Expanding Awareness

I sat on the bench of a picnic table. A short distance in front of me, a steep hillside dropped down to a stream of blue water fed by glaciers. Further on the horizon were majestic mountains. For about two hours, I enjoyed this view while watching the skies change. It was one afternoon during my summer vacation in the Canadian province of Alberta.

I spent two weeks in the Canadian Rockies. The trip began in Waterton Lakes Park, the Canadian National Park across the border from the US Glacier National Park. The trip would end about ten days later in Edmonton, the northern-most major city in Canada. On the way, I hiked along lakes, into canyons, and up to the edge of glaciers. All around, I was struck by the beauty of the mountains, awed by the formation of glaciers, and delighted by grizzly and black bears as they’d binge-eat on dandelions and wild flowers. The routine of my daily life, typically spent in front of a computer screen, faded to the background. For two weeks, I put away the smart phone and only occasionally checked email after dinner when resting in a hotel.

On the day I sat at the picnic table, I found myself becoming increasingly aware of my surroundings at that roadside rest. While I heard the occasional sounds of cars in the distance, the spot was relatively free of human noise. Instead, I heard the flow of the stream, the birds, and the buzzing of insects. In that place, I began to consider how limited my day to day awareness actually is.

As a professor, my days are typically filled with details that really are of little consequence. I check to see what assignments have been turned in, what email I need to answer, and what appointments I need to keep. While my colleagues and I take all these matters quite seriously, and while I find teaching to be meaningful, the truth is that these tasks are rather insignificant when compared with the panorama of life I focused on that day in the Rockies.

Further, like most people, when I concentrate on my work, it’s as though I have tunnel vision: nothing else seems to exist other than me and the work I am doing. That’s just how it is when we concentrate our attention on something. In that focus, everything else falls out of my awareness. Yet, whether I am aware of it or not, life has been continuing at the very spot I sat in the mountains for millions of years without me. While it seems so obvious to say but when I take my work and my responsibilities very seriously, I often forget that life continues to happen everywhere on Earth without my awareness of it.

When I was in the Canadian Rockies, I was very careful to observe the signs I saw which asked that I not leave a human footprint during my visit to the wilderness. I was careful to take with me wrappers from energy bars and to place empty water bottles in the recycle bins found in the parking lots at trail heads. I wanted to be sure that I didn’t spoil the environment I encountered.

Now I’m home. I’m back in front of the computer writing. I have to pause and deliberately break my concentration to become aware of what else is happening around me. In the background, I hear the hum of the clothes in the drier. A car just passed by in front my home, slowing for the speed bump then moving along. Now the air conditioning has kicked in. While that spot in mountains that I recall so vividly is a few thousand miles away, it might as well be a million miles away. It seems so far removed from my day to day routine that it’s difficult to believe I was just there a few days ago.

However, today, something else is part of my awareness. The way I am living does indeed leave a foot print in the mountains of Alberta. As the drier uses creates heat used to dry my clothes, as the car driving down the street on which I live is propelled by the engine, and as the central air conditioning system that assures my home remains a comfortable temperature during the humid summer of Atlanta, I am using resources from places like the Canadian Rockies and replacing those resources with carbon dioxide and other pollutants. Whether I am aware of it or not, the way in which I live day to day leaves a large foot print in the Canadian Rockies – a foot print which is melting the glaciers as Earth becomes warmer and climates change.

The way in which we live day to day has a significant impact on life throughout the planet. Yet, we act as though it isn’t happening. We’re just not aware. Our focus is far too narrow, fixed on what’s directly in front of us. Worse yet, some actively deny that we’re a cause to the problem of climate change despite the enormous evidence to the contrary.

It’s true: on my own, I can do very little to change the way living today impacts the planet. I can recycle all that I’m able to, adjust the thermostat to avoid using as much energy to have a climate controlled home, and avoid unnecessary trips by car. But on my own, I can’t stop the use of fossil fuels and replace them with renewable energy sources.

While I realistically can’t live off the grid, I can cut back where I’m able. Further, and perhaps more importantly, I can be more of an advocate for the planet. Even knowing that most of my elected officials from Georgia deny that human activity has any part in climate change, I can still write letters and make telephone calls and express my concerns. I can also write my utility companies and encourage them to invest in the development of alternative energy sources. I can do what I can to reduce the foot print left by human consumption of fossil fuels that’s causing climate change around the world.

I truly wish more people had the opportunity to just have an afternoon to sit on the bench of a picnic table in the Canadian Rockies and savor the amazing beauty of nature. Perhaps if more of us become active advocates for our planet, future generations of people will have this opportunity. If not, in another few decades, the glaciers, waterfalls, and flowing streams will be gone. All that will be left are memories and pictures of the panoramic beauty I experienced while on my summer vacation.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Cosmology: The Spiritual Implications

My understanding of life has changed a great deal since I was a child. I remember learning about evolution in grade school. The evolution of life on Earth was depicted as a seamless process with one form of life evolving to the next until human beings emerged.

I also learned to think of the Earth as the center of life. While the Earth revolved around the Sun, there was something unique and special about our solar system and planet Earth. Planet Earth was presented as being the best world in all creation.

Within my life time, the general understanding of human life and our place in the universe has changed a great deal. Scientists were aware that the perceptions held by most people weren’t correct. But it wasn’t until Carl Sagan’s historic show, Cosmos, aired in 1980 that average people became aware that things were far different from what we had understood. Sagan carefully explained that our solar system was one of billions in the cosmos. In fact, we were floating in the far reaches, the back-waters of the known universe. Earth and humanity weren’t central in this cosmic picture. Nor was it likely that life on Earth was unique.

Since 1980, common knowledge about science and cosmology has grown. Many astrophysicists believe that ours is likely to be but one of many universes that make up the cosmos. While we have not yet encountered life we can recognize on other planets, given the sheer size and age of the universe, and given our great distance from other parts of the universe, encountering other forms of life with our current level of technological development is a very difficult process.

More interesting to me is this: we know today that evolution on Earth was not an unbroken chain. Instead, there were five extinction events that wiped most of life from the face of the Earth. Following each extinction event, life reorganized and emerged in different ways from what had been previously dominant on the planet. In other words, life on Earth moved from a time when trilobites were the primary species. Later came the age of the dinosaurs. Our latest chapter of the story of life on Earth features the genus “homo” – all the various forms of “human-like” beings that have lived over the last two and a half million years.

While I was taught to view homo sapiens – modern human beings – as the pinnacle of creation, that understanding simply doesn’t fit within our actual cosmic story. It is true that human beings have a unique the level of consciousness. We have developed the ability to reflect and understand many aspects of the scope of life on our planet and in the cosmos. However, it is arrogant to assume that we are the final stage of the development of life, the apex of evolution.

In all likelihood, some series of events will occur (probably of our own making) that will lead to the sixth extinction event of our species. Given that the Sun has lived only about half of its life, I expect that future beings on Earth will learn about us millions of years from now by digging in about two inches of dirt that will become the fossil record for the genus “homo.”

While our religious and cultural metaphors reflect our belief that we are unique and special, the cosmological facts cause me to go beyond these metaphors when reflecting upon what it means to be human. Further, the way in which we understand our humanity is an essential aspect to our understanding of spirituality.

Perhaps it will help to explain my point by using an analogy to explain how our growing awareness of life on Earth and Earth’s place in the cosmos can impact how we understand human history. I grew up looking at maps of the work that placed the North Americas in the center. The United States was most prominent on these maps. For this view of the world to fit on a map, the Eurasian land mass had to be unnaturally split in half. Further, the continents of South America and Africa were always depicted in smaller scale than they really are. These maps present a very skewed and overly interpreted view of the world. From the perspective of this kind of map, how would someone looking at the map interpret a country like New Zealand? After all, New Zealand was at the bottom in a far off corner. It was difficult to find. Given where it’s located on the map, how could New Zealand be of any value or hold any importance? That’s the impression a viewer of a map of the world depicting North America as central would have of New Zealand.

I’ve been to New Zealand. It’s one of the most beautiful places on the planet. The country is green and lush and unique in its terrain. Indeed, New Zealand is far away from North America and Europe. It’s not a jumping off destination to any other place. People only go to New Zealand because they choose to go. But in its isolation and with its unique terrain, there’s something very special about the two islands that make up this small country.

Essentially, I think that understanding our cosmological story and our place in the universe is like learning to look at the type of map I described from the perspective held by New Zealand rather than the perspective of the United States. New Zealand has never been a global power or great economic force. Most people on the planet will never visit New Zealand or learn much about its unique history, geography, and culture. Yet, it’s a rare jewel on planet Earth. It’s special because it is remote and in many ways very pristine when compared with other countries. It’s such a magical place that it’s the natural setting for movies about hobbits and faeries and quests for goodness.

Yes, the place of Earth in the Milky Way Galaxy is much like New Zealand’s place in a world dominated by North America. We’re not in the center of it all with everything focused on our greatness. We’re in a hard to get to part of the cosmos far from the initial Big Bang. Our arrogant understanding of our place within the order of the cosmos caused us to think of humanity as more important than anything else in the universe. That’s simply not true. We are merely one form of life on planet Earth and, I would suggest, one expression of the dynamic Creative Energy in the cosmos. While we are something of beauty and wonder, much like New Zealand, we’re really just a small part of the cosmos – hardly noticeable to the rest. Perhaps with this truth as a starting point, we can begin to come to a new understanding of what it means to be human – creatures who play a small part in the cosmic story.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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My Inheritance

I was lucky enough to receive an amazing inheritance from my parents and grandparents. I suspect that they didn’t realize what they gave me. I know they received it from the older generations of my family. I prize it as one of those riches that’s been part of the family longer than anyone remembers. I suspect that they considered this gift as being nothing more than the way things were. But today, I’m overwhelmed by the priceless legacy that is part of my heritage.

My ancestors are from Eastern Europe. All four of my grandparents immigrated to the United States around 1900. They brought with them a culture and religion that were intertwined with each other. Infused in those cultural and religious practices was the awareness that all life was sacred and pregnant with something Divine.

Religious rituals were not simply things we did in church. Instead, there was continuity between day to day life and religious ritual. For example, the pussy willows and forsythia that bloomed in our backyard during the early spring were brought to church as part of the Palm Sunday waving of branches. The church was decorated on Pentecost with tree limbs with their rich green to mark new life. On August 6, baskets of fruit from the apple and plum trees in our yard were blessed as part of the feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus as a reminder of the fullness of life that’s also found all around us. Over centuries, the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe found connections between their agrarian life and their religious practice. Recognizing the sacred dimension of day to day living, from the blooming of spring to the autumn harvest, the realities of nature became part of religious practice. This practice was fully embodied, like when we broke the Lenten fast in church by eating sausage, ham, cheese or eggs at the Easter vigil or when we drank holy water on the feast of the Baptism of Jesus. We celebrated the sacred dimension of life in the world around us as well as in us as the ordinary things were blessed and shared with each other.

As much as I treasure this inheritance, in many ways it’s out of place in the world today. The life I lead today is far different from the way of life my ancestors lived on the farms and in the villages of Eastern Europe a century or two ago. The seasons marked by planting, growth, and harvest characterized their lives. For me, these same seasons are reduced to my occasional hobby of backyard gardening. What fills my days is time spent in front of a computer monitor and work with people in a virtual environment who may be in any place in the world.

While it’s easy to understand that the rituals that marked the life of my ancestors have little connection with day to day life in the 21st Century, the fundamental insight that was reflected in the cultural and religious rituals of my ancestors is vitally important: that every aspect of life is somehow sacred. My ancestors recognized that in the mundane way of life familiar to them, something greater was at work. By ritualizing aspects of what was most familiar to them, they reminded themselves of the rich beauty and sanctity of life.

In the midst of life today, characterized by the use of technology, espresso coffee drinks, and long commutes from home to work, how do we find ways to draw ourselves and each other to the sacred memory the spiritual dimension of life? Using the example of my ancestors, are there natural rhythms in urban life of the 21st Century that can serve as pointers to the sacred? Are there ways to construct rituals that point out the meaning of the holiness of life?

It was 30 or more years ago when Edward Hays published his book, Prayers for the Domestic Church. This collection of prayers and rituals marked events of family life like birthdays and anniversaries. But Hays ritualized other ordinary events, like a New Year’s blessing of calendars, clocks, and time pieces. This was a way to draw people into time as something sacred at the start of a new year.

Attempting to integrate common life experiences with the sacred dimension of life, many Emergence Christian groups meet in coffee shops or have discussions over wine. There’s one group in Atlanta (where I live) that meets in pubs for beer and hymn singing. These are ways that people are trying to make connections between the ordinary aspects of life today with the spiritual dimension.

Where will these attempts lead us? I doubt that these attempts will result in the same kind of rituals that were passed from generation to generation for hundreds of years. For my Eastern European ancestors, life was mostly the same from one generation to the next. Because of that continuity in how people led their lives, rituals endured for generations. Our culture today is characterized by change. I suspect that living with rapid change in our culture will cause us toconsider again and again how we make connections between a belief in life as sacred with the actual activities of daily life. Because we are embodied creatures, tangible connections draw us out of self-preoccupation and into greater communion with others and the world. Tangible connections with other people and with meaningful symbols of the sacred are essential to our personal and spiritual growth.

While the inheritance I received from my ancestors is something of an antique from a way of life long-gone, it’s helped me realize how important it is for us to find ways to remember and ritualize the sacred dimension of the ordinary aspects of our lives.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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