Diversity and Car(ry)ing Capacity — Spiritual Lessons from Nature #3

This essay is my contribution to the monthly ‘Be Zine’, found here.  Check out the other contributions by my colleagues!

According to Wikipedia, the term “biodiversity” came into popular usage in 1985 as the 1986 National Forum on Biological Diversity was being planned. A decade earlier in scientific studies, the term “natural diversity” was the expression used to describe the variety of different types of life found on earth, and “species diversity”, “species richness”, and “natural heritage” are even older terms. The same Wikipedia article goes on to describe how biodiversity benefits humanity. This is where I want to jump off the Wiki-wagon. I have a diminishing tolerance for anthropocentric thinking. Diversity isn’t important because it’s good for us. Diversity is important because it IS.

Where diversity exists, you know the carrying capacity of the environment is at a high level. This means that there are enough resources to support a large community of biota. There is abundance and health….for everything. There are food sources, water sources, shelters, places to meet others of your species, safe habitats in which to reproduce and raise young, and plenty of predators, large and microscopic, to keep the population in balance. Where diversity is threatened, you see widespread extinction, the development of large mono-cultures, and the altering of climate and landscape. (For a fascinating example of this, see this story on how the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park changed the course of a river. How Wolves Change Rivers on youtube.com.)

farm and wood

Diversity and abundance or extinction and scarcity. These are snapshots on either end of the spectrum of possible futures for our planet…or for any small subset of it. My question isn’t about how diversity benefits humanity. My question is about how diversity feels. Not only to you, or to us, but to the Universe. As Eckhart Tolle would say, think beyond the Egoic Mind. What is diversity to the Power and Source of Life? It is essential; it is essence poured out on reality. You might say that the Divine is manifest in diversity. What is diversity to the Ego? It is a threat. It is Other and Dangerous. I’m sure you can see how this plays out across different parts of history in different parts of the world. Where mono-cultures restrict diversity in the human community, what is the effect? Take a moment here to think of all you’ve ever read or heard, seen or felt about genocide, extinction, ‘ethnic cleansing’, segregation, persecution, and intolerance.  The human Ego fighting the reality of diversity is a war that makes no sense to me.  There is no possible victory in it anywhere, for anyone.

abundance

My final questions are these: what is diversity to the Person you want to be, in the world where you will live? How is your carrying capacity, your caring capacity, today?

© 2015, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

Renewed Like an Eagle – Spiritual Lessons from Nature

Do you remember when your baby teeth fell out? Do you have any memories of being without central incisors, lisping and whistling when you spoke, unable to bite into an apple or an ear of corn? How much do you remember of the physical changes associated with your passage through puberty?

Would you ever choose to re-live those changes? (I imagine in response a loud chorus of ‘Noooo!’ and laughter.)

Why do we find change so awkward and uncomfortable? Why do we imagine a state of perfection achieved and unchanged, and why is that stasis desired? Consider this: change is natural; metamorphoses are observed and documented in every species — birth, maturation, reproduction, aging, death, decay, absorption, and birth. All around us there is a process of movement, going from one thing to another, losing some properties and gaining others. This is Life. It is dynamic; it is not good or bad; it is. Often, however, we decide we like where we are. We want to stay put. It’s familiar. It’s comfortable. But we are, in fact, stuck, and it takes a great deal of energy to stay there, resisting the current of Life all around. We feel drained, exhausted, spent, sapped, worn out. We want to feel the flow of energy again, but in order to do that, we must make a change. Fear holds us back. This is a pivotal point of decision – we must choose Change to choose Life.

The Old Testament talks about having youth renewed like the eagles’, about mounting up with wings as eagles and being borne on the wings of an eagle. Golden eagles populated the Holy Land, and their lifespans were observable to the ancient poets. I have seen bald eagles in the wild on a few occasions now, but not before I was 45 years old. What do I know of an eagle’s life? I did a little research. Southwestern Bald Eagle Management told me “In their five year development to adulthood, bald eagles go through one of the most varied plumage changes of any North American bird. During its first four weeks of life, an eaglet’s fluffy white down changes to a gray wooly down. At about five weeks, brown and black feathers begin to grow. It becomes fully feathered at 10 weeks of age. In its first year, the mostly dark-colored juvenile can often be mistaken as a golden eagle. However, the bald eagle progressively changes until it reaches adult plumage at five years. Notice in the pictures how its dark eye lightens throughout its first four years of life until it becomes yellow. Also, see how its beak changes from gray-black to a vibrant yellow. It is believed that the darker, more mottled plumage of a young eagle serves as camouflage, while the white head and tail announce that it is of breeding age.”

Renewal is for the purpose of maturity. It is not about going back to a juvenile state. It is about soaring with the movement of Life toward the next place of energy. It is not about resuscitation; it is about resurrection. We shall all be changed.

My daughter recommended to me a book titled Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. The author is a medical doctor and a gerontologist. He tackles the real and practical implications of growing old and dying in this culture: nursing homes, DNR orders and advance directives, heroic life-saving surgeries, hospice and what it is to live with meaning and dignity. This book terrified me. I read it in small doses. It made me face denial and delusions head on. It was not a comfortable read, but I would recommend it to anyone. It puts Change in the forefront and invites you to get real. I would not have been able to read it 7 years ago, right after my husband died. I wasn’t ready. The book I read then that helped me to accept change was Pema Chodron’s book When Things Fall Apart (which I recently discovered is a phrase from Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”).

Where are you in the flow of Life? Where are you stuck? What are you afraid of when you face Change? How have you embraced Maturity? How have you run from it? What images of Peace in harmony with Change are meaningful to you? These may be your symbols of Renewal.  Here are a few of mine:

© 2015, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

This article is featured in the blog magazine The ‘B’ Zine.  Please click on the Zine link to view the rest of the Renewal volume and support my Into the Bardo & Beguine Again colleagues!

Ego, Redundancy, Fasting and Abundance – Spiritual Lessons from Nature

Have you ever had an experience of ego awakening? I have. The first one I remember happened as I was sitting in church on a Sunday morning, listening to a sermon. I was a child of about 7, I think, squirming about in the pew beside my family members. None of them were paying attention to me. They were simply silent. I suddenly became aware that I was there and that it was possible that I could ‘not be there’. I could not be born, for example, or I could be something else. I wondered why I wasn’t a rabbit, but a girl, Priscilla. I wondered why I was aware of being present for this sermon when I had sat through so many others and not been aware at all. I paid attention to the words of the Rector for a time, staring straight at him, but his talk was not as exciting as this simple new awareness. I figured he wasn’t really addressing me. I think it was Spring, the stained glass windows were open a bit, and the sun was shining. I sat facing the windows, away from the pulpit, and in rapt and embryonic ego transcendence.

My ego returned to center stage, though, shortly after that. I was the fourth daughter in this church-going family. I grew up with questions about whether or not I was special, with feelings of redundancy. My sisters were always more intelligent and talented and capable, having the edge of years of experience beyond mine. What did I have to offer that they couldn’t deliver more readily? And what would be my share of the resources available? Could my parents really give their attention and their love to all of us equally? Somehow, these questions kept arising for me, causing anxiety and an eagerness to convince myself that I was unique and uniquely loved. I spent 47 years in the church-going habit, seeking to resolve these questions in community with others looking for a similar comfort.

1965

Let me insert a different image now. David Attenborough on Christmas Island, surrounded by a moving mass of red crabs. It’s nighttime and quite dark. Thousands of females, heavy-laden with eggs, are approaching the tide in order to release their burdens into the surf. The water turns reddish brown as a surge of life heads out to sea. Millions, billions of little babies set adrift. Redundancy and abundance. Life in a beautifully mysterious burst of activity, at a specific time and place, choreographed by some ancient awareness and acceptance. It is awesome – possibly divine. Are those babies unique and uniquely loved? The question seems moot. They ARE. No less. No more. (http://www.arkive.org/christmas-island-red-crab/gecarcoidea-natalis/video-00c.html – this is not David Attenborough, but at least it doesn’t have advertisements.)

We were driving out to the University last week to attend an enrichment class entitled “Understanding the Mysteries of Hibernation” when Steve popped in an audio book CD, The Power of Now. Eckhart Tolle began to describe his pivotal ego experience: For years my life alternated between depression and acute anxiety. One night I woke up in a state of dread and intense fear, more intense than I had ever experienced before. Life seemed meaningless, barren, hostile. It became so unbearable that suddenly the thought came into my mind, “I cannot live with myself any longer.” The thought kept repeating itself several times. Suddenly, I stepped back from the thought, and looked at it, as it were, and I became aware of the strangeness of that thought: “If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me – the I and the self that I cannot live with.” And the question arose, “Who is the ‘I’ and who is the self that I cannot live with?”

He went on to talk about the False Self that is edified, criticized, and mortified in our Western culture. I nodded in complete recognition. Don’t we call that the Ego? And then…I began to think of that ‘I’, that divinely authentic, fully alive, completely unique and inter-dependent being that each of us is. It was like a flash. My face lit up in excitement as I turned to Steve, “YES! I get it!” The things I had been hearing about enlightenment and no-self in Buddhism finally made sense. It’s not about the abasement of your being, it’s about the shift from False Self to ‘I’.

An hour later, I was listening to a lecture about mammals who suppress their metabolic systems, who turn down the fire of life in order to more effectively harmonize their energy with their changing environment. They go through cycles of torpor and arousal, staying alive (and in some cases, giving birth) without adding any food energy into their system – for 5 to 6 months! This is fascinating! Heart rate, respiratory rate, body temperature, digestion – all of these vital systems depressed by as much as 75%, and still, there is Life. The speaker discussed implications for biomedical research, but I am not as impressed by what humans might do with this knowledge as I am by the beings who live it. They are the authentic ‘I’; they are themselves, in a web of inter-dependence and autonomy, using and conserving their energy in response to what IS, what is available in the environment and what is intrinsic to their survival. Descriptions, terms, charts and statistics become gibberish. Even Science is a False Self. These are “stepping-stones”, as are all words, in Tolle’s estimation, serving to propel us to the next place in the movement of existence.

photo from sciencenews.org

photo from sciencenews.org

The flow of Life, the flow of energy – what is that about? It’s not about clinging to stepping-stones: food, love, identity, thoughts, dogmas or practices. It’s about finding “the joy in change and movement” (as Steve would say), the dynamic of relating to an abundant, redundant, mysterious and unexpected Universe. It’s about waking up and being conscious of where we are right NOW…..and how beautiful and wonder-filled that place is. That consciousness is the beginning of Peace, an intuitive harmony with life that is unfortunately made dissonant by the noise of Falseness in this culture. What would it be like to give up that False Self more and more? Instead of giving up chocolate or the Internet for 40 days, I’m going to challenge myself to move more into ‘I’ existence. I don’t want to live with my self any longer. And that’s a good thing. 🙂 Namaste, Priscilla

© 2015, essay by Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

This essay is featured in this month’s B Zine, published by The Bardo Group/Beguine Again.  To see the rest of the contents of this collaboration, visit The B Zine here.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Depth

My mother revealed to me a nickname that she had secretly assigned me when I was a young teen.  She thought of me as “The Waterstrider”.  Ever seen those long-legged bugs in a still puddle who are able to stroll the surface without ever breaking the tension that keeps them above water?  Here are a few:

water striders

My “Waterstrider” tendencies changed, my mother noted, after my sister and I were in a car accident and she was killed.  I turned 17 only three days later, and began to ask the Really Big, Serious Questions about life.  I began to search for Depth and Meaning, but mostly from only one perspective – Christianity.   When I was 45, my husband died in bed beside me early one Saturday morning.  My journey toward Depth was not over.   I decided to look from a different angle.  I needed a bigger perspective.

I discovered that there is so much more than I had ever noticed before.  Depth goes in different directions: up and down, inward and outward…indefinitely.  Maybe it was less overwhelming to be a Waterstrider, but it was also less genuine.  In the depths of the sea, there is reflected the vastness of the heavens.  In the solitude of a silent moment, there is the ageless Now.  In the recognition of something we “know”, there is the awareness of Mystery that we will never comprehend.  This might be what some people call “Wisdom” or “Maturity”.  I tend to think of it as simple Truth.  If you’re not afraid to go below the surface, you may discover the wonders of Depth.  It feels different.  It surrounds you, puts pressure on places that may not be used to bearing it.  But you may discover a strength and resiliency you didn’t know you had…at least I did.  Then that depth makes you feel buoyant and free…as if you were flying!

cranesTake up the challenge, friends.  Take a journey into Depth. 

(Thanks, Word Press, for a great theme!)

© 2015, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

Depth

Weekly Photo Challenge: Express Yourself

What an invitation!  “Express Yourself” – squeeze yourself into a photograph or a gallery, squirting out the essence of your personality, your style, your philosophy, your vision.  This could be one messy catharsis!  Here goes:

What was THAT about?! 

Well, here is something I’ve been pondering lately: Eckhart Tolle’s profound revelation “I can’t live with myself any longer.”  In order to arrive at such a conclusion, he must have thought there was a difference between ‘I’ (the authentic and divine being) and ‘My Self’ (the false delusion we sometimes call ‘ego’).  Seeing the juxtaposition of these two ideas of a person leads me to recognize that there is a lot of falsity, of gibberish and nonsense that we superimpose on the experience of existence.  That veneer surrounds us and can build up, layer upon layer to stifling proportions.  And then, sometimes there’s a break through.  A simple, true observation of the wonder of existence that doesn’t explain everything, but stands in almost blinding clarity against the noise of culture. 

Anyway, my gallery illustrates how I am living astride this double existence.  I interact with people who are a complex combination of I/Self expressions, I deal with objects which are mostly complete gibberish but which many people value anyway, and I marvel at Nature and grieve our exploitation of its pure embodiment of Life.   

Hope you found this entertaining and thought-provoking.  I appreciate the invitation to share my view!

© 2015, essay and photograph, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

Express Yourself

80 Years in Eight Days — Day Number Eight: 10 Inspirational Instructions

This is the end — the last day of the year, the last installment of my mother’s birthday project, and the last entry on this blog for 2014.  My mother is 80 years old today.  Here is a list of 10 Inspirational Instructions that she has embodied throughout her life.  They are also serving as my New Year’s Resolutions for 2015.  My mom is indeed an inspiration, and I hope she’ll keep breathing life in for many more years.

1)Trust God, but do your homework.”  This quote she always attributed to her own mother.  I think it’s a great motto to pass on from generation to generation.  In essence, it acknowledges our humility but does not absolve us from responsibility.  We are not in control of all things, but we are in control of some.  When you’re able to dance on that line with grace, you’re living wisely.

2) Regularly make the effort to right-size and divest.  This comes from her organizational practice, and it’s a great reminder at the end of every year.  I’ve watched mom go through “weeding out” stages my whole life.  She systematically keeps her possessions under control: clothes, books, papers, housewares, pantry stock, music, everything.  Steve & I are furiously reducing inventory at the book business now.  Part of the fun is putting those things you divest into the hands of someone who will use and appreciate them.  Recycle generously!

3) Gather experiences, not things.  I remember my mother answering all inquiries about what she wanted for a gift with some version of this philosophy.  She wanted something to live, not something to dust.  I hope she gets lots of what she wants for a long time. 

photo by Josh

photo by Josh

4) “Look wider still.”  This is a Girl Scout challenge from International Thinking Day… “and when you think you’re looking wide, look wider still.”  My mother loves this slogan.  It applies so well to being broad-minded, tolerant, open and forever learning.  It’s a big world.  Even after 80 years, there’s a wider view to see.

5) “Only connect.”  This phrase became the name of a BBC quiz show in 2008.  It is derived from E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, where a character says, “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”  The phrase has also been used to describe the liberal education, which celebrates and nurtures human freedom.  I just learned these references from Google.  From mom, I learned that rush of joy, that flush of understanding and the pure delight of living that shows in her face when she utters this phrase at the end of a stimulating discussion.  That I learned years ago.  

6) Don’t disown your own.  “Only connect” applies to people, too, even and especially those near and dear who have a greater capacity to disappoint us.  Looking wider than our expectations and our attachments allows us to see that we do not exist in isolation except by our own dogmatic choosing.  Long after I learned this from watching mom, I heard it echoed in the writing of Thich Nhat Hahn.  “We inter-are,” he says.  The cosmos is held together in inter-being.  Acting as though we’re separate and separating in judgment is an act of violence against the Universe.  Peace is understanding there is no duality. 

photo by Josh

photo by Josh

7) Let go; let God.  My mother has always had the capacity for anxiety.  She likes to do things “the right way”, she pays attention to details, and she fears the usual things from failure to death.  So do I.  Face it, we live in a pretty neurotic culture.  Mom showed me by her example how to recognize this in yourself and then to strive to be a “non-anxious presence”.  That doesn’t mean she was good at it.  It means she practiced.  That’s inspiring.

8) “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.”  This one comes straight out of the Bible (Ephesians), and it was a practice that she and my father adopted religiously.  Every night, I’d hear them from behind their bedroom door, talking in low voices and then praying in unison.  Taking responsibility for your emotions and communicating them is another inspiring example.  Own your anger; it is about you.  Talk about your anger to someone else.  Then you are re-connected and at peace.  It’s not magic; it’s useful. 

9) “Underneath are the Everlasting Arms.”  This also comes straight out of the Bible (Deuteronomy), but in the very next line, those arms are thrusting out against enemies and doing violence.   The everlasting arms that my mother referred to were supportive.  They were secure and safe.  If I am to grow out of my neuroses at all, I think I need to begin to trust that the World is a good place.  I belong here.  Even though I myself and everyone I know will die, we end up right here.  That’s the way it is, and there’s nothing wrong. 

10) “Let nothing disturb thee, nothing affright thee.  All things are passing; God never changeth.  Patient endurance attaineth to all things.  Who God possesseth in nothing is wanting.  Alone God sufficeth. ”  Teresa of Avila, translated by Longfellow.  Mom had these words written up in her small hand and pasted on the inside of her desk cubbyhole door.  It was like a secret she showed me when we were worried about something.  All things are passing.  This fear, this problem, this moment.  Patience.  Change and movement is how Life is, and it is well.  I really believe that and strive to remember it.  I think that all of Life is embraced in that dynamic, including God.

All things are passing, year into year, life into life, microscopically and macroscopically.  We are so fortunate to be aware of our experience of it!  I am ever grateful to my mother for sharing her life and her awareness and so many of her experiences with me.  I look forward to more! 

mom laughing

photo by Josh

 

May each of you be happy and at peace in this year’s ending and in the continuation of Life in the New Year!

Prepare Ye: The Way and The Wilderness

There are many different definitions of the word ‘prepare’, and all of them are about acting decisively, with a will. Make, create, be willing…take responsibility. And there are as many ways of doing that as there are people on earth, I’m sure. The ‘how’ of preparation can be accompanied by a range of attitudes.

The Boy Scout metaphor describes one point on the spectrum. “Be Prepared” is their well-known motto. What that looks like conjures an exact check list of supplies – a camping list designed to meet any foreseeable outcome. Snake bite kit? Check. Flotation device? Check. Sunscreen and thermal underwear? Check and double check. This preparation is fueled by a desire to be in control, it seems. The responses are prescribed, preferred outcomes already decided upon. “I do not want to be cold, wet, sunburned or in pain, and I am taking action now to ensure that.” That is one attitude of preparation.

room tentAnother attitude might be illustrated by The Dancer metaphor. A dancer prepares for a pirouette by checking her starting position, aligning her hips and shoulders in a grounded plié  – but not staying in that position so long that it causes her to lose momentum. What really prepares her to execute a graceful turn is years and years of practice leading up to the moment of action. That seems to me to be a distinctly different attitude of preparation.

Of course, we can embody more than one attitude of preparation at a time. We can be both Boy Scouts and Dancers, among other things, and this helps us be better prepared for the unforeseen, mysterious, dynamic journey that is Life and better prepared for ventures in the Wilderness.

I recently attended a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act into law in the U.S. These preserved areas of natural lands and waters maintain a special character, “untrammeled” by man and distinctly autonomous. The wilderness is what it is. You cannot predict what will happen there, and you must rely on your own preparation when you visit. By law, there will not be any man-made structures, services, or systems that will provide for you or take responsibility for you. And the experience that you have as solitary and self-reliant can change your life. It is a deeply spiritual endeavor to go into the wilderness and learn from it.

wilderness threshold

Wilderness asks you two important questions: Are you willing to go there? Are you prepared? I think that the Way – whether that be Christian, Buddhist, or any other spiritual path – asks you the same questions. May your willing preparation and practice be a life-giving process, bringing you much happiness. Peace! – Priscilla

© 2014, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved