Saturday, June 20, 2009

Thin Places

If there is one universal theme that runs through the world’s religious and mythological wisdom traditions it is probably this, that there is an invisible plane hidden from us by the visible plane, and that the invisible plane is in fact the source of the visible plane. Some call the invisible plane God and personify it as a conscious being. Others resist personifying it and prefer thinking of the source as Tao or Brahman. For them, it is the hidden order of the world, the logos, natural law, the ground of Being behind the veil of the phenomenal world of forms. As such it is not subject to the vagaries of belief or disbelief. It simply is. No need to argue. Arguing about definitions of ultimate reality is like arguing about driving directions. If I MapQuest directions to Disneyland from my house and you MapQuest directions to Disneyland from your house, we will both have very different sets of instructions. But I’ll see you at Disneyland.

Whatever God is, the mystics tell us, is beyond all concepts and words. Naturally, being thinking animals with a belligerent streak, we construct thoughts about God, then bind our egos to our thoughts arguing with anyone who threatens our precious ideology. But, as Lao Tzu reminds us, “the Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.” And in the tradition of Zen Buddhism, all our thoughts and words are merely “fingers pointing at the moon.” Only an idiot would confuse a finger with the moon. Hungry? “The menu,” as Alan Watts says, “is not the food.”

If there is a reality deeper than the one our senses present to us, and if this deeper reality is in fact the source of the perceptual world, how can we access it? In primal culture, it was the shaman who traveled at will between the two realms. He was gradually replaced by priests and institutionalized religion. Then it was the guy who sold you that little bag of mushrooms at Burning Man.

What if we could make conscious contact with the Real, the source of the phenomenal world, without going to mass or choking down illegal fungi? What if there were places where the two worlds shimmered into one, where in the midst of our everyday, mundane existence the transcendent broke through, even if only for a moment? The ancient Celts called these “thin places.”

Thin places are everywhere. For the Celts they were often found in wilderness – this sacred lake, that rock outcropping, the mountain summit at dawn. In the Carlos Castaneda books, Don Juan called them power spots. We’ve all felt them. Triggered by a fortuitous arrangement of natural shapes, scents, sounds, colors and textures we slipped for a moment out of our busy minds and into the still and quiet stream forever flowing around us – a stream our busy minds block from our everyday awareness – and we experience an expansiveness, an aliveness, a deep and abiding significance far exceeding the beauty of the perceptual field. Although an unrepentant atheist and materialist to the end, even Freud, as a scientist, had to acknowledge this “oceanic feeling.”

It happened to me just the other day in of all places the frozen food section of Costco. What would normally be a somewhat unpleasant situation, a crowded big box store with all the architectural charm of a bomb shelter, suddenly became the stage for an unfolding of unintended and beautiful humanity. I felt what I can only describe as a deep tenderness welling up in me as I looked at the people around me, awash in our abundance, unconsciously kind to one another, bravely living our lives despite the odds. The little retired ladies with their white plastic aprons and hairnets serving chicken fingers and pot stickers to eager children, the slicked back hair guy in the golf shirt talking loudly into his Bluetooth as he crashed his cart into mine, the teenagers from the church camp or maybe the halfway house loading their flatbed cart with enough food to feed a village. In the way they carried themselves I saw their quiet, unsung heroism. Life didn’t turn out the way any of us expected it to. But here we are on a Tuesday, living it as bravely as we can. I saw a woman who the Department of Health would categorize as morbidly obese put her arm around her fourteen year old daughter in a way that taught me, more than any sermon or learned book, about the redemptive power of love, and how it is only in the way we treat others that we ourselves are healed and forgiven for our weaknesses, no matter how glaring or hidden our imperfections. Suddenly there were no strangers here. I knew these people. I was these people. I stopped. There was water in my eyes. I had stumbled into a thin place.

What are you supposed to do when you fall in love with everybody? You close your eyes and you silently vow to try to remember this feeling, to hold onto it, but you never can. Soon you’re back in your worried mind, inventing reasons to be unhappy, caught in the thick of things.

Driving home you realize it has nothing to do with Costco of course, or any place at all. Everyplace is a thin place. If you can get it in the frozen food section of Costco, you can get it anywhere. The 18th century British mystical poet William Blake said that “if the doors of perception were cleansed, man would see things as they truly are, infinite.” What we need is a big Costco-sized barrel of perception cleanser. What aisle is that on?

But life is thick. We’re all so busy. There is so much to worry about. Yet underneath the surface of our glittering lives of achievement and acquisition there is a deep river of beauty. And our toes aren’t even wet.

It is the job of the artist to create thin places. Artists must create arrangements of sight and sound that shine light through the membrane between the worlds and illuminate our own infinite significance. Great art grants us the vision to finally see ourselves as we really are, unlimited.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said that he could not clearly define hard-core pornography, then famously added, “but I know it when I see it.” What makes a great song? I don’t really know, but I know it when I hear it. I call it the hair-on-the-arms test. When the hair on my arms stands up, it’s a good song. It’s that simple. That’s all there is to say. Your soul knows. You can talk about it till dawn, but all your words are just fingers pointing at the moon. Your soul took flight with the opening chord and was in full lunar orbit by the chorus while your mind fell in love with its own cleverness and has been lost in space ever since.

But don’t count on the artists to do all the heavy lifting. Our perception of the world is largely a creation of our own thoughts. Our life, Buddha taught twenty five centuries ago, is a creation of the mind. Choose your thoughts wisely. When you feel the thickness closing in, remember to step out of the stream of your busy mind and sink down into what the poet Mary Oliver calls “the soft animal of your body.” Feel the subtle energy coursing through you. Hear with new ears. See with new eyes. The ground of Being, that source from which we came and to which we will return, is always with us. Even, and perhaps especially, when you are caught by the bustle and thrum of the marketplace, remember where you came from. In the unrelenting march of your life, from time to time, take a side step into the thin places.