Saturday, March 20, 2010

Still Paring Down After Five Years

A tourist from America paid a visit to a renowned Polish rabbi, Hafetz Chaim. He was astonished to see the rabbi's home was only a simple room filled with books, plus a table and bench.
"Rabbi," asked the tourist, "Where is your furniture?"
"Where is yours?" replied Hafetz Chaim.
"Mine?" asked the puzzled American. "But I'm only passing through."
"So am I," said the rabbi.
(Martin Buber, Tales of the Hassidim)

There's not much that we really need when it comes to belongings. We can live perfectly rich and satisfying lives with remarkably few material possessions. I know this because more and more I live it. For the past five years I've been in the process of paring my life down to essentials. I'm still working at it, but one thing is clear to me--the less cluttered my life becomes materially, the richer it becomes in other ways.

On the other hand, the more cluttered it becomes, the more unsettled and unfocused I become. This became painfully obvious to me in recent weeks when a problem with my water heater in the storm cellar beneath the house forced me to move all the contents of the cellar upstairs. The storm cellar is narrow, about three feet wide, and over time I had filled the space with boxes and bins of my belongings, stacked many high. There was nowhere else to put everything but up in the house while the water heater was being repaired.

Now the house itself is very tiny, about 485 square feet, so there was not much space to absorb such a huge influx of stuff. It took over the living room. There was only a path from the front door leading into the other rooms. The sofa and chairs were completely covered--there was nowhere to sit. Every time you had to pass through the room it took effort to navigate the pathways without crashing into things. It's the sort of environment that makes me more than a little crazy. I could feel my nerves jangling and my ability to concentrate and focus seemed to evaporate into thin air.

It was good however because I've been meaning to clean out the storm cellar. I had envisioned doing so on a bright sunny warm spring day, not tackling it in the snowy gloomy damp cold--but oh well. I've worked over the past five years to streamline my living space but this stuff stashed beneath the house was like a skeleton in my closet and the remnants of a former way of life. Laying it all out in the light of day was startling. Still so much work to do, obviously. More letting go. Will this process never end?

Confronting all of this stuff I find find there are still things I'm not quite willing to surrender yet. I've let go of so much already, physically and emotionally...and yet I still cling to things. Why is that? Some of these things are sentimental--like old letters and mementos. Some seem like they could be useful some way, some how if only I could figure that out. None of these things would actually be missed if I lost them in a sudden way, like in a fire or a tornado. So why do I still hold onto them?

My goal is to be completely done with this process by the time my son leaves home in little over four years--when my nest is empty and I prepare to embark on a new adventure. I want to leave here cleanly, streamlined, with next to nothing to carry. I know I have to be patient with myself. It takes time to let go. Things aren't just things after all, they represent aspects of ourselves--who we are or were or would like to have been. They hold memories and hopes. Letting go of stuff is quite a process. I would love to come out of this process knowing how to carry my identity, memories, hopes, etc fully inside of myself, not projected "out there" onto a bunch of lifeless things. Without so much clutter I would be freer, lighter, more fluid. What kind of life could I craft for myself, living so lightly? That's what I want to discover.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Of Microbes, Meals, and Minds

Ninety percent of the cells in our bodies are microbes. That amounts to about 50 percent of each of us by dry weight measure. And about 8 percent of our DNA actually belongs to foreign viruses, which inserted themselves into our DNA strands deep in our evolutionary past. Even the mitochondria inside each of our cells were once independent beings. So my question is, Who are we? Who am I? Who is it who thinks these thoughts and writes these words? Is it "me"--this seemingly autonomous being--or are my microbes writing this? If 90 percent of me isn't me then am I not actually writing this by committee?

So little is understood about the nature of consciousness. Out of this improbable assortment of cells and genetic information arises thought and What I find tantalizing are various studies indicating that certain microbes inside of us can affect our moods, our health, whether we develop obesity or diabetes, etc. If microbes are so influential, couldn't it be possible that they might collectively be giving rise to this thing we call Mind, or consciousness?

Last month I had a bout of food poisoning after eating some bad sushi. The first night, along with the usual misery, I had a really good fever going (I was not too happy to learn that fevers don't usually accompany food poisoning unless it's an issue of fecal contamination, but let's not dwell on that...). I poured buckets of sweat and had weird dreams all night long--dreams of places and events in my early childhood that I had forgotten, dreams containing bits of insight and advice, and many more that I couldn't remember but that left me feeling very positive and upbeat. For the next two nights, even though the fever had broken, I continued to have night sweats and vivid and very positive dreams. During the days I felt wonderfully renewed, like the world was brand new and anything was possible.

Lynn Margulis, in her book Symbiotic Planet, mentioned that once foreign microbes are incorporated into cells or bodies they behave symbiotically, but initially it's a brutal war for survival and domination. The food poisoning virus or bacteria that I tussled with wasn't entering into a symbiotic relationship with me--it sought to use me to reproduce itself and then move on. If it had become lodged in my body like the microbes I permanently host, it would have traded its mobility for a guarantee of continued existence within me. While it was with me though it seemed to be sharing it's unique personality. I got the distinct feeling that my unusual state of consciousness was not merely the fever talking, but actually the microbe talking. Whatever it was doing chemically inside of me was affecting my consciousness. And the weirdest thing of all was that it seemed to be a good microbe--it was contributing in a positive way to my state of mind. Of course it was also making me very sick, but that was only because our two species hadn't evolved a way to exist symbiotically. My body rejected it. All of the nasty symptoms were ways in which my body was trying to expel it. But that odd subtle shift in my consciousness, the upbeat mood, the access to long forgotten memories--I just have a feeling that was the microbe's contribution. If the human body ever enters into a symbiotic relationship with that particular microbe I bet it would result in an enhancement of human consciousness (regardless of its lowly, possibly fecal, origins).

We have all of these different species of microbes comprising us, each one subtly shifting our body's chemistry. Could the sum total of all of that chemistry be Mind? But of course it's not only microbes that shift chemistry--it's what we eat, what we inhale, what our senses draw in. Ultimately we are our environment.

I've noticed as I've gotten more serious about growing things that each plant has its own unique energy. Herbs seem to have the most pronounced "personalities", but I even had an interesting experience with tomatoes.

Last fall I grew 241 pounds of tomatoes. I had been busy for weeks canning tomato sauces, tomato pastes, tomato juices, etc., but hadn't eaten an exorbitant amount of them raw yet. Then one day, when they were really piling up on the counters and threatening to spoil, I ate like three or four gigantic tomatoes in one evening. That night, for the first 2/3 of the night, literally all I dreamed about were tomatoes. Tomatoes were behind my eyelids. Streams of red-gold tomatoey light were flowing through my veins, like rivers of sunlight. Tomatoes were the only reality. What I find interesting is I had been dealing with tomatoes for weeks, but it wasn't their overwhelming presence in my life "out there" that impacted my consciousness. I had to literally incorporate them into me first, as food. Then they spoke loud and clear.

I'm beginning to believe everything we take into us shapes our consciousness. If true, then it becomes essential that we are mindful of what we allow in, especially if we care at all about our human potential. Having healthy microbes might be critical, so we should avoid all of the antimicrobial products now available. Herbs might have important things to contribute to consciousness, so we should incorporate them into our diets. Chemicals and preservatives might kill and distort microbes and beneficial enzymes, so we should seek only organic foods. And what about animals raised in horrific conditions, never able to reach their full genetic potentials? How might that kind of chemistry affect human consciousness if we ingest it? This is such an interesting line of inquiry. This year I'll be growing over fifty types of fruits, veggies, herbs, and grains, so I'm going to do some experiments. I particularly want to get acquainted with the properties and personalities of the herbs that I'll be growing since, as I've noticed, they seem to speak the loudest.