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I’m not a star seed. I didn’t even know there was the possibility that I could be until this week. I’m still not so sure that anyone might be one.

I am sure that we are made of stardust, just as Joni Mitchell sang in “Woodstock.”

Science bears this idea out – “Everything we are and everything in the universe and on Earth originated from stardust, and it continually floats through us even today. It directly connects us to the universe, rebuilding our bodies over and again over our lifetimes.”

But Star Seeds are way beyond that. Star Seeds are defined as beings that have experienced life elsewhere in the Universe on other planets and in non-physical dimensions other than on Earth. They may also have had previous life times on earth.

Also known as Star People, this New Age belief seems to have been introduced by Brad Steiger, a very prolific writer of oddities, in his book Gods of Aquarius. He posited that people originated as extraterrestrials and arrived on Earth through birth or as a walk-in to an existing human body.

Alien-human hybrids sends my mind right to some X-Files episodes and more than a few science-fiction tales. Going back further, there are “star people” in some Native American spiritual mythologies.

Steiger said that one of my favorite sci-fi writers, Philip K. Dick, had written to him in the late 1970s to say he thought he might be one of the star people, and that his novel VALIS contained related themes.

There are several websites listing characteristics of a Star Seed – and I definitely have a few of them – but I don’t think I am one of them.

But humans are made of stardust, in that humans and their galaxy have about 97 percent of the same kind of atoms. The building blocks of life are carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur and fairly recently astronomers have cataloged the abundance of these elements in a huge sample of stars.

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I’m not a Buddhist. At least, I don’t think I follow Buddhism closely enough these days to qualify for the title. I have studied the religion which is now represented by the many groups (especially in Asia) that profess various forms of the Buddhist doctrine and that venerate Buddha  as a religion and also use it as a philosophy.

A very simplified description of the teaching of Buddha is that life is permeated with suffering which is caused by desire. Suffering ceases when desire ceases. Enlightenment is obtained through right conduct. Wisdom and meditation releases one from desire and therefore, suffering.

I would contend that the path I followed through reading, meditation and even formal study at a Zen monastery was a path of philosophy rather than religion. I never accepted things like reincarnation. I like desire too much.  I consider my path to be a kind of American Buddhism. Some might say it is Western Buddhism.

I don’t use American Buddhism as a negative term, though some genuine Buddhists might see it as such. There are many uses of the word “Zen” attached to everything from playing tennis to the “Zen” of dogs and cats – that seem very wrong applications of Buddhism.  If you were really critical of American Buddhism, it would probably be because you consider it just a kind of self-help program to reduce stress.

It is difficult to define these things. What is Zen Buddhism? On zen-buddhism.net they say that “Trying to explain or define Zen Buddhism, by reducing it to a book, to a few definitions, or to a website is impossible. Instead, it freezes Zen in time and space, thereby weakening its meaning.”

Nevertheless, I will say that Zen Buddhism was an outgrowth of Mahayana, the “meditation” sect of Buddhism. It developed in Japan from its earlier Chinese counterpart. It also divided into two branches.

Binzai is the more austere and aristocratie monasticism that emphasizes meditation on the paradoxes that people may know as koans. (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?)

The other branch is Sōtō which is probably the more popular following. It emphasizes ethical actions and charity, tenderness, benevolence and sympathy, as well as meditation on whatever occurs as illumination.

The Buddhism that seemed to appeal to the American mind offered escape and engagement – two things that may seem to be in opposition. The idea of “10 minute mindfulness” should seem impossibly simplistic and unrealistic to anyone, but the concept sells books and fills workshops.

The latest book I have read related to Buddhism is by Robert Wright. In Why Buddhism is True, Wright uses biology, psychology and philosophy to show how meditation can lead to a spiritual life in a secular age.

You might not know that evolutionary psychology is a field of study. Wright combines it with neuroscience to show why he believes Buddhism is true, and how it can free us of delusions and save us from ourselves, as individuals and as a species.

In a earlier book, The Moral Animal, he wrote about how evolution shaped the human brain. Our mind is designed to sometimes delude us about ourselves and about the world in order to survive. Unfortunately, this leads to much unhappiness.

Some of this comes from natural selection which he says makes animals in general “recurrently dissatisfied.” It leads us to anxiety, depression, anger, and greed. Wright believes Buddhism was a kind of answer to natural selection.

If human suffering is a result of not seeing the world clearly, meditation can clarify that seeing and so will make us better, happier people.

I was first introduced to his new book through an interview with him on Fresh Air. Host Terry Gross asked Wright about how natural selection is at odds with the Buddhist notion that pleasure is fleeting:

“This was in the Buddha’s first sermon after his enlightenment is that a big source of our suffering is that we crave things, we want things, but then the gratification tends not to last. So we find ourselves in a state of almost perennial dissatisfaction. And, in fact, people may have heard that Buddhism says that life is full of suffering, and it’s true that suffering is the translation of the word dukkha. It’s a respectable translation, but a lot of people think that that word would be just as well translated as “unsatisfactoryness.”

Certainly when you think about the logic of natural selection, it makes sense that we would be like this. Natural selection built us to do some things, a series of things that help us get genes into the next generation. Those include eating food so we stay alive, having sex — things like that.

If it were the case that any of these things brought permanent gratification, then we would quit doing them, right? I mean, you would eat, you’d feel blissed out, you’d never eat again. You’d have sex, you’d, like, lie there basking in the afterglow, never have sex again. Well, obviously that’s not a prescription for getting genes into the next generation. So natural selection seems to have built animals in general to be recurrently dissatisfied. And this seems to be a central feature of life — and it’s central to the Buddhist diagnosis of what the problem is.”

An earlier book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist, writer, and meditation teacher, was what get me thinking a lot more about mindfulness.  He worked to bring mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society and was the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

The practice of “mindfulness” is a more than 2000-year-old Buddhist method of living fully in the present, observing ourselves, our feeling, others and our surroundings without judging them.

I read his book Wherever You Go There You Are when it wa first published during a time when I was more into formal study of Zen and meditation.

I liked that it treated meditation as a natural activity that can be practiced anytime and anywhere. No joining a group, no props or special cushions.

Mindfulness and living in the moment can be improved with techniques such as “non-doing” and concentration.

Like defining Buddhism, these terms are simple but complex. Non-doing is very different from doing nothing. We live very much in a “doer” culture, and in such a place non-doing is a big change. Sitting down to meditate, even for a short time, is a time for non-doing, but it means you will be “working” at consciousness and intention. Anyone who has ever tried to “empty their mind” knows how very difficult that can be.

There are several chapters in the book on parenting as a form of meditation – and children as “live-in Zen masters.”

I think Kabat-Zinn would agree with Wright on how Buddhist meditation can counteract the biological pull we have toward dissatisfaction:

What I can say about meditation is that it attacks the levers that natural selection kind of uses to control us, at a very fundamental level. … By our nature we just seek good feelings and avoid bad feelings, that’s just our nature. Buddhism diagnosed this as kind of a problem and remarkably came up with a technique that allows you to actually disempower those levers, to no longer respond to the fundamental incentive structure of trying to avoid painful feelings and try to always seek the thing that promises to be gratifying. That’s an amazing thing — that it can work.


More

Listen to the interview with Wright on npr.org

Read “What Meditation Can Do for Us, and What It Can’t” by Adam Gopnik – The New Yorker

Andrew Wyeth - "Frostbitten" (1962)

Frostbitten by Andrew Wyeth, via Flickr

As a writer and as someone who has long been an admirer of the art of Andrew Wyeth, I immediately clicked a link to an article titled  was  “A Writer Learns From Wyeth.”

Andrew Wyeth worked in pencil, charcoal, watercolor and tempera, and not much in words. Yes, I believe his paintings do tell stories, but words were not his medium of choice.

Wyeth would have turned one hundred this year. That may account somewhat for the fact that Andrew was not entirely literate. Peter Hurd, who was Wyeth’s brother-in-law, asked 12-year-old Andrew to look up something in the encyclopedia and discovered he could not do it.

Andrew was home-tutored because of his frail health and his father, the artist N.C. Wyeth, was his only teacher.  He learned art and he appreciated hearing stories and poetry read aloud, but reading and writing were not a regular part of his “studies.”

The article’s author, Beth Kephart, the author of 22 books, feels that “there is much to be learned about the literary arts from Andrew Wyeth.”  Like Kephart, I have made a pilgrimage to “Wyeth Country” in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and to the Brandywine River Museum where much of his artwork is displayed. I went out with my camera to find some of the actual locations of his paintings near there.

Wyeth found inspiration at the Kuerner Farm. The early 19th-century farmhouse, the red barn and the family were subjects for hundreds of paintings and drawings over seven decades.

Kuerner farm

The barn at the Kuerner farm.

Besides the stories in his painting, Kephart does find advice is some of Wyeth’s words about his work.  “I feel that the simpler the thing, the more complex it is bound to be,” is something any poet will identify with about poetry and probably their writing.

As a writer, I spend a lot of time writing without pen and paper or computer. As Wyeth said, ” I dream a lot. I do more painting when I’m not painting. It’s in the subconscious.”

I look at some of his sketches and prep for a painting and I immediately think of writing drafts. Wyeth’s advice on revision to writers might be the same as he said about his art  “I obtain great excitement in the changes. Because with them, the painting begins to discover itself. It begins to roll. It’s like a snowball rolling down the hill.”

Drydock

Drydock, 1987, Watercolor,

I like looking at his watercolors (like Drydock above) done on the same kinds of spiral bound pads that I use for my own watercolors. He has his own favorite tools, as do most writers. His medium rough watercolor paper (not stretched and 22 x 30 inches) and only three sable brushes (Nos. 5, 10 & 15) and no flat brushes for the background washes.

I particularly like Wyeth’s use of titles. The painting at the top of this post might have simply been called “Apples on a Windowsill” but it’s called Frostbitten which suggests a lot more. What would the title Faraway suggest to you? Take a look at his painting with that title – Were you close? If not, what story is suggested in that painting?

The paintings do have stories, though the stories behind them are mostly not known to viewers. For example, his painting Winter.

“Winter” — 1946

There is only a small patch of snow in the painting, where we might expect a white, wintery canvas.  The painting was inspired by a day when Andrew was walking near the railroad tracks where his father was killed.  He saw a local boy running down the hill facing the Kuerner farm and joined him. They found an old baby carriage and used it to ride wildly down the hill. The painting shows the boy and a shadow stand-in for Wyeth. Wyeth said of the painting, “The boy was me at a loss, really. His hand, drifting in the air, was my hand, groping, my free soul.”

That hill is the same one Wyeth would use two years later for probably his most famous painting, Christina’s World

Christina’s World

 

I was talking with a friend this past week and he said, almost apologetically, “I’m not really religious but I guess I’m what you’d call spiritual.” I don’t see being “spiritual” as anything to be uncomfortable about admitting to be, but I know he felt it was somehow below being “religious.”

He is not alone in that feeling or that self-evaluation. A Pew Research study this year found that:

Some people may see the term “spiritual but not religious” as indecisive and devoid of substance. Others embrace it as an accurate way to describe themselves. What is beyond dispute, however, is that the label applies to a growing share of Americans.

About a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) now say they think of themselves as spiritual but not religious, up 8 percentage points in five years, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted between April 25 and June 4 of this year. This growth has been broad-based: It has occurred among men and women; whites, blacks and Hispanics; people of many different ages and education levels; and among Republicans and Democrats. For instance, the share of whites who identify as spiritual but not religious has grown by 8 percentage points in the past five years.

I think the path of spiritual growth is not just stepping away from formal religion, but it is not a clearly defined path. There isn’t even only one path to take toward enlightenment. Even in a structured philosophy such as Buddhism, it can be confusing. The Buddhist tradition gives a variety of descriptions of the Buddhist Path (magga). There are the Seven Purifications, the Three Dharma Gates, the Four Ways of Knowing of Hakuin, the Eight Gates of Zen and probably more that I have not remembered.

For myself, looking back I can see stages that I went through in my own journey. I can’t say that everyone follows this path, but I suspect that anyone who feels they are on a path to spiritual growth goes through similar stages.

The starting place is actually before you step on the path. This is a time when someone has no awareness or connection to any spiritual self. You don’t acknowledge that there is anything other than the material world. Some people live their entire life in this way and may be successful and happy.

If at some point, a person has the sense that there is something more to life than what they see, then they may search for a way to find that unseen something. They may not have a name for it. They may not call it spiritual.

This seeking may be triggered by a crisis or difficult period in our lives. It may come from an experience that we label as “spiritual.” For me, it happened because I came in contact with other people who were already on a spiritual path.

Realizing that there is something more to this life and actually starting out on a path toward it may not happen immediately. You can stand at the edge of the path for years before you take that first step.

 

Some curiosity about spirituality grows and you begin to investigate and seek out knowledge and others. At this stage, some people will embrace an established religion or an organized group. That makes sense because it follows the school model we have grown up following. Why find our own path when others have found a path that works for them and will help you along the way. That can feel safer.

I tried several of those well-established ways, but none took me to the place I felt I needed to go. more and begin to wonder about our existence. This can be a difficult time for some. May people jump into an established religion at this stage. Thought this is right for some, it can also come from a discomfort at the uncertainties of spiritual life.

This is an important stage: finding your spiritual path.  It may be one that has been well-travelled by others before you. It may be one you blaze on your own. Your own path may cross or at times follow others’ paths for a time. This is a stage of exploration and openness and you need to have some comfort with uncertainty when you strike out on your own.

You step onto a path and begin your journey.

If you took a path that others have taken and that is established, there are probably lots of guides, writings and others to help you. If you have decided to find your own way, as I did, that doesn’t mean you can’t read about other ways and talk with those traveling other paths. This eclectic approach was the one I felt most comfortable walking. And I walk slowly.

This is the longest stage of the journey. I love the discovery of this stage. I like some of the ways I have changed as I walked this path.

I have come to accept that my spiritual path is not the only correct one. I am much less dismissive of other paths. I am more comfortable with information that might contradict my beliefs. I believe this shows that I am more secure in my own spiritual nature.

There are times of bliss. There are also still times when I slip back into fear and doubt.

You enter a new stage when you establish a spiritual practice. Whatever composes this practice (meditation, prayer, writing, nature, walking, art, service to others, music etc.) becomes a regular part of your day and as comfortable as sleeping or eating meals.

Some people have a lot of trouble with establishing a practice. part of mine involves my daily writing, some of which I make public and some that is only for myself. Friends often ask me how I have time to write every day. I don’t want to criticize them, but they probably have time every day to watch television or surf the Net or check on social media. You may to give up an hour of one of those other non-spiritual “practices” in order to have a spiritual one.

 

Establishing a practice is like continuing to walk a path. You progress, but that doesn’t mean you still don’t explore other ways or sometimes wander off and need to find your way back.

mountaintop in clouds

Reaching “enlightenment” seems to be the goal, but I don’t think it is a very realistic one. It puzzled me when as a younger person I read spiritual texts and someone would become enlightened and then continue on with their life. I had expected that something transformative would occur. Maybe I thought you floated into Heaven or Nirvana. At one time in my life, I believed you died. Now, I believe you just keep walking the path.

I see the path as one leading up a mountain. Eventually, I will be so high that I will enter the clouds. This is a good place to be, but the way ahead will actually be less clear for a time. I may never reach the top. maybe there is no top where the journey ends.

You can enter a stage when spirituality stops being something you think about very much because it is just a part of your being. This is a very difficult stage for anyone who has a job and responsibilities to a mate or children. Maybe that is why the enlightened ones are always shown as older and living in isolation. It is very hard, perhaps impossible, to reach a spiritual maturity where everything is one and the illusion of separateness can fall away in the world most of us live in.

I am certainly not there, though I am closer than I have ever been before.

And, according to some spiritual quest stories, there will be a very low point on this journey yet to come when everything seems to fall apart. A dark night of the soul before the light or the spiritual maturity or enlightenment.

Where am I on the journey? I think I am in those clouds. I know I am farther along, but I am not sure that there is an endpoint. That sounds frightening, but I am okay with that. I think it may be all journey and no destination.

bildungsroman shirt

Wear your coming of age proudly

The word bildungsroman showed up in an article I was reading.  It is a German word that you are only likely to encounter in a literature class. It describes a novel of formation, education, or culture. In English, we are more likely to call a novel or film like this a “coming-of-age” story.

Generally, these are stories of youth, but reading it now much later in my life got me wondering about when coming-to-age ends. In some ways even with six decades passed, I still feel like one of those protagonists.

The typical young protagonist is a sensitive, perhaps a bit naïve, person who goes in search of answers to life’s questions. They believe that these experiences will result in the answers. Supposedly, this happens in your twenties, but I don’t know if I have finished this journey yet. I suspect I am not alone in having this unfinished feeling.

Young adult novels certainly deal with this, but so do literary novels whose authors would not want the YA label stamped on their book’s spine. These are good novels to teach. They often focus on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood and character change is very important.

Scanning my bookshelves I see lots of books that fall into this category, from The Telemachy in Homer’s Odyssey from back in 8th century BC, to the Harry Potter series. I would include that early novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding,  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Lord of the Flies by Aldous Huxley and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

When I taught middle school and high school, teaching The Outsiders, Romeo and Juliet, The Pigman, To Kill a Mockingbird and other bildungsroman works just seemed like the right places to spend time with my students.

In our western society, legal conventions have made certain points in late adolescence or early adulthood (most commonly 18-21) when a person is “officially” given certain rights and responsibilities of an adult. But driving a car, voting, getting married, signing contracts and buying alcohol are not the big themes of bildungsroman novels. Society and religion have even created ceremonies to confirm the coming of age.

I’ve passed all of those milestones, but I still feel like I haven’t arrived.

Charles Dickens wrote in David Copperfield, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” We are all the protagonists of our own lives. But hero…  I’m not so sure.

Since I am still coming of age, I am a sucker for films and television live in that world of transition.  If I was teaching a course on Bildungsroman Cinema, I might include Bambi, American Graffiti,  The Breakfast Club, Stand by Me,  The Motorcycle Diaries, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Boyhood, and Moonlight. I could include many other “teen” films of lesser quality.

On television, series like The Wonder Years, Freaks and Geeks, Malcolm in the Middle, and The Goldbergs are all ones that deal with coming of age. They are also all family sitcoms. Coming-of-age has a lot to do with family. And it can be funny as well as tragic. It’s good materials for books and media because it has all that plus relationships, sex and love. On the visual side, it means physical changes that you can actually see, while the internal growth is often hidden and slow to catch up with physical growth.

I have read plenty of things that contend that adolescence is being prolonged and therefore adulthood and coming-of-age is being delayed. The new Generation Z cohort is supposedly an example of this. I have also read about the Boomerang Generation. This is a very Western and middle class phenomenon and the term is applied to young adults who choose to share a home with their parents after previously living on their own. They boomeranging back to their parents’ residence.

I remember reading about the “Peter Pan syndrome” which was a pop-psychology concept of an adult who is socially immature. It is not a condition you’ll find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a specific mental disorder.

In Aldous Huxley’s 1962 novel Island, a character refers to men who are “Peter Pans” as “boys who can’t read, won’t learn, don’t get on with anyone, and finally turn to the more violent forms of delinquency.” He uses Adolf Hitler as an archetype of this phenomenon.

Do some people never come of age? How old were you the last time someone told to “grow up” in some way or another?

Huxley’s Peter Pans are a problem, but what about people who are quite mature and adult but still are in search of answers to life’s questions and the experiences that might result in the answers? What’s the name for that syndrome?

End of summer and early autumn sometimes trigger regrets for the things we didn’t accomplish over the summer. The very end of the year also has this effect and sometimes leads people into a funk or depression. So, it was with some hesitation that I read an article about “warning signs” that your personal growth has stopped. As the plants and trees and insects and animals die off or go into some hibernation, I think it makes something similar click in our brains too.

The article gives five warning signs:

  1. Feeling stuck in life and as though you are struggling to get the results you want or that you have lost control.
  2. Avoiding responsibilities because solutions can be more difficult than the situation itself.
  3. Feeling confused and not knowing what you are confused about.
  4. Making unstable emotional responses because you feel overwhelmed.
  5. Feeling like you don’t know yourself.

That last one is huge. The article does offer some advice to fix things, but it is pretty much common sense. Plus, solutions are often quite difficult. For example, for #5 “Get to know yourself the way you would another person.”

Hopefully you, dear reader, doesn’t have any of these warning signs, but I suspect all of us have at least one. It’s part of being a human in 2017.

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