk. And this must especially be true of us at the Gathering. If we claim a spirituality of understanding, love, tolerance and celebration for all people and all creation, then we must act out those ideals in our daily lives. We must not just talk in the spirit, we must live in the spirit.
To do so, we cannot only think and rationalize our way through life. Such an approach is incomplete, as I am increasingly discovering. We must sometimes spiritually feel our path through life – going in directions that are led by our inner spirits. We must find the core of our essential selves that cries and laughs and feels and simply is a force of love and goodness. I can’t tell you exactly how to get there – to your inner spirit. I struggle to find the way myself. Your journey is one for you to discover. Let go of body and mind. Embrace myth, mystery, the unknown and the ethereal. As Rumi wrote in his poems we read, don’t be afraid of your inner spirit. Don’t presume to say you do not have one. Whether or not it is from a supernatural phenomena or a rationally explainable force of nature, that does not matter. Your spirit exists, it has value and it waits for you to find it, dwell within and then go forth in a great burst of goodness to the wider world. I wish all of us a bon voyage on that quest…