Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Running Under a New Myth

I used to think a myth was a story that was not true. Myths might be amusing or illuminating, but only children believed them. Three-degreed scientists, such as myself, did not “believe.” We relied on empirical data for our explanations. Yet I now realize all people on earth live by deeply held myths - because “myth” has an older meaning than “fictional story.”

Myths are those central concepts people use to organize perception – the sieves we see through. Many are part of a larger culture; others belong to individuals or families. Our personal myths are tweaked through life experience. And sometimes, they are radically changed. This happened to me; it is what brought me to believe in myths.

I was born, raised and lived most of my adult life in a university. My highly educated parents were open-minded agnostics. Our family motto was, "Other people go to church. We go camping." And did we ever go camping! Not just in Wisconsin, Arizona or Quebec, but in Kenya, Chad, and Malawi.

As a teen, I was fascinated by the mystery of existence. I lay in the grass watching the stars, pondering the simplest of questions, “Why IS all this?”

My family’s academic culture answered that the universe simply was – without explanation. In contrast, traditional religion said it was as it was because of a deity - just like a human, but bigger, immortal and in control. “Why not” or “Because” - neither answer was satisfying.

But upbringing tells. Without quite choosing, I lived by the agnostic, academic-culture myth. It had a lot going for it. Maybe I couldn’t know, "why” but with science, I could spend a fascinating lifetime exploring “what” and “how.” My eventual career choice of evolutionary biology took that exploration to the limits.

Herbert Spencer once said, “Those who have not studied science know not a tithe of the poetry by which they are surrounded.” What poetry I found!

The diversity of life rose and sank like a bog-moss carpet under the steps of a primordial giant. Interbreeding species embraced the Arctic in waves of passing genes, and fungi ate a tree alive while residing in its flesh. The matter in the universe was squeezed into threads and blebs on bubbles of empty space, while dark fluid from earth’s gut was pressed into jagged, Alaskan cliffs. On which I could stand, a little fly in boots and down vest, tapping with a steel hammer.

Yet slowly it dawned that however horrible or thrilling, if this whole universe merely existed as the accidental side effect of endlessly recycling, mindless energy - then it was, finally, futile. Cold. Dead. And humans were also already cold and dead. Which is why at my core, I lived in terror.

Yet I had an un-agnostic secret that did not let me to accept death as the meaning of the universe.

My secret? I saw a continuous flow of living light that moved within and among all things. Leaves on a tree, a weathered-gray fence, cracks in the sidewalk with weeds poking through: all reverberated with inner light, burgeoning meaning, joy. I called this “seeing with the backs of my eyes.”

So I swam in an ocean of throbbing presence while outwardly believing the myth of a dead universe, even in the stories I told myself.

Well, eventually the conflict grew too great. Something had to give. What gave was my fundamental myth. Not all at once and definitely not by choice. I was enticed, cajoled and finally had to have my grasping fingers pried off, one by one. Which really hurt. But now I live in another universe, perceived through an entirely different myth.

This universe is awake, aware, organized, and meaningful. It is a Being - albeit one beyond human comprehension. Yet we can feel this Being, because we are part of it - parts of a part of a great Whole – like a protein molecule in a cell in your liver in you, while you are in an ecosystem that is in the earth. Each of us breathes with the All, moves with the All, lives with the All, as the All breaths, moves and lives with us. It IS. And we ARE: the living light molecules in a living light Being - that feels like limitless joy – that feels like endless love.

How different everything looks. The scruffy guy swearing loudly on the street glows with living light, as does the tired mother struggling her two-year-old onto the elevator, and the woman who just slammed the phone in my ear when I dialed a wrong number.

Now I can’t despair no matter how bad things become. I need only be present to the suffering in front of me, practice - just practice - feeling love towards those I’d far rather despise, and try to release fear, death and the need to hurt. There is no possibility of defeat. My body can die, even in terrible pain, but I can’t die. NONE of us can die. Because in this light, the myth of God is real, and death is ever only temporary.

© R. Elena Tabachnick 2007 (An earlier version of this story was on Mind's Eye Radio in August, 2003)

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