Spaciousness: A Measure of Life’s Vitality

I want to propose a new measure for the vitality of life: the experience of spaciousness.  A spacious world is a free world, full of people and ideas, activities and imagination—all in motion, with enough room to touch one another for a moment, dance away, then touch again.  Each time they touch, a new configuration is formed.

You might think that the world would grow smaller, much smaller, as we age.  After all, there are fewer years ahead.  There’s less to look forward to, fewer fantasies about what we might encounter or achieve.  Yearning and ambition, those great drivers of a expanded world, have mostly fled.  Friends and relatives are slipping away—many of the people we are closest to have retreated into themselves or died.  Since most of us aren’t working, we have lost that large circle of acquaintances who gave an extra spice to our lives and added to the everyday stories that enlarge our sense of self.

The past shrinks as memories grow dimmer—not just the quantity but also their meaning and intensity.  With time and a modicum of maturity, we have learned to calm ourselves, to stop those memories from dominating our present life—the time when a guy jilted us in high school; the year we lost a child; the time a father lashed into us; the humiliations we have all suffered, early and late in life.  Shrinking those memories in order to live a good life in the present has been one of the great accomplishments on the way to maturity and greater wisdom.

As we age, you might think that our worlds are shrinking without recourse but, aside from physical activity, that is not my experience.  My mental and emotional world is still expanding.

Let me offer some random illustrations.  During the last few months, I have been interviewed by my granddaughter, 19, and by a friend’s 14 year old daughter, both seeking an eye witness to the 1960’s and the Civil Rights era and recollections of childhood in the 1940’s.  I’ve been questioned by nonprofit leaders, wanting to know about how I built my organization and how I managed to leave, ready to continue its growth.   Also by journalists asking my thoughts on aging.

There’s nothing grand about the interviews but I love to pontificate and, as I’m discovering, I love to recreate a chock-filled past for almost anyone who is interested.  What has struck me is the expansiveness of the experience.  The more people ask me the more my memories came out, like a flood—no, not a flood—like snowflakes, one after another after another, until they filled and colored whole landscapes.  Once one landscape is completed, I seem to build another.  During these experiences, I can’t tell if I’m recreating or inventing worlds but they feel real and they keep coming.  The more people ask, the more I remember, new and old worlds keep springing to life, and I find myself wishing I’d have interviews every day.

When people are interested in what we think and do, our world expands.  Why not put ourselves in that position as much as possible.  The other day, after a meeting with some young leaders who I mentor, I wondered whether I should make myself more available.  Why should there be a sharp distinction between working and retirement.  Few things make me happier than supporting young people and sharing what I’ve learned.  Just the other day, my daughter quipped that I’d probably be happiest as a village elder, and she’s right.  What a large world that would be, sitting in a rocker and adding to the lives of younger people.

There are many ways that my universe continues to grow.  To state the obvious, my family keeps growing.  There are five grandchildren, two children and two virtually-my-children—my son- and daughter-in-law.  All of their lives are growing exponentially.  I participate in their lives.  I watch them grow.  I learn about their stories and their expanding universes.

My intellectual universe is growing, too.  When I talk with family, friends, and mentees, I find myself citing historical events and precedents, quoting poets and philosophers, inventing broad theories of everything.  This is not an entirely new style for me (an understatement, notes my wife) but it seems to be increasing, as though I am living in an immense world of ideas that no longer feels tethered to particular historical events.  Now they roam freely, attaching as they will to one experience or another, lending greater meaning to the specific and otherwise limited events that they touch.

Young people often chuckle when I begin one of my historical, literary, or philosophical references—here he goes again—but they also seem to like it.  To them, their own ideas and their own experience can sometimes seem compressed and lacking in context.  Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed are not part of their everyday universe.  Nor Rousseau, Locke, Hobbes, Marx, and Dewey.  But they are mine.  They were internalized over so many years that they have colonized wide swaths of my interior space and inform everything I think.  Though the young people don’t know it, these ideas are part of their lives, just buried and implicit.  I have fun telling them how that is so.

I’ve written before about the impact of experience on problem solving.  When problems arise, I draw on many earlier efforts to solve similar ones, on successes and failures that inform the present, on templates that I and others have developed.  Get me thinking and talking about a challenge and I feel that I can draw on an almost infinite variety of approaches.  That’s one of the reasons I have such fun when mentoring young leaders.

Surprisingly, then, looking back affords a great sense of spaciousness.  But what about looking forward?  That timeline has surely shortened.  You wouldn’t think that I could have comparable expectations about the future, could you?

Actually, I think that I do.  For instance, I like so much to imagine how things might turn out for my children and grandchildren, my mentees, the organizations I helped to start.  What will Molly and Jake choose for work?  Who will they marry, if they marry.  If so, what will those lucky people be like?  Will Franny and I be alive for Eli, Jack, and Lucy’s bar- and bat-mitzvahs; will we see the arc of their lives as we have, with great good fortune, seen a good deal of our children’s trajectories.  We love to speculate about these things.  And so it is for my mentees and for the organizations that I’ve worked with.

Oddly, speculation about the future is not so different than recreating the past.  Both require imagination, a blending of facts and filler. They are creative acts.  During the act of creation, uncertainties arise.  These, the times before committing to our course, are the most pivotal moments.

I have always liked uncertainties—the way you feel when you get lost and have to find your way home.  That is so much better for me than having a GPS at my side.  I like the freedom that comes with uncertainty.  I like observing how closely my speculations hew to experience.   I like learning about the world through observation and reading and conversation.  Uncertainty and the infinite potential for learning are partly what make the future seem spacious.

Earlier I spoke about the pleasure I take in still being involved in the lives of younger people.  I’d like to conclude this essay, though, with a different, maybe even an opposing thought.  Even as we participate in the lives of others as we age, we also move to the side and become observers.

When we really observe, when we rid ourselves, little by little, of prejudice and prescribed outcomes and investments in particular outcomes, the observed world becomes much more dynamic.   As an observer, we shrink into the background; and the more we shrink, the larger the observed world becomes.  Our selves, our egos, are no longer blocking the view.  As we leave the foreground for the background, our vested interests shrink.  We observe a universe that is startling in its clarity and spaciousness.

 

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Wisdom and Me

I have always wanted to be wise.  So far, I’ve not reached wisdom’s shores but, on occasion, I’ve come close enough to make some reasonable guesses about the terrain.  Since my understanding keeps changing, decade by decade, let me begin by trying to articulate my current view.  Wisdom is the ability to make sense of experience and to make sound judgments based on that understanding.  It is the attainment of a peaceful inner life, far removed from petty concerns and injuries.  And it is the feeling of being connected with all living things and calmed by the loss of a bounded individual self.

As a boy I wanted to be wise because it meant that people might take me seriously, even ask my opinion about important matters.  At age eleven I wandered into a synagogue, not sure what I was after but drawn by the sound and feel of the chanting and the serious ways of the men.  I found moments of peace but none of the deeper meaning and spiritual rewards I had sought.

As a teenager, I began to think of wisdom as a way to rise above the fray.  Those were years of great sensitivity.  I was easily hurt, and finding a refuge from emotional injury had great appeal.  At Harvard, I came upon William Butler Yeats poem, Lapis Lazuli, which described three wise men upon a mountain top “whose ancient, glittering eyes were gay.” This was a metaphor that carried me for some time.  It was secular enough to allay my dislike of religion and romantic enough to soothe my adolescent soul.

I had grown up idealizing the life of left wing intellectuals, preferably those who wore  berets, lived on the New York West Side, published in the Paris Review, and argued passionately with close friends late into the night.  I now recognize the imagery for what it was: the dream of being a learned man, a secular version of the life led by my many rabbinic ancestors.  And, throughout my life, I’ve never strayed very far from this idea.  I earned my badge with a Harvard PhD in intellectual history and continue to read books on history and philosophy.  Maybe this was to be my path.

Before I completed my PhD, though, my mother’s voice began to demand more room in my mind.  Hers was the voice of action.  To continue the Jewish theme, she was suspicious of mere thinkers and believed in justice, tikun olam, for which you must change the world.  So I left graduate school to work at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, helping to write legislation and organize politicians in support of criminal and housing justice.  These were holy grounds, an expression of wisdom, I could believe in.

Then crises struck, one after another. The year was 1971. My father, with whom I had been deeply identified, died suddenly from pancreatic cancer.  My wife and I divorced.  I had a baby to care for, mostly by myself, since my now ex-wife wasn’t so inclined.  I fled the halls of academe, which then seemed self-indulgent and shallow.  My mind entered a state of painful chaos.  I craved any kind of action that would release me from my bleak and obsessive thinking.  I was lost, heart and mind thrown open in search of answers.

If ever I was ready for salvation and a guru to lead me there, this was the time.  But even in the midst of crisis, that was not my way.  Instead, I entered the spiritual pathways as an interested but skeptical onlooker.  I met people who were determinedly marching on the path towards enlightenment.  With them, I read Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki on Zen, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche on Tibetan Buddhism, and the wonderful Carlos Castaneda series about the mysterious Southwestern teacher, Don Juan.  I heard Baba Ram Das hold forth and attended three-day retreats at Sufi camps.

The secular commune that I founded, much to my surprise and chagrin, was rapidly transformed by my then girlfriend, Barbara-turned-Saphira–into a Sufi community.  We filled up with young and wide-eyed devotees.  Saphira thrived and I began to drown in their sincerity.  We were often visited by the international leader of the sect, Pir Vilyat Inayit Khan, who would spend the night.  I liked him and I believed that he had things to teach me but, as was my wont, I held back from devotion.  I could not dance myself into the frenzy of Sufi wisdom.

Over the next decades, I continued to read in the fields of mysticism, Buddhism, general spirituality, and transformational psychology, but I never found a particular teacher to follow.  Each time I’d come close, my independent or, some would say, my counter-dependent spirit would rear up.  But it didn’t stop my pursuit of wisdom.  I have continued to meditate for over forty years now—even though the meditation often becomes routine, neither inspiring nor even particularly calming.  I have continued my search for the perspective that brings calm.

The only vessel that has been carried me consistently towards wisdom’s shores has been my journal, which I have pursued more or less continuously for almost fifty years.     It’s a stream-of-consciousness process that, in itself, makes me very calm.

The thoughts, themselves, have been far less important to me than the calm and the process of discovery that the writing brings to my life. It feels like magic.  All I have to do is keep my writing hand moving until I lose an awareness of time and place.  Self consciousness flees.  I am still.  Then ideas, images, and solutions to problems begin to flow.  There are no auras or revelations that visit me.  But at the moment when I am still, I do feel like more than just myself.

As I age, Buddhism’s emphasis on the present has become more and more compelling.  For much of my life, the future was balm to my pain and anxiety.  If things weren’t good now, I could make them better in the future.  The future is quickly disappearing for me.  At any moment, I could become sick or infirm—or I could die.  Placing a bet on the future seems a bad decision.  Trying to suck the marrow of the present for all it’s worth is clearly the better choice.  My long term interest in Buddhism as a trustworthy guide to wisdom is finally the right idea at the right time.

At this point in my life, there are two seemingly conflicting ideas that are most compelling to me.  The first begins with Buddhism’s down to earth emphasis on what is right in front of you – real things, real issues, real people, real injuries and challenges, and real joy.  There is suffering throughout life, says the Buddha.  We know that there is a great deal of suffering in old age—aches and pains and, eventually, the diminishment of self.  These are real.  Running from them only makes things worse.  Facing them contains them.  The pain is just the pain and not symbolic of more and terrible experience.  By containing suffering to what it is, you leave room for other feelings, like pleasure, calm, curiosity, and joy.

The second idea concerns the impermanence of the self.  Here’s how this idea comes to me.  I might be walking, meditating, writing in my journal.  My mind is wandering.  Ideas, images, and experiences from my past come into view.  They are vivid but I know they are not exactly as they were when I first lived them.  They are just images and feelings now, not concrete experiences.  They have changed over the years with forgetfulness and with new experience.  They enter my mind also shaped by my current thoughts and needs—and by future expectations.   My mind has now stretched out from my beginnings into an indistinct future.  It has become timeless.  As I experience this timelessness, I enter a zone that feels vast, oceanic.  In that ocean, I am suddenly unattached and floating.  The sea of imagery grows quiet.  In that serene space, there is no self.  I feel conscious – so conscious — but not self-conscious.

I have no idea if this expanded sense of awareness is wisdom or just a pleasurable sensation but I’ll take it whenever it arises.