Friday, July 21, 2023

Hearing Silence

A recent New York Times article reflected on the significance of a scientific paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled “The Perception of Silence.” According to the study researchers discovered that people hear silences in the same way that they hear sounds.

The scientists described seven experiments of “event-based auditory illusions.” They say, “In all cases, silences elicited temporal distortions perfectly analogous to their sound-based counterparts, suggesting that auditory processing treats moments of silence the way it treats sound. Silence is truly perceived, not merely inferred.”

The full meaning of this is beyond my limited scientific understanding, but the results are confirmed in my experience. There truly is a “sound of silence,” as Simon and Garfunkel put it. In the Times article one of the authors, Rui Zhe Goh of Johns Hopkins, explains, “Silence is the experience of time passing.” He explains this to mean that silence is “an auditory experience of pure time.”

I often listen to silence. It is my everyday spiritual practice. I do not sit on the floor in the lotus position, but throughout the day I pause to listen to silence. I understand silence as the voice of God. God speaks in the open spaces of life – both physical and auditory. These spaces are everywhere and everywhen. They are the openings between what we call “things.” They are the pauses between sounds. That spaciousness and quietude is experienced as divine.

As I write this post I am sitting on my back porch. The birds are singing a psalm of thanksgiving for the meal that my wife put out for them a few minutes ago. Each species is a different instrument in a symphony more beautiful than any human music.  There are other sounds as well. Cicadas are singing an ode to the sun. Insects buzz outside the screen and occasionally bang against it. Someone is cutting a lawn in the distance. Once in a while a vehicle drives by. I also hear my granddaughter giggling as she watches something on her tablet in the living room. 

In the midst of and under all these sounds is ever-present silence. Over time it has become easier for me to focus on the silence instead of the noises. I notice that all noises arise from and recede back into silence. Silence is the mother of sound. There is more silence than noise. Whereas the noises are all different, the silence is the same.

I understand this Silence to be the Word of God. Before there was the Song of Creation, there was the Sound of Silence. The gospel calls it the Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This Eternal Word we know as Silence resonates with the silence at the core of my being. Silence outside and silence inside is one Silence. I am that silence.

This Silence is omnipresent. It is all the proof I need for God. Not the noisy “old man in the sky” who plays the role of cosmic dictator. There is God beyond this anthropomorphic God. True God is Love. God is here now always. Some people hear God only through words of scripture, creeds and preachers. I hear God best through silence. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Crying Over Imaginary Chicken

In the current issue of the Christian devotional publication The Secret Place, a woman from Nebraska shared an experience with her two three-year-old granddaughters. She was driving down the interstate with the twins in the backseat. They were pretending to eat fried chicken that one of the girls had pretended to have cooked.

One of them began screaming because her sister had stolen the imaginary chicken off her plate. The grandmother writes: “It did not matter to her that it was pretend fried chicken. She was inconsolable, and no amount of reasoning could calm her. I had to admit, I shed a few tears myself – laughing hysterically.”

In the devotion the author proceeded to compare her grandchildren’s spat to petty squabbles that adults have. It was a good article, and the story got me thinking beyond her application. It is not an exaggeration to say that we live in an imaginary world.  I am not saying that we are coppertops plugged into the Matrix. I am saying that the world is not what we think it is. This is a theme in ancient philosophy from Plato’s allegory of the cave to the Indian teaching of maya.

Take our nation as an example. Countries are products of human imagination. They do not exist in reality. From the International Space Station the earth does not display national boundaries. There is no dividing line between the US and Canada from space. It is only in our minds. The same with our southern neighbor, in spite of the Rio Grande and the wall. Rivers and walls are national boundaries only in the human mind.

Nations exist only in our heads. They have their origins in early primate society, but they did not exist before humans came on the scene. They will not exist after our species is extinct. Politics is an imaginary game created to govern an imaginary national entity. Like three-year-olds, we scream at each other until we are red in the face over offenses which exist only in our imagination.

I am not saying that qualities like liberty, justice and human rights are not important. But they are important only within the story of human society. As we play our roles in this temporal drama, such ideals may be worth living, fighting and dying for – relatively speaking. But in the end it is like fighting over imaginary chicken. “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

There is an unimagined Reality, an eternal reality that existed before our species and will continue after it. It includes what we perceive as reality but transcends it. It goes by many names. I use words like the Divine, Ultimate Reality, the Absolute, the Ground of Being, Being Itself, and many more. Different spiritual traditions use different religious vocabulary to label it, but no labels stick. This Unnamable Reality is the subject of spirituality, as well as music, art, and all forms of creativity.

When I speak of spirituality, I am not talking about religion. Religion is just another human construct populated with imaginary beings, beliefs, and rules. People scream, fight and kill over these imagined differences between mental constructions. When religions join forces with nations, they can get really deadly. I am not talking about religion. I am talking about spirituality.

Spirituality grounds humans in Reality.  Spiritual Reality is beyond human ideas. It cannot be described in human words. This Truth cannot be encapsulated in creeds or doctrines. This Way cannot be enforced with rules or laws. It cannot be defined. For that reason many people think this spiritual unicity, which includes all multiplicity, does not exist. They think it is just another fantasy of the human mind. Perhaps these skeptics are correct. But experience says otherwise.

In every generation mystical souls in all religions bear witness to the self-authenticating experience of the Ground of Being that underlies the world. Their testimonies of transcendence strike a chord in our hearts. At some level we are all intuitively aware of this unspeakable Reality during moments of beauty, awe and love. This Holy Reality is the real world. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God. 


Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Chimp Enlightenment

My wife loves animal videos and shares them with me often. I sometimes agree to watch. To be honest most of them are not of much interest to me. But one video I saw the other day was an eye-opener. It was posted by Save the Chimps, an organization that rescues and rehomes chimpanzees who have been used for lab experiments.

A 28-year-old chimpanzee named Vanilla had been caged all her life at a New York biomedical research laboratory. She had never been outside. This video captures the moment at a chimpanzee sanctuary when she goes outside, sees the sky for the first time, and wanders through the grass. It is inspiring.

My first thought was Plato’s allegory of the cave. In the Republic, Plato describes a group of people who have been chained inside a cave all their lives. They have never seen the sun or the real world. They see only shadows projected on the wall by objects passing in front of a fire behind them. They assume that their shadow world is the only world. Then one prisoner escapes, departs the cave, and enters the outside world. He is amazed.

This is what happened to Vanilla. It also is an apt metaphor for awakening to the spiritual dimension of life, which Jesus called the Kingdom of God. All our lives we assume that the physical world is the real world. In reality our five senses perceive only a small part of the universe. Eyes see only a fraction of the spectrum of light waves. Our hearing perceives only a narrow range of sound waves. The same with our other senses. Altogether our five senses – even enhanced by the use of scientific instruments – can perceive only a tiny sliver of the world.

How many other ways are there to experience the universe? We are aware of three spatial dimensions, plus time. According to string theory, the universe operates with 10 dimensions. In bosonic string theory, spacetime is 26-dimensional. We live in a shadowland and cannot imagine the real world. Plato says that even if someone were to escape from the cave, return and tell them of the real world, people would not believe them. 

The light of Divine Reality shines in the world, but we live in caves. The caves have many rooms. One type of room is religion. Most people in the world see the universe through the lens of their religion. They filter the evidence without being aware of it. Some religious rooms are bigger than others. Some are closer to the entrance than others and more illuminated. But all religions are caves enshrouded in darkness. The residents see shadows and mistake them for reality.

Unlike the prisoners in Plato’s allegory, we are not chained to the cave. We are free to walk out of our prison. But most do not. As the gospel says, “the light has come into the world, but people preferred darkness to light….” Some catch a glimmer of light and retreat further into dark recesses of the cave in order to avoid even reflected light. But by grace some emerge from the cave into the light.

The chimp named Vanilla was at first reluctant to emerge from the building. She sits in the doorway until the alpha male of the group, named Dwight, encourages her to come out. At that invitation she jumps into his arms, and they share a big hug. Then she looks up into the sky with an expression of amazement on her face.

This is what Christ does for us. He invites us outside our small world to see the Kingdom of God for ourselves. When we see, we are amazed.  In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus says, “Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will be troubled. After he is troubled, he will be amazed….” 

Jesus communicated this world of Light. He was that Light. But people did not believe him or understand him. The Gospel of John says, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”  Even Jesus’ closest followers did not understand him. Instead most Christians retreated into a cavern to protect themselves from the light. But in each generation there are some who emerge from the dark and are amazed.

There is a famous painting of Jesus knocking at a door. In some versions of the picture he is carrying a light or engulfed in light. Interpreters point out that there is no handle or latch on the door. It is locked from the inside. All we need to do is open the door. Yet there is more to the story. Jesus is not knocking to come in, as this painting is normally interpreted. He is knocking to invite us out - like Dwight inviting Vanilla into the sunlight. When we step out in faith like our chimpanzee cousin, we are amazed.