Shining in the Dark

raven on dave's roof

“So I get that everything is process, and that what we perceive as ‘stuff’ is just the mind’s snapshot of process in the instant of perception, and that the mind and self are just constructs, inventions that continue because they’ve been enormously evolutionarily successful — creatures who have the illusion of self can adapt more easily to changes in the environment than those who don’t. And I get that time is also a construct, an invention of the mind to allow more useful cataloguing of memories and thoughts about the future than would be possible without it. And I even appreciate that who/what ‘we are’ in reality is just expressions of parts of a single ever- and omnipresent consciousness. But what I don’t get is why this consciousness exists, and what the ‘everything is process’ reality would be without consciousness. I’m a phenomenologist, after all — I believe the real world exists independent of ‘me’, whatever ‘me’ is.”

Rafe and Daria were lying on the deck of their house, heads side by side, feet pointed in opposite directions, staring up the night sky watching a meteor shower, pointing out meteors to each other as they noticed them. Despite the light pollution from the city off to the east, it was a perfect night for watching. They were bundled up against the cold, drinking hot chocolate. A raven perched on the ledge of the deck railing not far away, apparently unperturbed by their presence, its head craning curiously in their direction.

Daria responded to Rafe’s starting volley in what would be one of their many existential conversations: “I think it’s a circular argument, a variant of the ‘if a tree falls in the forest’ inquiry. One Consciousness just exists, and since there is no time it has always existed, it didn’t ‘evolve’. All these processes you perceive — the unfathomably complex dance of what we perceive as particles and waves, also exist always and only in this perpetual Now. Maybe Consciousness is just one more process, one our ‘selves’ are vaguely aware of standing ‘behind’ them, and are a little afraid of since its acknowledgement would belie the self’s existence as ‘real’.”

“So then why all of these processes”, Rafe asked. “If they always were, are and will be, why?”

“There is no answer to ‘why’ for what just is and has always been. I know the ‘self’ is unhappy with that, just as it is unhappy with unknowability in general, but that’s how it is. Perhaps if you explored the question of how seemingly purposeful evolution happens if there is no time, only Now, it might help you let go of the need for Consciousness and other processes to have a purpose, a meaning, a ‘why’.” She pointed out a meteor, and then another, and they looked at each other and smiled.

“No wonder we had to invent God”, he replied. “The answer to the unanswerable. Maybe that’s why scientists so often embrace atheism. Though scientists are now willing to acknowledge that time doesn’t exist, useful as the concept is for things like, oh, all of the technology upon which our civilization utterly depends. Must be humbling for them.” Rafe yawned and stretched.

“Scientists still aren’t humble. They just believe the answer is another level deeper, yet to be discovered, tied up with ‘strings’ perhaps.” She smiled at him, knowing his loathing for string theory.

“So Consciousness and all these processes, this spinning and dancing and movement within the perpetual Now, just always was — is — turtles all the way down. And one, or many, of those processes is what we perceive as evolution, natural selection for existence of those creatures most ‘fit’ to adapt to changes, as Gaia experiments with randomness.” He pondered for a moment. “Either this process has t0 occur in the perpetual Present, or else it too is an illusion. Or both!”

“Exactly”, replied Daria. “It makes sense that it would be both. So unpack the reality of its timelessness. What does it mean to say that all states of evolution exist in the single perpetual Now?”

“It doesn’t ‘mean’ anything. They just do. Evolution is a process that is perpetually Present like all other processes. The ‘states’ of evolution are just our snapshots, our useful perceptions of infinitely small parts of that process slotted into the mind’s useful ‘map’ of time as a linear procession.” Rafe sat up and took a swig of his hot chocolate.

“Yep, that’s my thinking”, Daria replied. “All of these questions come full circle back to the one you asked first, the one that cannot be answered. It’s no surprise we love our models so much. They seem to explain so much because they’re internally consistent, like the actions on a movie screen. You can so easily get sucked into seeing them as real; you want to believe they’re real.” She pointed out another meteor.

The raven wandered along the railing, not making eye contact, inching closer.

“My head hurts. My mind doesn’t like this line of inquiry; it doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere, towards any kind of ‘understanding’. It wants to talk about something else, or do something else. The meteor count is not engaging enough for it. What if we offered our minds and bodies a delicious treat and made passionate love all night long? My mind already has a process ‘in mind’.” He gave her a Groucho Marx fake-lecherous look.

Daria laughed. “I’d actually like to keep pursuing this for a while, and save the ecstasy for later, let it ‘itch’ a little. I promise we’ll be having sex in ‘no time at all’ if you’ll bear with me.”

Suddenly the raven pounced at her head, grasping her shiny silver headband in its claws and pulling it loose, and flying away with it. Daria screamed. Rafe lunged at where the raven no longer was. “Holy shit!”, he said. “That bird is bold. You OK?”

Daria replied: “Yeah, just shaken. That thing is strong. I thought it wanted my hot chocolate. It never occurred to me it wanted my headband.”

“You look better with your hair down anyway”, Rafe said, holding her. “Let me comfort you in the best way I know how”. He put his hands on her bum.

She laughed and pushed him away. “Not until we finish this exploration. So back to the basic proposition about what ‘we are’ and what really is. You often tell me, especially when your mind gets anxious, that you’d be content to make love all the time we’re not eating or sleeping. I’m flattered, I think, but that seems a bit escapist in light of what we just agreed. What’s going on when you want to spent all your time in your head, and in my body, experiencing this rush of chemicals that, you must admit, isn’t real?”

Rafe sighed. “Yes, it’s escapism. I like shiny pretty things just like the raven. It’s fun. It feels good. If nothing has a reason or a purpose, what’s the harm in indulging in pleasures, especially mutual ones?”

“The harm is that it’s still the self sleep-walking the real ‘you’ through your ‘life’. You want to really experience what you have now come to believe, which is totally obsessing you these days, you’ll have to stop escaping, putting it off, hanging around in what Mooji calls the enticing marketplace that all our ‘selves’ have set up just outside the entrance to awakening, to keep you in thrall to your self and others’ selves. You can have ‘self-ish’ ecstasy in the prison of self and mind, or you can have liberation. You can’t have both. Which do you choose?”

He looked at her, her beguiling, loving smile, her delightful enticing body. He laughed. “Do I have to choose right now?”

“You’ve been choosing the ‘self-ish’ way all your life, sweetie. You can go on doing so. It’s your life. It’s just that something inside ‘you’ is clearly restless for the other path, for taking that terrifying one-way journey through that gate-less entrance. You won’t lose me, you know. I’ll still be right here, right Now, wherever and whenever you take that walk. The illusion of me is right here with the illusion of you, no matter what.” She smiled at him, but looked dubious about her own assertion.

“Damn, it’s tempting to say I want to wait until the moment of my death, or yours, to take that walk”, he replied. “If there is only Now, no time, what difference does it really make when I do it?”

“The difference is that you’ll live, in my arms, with all the suffering that unawareness and self-ishness brings with it. That nagging obsession you’re missing something. All your fears and anxieties and sadness and held grief, all your anger at the atrocities of this culture. Wouldn’t you like to be free of that?”

“Of course”, he replied. “I’m just afraid. Mind has me afraid. Of losing who ‘I’ am, of losing you, of letting go, of feeling too much, of becoming aware of exactly how much unbearable suffering and pain there is in the world, everywhere.” He paused for a moment. “Aren’t you afraid?”

At that moment the raven swooped back onto the deck, the rumble of its wingbeat in the dark causing the hair on Rafe’s body to stand up.

“Hey you thief!”, shouted Daria. “Where’s my headband? You can’t just take stuff from people!”

The raven stopped advancing along the deck, and dropped something from its beak, then looked directly at her, nodded, and flew away. “Looks like a peace offering”, Rafe said. “What is it?”

“Just a pebble, a small stone actually, covered with moss. Not a fair exchange.” Then, turning toward him, she said: “Am I afraid? No, but then you’re the one on this journey, not me. I don’t see, or feel I need, the path to ‘awakening’. That’s not how I make sense of the world, or myself. But I’m dying to hear what you discover, if you are even able to talk about it in a way that would make sense to me afterwards. I picture you as the next Eckhart Tolle or Rupert Spira, sharing your infinite compassion and patience with the unawakened. It’s just not what I’m seeking, not what calls to me. I have my own path to metta, karuna, mudita, upekkha.”

The raven returned, placing another stone beside the first. As Rafe and Daria watched in silence, it flew off and came back repeatedly for the next five minutes, until it had created a small pile of stones. Then, as it started to rain, it turned, looked at Daria again, nodded several times, and flew way. Daria and Rafe, after a mock ‘honouring’ of the raven for its ‘payment’ for the stolen headband,  retreated under the overhang from the rain, and resumed their conversation.

“Maybe my procrastination in letting go of the illusion of separate self is like my unwillingness to just walk away from civilization culture”, Rafe said. “I’m just too attached to them both, too invested, too comfortable with the status quo, and too frightened of the unknown to give them up. I’m waiting for a push, for there to be no choice.”

“The push won’t come from outside, sweetie, for either of them”, Daria replied. “You’ll be waiting unhappily a long time. But you know, don’t you, that you really have no choice in the matter. Regardless of what the gurus say, there is no free will, not even for letting go of your self, or your creature comforts. You are going to make both journeys, sooner or later, and when you do it will still be Now. Not for you to decide if or ‘when’. So maybe you can be content with that, that it’s going to happen and what you do or don’t do in the meantime changes nothing.”

“You’re far too smart for me”, Rafe said, pulling her to her feet. “Let’s get naked and celebrate our lack of free will until the sun comes up.”

“Or the moon!” Daria said, breathlessly. “Look!” Just as she spoke, the clouds had parted after the rain stopped, and the full moon had come out, bathing them and the rain-soaked forest below in light.

And suddenly the strange pile of wet, moss-covered stones the raven had offered in return for the headband, began to shine a phosphorescent blue-green, and became a glittering and jewelled offering.

“Smart raven”, Rafe said. “Probably seen people oohing and aahing over that bioluminescent lichen in the forest, and figured to trade one valued shiny pretty object for another. I have a candle-holder we can put the stones in.”

“Maybe the raven was just modelling ‘living in the Now’ for you, Rafe”, she replied. “Showing you that it’s fun, that you don’t have to be afraid. All those stones, a demonstration of letting go. One stone at a time. A gift.”

photo above by the author

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5 Responses to Shining in the Dark

  1. Earl Mardle says:

    Nice story. Of course, as a total non-spiritual person I see the raven only as a plot device. In the world, as it is, without my intervention, it doesn’t happen. Like Daria, the quest leaves me absent. The world, whatever it is, appears to me through all my senses and that is enough, even to take in a small part of it absorbs all the cognitive resources I have; I don’t fool myself that I have any spare for greater things.

    Incidentally, many years ago I wrote a story about a girl called Margret whose hair was black on one side and white on the other, her nickname was Pied Mag and, of course, in the story she becomes a magpie.

    She discovers that, to a magpie the left eye sees the whole of its past rushing away and the right eye sees the whole of its future rushing towards it, the only part of time that it cannot see is the present moment which is has to create in its mind.

    I don’t believe that either, but it seemed to chime with this story so there it is.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Earl. Funny, I don’t see myself as spiritual either :-) And I suppose all my characters are really plot devices; they do talk in ways that no people I know in real life do!

    I think I would describe you as a ‘die-hard’ phenomenologist. Eminently sensible!

  3. Kari says:

    I like how I can substitute Rafe and Daria in your stories with Robert (my partner) and myself, and my mind wanders back to many of our own explorations. We have conversations similar to these, and often in much the same sprawling format. It’s this that makes life most wonderful for me – a pure indulgence that scratches my intellectual, spiritual, and inner trickster itches.

    I share Daria’s detachment from the quest for ‘enlightenment’ (or whatever it is that many ‘spiritual’ folks are pursuing – there are various names for what seems to be the same thing), and it brings out my inner trickster when we talk about ‘the journey,’ which Robert is still somewhat attached to completing (I, on the other hand, don’t believe there is an end point). I’d love it if we could all just accept that there is no free will, and that control is just an illusion – as that would mean we can stop seeking, striving and ‘becoming’, and just be. Until then, I enjoy the exploratory conversations massively :-D

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Kari: Fascinating that we live on opposite sides of the world but our relationships, sense of purpose/identity and conversations are strikingly similar. Like you I don’t see the journey being completed, but like Robert I believe it starts with an ‘awakening’, and then the rest of your life is ‘rewiring’ how you see the world to accommodate that awakening. I wouldn’t call it ‘enlightenment’. It’s more like the ongoing ‘making sense’ of our lives, but this time in the face of a rather startling and unintuitive realization. But then, I’m not yet awakened, so I guess this is all just a story :-)

  5. Anonymous says:

    And… it is that Crow is also pointing out that the stones exist.
    (And bioluminescences. .. and the perceptions. And the notions, and abstractions… And lights, and crows… the daydreams. Everything exists).

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