21 Questions for 2020: #16

#16. Whither education in the time of the pandemic, and after?

This is a question that cuts close to my bone, since education has been my calling and profession for my whole life: as a college professor, I am the perpetual student, always wanting to explore my own cutting edge, never content to simply offer again what I already know. 

In recent years, as you might have guessed if you’ve been reading this series, I have become far more interested in questions than in answers. In the Internet age, we can find 100 expert answers to any research question we might pose, and students are always whipping out their phones in class to consult their pocket oracles.

But the kinds of questions that interest me cannot be easily answered by a Google search, or even a virtual trip to the library database. 

I want to explore the questions that have not been answered yet. Big ones that I ponder regularly include: 

  • What happens to the spirit after death? 
  • How can we access the energetic and material realms that scientists say compose 98% or more of the knowable universe, the so-called “dark matter” and “dark energy” fields? 
  • How can we engage in more frequent, widespread and reliable communication with the mysterious voices that a few open channels among us have been blessed to receive? 
  • How can we make more intentional and regular use of the potential of the dream world as a portal for telepathic communication, healing and guidance?

Answers to these questions lie tantalizingly out of reach of my rational mind, and yet my intuition continues to circle them, probing for a way in to understanding. Especially at this juncture in history, when the systems that uphold our physical world and our social structures are under such strain, a better understanding of the non-physical realm beckons urgently. 

If we knew that death was a gentle return to a dazzling energetic sea, a chance to reset and renew in the company of our loved ones, with whom we have returned to physical form over and over again, beyond time…how differently we might live our lives and contemplate our deaths. 

I have been thinking about Socrates lately; how he insisted that the job of a serious student of philosophy was to prepare for death. A well-educated person is a person who is able, ready and willing to make that ultimate journey into the unknown. And the method of education, for Socrates, was asking questions. 

My students and I frequently get annoyed with Socrates for asking leading questions and tangling his interlocutors up in sticky spiderwebs of nuance that never lead to any clear answers.

But the example he set in his own death, as recorded by his devoted student Plato, was crystal clear. Death for Socrates was a blessed release, for which he had spent his life preparing. In his own calm, peaceful death, he gave his weeping students the greatest lesson of all. 

Enjoy life. Be a lifelong student. And be not afraid of death.

***

As an educator, I am always questioning my own goals and methods. With a PhD in Comparative Literature and an expertise in personal narrative by women from different parts of the world, for many years I offered classes where we used the course texts to open windows into complex identities, social structures, and dynamic communities. In particular, I have been interested in patterns of resistance across cultures—how women found their way and claimed their voices and their power despite individual and societal barriers. 

But now it seems that resistance is no longer the right thread to be following in exploring the ever-shifting tapestry of life.

I don’t want to push angrily against what is; I want to explore, eagerly and with an open heart-mind, what might be. 

Young people today do need to learn the real, unvarnished history of the centuries of pain and injustice inflicted by the powerful on whomever they could subordinate and dominate in the service of their greedy goals.

But having learned what was, students today need to turn their bright minds and spirits to imagining what could be

How can education focus itself around the urgent task of creating a happier world where people live well in harmony with the flourishing more-than-human denizens of our planet? 

Shifting the questions we’re asking seems key. 

If we were to ask not “how can we maximize profits” but “how can we maximize happiness,” as Bhutan did in establishing its Gross National Happiness index, the goals of every field of education would shift. 

Instead of applying our intelligence to domination and extraction, the black magic of turning exploited workers and natural resources into money in the bank, we would be looking at how to make an entire system thrive, from the tiniest microbe in the soil on up.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to trigger massive social and economic shifts that we can’t yet measure, one question keeps surfacing for me urgently:  What do today’s young people need to know? 

What talismans of knowledge and rites of initiation can educators offer that will light young people’s paths on the shrouded road ahead?

I am pondering this question, with no sure answers to offer yet. I would be grateful for your thoughts. Whither education now?

Cosmic Honey for Robin Williams

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

The death of Robin Williams has lain heavily on me since I heard the news. I echo what all my friends are saying: he was so talented, he brought so much brilliance and joy to the world, how could it be that all his laughs and charm hid such deep reservoirs of pain and despair?

People as creative as Williams are often sensitive and discerning; and if you’re sensitive these days, you can hardly help but be overwhelmed by all the pain we are forced to contend with in the world on a daily basis.

I wince every time I listen to the world news, bracing myself for the inevitable onslaught of violence, disease and misery suffered by human beings—not to mention the destruction of the environment, the extinction of millions of innocent animals, insects and plant life and the ever-accelerating pace of climate change. It’s enough to drive anyone to Prozac.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., with some 40,000 suicides a year, 70% of them middle-aged white men. Most cultures and religions condemn suicide; we are asked to live our lives to the fullest, going towards death only when our bodies totally give out. Certainly this is true in the U.S., where death has been demonized and medicalized, seen as an ending to be feared and evaded as long as possible.

But what if death is actually more like a transition, mirroring birth—the emergence into another state of being?

What if death is a release, as some religions would have it, where we rejoin our ancestors and our spiritual families in a non-physical realm free of pain?

I don’t believe in the Christian idea of heaven and hell, but I am certainly not willing to rule out the possibility of an afterlife, in the sense of a spiritual reconnection with the Source energy that animates the physical realm on our planet.

With the advent of quantum physics and the recognition that 95% of the universe is made up of “dark matter” and “dark energy”—i.e., with stuff we know absolutely nothing about—science is beginning to make friends with metaphysics.

You won’t find many scientists willing to go as far as Jungian philosophers like Anne Baring, who talks about “the soul of the cosmos” as a kind of divine intelligence immanent in everything—but at least scientists are beginning to admit how much they don’t know about the way our universe works. And in that opening of humility lies the possibility that there could be a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to one of the greatest unknowns: death.

For Baring (writing with co-author Scilla Elworthy), “The life we know is an excitation on the surface of an immeasurable sea of cosmic energy that is continually surging, dancing, flowing into being. In every galaxy, every star, every planet, every cell of our being the universe is bursting into existence from this womb or sea of being.

“What does this mean for us? It means that when we are in touch with this incredible idea, each one of us becomes a co-creator with that mysterious process, at one with our starry source” and conscious “the sacredness, oneness and divinity of life.”

HubbleSpaceTelescope_N90

Baring and Elworthy offer the image of a fully conscious human as “a cell in a limitless honeycomb of golden light. Imagine,” they say, “this luminous network of honeycomb cells connecting people in every part of the world who are trying to lift humanity out of the dark place we are in now. Imagine that through this powerful network of relationships a new consciousness is coming into being.”

The new collective and individual consciousness they imagine would be one that respects all life, generating a mode of living in which humans act as the stewards of our planet, rather than as the greedy, destructive despots we have become in the past few centuries.

“When we are prepared to become but a humble servant of life, devoted to caring for it and healing it, we become free from all fear,” they say. “We are then able to resonate with life, harmoniously and ecstatically.”

I wish Robin Williams had been able to receive this message; to see himself as a bright spark tossed out by the loving flame of our cosmos. I wish he had been able to read Baring and Elworthy’s small gem of a book, Soul Power, which ends with this striking injunction:

“Live life as an opportunity to transform the nectar of experience into the honey that can heal the world.”

As a creative genius, Robin Williams surely was making that honey for us. He just needed to hold more of it back to heal and salve his own sensitive, wounded soul.

Once in a blue moon: thoughts on death and the hereafter

It’s a clear, warm night, breezy and calm with a languorous quality to the air.  A night for strolling arm in arm along the surging beach; a night for hiking to the top of the mountain to gaze out at the moonlit landscape below.

It’s a blue moon night, the second full moon of the month–a rare occurrence, like a leap year, that feels like a gift of cosmic significance.

Such a night makes me want to take a chance and send out into the world some ideas that I have been holding close, not daring to share for fear of—of what?  Being scoffed at or ignored, I suppose.

But once in a blue moon, it’s important to reach beyond those fears and write from the heart.

So here it is.

***

On this quiet, moonlit night, I am thinking about death.

Every near-death experience describes a peaceful opening up to the light in the seconds after death—a state of rapture, a sense of leaving the body with all its frailties behind and moving into a new state of consciousness.

If death is just a transition into a different relation to matter and spiritual consciousness, then it is not something to be afraid of.  It is a change, but not a negative one, except to the extent that we remain attached to those we love and our dear, familiar places.

No other being on the planet frets so over death as does humankind.  All others simply pass, unworried, into the next stage of existence, whatever it may be.

If there is no reason to fear or worry about our individual deaths, then maybe there is no reason to fear or worry about the coming planetary cataclysm.

All of us living beings on the planet now will simply transition into whatever comes next, as we have many many times before in our cosmic journey from stardust to our current terrestrial physical forms.

Even the fear that we have of destroying our planet to such an extent that it will become unlivable is not tenable.  I don’t believe we could do such a thorough job of destruction as to make the environment completely and irrevocably toxic.

It may take millennia, but eventually, as it has in the past, the Earth will regenerate and give birth to new life forms.

And we, because we are part and parcel of this ecological sphere, will be part of those too.

Just as now we “remember” our past as sea creatures through the saltiness of our blood and the way we are able to swim underwater in our mother’s wombs, we will in some way retain the traces of our time as humans on the planet.

Hopefully the traits that have proven so destructive and psychotic will not persist: our violence, our fears and insecurities, our short-sightedness, our competitiveness, our greed.

It is possible that we are now living through a blue moon period of a much greater magnitude than just one lunar cycle.

Once in a blue moon, a dominant species—like the dinosaurs—collapses.  It is our fortune, for better or worse, to be living through this rare epoch, the last days of a closing era—and unlike the dinosaurs, to be conscious of what is taking place as it happens.

Of course, once in a blue moon, too, a species is able to pull back from the brink of extinction and keep going a while longer.

 ***

On this blue moon evening, I pay loving homage to the white hydrangeas glowing in the dusky interlude between sunset and moonrise.  The perky round sunflowers, the curly purple kale standing stiff and tall in my garden, the pulsing background chorus of crickets—I gather them round in a loving embrace and give thanks for this quiet blue moment, however long it may last.

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