Living Closer

One of the pleasures of meditating regularly has been the sensation of coming closer to my thoughts and to the feelings in my body. With my eyes closed and my thought stream lulled but also more noticeable, thoughts and physical feelings seem more vivid than usual, a little larger, more in front of me. I remember my wife saying when I started meditating that she liked what I was doing because I came out of meditation in a pretty good mood. And indeed, I did feel cheerier than I sometimes do in the morning. I’ve since taken the cheery part a little for granted, but the sensation of nearness remains fresh. And something else has happened.

I began wondering why the meditation experience is pleasant. What is there in this closeness, this being in better touch with myself, that feels good? Is it what people call “the feeling of being alive”? If so, there is some other element to it, a communal feeling of some kind. I think the meditative clarity feels good the way that feeling included with others can feel good. Feeling not alone. Feeling included among the living. It is a quietly joyful feeling, even a tender one. Words don’t work easily here, but I hope you get the idea.

The experiences have shifted my view of what is pleasant and even loving about my close relationships with others. With my wife, daughter, close friends, sometimes animals, even a writer behind a very satisfying book, I think the gladness that I feel, without being fully conscious of it, is a gladness at being included in a life with them. Much as meditation can bring a feeling of being more at home with myself, so my other close connections bring a feeling of inclusiveness not just with a person but with all living things. Perhaps, as a lover’s passion springs in part from the feeling that the lover and the loved one are united as one, so familial love and a sense of “glad to be alive” gain some of their strength from the warmth of a wider belonging.

Many humanists and naturalists, interested in the intersection of community and spirituality, try to understand better what love means and how to create more of it. We look at its roots in our sociality, in how we, other animals, and even plants cooperate. One of these many roots may be how we process closeness itself as a smiling reminder that we are members in good standing among living things. Perhaps one of the underground streams bubbling up in moments of kindness is the feeling that our sense of ourselves is turned up a notch by the reminder that we are alive together with others. This may hold true, ironically, even when the closeness, as in meditation, is with ourselves.

The Music Man

Recently I stopped by a music store in town to buy banjo strings. I hadn’t been in the store for at least ten years. I remembered it as a hive of kids and grown-ups trying out guitars, pianos, and clarinets, browsing through racks of sheet music and instruction books, going in and out of the back rooms for lessons. This time, it was almost empty—partly the result of the guitar mega-store that had opened on the highway.

The owner himself had also changed. He had slowed, gained a tremor, and lost the steadiness of his speech. The change in him, along with the decline in his business, shook me. I realized that I had expected during those years that he and the store had remained as bustling as they once were, immune from time.

As I left I wondered what the music man’s recent life had felt like. What had been the satisfaction, the worth of it all, as he became ill and his business dropped off? In life, did aspiration and effort always lose out this way to decay?

But such sympathy comes with risks. It can distort our picture of another person, or a group. I knew almost nothing about the music man or his life. For years he had been teaching music to people of all ages, a legacy to be proud of—though whether he was or not I didn’t know. And he had music itself as a source of joy, presumably. Compassion can overgeneralize. Perhaps I was unaware of the ordinary satisfactions that sustained him.

The music man who lives happily ever after. (ovrtur.com)

The music man flies up to a happy ever after.
(ovrtur.com)

Still, I couldn’t put down the question that the music man had handed me: what is the value, the worth, of our lives if they always end in decline? Our inner voice tells us that we matter. Do we? We may have our protective attitudes; I certainly have mine. But these can be rocked when we come face to face with a man or woman who has weakened from disease or the passage of time.

There is another “Music Man.” The 1950s stage musical of that name describes a charming con man, Harold Hill, who arrives in an Iowa town to sell musical instruments and uniforms to the kids, promising he will teach them to play and will organize a band. Hill and the town librarian fall in love. She knows he is a fraud but keeps it to herself. Hill is finally exposed and is being put in handcuffs just as the instruments and uniforms arrive. The children appear in their uniforms, magically playing Beethoven and then the rousing finale of “Seventy-Six Trombones.” All ends well.

The  poster for “The Music Man” shows the smiling couple flying skyward, arm in arm, Hill playing a trumpet. The musical is a romanticized Christian answer to the dilemma of frailty and decline. The sinner is redeemed by love, death is defeated by grace. But I prefer the lesson I learned in the music man’s store.

Non-Theists, God’s Love, and Evolution

One of the benefits that believers gain from religion is the feeling that their deity cares for them. Mainstream Christians, Jews, Moslems generally believe either that god loves them and intervenes actively on their behalf or that god keeps a distance but always has a plan for them. One way or the other, believers believe that a higher being is paying attention and is nudging them down the best path.

God's love image

The promise of monotheism (gracewalkministries.blogspot.com)

Non-theists see this perception as superstition. They think it is the result of projecting our human situation on to the universe and imagining an active agent behind the good or terrible things that happen in life. But is there, for the non-theist, any equivalent in a godless universe to this reassurance that is rooted in a higher power? Is there any way that non-theists can find a benevolence, a grand-scale inclination towards the good, in evolution’s transformations?

On the face of it, no. Atheists, naturalists, secular humanists may find the universe inspiring and beautiful, but they don’t make any claims that it cares about individuals in any way. Natural selection is nothing other a mechanism that favors survivors. When it comes to the place of humans in the cosmos, according to the non-theist, what we see is what we get: individuals are on their own except to the extent that they connect with each other to make life less difficult and more meaningful. There is no entity above us that is deliberately hurting or helping us.

chimps hugging

The  roots of love (hypersyl.com)

But there might be an exception. Our capacity to love is a product of evolution. Its roots lie in the maternal and parental bonding that was vital in raising offspring who required years of nurturing and protection. Today, love is no longer moored just in the survival needs of children. It morphs into attachments that range from caring for other people to “loving” certain foods or clothes. So while we can’t say that evolution loves us, we can say that our emotions of caring, of passionate commitment, of feeling cared for, have a source in evolution.

Critics might argue that attributing our capacity for love to the process of evolution is as illusory as imagining a powerful being in the sky. It is only another example of our unwittingly projecting ourselves on to events outside us, another step closer to personifying evolution as a purposeful “Mother Evolution” of some sort.
But I think this risk is exaggerated. We feel all kinds of emotions about nature–calmness at a quiet lake, anxiety about intense wind and rain, awe at the stars, fascination with the formation of our planet–without always making up tales of superior beings operating behind the scenes. As for love, while reminding ourselves that only we humans (and perhaps some animals) do it, we can appreciate, and even feel a gratitude of sorts, that the process that brought our species here brought love along with it.
vet and dog

The flowering of human caring (vetmed.ucdavis.edu)