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A Brief Intermission
What happens in life’s little pauses.
“Only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn't exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.” —Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
If I were to ask whether you were ever made aware of your own aliveness, how would you answer? Would you even understand the question? Would you file it away under useless, absurd—annoying? On the other hand, is it possible that you were recently cured of a serious illness? Your sense of aliveness would certainly be apparent then. Maybe, just this morning you attended a naming ceremony for your baby daughter.
It’s likely you would have felt a heightened sense of aliveness then. Or maybe, not long ago, you were the father of the groom, standing under the wedding canopy with your entire family. It was there that you took a brief but meaningful glance at your son. Though it was only a second or two, you will always recall the feelings that overtook you in that moment. It was as if the purpose of your life had suddenly snapped into focus. You were alive of course, but in that instant, you truly felt it.
If you can successfully re-imagine that brief and meaningful time—your son’s face aglow and the powerful feelings and sensations that arose then, the question of whether you have ever felt the awe and wonder of being alive may not seem so strange. In fact, it may feel like the most obvious and relevant question of all.
To be shaken by the depth and simplicity of what should be the commonest feature of our existence: the realization that we are not functioning on autopilot, but instead, are exquisitely, uniquely alive. As you consider the implications of the words: “I am alive and I feel my own aliveness,” you have already started down the path toward intuiting something utterly simple yet frustratingly difficult to achieve.
Just as with the air you breathe, you don’t carry with you a constant appreciation of breathing’s significance. Unless you suffer from respiratory illness, you won’t care much about it at all. Things like your ability to see, to absorb food, to have your blood circulate within you; all these are constants. And like all constants, including the ground under your feet, you hardly notice them. Only when there’s a powerful earthquake will you become keenly aware of the ground. It’s then that you will truly consider your connection to the earth.
What is the benefit of striving for this kind of new and heightened sort of awareness? For me, the answer is that whenever I’ve experienced a palpable cognizance of my aliveness, however briefly, I feel safe. And in that feeling of safety, I become less guarded. My mind becomes freer then, more adaptable to change, more willing to improvise and explore things that are unfamiliar to me.
Suddenly, an intermission has taken place! A pause!
Just as I was typing out those last sentences, the power in my house went out. Now, the lights are off, the furnace has stopped working, the refrigerator fan has stopped whirring, and my computer screen went dark.
The temperature outside is a chilly 20 degrees. And though it’s still warm in my house, I worry that it may become dangerously cold if the power doesn’t go back on soon. I haul in some logs from the woodpile outside. I quickly build a fire. I don’t do this just for comfort. Potentially, it’s for survival. Rather than the heat coming on automatically somewhere in the background as it normally does, I must create heat.
I’ve quickly become conscious of the need to produce heat, and of how intrinsic heat is to my well-being. Not that it’s a significant probability, but hypothermia has now become a possibility. Just minutes ago, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind. I sit with the idea. I begin to understand, on a sort of visceral level, that aliveness is something I don’t think about much, perhaps can’t even imagine, without there being a concurrent thought of my own mortality.
Since my computer isn’t functioning, I sit down near the light of the fireplace. I grab a pen and some paper to write. I see now that writing on a computer—which now seems like a kind of intermediary between my thoughts and my ability to record them—is a bit of a hindrance. Now, it’s my hand that is creating the symbols with which I form representations of things and ideas. It’s my hand that strings these symbols together to create meaning-strands. My hand is part of me; my hand is not a detached machine.
My sense of aliveness has heightened. I have been made hyper-conscious of what writing itself means. I have been made more aware of how writing is, for the moment, no longer a rote activity but rather a miraculous faculty that allows me to convey the thoughts in my head to anyone who reads my words. I love this intermission; I love this pause, if only for the novelty of the thinking it engenders. But at just this moment, the lights flicker back on; the refrigerator fan starts spinning again. The furnace begins pumping out heat. My computer glows once more, and the internet has sprung back to life.
I look over at the fireplace, ablaze with the loveliest fire. Although everything is “back to normal,” I feel a tinge of sadness for the intermission having ended so abruptly, for it having ended so soon.
Spiritual Eye Opener Exercise: Wake Up Words (This little detour into creative thinking is designed to ease the grip of your brain’s Default Mode Network, the auto-pilot mode that economically pre-categorizes everything for you.)
For this strange and hopefully fun exercise, I want you to imagine that this is your first day on Earth. Everything you see and feel is so new that you find it impossible to take any of it for granted.
Now, try your best to avoid using the common names of objects. I realize that’s difficult, almost impossible. How else can you refer to the things you see if not by their names? How would you refer to grass, for example? Perhaps you’d call it a “thin- emerald-hued-biologic.” How would you describe a pen? Maybe as a “cylindrical symbol-staining device.” Be forewarned. You’ll need to open your imagination wide to begin to see the “normal” as wondrous. In other words, let Grace take over. She’s great at this kind of thing!
I’ll share an example. I’ve just paused from writing this book and set my timer for seven minutes to do this exercise myself. Here I go:
I see two thin pinkish appendages, each with five smaller ones, moving across a horizontal metal plane studded with five rows of SymbolSquares. A compelling internal energy that I can’t explain sends signals to the appendages. I then depress a square with one of the smaller pinkish objects to create perfectly shaped symbols on a smooth, glowing vertical surface.
The “I” within me immediately gleans meaning from the symbols. Soon, many times more meaning appears from the long strings of symbols on the smooth surface. By depressing a certain, larger SymbolSquare with the thin-appendage, the results of my meaning-making, travel, via some form of invisible energy, into the jet-black half-dome above me.
Ok! In case you didn’t catch what was going on, here’s a “translation” of exactly what was happening in that paragraph.
I can see my hands, each with five fingers, typing on my laptop’s keyboard. Using the power of my mind, I can easily understand the significance of the letters I’ve selected. Now, I’m joining those letters into words, and then, into full sentences that appear on the screen of my laptop. Finally, with one finger I hit SEND and my message goes out into the night.
So what did I just do? A normal moment, with me typing on my laptop, has turned into a very strange reflection. Importantly, While this exercise calmed and opened my focus, nothing physically changed in my environment. The only shift—and it’s not insignificant—is that my mind opened up and became more cognizant of the myriad details present in that moment. Here’s another way to frame it. Think of the word “design.” Not in the usual sense as creating something, but in a more abstract sense: To ‘de-sign’ could also mean—to detach oneself from embracing pre-assigned definitions, to suddenly render once common things and ideas mysterious, unfathomed.
Or, if you prefer, to take away the “signs” and placards by which everything has been pre-designated. When I watch my six-month-old grandson, I’m taken by his openness. He doesn’t have names for anything. Therefore, he remains open to endless discovery. While names are convenient and necessary, they limit our ability to discover a thing’s essence. Perhaps if we gave new names to things we’d see them in a whole new light?
When doing the Wake Up Words exercise, try not to overthink. Don’t fixate on getting rid of names entirely; just do the best you can. All you need to do is open up and report on what you’re sensing. If you re-read my sample paragraph, you’ll note how I started by describing exactly what I was doing—typing. Then, as I looked at my hands, I began to see them, not as plain old hands but something miraculous. I called them “two thin pinkish appendages, each with five smaller ones, moving across a horizontal metal plane.”
You can easily make that kind of leap if you don’t get overly analytical. I had fun using new terms, too: pinkish appendages to describe my arms and fingers, SymbolSquares for the laptop keys, and jet-black half dome for the midnight sky. (Hint: I found that lots of hyphens help!)