Stephen was, as the cliché goes, many things to many people: a man, husband, father, he was a surfer, snowboarder, miscellaneous adventurer, he was a musician, songwriter, Deadhead, he was a community-building connector of people, a small business owner, in some ways a kind of yogi, and I had the great good fortune of being able to call him my friend.
Stephen died 5 years ago, after an epic battle with cancer.
Shortly after he passed, I dreamt, quite vividly, that he and I were together again, walking the cobblestone streets of some ancient city, then drinking pints of beer from pewter mugs beside a roaring fire in a cavernous tavern.
And now, as I near my own passing, I’ve been assured by Stephen’s widow that Stephen will be there — wherever there is — to greet and guide me when my time comes.
Stephen In His Element
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a Jew. I bring this up now, because ever since Jacob wrestled an angel of God in the Book of Genesis, we Jews have been proud wrestlers, figuratively speaking. We are a people who fiercely grapple with issues religious, political, literary, culinary, etc., we’re a people for whom argumentation and debate is practically lifeblood, a people who, by the year 500 A.D., had compiled the Talmud, a nearly 3,000-page collection of rabbinic arguments intended as interpretation of the Torah, i.e. the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.
Ironically, all that arguing results in many Jewish agnostics, and sure enough, I’ve been a lifelong agnostic myself, in terms of theism, yes, but also concerning pretty much any phenomenon that has neither been proven nor disproven by science: God/gods/spirits, reincarnation, UFOs, Sasquatch, Santa, The Beatles, etc. 😉🤣
Now, let’s say there’s a continuum, on one end is Atheism, and on the other end is Religious Zealotry, and belief or disbelief in an afterlife will vary depending on where a person resides on the continuum. Well, as abundant evidence suggests, people do not necessarily remain indefinitely at some fixed point on this continuum, and whether or not movement in either direction on the scale is due to some revelation during private study, the influence of a charismatic spiritual teacher, a spontaneous awakening, or a high-dose psychedelic experience, it seems it could happen to just about anyone.
But of course…it doesn’t.
When I asked Greta, Stephen’s widow, what faith or belief system contributes to her certainty that Stephen is very much alive and well in the afterlife, that he visits her regularly, and that I will indeed see him again when I pass, she said:
“It’s not belief or faith. I simply experience it as truth.”
Well, speaking as someone who is on the threshold of death, with no freaking idea as to what, if anything, comes next, let me tell you, the confidence of that statement is enviable.
“If learning is living,
And the truth is a state of mind,
You’ll find it’s better
At the end of the line.”
–Jay Farrar, from Tear-Stained Eye by Son Volt
What I’m curious about, then: How much of this learning-thru-living is required, exactly? To what extent does the level of one’s effort dictate whether or not we find answers to questions about unexplained or underexplained phenomena, or, in other words, how much effort is required for our state of mind to become our truth?
When I consider the scientific approach, the answer to this question is pretty obvious: A whole helluva lot of effort is required, actually: years of research, documentation, peer review, etc., and for me personally, the fact that I could never math very well meant barely passing my 11th grade Chemistry class, which in turn rather definitively indicated that a life as a scientist just wasn’t in the cards.
Moving on to the religious/spiritual approach, for years I’ve rather self-deprecatingly referred to myself as a dabbler, but let’s ditch the self-deprecation and say that I’ve been a kind of on-again, off-again pilgrim. It always seemed to me that there could be answers, that evidence could be found, with sufficient commitment, discipline, and practice, whereas my efforts were typically insufficient. Yoga classes, meditation retreats, and monasteries seemed to be filled with the sufficient effort people, and though, for example, I might have made it to yoga class 2-3 times a week for extended periods of time, yoga teachers typically promote the idea that the rubber really hits the road and real progress is attained when you add a daily home practice.
One day recently, I was discussing this topic with an old friend, and he referenced an episode of the National Public Radio show Hidden Brain titled Secret Friends: Tapping Into The Power Of Imagination, which seemed to support the idea that sufficient effort is the key.
From the intro on the website (my *emphasis* added):
“This week, we look at the human capacity for imagination, and meet people who have *trained* themselves to experience the invisible as real.”
The show examines human experiences with “invisible” phenomena, from imaginary friends, to magic, to God, exploring the possibility that with sufficient effort, through practice, through, you might say, learning-thru-living, one can cultivate a state of mind that sees truth where others do not. Rightly assuming that some listeners put more faith in science than in spirituality, the episode prominently features a Stanford University Anthropologist, Tanya Luhrmann, who has studied people who believe these phenomena to be real, including extensive field work and controlled experiments.
But, Luhrmann also tried out the practices she learned about in order to see if she’d personally experience anything, and she reported:
“The world felt as if it was becoming more connected. It felt like I was having these synchronicities. Things would – you know, I’d walk to the greengrocer. And the greengrocer would say something that I had been thinking about. And so I would have these experiences. And then over the course of the year, you know, I really saw myself change, felt myself change…
There’s all kinds of things that people experience. But what I can say is that the more time you spend doing what I would call inner sense cultivation, the more likely you are to report these events, that people have these moments in which, in effect, what they’re imagining breaks forth into the world.”
The episode’s conclusion?
Host Shankar Vedantam closes with:
“The human capacity for imagination is one of the greatest gifts of the brain. Our imaginations can certainly lead us astray, cause us to see things we wish to see instead of seeing reality for what it is. Those concerns are well-founded, but they should not lead to a narrow absolutism. Sometimes amazing things can happen when we allow ourselves to listen to our secret friends.”
So, as a lifelong Agnostic Pilgrim, I’m pretty comfortable stating that I’ve managed to avoid narrow absolutism. And yet, despite all of my pilgriming, I can’t honestly say that I’m confident I’ll see my friend Stephen when I die, nor that I’ll see anything at all, really.
Of course, I’m also not ready to say that I absolutely won’t see Stephen, because, well, godamnit, I’m no Narrow Absolutist!
Last week, I was talking about this with my 23-year old son Julian, during one of our precious late-morning coffee chats. These chats are made possible by an unlikely alignment in our normally wildly incompatible schedules: Julian, an age-appropriate night owl, never awake early on his days off from work; and me, given my level of disability, rarely done with morning rituals and breakfast and ready to engage in a chat until about the same time as him.
So, one day I asked him what he thought of Greta’s truth, i.e. her ongoing relationship with her dearly deceased Stephen.
“Oh, how nice for her.”
And while this comment might sound dismissive and disdainful, in actuality, more than anything, it reveals Julian’s deep-seated and beautiful egalitarianism.
“How is it fair that access to some truths depends on circumstances such as what culture you are born into, or what books you happen to read, if you can even access and read just the right books, or whether or not you ever meet a teacher who gives you the needed instruction?”
Regarding the idea from Hidden Brain, that we humans can cultivate truth through practice, just as we might cultivate any other set of skills, he added:
“Is it cultivating truth, or is it cultivating confirmation bias and delusion?”
I know. Smart young man.
“So, does this make you a Narrow Absolutist?” I ask.
“Absolutely not! I’m an Agnostic Pilgrim, just like you, pops!”
“I see the light
At the end of the tunnel now.
Someone please tell me
It’s not a train.”
–David Lowery, from I See The Light by Cracker
Ok, so, where does all this philosophizing leave me?
Well, if I’m honest, I’d recently been leaning towards feeling kind of ripped off, actually.
I’ve been wondering why I couldn’t experience one thing over all my years that gave me just a little confidence that, for instance, there is a light that you see at the end of a tunnel when you die, and that the light is NOT an oncoming train!
But then, a couple of days ago, for the first time in years, I thought of the Parable of The Drowning Man, and I felt like such a fool.
The parable, in a nutshell:
- A town is flooding.
- One man refuses to evacuate, declaring his faith that God will save him.
- Rescuers in a rowboat, then a motorboat, then a helicopter arrive offering to save the man, but he refuses their offers, insisting that God will save him.
- The man drowns in the flood, and upon arriving in heaven he asks God why he wasn’t saved.
- God replies, “I sent you a rowboat and a motorboat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”
Now listen, no one, I mean NO ONE, wants to be like the Drowning Man.
Here then, is the parable, rewritten autobiographically:
The Parable of the Agnostic Pilgrim
The Agnostic Pilgrim was nearing the end of his life. He was not terrified of death, for he did not ascribe to certain scary afterlife outcomes, like Judgement Day, Purgatory, or Hell. But, he did admit to having what he referred to as an ordinary, mild fear of the unknown.
While some people he knew personally — as well as many others he’d read about in numerous books on the subject — professed a fervent certainty that there is a benign and beautiful destination, some realm on some other dimension, where we arrive and reside once we pass on from our earthly existence, the Agnostic Pilgrim insisted that he has never been shown evidence of such a place sufficient enough for him to fully embrace it as possible.
In his final months and weeks, the looming unanswered mystery hung over the Agnostic Pilgrim like a cloud. It had been an unusually sunny spring, a typically sunny Pacific Northwest summer had just arrived, and visits with family and friends usually succeeded in brightening things up and filling him with love. But even some of these visits included searching discussions on the topic of death and dying, featuring Agnostic Pilgrim screeds bemoaning his doubt.
Then, one morning, he awoke, and as he was lying in bed, gazing out the window at the garden, all of a sudden, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted an object in the sky, a large, striped feather, the bird who’d lost it nowhere in sight as it spiraled down to the ground, perfectly nailing the landing, the quill penetrating the earth beneath the grass, the vane sticking straight up, and at that exact moment, a series of vivid memories emerged, one after the other, like a slideshow, seeming to say to him:
“What do you mean you’ve received no messages or signs?!”
There was that time when he was a pre-teen, on a summer visit to his uncle’s house in rural Vermont, feeling the crushing brunt of the end of childhood, when one day he set out on his own through the woods behind the house, about 100 yards to the stream he knew was there, and he sat down on a large rock that hung out over to the middle of the stream, and, not knowing anything yet about spirituality, meditation, or the magic of the natural world surrounding him, he sat still and stared at the water flowing by, noticed the relaxing trickling sound as it traveled along, observed the young rainbow trout sheltering directly beneath him in the rock’s gift of shade, and he felt a consuming peacefulness overtake him, a peacefulness he’d seek out again and again in the great outdoors.
Then there was his first Grateful Dead show! Oh, sure, he’d already experienced the ecstatic joy of a rock concert, in an arena with thousands of people, immersed in thunderous, unapologetically loud music, but he’d always hated dancing — at Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and weddings and school dances, to the din of 1970s Disco or 1980’s New Wave — so there he was, drawn by a kind of gravity to the Philadelphia Spectrum, 4/26/1983, warm in the embrace of a lovely hippie holdout community, the band sounding nothing at all like what most people would call a dance band, and yet all around him, with no self-consciousness or pretense, the Deadheads simply moved their bodies to the flow of the music, no fancy steps, no showing off, until suddenly he felt completely liberated, and he began to gently sway, his head, shoulders, arms, hands, torso, pelvis, legs, and feet loosening up and moving however the feeling moved them, and then, allowing the music to move through him, he became one with the crowd, as if, together, they formed a sea of gentle swells, out just beyond the surf, where gravity dissipates and a kind of weightlessness takes over.
Next, his first visit to Grand Canyon, when, as he slowly approached the edge of the South Rim for the first time, his lower jaw slackened as his brain labored to process the magnitude of the gaping chasm sprawled out before him, his whole body felt the immensity of this wonder of the world, and he suddenly felt, as others oft-describe, small and insignificant, but strangely, simultaneously, rather than distressed — as he moved on, descending the Bright Angel Trail, passing through millions of years with each layer marked on the canyon walls, until, standing at Plateau Point, looking out at the Colorado River — he felt a tremendous weight lifted at the realization that, if you were indeed small and insignificant, then so are all the trials and tribulations of your day-to-day drama, at which point he remembered the park ranger’s warning that the hike back up to the rim was twice as hard and took twice as long as the hike down, and he chuckled when he realized that however much weight had been lifted, it just wasn’t enough for him to float up out of there.
Then there was that time, when he and his buddy Dennis had just finished setting up camp, right where an unnamed tributary emptied into the Sauk River, in Skagit County, Washington State, they were lying on the ground, looking up at the clear blue sky, when the psilocybe cubensis mushrooms, a stem and a cap each, began to work their magic, first, all the colors he saw became saturated, then, even inanimate objects seemed to vibrate from the movement of their subatomic particles, and he began to feel the boundary blur between his body and all that was outside of his body, he began to realize that all matter and energy, though it congregates in various forms, shapes, and sizes, is all the same stuff, and all connected, at which point he felt himself dissolve into the earth beneath him, he knew he was able to reconstitute as a separate self at anytime, but right there and then he felt no actual need to do so.
Years later, around six months after his terminal diagnosis, symptoms worsening and the reality of mortality sinking in, all of a sudden he began to hear the call of the Barred Owl that lived in the woods beside his house, Hoo, Hoo, Hoo-Hoo, every night at bedtime, until that day he had the daylong shaman-guided psilocybin mushroom journey, arranged for the express purpose of facing death and any fear that it might bring, so that he might live out the relatively meager time he had left in some semblance of peace, and though he never mentioned the owl calls to his guide, owls appeared to him in several different forms during the journey, followed after the journey by an uncanny series of owl sightings and references and synchronicities, in poems, in a novel recommended by a friend from New York, I Heard The Owl Call My Name, set in a First Nations village on the British Columbia, Canada coast, a mere 300 miles north of his Bellingham. Washington home, and whose author, Margaret Craven, graduated from Bellingham High School, and the owl — who, according to myth, folklore, and indigenous wisdom is the harbinger of death and a guardian for those who leave this earthly world and transition to the next — continued to appear in a vast array of artworks, from t-shirts, to retail signage, to jewelry, to a thousand artsy-craftsy knick-knacks seemingly everywhere he looked.
And finally, this morning’s feather, that feather that just suddenly appeared in the sky, it’s owner bird nowhere to be seen, landing so perfectly as it did, so that he could easily ask his wife to retrieve it, by simply pointing to it out in the yard, sticking straight up out of the grass as if it wanted to be found, the feather that, upon inspection and upon referencing a variety of websites, was definitively identified as a wing feather from a…
The Actual Feather
Then, just like that, the slideshow was over, followed by a deafening silence that seemed to say:
“You say you’ve received no messages or signs?
What more did you expect?!”
And so the Agnostic Pilgrim, still feeling a tinge of foolishness, decided instead to rejoice the fact that, unlike the character of the Drowning Man in an old story he’d once heard, he didn’t have to wait until he was actually dead in order to have the messages and signs pointed out to him.
The cloud lifted and the Agnostic Pilgrim smiled.
Now, returning to that Jay Farrar quote:
“If learning is living,
And the truth is a state of mind,
You’ll find it’s better
At the end of the line.”
Was the owl feather the ‘it’s better at the end of the line’ bit?
If so, just how far out at the end of the line are we talking about here?