The People of Peace and the Four Creations

Often enough I find myself pondering questions that seem to have no answers. Questions like, “why are we here?” “what is the meaning (the point) of life?” “where did we all come from?” When I find myself wondering about where we all came from I often meander over to creation stories. I grew up with the Christian version of the Genesis creation story. As I got a bit older the version of Eve and the snake and the apple left a bitter taste in my mouth, so I looked to other cultures and wisdom traditions. This story comes from the Hopi people of northern Arizona. “Hopi” means “People of Peace”. The stories here were recorded in the 1950s by Oswald White Bear Fredericks and his wife Naomi from the storytelling of older Hopi at the village of Oraibi, which tree-ring dating indicates has been inhabited by the Hopi since at least 1150 AD. They recount The Four Creations:

At the first was endless space. Only the Creator, Taiowa was in the earliest days. Those days had no time, no shape, and no life; there was only the mind of the Creator. And then it came to be that the infinite creator created the finite in Sotuknang, whom the Creator made as agent to establish nine universes. Sotuknang gathered together matter from the endless space to make the nine solid worlds; he gathered the waters from the endless space and placed them on these worlds to make land and sea; then he gather together air to make winds and breezes on these worlds. The fourth act of creation with which the Creator charged Sotuknang was the creation of life. Sotuknang went to the world that was to first host life and there he created Spider Woman, and he gave her the power to create life. First Spider Woman took some earth and mixed it with saliva to make two beings. Over them she sang the Creation Song, and they came to life. She instructed one of them, Poqanghoya, to go across the earth and solidify it. She instructed the other, Palongawhoya, to send out sound to resonate through the earth, so that the earth vibrated with the energy of the Creator. Poqanghoya and Palongawhoya were dispatched to the poles of the earth to keep it rotating.

Then Spider Woman made all the plants, the flowers, the bushes, and the trees. She made the birds and animals using earth and singing the Creation Song. When all this was done, she made human beings, using yellow, red, white, and black earth mixed with her saliva. Singing the Creation Song, she made four men, and then in her own form she made four women. At first they had a soft spot in their foreheads, and although it solidified, it left a space through which they could hear the voice of Sotuknang and their Creator. Because these people could not speak, Spider Woman called on Sotuknang, who gave them four languages. His only instructions were for them to respect their Creator and to live in harmony with him.

These people spread across the earth and multiplied. Even though they spoke four languages, in those days they could understand each other’s thoughts, and for many years they and the animals lived together as one. Eventually, however, they began to divide, both the people from the animals and the people from each other, as they focused on their differences rather than their similarities. As division and suspicion became more widespread, only a few people from each of the four groups still remembered their Creator. Sotuknang appeared before these few and told them that he and the Creator would have to destroy this world, and that these few who remembered the Creator must travel across the land, following a cloud and a star, to find refuge. These people began their treks from the places where they lived, and when they finally converged Sotuknang appeared again. He opened a huge ant mound and told these people to go down in it to live with the ants while he destroyed the world with fire, and he told them to learn from the ants while they were there. The people went down and lived with the ants, who had storerooms of food that they had gathered in the summer, as well as chambers in which the people could live. This went on for quite a while, because after Sotuknang cleansed the world with fire it took a long time for the world to cool off. As the ants’ food ran low, the people refused the food, but the ants kept feeding them and only tightened their own belts, which is why ants have such tiny waists today.

After this Sotuknang finished making the second world, which was not quite as beautiful as the first. Again he admonished the people to remember their Creator as they and the ants that had hosted them spread across the earth. The people multiplied rapidly and soon covered the entire earth. They did not live with the animals, however, because the animals in this second world were wild and unfriendly. Instead the people lived in villages and built roads between these, so that trade sprang up. They stored goods and traded those for goods from elsewhere, and soon they were trading for things they did not need. As their desire to have more and more grew, they began to forget their Creator, and soon wars over resources and trade were breaking out between villages. Again Sotuknang appeared before the few people who still remembered the Creator, and again he sent them to live with the ants while he destroyed this corrupt world. This time he ordered Poqanghoya and Palongawhoya to abandon their posts at the poles, and soon the world spun out of control and rolled over. Mountains slid and fell, and lakes and rivers splashed across the land as the earth tumbled, and finally the earth froze over into nothing but ice.

After many years, Sotuknang sent Poqanghoya and Palongawhoya back to the poles to resume the normal rotation of the earth, and soon the ice melted and life returned. Sotuknang called the people up from their refuge, and he introduced them to the third world that he had made. Again he admonished the people to remember their Creator as they spread across the land. As they did so, they multiplied quickly, even more quickly than before, and soon they were living in large cities and developing into separate nations. With so many people and so many nations, soon there was war, and some of the nations made huge shields on which they could fly, and from these flying shields they attacked other cities. When Sotuknang saw all this war and destruction, he resolved to destroy this world quickly before it corrupted the few people who still remembered the Creator. He called on Spider Woman to gather those few and, along the shore, she placed each person with a little food in the hollow stem of a reed. When she had done this, Sotuknang let loose a flood that destroyed the warring cities and the world on which they lived.

Once the rocking of the waves ceased, Spider Woman unsealed the reeds so the people could see. They floated on the water for many days, looking for land, until finally they drifted to an island. On the island they built little reed boats and set sail again to the east. After drifting many days, they came to a larger island, and after many more days to an even larger island. They hoped that this would be the fourth world that Sótuknang had made for them, but Spider Woman assured them that they still had a long and hard journey ahead. They walked across this island and built rafts on the far side, and set sail to the east again. They came to a fourth and still larger island, but again they had to cross it on foot and then build more rafts to continue east. From this island, Spider Woman sent them on alone, and after many days they encountered a vast land. Its shores were so high that they could not find a place to land, and only by opening the doors in their heads did they know where to go to land.

When they finally got ashore, Sotuknang was there waiting for them. As they watched to the west, he made the islands that they had used like stepping stones disappear into the sea. He welcomed them to the fourth world, but he warned them that it was not as beautiful as the previous ones, and that life here would be harder, with heat and cold, and tall mountains and deep valleys. He sent them on their way to migrate across the wild new land in search of the homes for their respective clans. The clans were to migrate across the land to learn its ways, although some grew weak and stopped in the warm climates or rich lands along the way. The Hopi trekked and far and wide, and went through the cold and icy country to the north before finally settling in the arid lands between the Colorado River and Rio Grande River. They chose that place so that the hardship of their life would always remind them of their dependence on, and link to, their Creator.

Perhaps we would do well to remember that there are multiple ways of knowing and being. Our current world has come to prize above all the empirical ways of knowing, trusting only what can be seen, touch, tasted, counted valuing the material as the only plane of reality. In doing this we have lost touch with and devalued the knowing of the world’s wisdom traditions. We have lost touch with the paths with heart. Perhaps we would do well to re-member the stories, the traditions, the best of the wisdom practices of our elders, of all elders.

Perhaps we also would do well to remember our interdependence, our links to all of creation, and the need for peace in our hearts, in our lives and in our world.

peace to us all.

thinking about Schrodinger’s cat

So … the other night I was watching TV. Specifically, I was watching a Big Bang Theory rerun.  At the point when I tuned in, Leonard and Penny have just returned from their first date. Leonard asks Penny if she has ever heard of Schrodinger’s Cat.  Penny grimaces, and says, that she has heard too much about the cat. (Apparently Schrodinger’s Cat has been a recurrent topic among the boys and Penny throughout the episode.) Leonard then proclaims that the cat is alive, and kisses Penny. All is well – or at least as well as things get between Leonard and Penny in the series – until Leonard notices the video camera that Howard and Raj have installed so that they can watch the good night moments between Leonard and Penny, but that is another tale. So the mention of Schrodinger’s Cat got set off a resonance of familiarity for me, but got me to wondering about what the story was with the cat.

Then , the very next morning (August 12, 2013) I opened my computer, went to Google, and  I saw an image celebrating Erwin Schrodinger’s 126th birthday!

 There are no coincidences. So I figured that it was meant to be that I should compile a blog about Schrodinger’s cat! And here you have it – thanks to Google and Wikipedia ….

First you need to know that while Schrodinger’s cat is real, it does not now, nor has it ever actually existed. That being said, Schrödinger’s cat is what folks call a thought experiment. It could also be understood as a paradox. Schrodinger’s cat was devised by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger back in 1935.  Erwin used the story about the cat to illustrate what he saw as the problem of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics applied to everyday objects, an application of quantum mechanics that often resulted in contradictions with common sense. (Don’t buzz out on me this is about the cat not quantum mechanics.)

The Copenhagen interpretation is one of the earliest (1924–27) and most commonly taught interpretations of quantum mechanics. In essence it says that quantum mechanics does not give a description of objective reality but deals only with probabilities. And, the Copenhagen interpretation also proposed that the act of measurement causes the set of probabilities to immediately and randomly assume only one of the possible values. If you are into name dropping, the names associated with the Copenhagen interpretation include devised by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg.

So … Schrodinger’s cat scenario describes the circumstances of a cat that may be both alive and dead, depending on an earlier random event. (Of course while the original “experiment” was imaginary, similar principles have been implemented, examined and used in practical applications.)  In the course of developing this experiment, Schrödinger coined the term Verschränkung (entanglement).  Schrodinger asked folks (that would be us) to imagine that a cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, that a bit of radioactive substance does decay, the Geiger counter tube sets into action and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid which would kill the cat. (Clearly this thought experiment was devised before the days of the SPCA and PETA!) If you have left this entire system to itself for an hour, you could say that the cat still lives if no atom has decayed. Mathematical description of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.

 In effect, this thought experiment poses the question, ‘when does a quantum system stop existing as a superposition of states (a superposition of states is when both/and are taken to exist concurrently and at the same time) and become one or the other?’ So, when does the cat stop being alive AND dead, and become either dead or alive? If the cat survives, it remembers only being alive. If the cat dies, it remembers nothing – at least that is what we seem to believe about cats and their afterlife.

 The thought experiment illustrates an apparent paradox. Our intuition says that no observer can be in a mixture of states—yet the cat, it seems from the thought experiment, can be such a mixture. Is the cat required to be an observer, or does its existence in a single well-defined classical state require another external observer? Each alternative seemed absurd to Albert Einstein, who was impressed by the ability of the thought experiment to highlight these issues. In a letter to Schrödinger dated 1950, he wrote:

“You are the only contemporary physicist, besides Laue, who sees that one cannot get around the assumption of reality, if only one is honest. Most of them simply do not see what sort of risky game they are playing with reality—reality as something independent of what is experimentally established. Their interpretation is, however, refuted most elegantly by your system of radioactive atom + amplifier + charge of gunpowder + cat in a box, in which the psi-function of the system contains both the cat alive and blown to bits. Nobody really doubts that the presence or absence of the cat is something independent of the act of observation.”

 Suffice it to say that within the realms of science and literature there are many detailed interpretations of this thought experiment.  Superpositions of the states of the cat – the cat is both alive and dead – are possible only until there is observation. But, does the cat count as an observer?  And of course there is the post modern observation that if the cat is not observed within a period of time it will be dead from lack of food. And … there is no mention of kitty litter in the statement of the thought experiment … and … both science and literature are rich with interpretations.

Go, explore. Think seriously. Think with a clear and critical mind. Think with a light and open heart. Think about how this might apply to how we live our lives, to how we perceive and think about ourselves and each other.

Think about being alive and dead at the same time… think about both/and possible conditions.  Maybe some people, maybe ALL people really can be both good AND bad at the same time and the way they appear to us really is an artifact of our observation?  Remember the story of the Native American Grandmother and the compassionate and evil wolfs that live in each of us? And which lives? The one we feed, the one we observe and attend to! Elizabeth Kubler Ross was fond of saying that we all, each of us carry within our soul’s both Hitler and Mother Teresa – who we become is who we observe and attend to and nurture.

 Remember the Thomas Theorem: situations perceived as real are real in their consequences. What you see – what you expect to see – is what you get.  Be aware of your expectations. Be awake, be aware.

So … who will you be? What will you observe and build in your world. No, this is not a call for everyone to become Pollyanna. But it is a reminder that what you see may well be what you get, and that there is more choice than we realize in what we see.

Go forth my friends, nurture your sense of wonder at the world through which you wander. Never hurry by an open door. Never hurry by an opportunity for kindness and compassion. Keep an open heart, a giving hand, and a shoulder firmly pressed to the work of fairness and respect for human dignity.

Why did god (the gods, the goddess) make you? As a servant? As a chip off the old block? Or to search for your better half?

Why did God make you? Every Roman Catholic of a certain age, who grew up with the Baltimore Catechism, knows the unquestionable answer to that question: “to know, love and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him in the next.” Of course that is the answer, the one, true, only possible answer. Or is it? I wonder what our good friends, the Sisters of Mary Magdalene might have to say as they contemplate why God (god, the goddess, the gods) made us.

It’s been a while since we visited the cloister, so come with me, and let’s have a peek at what the sisters are up to . . . 

Since Hurricane Sandy even as the sisters continue to clean and repair the grounds, life seemed to be settling back into a more normal convent routine, at least for the moment. Each morning the sisters rise at 5AM to greet the sun; at 6 they gather for prayers and liturgies; at 8 they break their fast in a silent communal meal together, followed by manual work, liturgical prayers, and dinner at noon. The afternoons are a combination of work, spiritual reading and prayer; followed by a light supper at 6PM. Evenings include quiet time, recreation, prayer, discussion and reflection on their readings, and meetings with spiritual mentors. Most of the good sisters find their way to sleep by about 10 PM. They are reclaiming stability and comfort in the routine and strength in the discipline. And life indeed goes on.

As we look in on the Sisters their Spiritual readings focus on creation stories across traditions. Beginning with the Hebrew scriptures that are the foundation of their own tradition, and they read the second chapter of Genesis: Adam was created by his Maker. The story notes that Adam was charged with keeping a garden. That was his job, in service to his maker. But, Adam soon became lonely. His Creator wanted Adam to be happy, and so he resumed creation and brought into being every bird of the air and every beast of the field, and brought them to Adam to see and to name.  Yet, none of these creatures gave Adam delight. The Creator then caused a deep sleep to come upon Adam. While Adam slept, the Creator took a rib from Adam’s side and created woman. When Adam beheld her, he said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” And he felt happiness and joy in the relatedness of human community. And things unfolded from there.

Because our sisters are committed to honoring the memory and spirit of Mary Magdalene their spiritual mother, they looked further to the creation story from the Upanishads of India. There they read that before the beginning of time, when the universe was nothing but the Self, the Self looked around, saw that there was nothing but the Self, and shouted, “It is I!” and the concept “I” arose. And when the Self became aware if itself as an ‘I’, ego arose, and it was afraid. But it reasoned, thinking, since there is no one here but myself, what is there to fear? And fear left.

But, the self still lacked delight, and wished for another. So, it swelled and split in two, becoming male and female. The male embraced the female, and from that embrace, the human race arose. But the female thought, how can he unite with me, who am of his own substance? And so she hid.  She became a cow, he became a bull and united with her, and from that union cattle arose. She then became a mare and he a stallion . . .  and so one, down to the ants.

Then the self realized, “I am creation; for I have poured forth all of this. And there arose the concept of ‘creation.’

Some of the sisters found this version of the creation story a bit disturbing, but they continued in their reading and reflection.

Next they looked a bit closer to home, and sought the wisdom of the Greeks, reading from Plato’s Symposium. There they examined a creation story that begins with the human race already in existence, but with three distinct human races: one entirely male, whose residence was the sun; one entirely female, who dwelt on the earth; and the third, half male and half female conjoined together, who dwelt on the moon. These beings were as large as two humans of today. They each had four hands and four feet, sides and backs forming a circle, one head with two faces.  The gods of those peoples and times became afraid of the strength of these humans, and so Zeus and Apollo cut them in two, “like apples halved for pickling.” But, those divided parts, each desiring the other, came together and embraced, and would have perished of hunger had the gods not set them far apart. 

The Greeks teach us that the lesson of this story is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love – according to its three kinds. Oh, my! As you can imagine, this third version really caused some distress for some of the sisters with its implicit affirmation of same sex love as a normal aspect of human being. And, yet, even in their distress they are hardy, stalwart souls. And so they persisted in their reflections.

Mother Magdalene turned to Sister Visentia, and asked her for her thoughts. Visentia smiled a bit, and said, “Well, Mother, you know, I’ve also been reading Joseph Campbell recently. And, if I remember correctly, it seems that in our traditional reading from Hebrew Scriptures, Adam, as the being whose rib was used to create woman, is the created servant, and the goal then is to become engaged in a relationship with the other, even while serving the creator. While in the version from India, it is the creator who is split into parts. And so each creature should experience and realize in life their very identity with that Being, we are each made from, made of the creator – thou art that! In the Greek version, we are left to search for our other half, while at the same time being careful not to offend the gods. These are three very different ways to think about the meaning and purpose of our lives! What very different versions of truth!”

Then, Sister Bryda chimed in, “and what different paths to justice and respect for dignity! Are we servants of a divine creator? Are we in search of relationship and our better half? Or are we each a chip off the old block, the Creator’s very self?”

At that Mother Magdalene smiled and observed, “Well, Sister Bryda, you may not realize the depth of your own wisdom. The answer is actually all three. One dimension of social space is a path of awe, the path that leads to transcendence and divinity – where we explore the vastness of all that is as you put it, a chip off the old block. That is the most neglected dimension of social space in the world at large. In our world here in the cloister, it is the most revered dimension. Another dimension is relatedness and closeness, finding authentic connections with others, and yes, in the secular world, searching for you better half. That is a dimension we have chosen to redefine somewhat within this cloister as we set aside the search for a particular half in the search for a stronger common community. And indeed there is a third dimension to social space, the dimension of hierarchy, of servant and master, of above and below, and of justice and fairness, perhaps the dimension that is most contentious in the world around us. Each dimension is necessary for a full, whole and healthy well being. The challenge is keeping them all in balance.”

Through all of this Sister Septimus looked perplexed, then thoughtful. After a few moments of silence, she spoke, “So, three dimensions of social space: awe/divinity, closeness/relatedness and hierarchy/justice. So, God made us to know him or her or them in awe, to serve him, her or them; or perhaps to work for fairness and to build a world where dignity is indeed respected.”

“Or all of the above.” Observed Mother Magdalene as the left the refectory for the chapel and evensong.

Indra’s Web — a pearl of an idea about the alchemy of change

All too often when we think about working for social change, working for social justice and human rights, we are confronted with the disillusioning question, “what difference will this make?”

There are a number of relevant responses to the opening sentence. First, thinking too much can cause problems. The alchemy of social change for justice is in fact grounded in action.  There is a place for thought and analysis for sure, but thought and analysis need to be balanced with compassion (and care) and action.  Maybe one of the most poignant responses to the temptation to disillusionment fostered by the question “what difference will this make?” is the quote attributed to the Dalai Lama: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”  Size doesn’t matter at much as dedicated intention! And, of course there is the butterfly effect of chaos theory which posits that a small change at one place (in a non linear system) can result in large differences in a larger state. The butterfly effect is wonderfully consistent with alchemical transformation! And, then there is the story (you knew there had to be a story coming at some point!) of Indra’s web.

In Hindu mythology, Indra is a warrior god, the king of the gods, who is credited with saving the world from the cosmic serpent. Indra is also credited with weaving a web that extends throughout all of space and time. It is said that when Indra created the world he wove it as a web, and at each of the points where the lines of the web cross, Indra tied a knot and in each knot he placed a radiant jewel. Some say the jewel is a pearl, some say it is a perfect crystal, today we might say the jewel is a holograph.

Everything that has existed, that exists now and that ever will exist, each and every idea, each bit of creation, each sentient being, all are jewels in Indra’s web. Each jewel is tied to every other jewel in Indra’s web, each is reflected in every other jewel, each is implied in every other jewel. Each jewel reflects and contains every other jewel in this cosmic matrix, so that each jewel is intrinsically and intimately connected to every other jewel – a change in one is reflected in all the others, in every other. (you might want to pause here and think about the range of meanings of ‘reflected in’). 

Alan Watts tells the story this way: “Imagine a multidimensional spider’s web in the early morning covered with dew drops. And every dew drop contains the reflection of all the other dew drops. And, in each reflected dew drop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that reflection. And so on, ad infinitum. That is the Buddhist conception of the universe in an image.”

Every jewel represents an individual life form, atom, cell or unit of consciousness. Each and every jewel highlights the interdependence of all beings, of all of creation. And, because everything is interdependent, nothing is small, trivial, or inconsequential. 

One moral to take from Indra’s web is that you cannot damage one strand of the web that is the universe without damaging the others or setting off a cascade effect of destruction. And by the same token the interdependence of all highlights that the compassionate and the constructive interventions a person makes or does can also produce a ripple effect of beneficial action.  Action, dedicated intention, the butter fly effect and Indra’s web – all reflecting the interdependence of all life, we are all inter-dependent on each other, it ALL matters. (so, I guess the hokey pokey is NOT what it’s all about, or is it?)

The metaphor of Indra’s Jeweled web is Attributed to an ancient Buddhist named Tu-Shun (557-640 A.D.). Fritjof Capra refers to it in Tao of physics: an exploration of the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism, as does Douglas Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach; andTimothy Brook in Vermeer’s Hat.

Any thoughts about Indra’s web and our places in it? Your place in it? We are our brothers/sisters keepers … we are reflections of each other … whatever happens to anyone of us happens to all of us … in Bantu, ‘ubuntu’ — I am because you are … and the circle, which is a web, goes one …

where are we? is it tortoises all the way down?

So, where are we? It is a common enough question. It can refer to where we are in the process of a discussion or analysis of an issue or problem. It can refer to where we are geographically (especially if I am the navigator). It can refer to the status of a relationship in the process of flux, growth or some developmental junction. It can refer to most anything in the process of change.

So, ‘where are we’ is worth thinking about as we think about change for social justice and human rights, yes?

Where are we? Maybe one of the more famous responses to that simple poses, where ever you go, there you are!  Most area maps will clearly demarcate ‘You are here.’ But … where is that? Ah, I feel a story coming on ….

Well, Steven Hawking, in a Brief History of Time credits this story to Bertrand Russell.  Hawking says Russell was giving a lecture on astronomy, and was discussing how the earth orbits around a vast collection of stars called the galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a woman stood up and said, “what you have told us is rubbish. The world is a flat plate supported on the back of four elephants, who stand on a great tortoise.”  Russell is said to have smiled, and asked what the tortoise stands on. The woman very calmly replied, “very clever, but of course it is tortoises all the way down.” [of course the earth is round and not flat, but the elephants could just as easily be holding up a giant globe, no?]

Ken Wilber is a fairly prolific author. He writes about integral theory. Wilber tells a very similar story that he attributes to Hindu mythology/cosmology.

And, so I ask: Where are we? And what is at the base of it all? What ground do we really stand on? Or is there any? Are we really just floating/flying through space?