Something Is Missing
Philosophy Professor Sean Kelly, in a New York Times article, introduces us to the idea of aliveness. He cites the 17th century philosopher Blasé Pascal in telling us that the goal of life is not happiness or fulfillment, but aliveness.
Both Pascal and Professor Kelly face a challenge: how do we describe what aliveness is? Professor Kelly — citing Pascal — seems to believe that life can offer us more than what we typically experience. In effect, there are things we could be experiencing that we are not.
Some part of life is missing for us.
But when we ask: what are we missing, we draw a blank. How do we discover what is not there?
To answer this, we need to examine the nature of our dilemma.
Two ways to look at aliveness.
1) We can consider aliveness as a set of “unusual experiences” that occur occasionally in our otherwise normal, everyday life.
On rare occasions, we slip out of our everyday routine and experience something extraordinary. These are one-off experiences that are not typical of our usual life. Often these experiences jack up our emotions, like fear or surprise, excitement or laughter, and we receive some jolt of energy. These can be short and intense, like riding a roller-coaster or sky-diving. They can also be longer and have the intensity drawn out over time, like hiking in the Himalayas or sailing across the Pacific Ocean. These kinds of experience — either brief or extended — are well known in our culture and are accepted as a normal, but atypical, part of life.
We have other kinds of experiences which our society does not accept as part of our normal life. An example of this is ingesting psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. When we ingest psilocybin, our normal reality disappears, and in its place, we have an experience of something like universal oneness. When this experience is over and we return to our normal consciousness, there is no way we can integrate this “out of body” experience into our usual sense of reality. It stands as its own unique reality, and science can neither prove or disprove it.
In the past our society has often interpreted these types of experience as unhealthy aberrations and not part of our normal human experience. As aberrations, these experiences are commonly considered paranormal and possible even dangerous. They introduce discord and distortions into our conventional picture of reality. If they are infrequent, we might be able to rationalize them away. Or just ignore them. But we do not take them seriously as a potential area for expanding our own human experience. Experiences like this suggest that there may be more to life than what our society has taught us. And our question becomes: should we seek out more experiences like this?
2) The second way to think about aliveness is to consider how the entirety of our normal life might expand. Is it possible that we can find a much larger stage on which to live out the drama of our life?
This second alternative seems to be what Pascal and Kelly are driving at. Can we find a way to expand our experience of life itself?
But how might we do that?
What is Missing?
Let’s go back to Professor Kelly’s discussion of aliveness. Twice he uses the word “vibrate” to describe the extra-ordinary feeling that one gets from aliveness. In one of his examples, he says that life “vibrates with an energy it normally does not have”.
But what is this “vibration of energy?”
We cannot answer this question with our mind. Vibration is something that we feel in our body. Our body experiences a vibration and then our mind tries to understand just what it was that we felt. The feeling we have experienced does not translate into a concept or a theory. It is only a single experience.
We begin to realize that the body has a language all of its own. We start to recognize patterns of feeling that occur in the body. Some patterns are associated with particular parts of the body, like the heart or the solar plexus. As we focus more attention in the body, we notice there is movement that we feel within ourselves. We feel movement in different places and in different ways.
There is particular movement and feeling in and around the Heart. The heart is—or at least it can be — an integral part of our experience of life. Just as our brain is the physical locus of our mind, our heart is the emotional locust of our being. The heart is an integral part of our human experience. Without it we cannot navigate through life.
Another word that we use to discuss this vibrational quality is spirit. Spirit is understood in other cultures to be something akin to its own separate environment. Just as the visible world provides an outer environment around our physical body, a second, invisible world provides a different environment that we cannot see but we can feel. Consultants in Organization Development who move around from one company to another learn to feel the different organization cultures they encounter. We refer to the different ways that organizations feel as organization culture. There are group vibrational feelings as well as individual vibrational feelings.
The heart/spirit should be a normal part of our human life, but today it is not. And because we do not use it, we do not experience all that life has to offer. I think it is this missing piece that Pascale and Professor Kelly are looking for.
Why do we not have a stronger connection with the invisible world?
It probably goes back to the Age of Enlightenment and the great divide between mind and spirit. The Rationalists decreed they would rely only on the human mind to explain the nature of life. They would leave the matters of the heart/spirit to art and religion. Science, no longer having to justify itself to the prejudices of different religions, was freed to develop its own discipline.
Over time, as science and technology brought more ease and comfort into our lives, it gained more influence and prominence in our culture. Our culture has now come to believe that all we need in life is the logic and rationality that scientific thinking has brought to us. Today people are advocating that university education should focus only on S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering and medicine) as if this is all that matters. When we talk about developments in the future, we assume that they will come from the mind.
But at the same time, our society is shattering into different social and political factions that cannot get along. Science cannot help here. These problems are rooted in the lack of connection that people feel with one another. What is lack is feeling and spirit.
It is time that we wake up and recognize we need more than just our minds. We also need our hearts.