It is really a funny thing to be a human being. We embody what is called the “human condition” but we’re at a loss, usually, to explain what that is. What does it mean to have thoughts, to have emotions, to have senses, to have ‘intimations of immortality’ as Wordsworth titled one of his poems, and how do these things fit together? What is the logic or power that creates us, moves us, drives us, sustains us? We don’t really know. We have lots of sciences and social sciences that give us schemes for how the universe works, how life works, how our own life works, how our psyches work, how our brains work, but most of it seems to be temporary guesswork—pretty impressive guesswork at times, to be sure—but in the end doesn’t really tell us what we want to know. That’s because what we actually want to know comes down to the really simple questions that science doesn’t answer very well. Why are we here? How did we get here, really? What happens to here when we are no longer here? Does it matter? Does it even matter what we do while we are here? And is this the only ‘here’ in the vastness of space and time? Are we the only beings contemplating these questions? And are these questions worth a damn in the first place? Garrison Keillor refers humorously to his detective character Guy Noir as a man who is still “pondering life’s persistent questions” and we, the audience, are clearly meant to smile at a grown man bothering with questions suitable to a teenager. But though most of us put aside such “childish things” in favor of making a living and reproducing ourselves and making our mark on the world, the persistence of these questions, if we are honest, never truly goes away. Or perhaps it does, but only at the last moment when, as Gertrude Stein was reported to have said on her deathbed in response to someone who asked, “Gertrude, what is the answer?”
“What was the question?” was the great one’s response.
Whether or not we like poetry, or literature, or Gertrude Stein, we recognize, I think, the wisdom here. It is the kind of wisdom most of us would call ‘spiritual.’ Many wise and/or spiritual leaders have come up with an answer that is similar: there is really no answer to the question of life. Life simply is. Katagiri Roshi, a Zen teacher in Minnesota, once had a similar answer:
“What is just is,” he said. And again, we recognize the wisdom.
Still, we also recognize, if we are honest, that the questions persist. Especially at difficult or conflictual or depressing times, we find ourselves up against the same question: What is the use? What is the point? What is all this struggle for? All vanishes in the end in any case. And if we can’t answer the why question—why bother?— and we usually can’t, how about the what question? What is this “is” that is? And how do we fit into it? What are we in the first place? All our busyness, all our effort and worry and struggle and despair and joy—how do we consider it, make sense of it, comprehend it? It. What is it? Is all this living, struggling activity really just the product of chemical soups and photons and DNA and gravity and some process we have named evolution? Exploding galaxies? Black holes and worm holes? And to what end? That is, what we really want to know is simply this: What am I engaged in? involved in? Me. Aside from science fiction speculation about our being a product of some computer-generated projection, what about me, here and now, in this life. What am I really? Where do I begin and end? And is there some way to find out?
This, I take it, is why religions have arisen ever since homo sapiens began to leave residues of his existence on earth. For some thousands or hundreds of thousands of years, humans have painted and carved and drawn and built monuments to this quest, to these questions. Or rather, monuments to their hoped-for answers. And evidently, none of these answers has satisfied in the long run, for the questing and the questioning continues to the present day. It is going on here, now. And what has prompted it, for me, has been something that has been nagging at me for several months, years, perhaps, of my pursuit to see. To understand. And that something is the uncanny feeling (the problem with such attempts to express this “it” is that language has developed out of our brain’s sensory equipment, and therefore must be cast in sensory language: “feeling”, the “sense that”, even when these don’t quite get to “it” or “isness”)—the uncanny feel or cognition or recognition that an immensity exists, an immensity of which I am part, which I am, and that that immensity is beyond comprehension (i.e. it is not sensory or cognitive or logical), but at the same time and in some way comprehensible. The way this occurs to me is, most often, in meditation, a practice I have been engaged in for about forty years. And contrary to the common misconception, the access doesn’t occur as a blinding strike of lightning. It doesn’t occur as a blockbuster of an insight, of a “knowledge” that is finished and permanent and which I can deposit in my memory bank or any other bank. For me, at least, it occurs in glimpses, back-of-the-head sensations (again, the language is sensory), inklings or strange empty tastings of space that is beyond physical space and dimension. Nor does it occur as “thought,” as we generally refer to thought (though often our attempt to grasp and possess it does occur as thought). In fact, thoughts are contrary to its occurrence and chase it away. So are feelings. So are sensory inputs. So is the interior viewpoint from which we normally inspect things. And this is why this kind of experience (if this overused word is really accurate) does not appear to compute with normal brain activity. Normal brain activity occurs in terms of sensory inputs, or cognitive inputs, or emotional inputs. This is none of those. Which is why in Zen, this ‘thing’ is very often expressed negatively. Not this, not that. Or simply, ‘not’ (the famous Mu koan turns on this word ‘mu,’ meaning, roughly, ‘not.’)
But here, it is important to make a crucial point. This ‘thing’ does not occur as some ‘experience’ that blots out other forms of experience. It does not suddenly mean that the everyday sensorium is either invalidated or transcended. It is not of the nature of logic, of “either-or,” of “A” or “not-A”. It is of the nature of simultaneity. Both/and. Yin/Yang. That is part of the nature of its heuristic or salvational (if that word means anything in a context where there is nothing to be saved from) value. What we know—and the type of knowing here, again, departs from our traditional ideas of knowing, of epistemology—is that this background, this space, this being-ness-that-we-are exists at the same time, is at the root of, does not invalidate or supersede in any way the normal sensory world. A Zen koan says, Sun-faced Buddha/Moon-faced Buddha. Or Samsara is Nirvana is Samsara. Or, the relative and the absolute are one, fitting like a box and its lid. That, I take it, is why this ‘experience,’ if we succumb to calling it that, has always been so difficult to convey. It violates all our norms of discourse. All our norms of human behavior, thought, feeling, being. And so it has most often been expressed in poetic or noetic or symbolic or metaphoric terms: “It is like…” But of course, the problem is that it is not like anything we know. It is not of the nature of “like.” Not of the nature of comparison. It is of itself. Of ‘what is just is’.
And so here, all I can do is employ the term that came to me recently and to which I alluded above: immensity. We are involved in some sort of overwhelming immensity. All of us. Those who have had a glimpse of it, and those who haven’t. Those who would seem to deserve it, and those who don’t. Those who live long and those who live for only an instant. We are all involved (a more current term might be “entangled” in the sense that quantum particles once in relationship remain, even when separated, superluminally connected) in this immensity (the great Zen master Huang Po once compared it to a jewel that we have in our foreheads, always, but which we can’t see and so search for desperately until we realize that the entire search was unnecessary for ‘it’ has been here all along). Even as we are also all involved in the petty, stupid, day-to-day trials and tribulations and, yes, glories of everyday life. Even as, even during, even before and after everyday everything, even when and if or not when and if, always we are all entangled in it and cannot be otherwise. No matter what we do, we cannot escape or disqualify or abandon it. It is what we are. Immensity: some impossibly grand immensity. And to me, at least, and I’m not sure why, there is something reassuring, comforting, glorious in it, even when we wish we could blow up this groaning, pitiful, hate-mongering, mother of an earthworld out of disgust, and start again. Even then. It is there, this immensity, and so are we. And that’s something. Or nothing. As you wish.
P.S.: as one way of metaphorically alluding to this ‘thing,’ I append here a link to a youtube video of the Mammoth Rubbing Stones still at large amongst us—huge stones which woolly mammoths used to rub against to scratch themselves, presumably, and which still bear the shiny evidence of that prehistoric scratching. An inkling of immensity, perhaps.
Here’s the link: