Having lived for close to eighty years, I’ve reached a point where I can rest on a metaphoric ledge, contemplate my past, and attempt to identify the motifs that have made my intellectual-spiritual life what it is today.
The nudge that prompted me to write this essay was a serendipitous experience reported to me by a client. His extraordinary experience involved discovering an “art tree” in an out-of-the way location decorated with numerous canvases. That encounter enabled him to see himself and the world in a hopeful new way. How to maintain that new way of perceiving the world became the subject of our conversation. During our talk I was reminded of a passage from a book by Rabbi Abraham Heschel. Here are excerpts from the passage, titled “Lifting the Veil”, which I shared with my client.
In every man’s life there are moments when there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known, opening a sight of the eternal… But such experiences are rare events. To some people they are like shooting stars, passing and unremembered. In others they kindle a light that is never quenched. The remembrances of that experience and the loyalty to the response of that moment are the forces that sustain our faith. In this sense, faith is faithfulness, loyalty to an event, and loyalty to our response.
For years I had not even thought of the passage, yet during that past week I had shared it with several other clients. After hearing the story of the art tree, I realized that it was time for me to reflect on the words of Rabbi Heschel and see how they impacted me.
I soon recalled three incidents, all which continue to influence me. I’ll characterize them as motifs.
A motif can be thought of as a recurring design. We may metaphorically picture these incidents as such, each contributing to the development of an overall, integrated pattern. However, using this metaphor comes with a caveat. A decorative design/motif is specifically motivated and deliberately executed. These life-affecting intellectual/spiritual insights were not the result of any planning on my part. They arose out of my spontaneous interaction with something in the world outside of myself.
I will refer to them in chronological order as the Butterfly; the Sun; and the Chalice.
In the fall of 1966, two years after receiving my doctorate from Yale and my psychology license from New York State, I attended an American Psychological Association convention in Manhattan which featured a panel including Fritz Perls, Albert Ellis, and Elizabeth Mintz. “Betsy”, as she was known, was the founder of “Marathon Therapy”, a sixties-seventies phenomenon entailing group therapy sessions lasting from noon to noon the next day without a break. There are many ways to have a mind-altering experience sans psychedelics. Her presentation intrigued me, and consequently I attended one of her “marathons” that winter. She was intuitive, courageous, imaginative, and familiar with the techniques put forward by Fritz Perls. In my first marathon I entered new territory. Role-playing, group experiments, and the encouragement to explore and express the deepest of feelings were a revelation to me. I took to it as a duck to water. As a result of that first encounter, Betsy invited me to co-lead ensuing marathons with her. I did so for a year or two and at one point we held a residential marathon by a lake in the exurbs of New York City.
Betsy was an avid swimmer, considered herself a daughter of Neptune, and was convinced of the psychic power inherent in ceremonies involving water. During this particular marathon she decided that now was the time for her to initiate/baptize me into the order of …? Hard to say. Those she considered especially suited to be psychotherapists I suppose. I welcomed participating in the ceremony. It’s not often one has the chance to be physically dunked and then blessed by one’s mentor.
The sun was brilliant in the blue heavens, the wind soft and warm, and the ceremony in the green waters of the lake brief and bracing. When it was over, I chose solitude and began walking along a country path winding up towards a low rise. The farther I walked, the slower my steps. Everything seemed to slow down. I was aware of my breathing, the breeze, the giant oak up ahead to my right.
It was at that point that I noticed a flickering darkness on the ground before me. I recognized it as the silhouette of a butterfly. I stood stock-still, watching its shadow circle above the shadow of my head. Round and round it fluttered, drawing closer and closer to me. I didn’t attempt to catch it directly with my eyes. Instead, I quietly inhaled as it finally came to rest on top of my head. I could sense its weight, like a baby’s breath, perched on my crown. A blessing and affirmation carrying great weight. The moment lasted a second and forever. Two generations later it continues to echo down the corridors of my mind.
Betsy played a big role in my seeing myself as a psychotherapist and teacher of psychotherapists, but the butterfly indicated to me the presence of something greater than either her or my singular self. During the ensuing forty plus years I have never doubted my path as a therapist and teacher of therapists. I have kept faith with my butterfly.
About ten years later, after having left New York and moved my practice and residence to Berkeley, I was spending the day in one of my favorite places. A beach near Jenner, just south of where the Russian River flows into the Pacific. The sun was setting as I paused in my walk and turned to face the gently breaking surf and glowing horizon. I immediately noticed a band of sunlight reflected on the water, heading right towards me. I had never been so clearly aware of that phenomenon. I continued my walk, the ocean on my right, for another hundred yards or so and then turned to face the sunpath again. Sure enough, it was still headed right towards me. I continued this process of walking, turning, and noticing a number of times. Each time, there was the shining on the water headed towards me and seemingly no other spot on the beach.
Suddenly, a realization flowered in my consciousness: anyone on the beach facing the sun and water, no matter where they were standing, would have the experience of being uniquely singled out. I imagined people lined up from Alaska to Chile, the length of the New World Pacific seacoast, each person marveling at the fact that a band of light was seemingly heading for them and only them.
That experience has continued to serve me as the years have passed.
I see it as a metaphor for the dialectic between our uniqueness and our commonality as human beings. A metaphor that also makes space for a greater context influencing us all. It has guided me in political, personal, and professional aspects of my life.
Fast forward twenty years or so into the mid-nineties. During my visit to my family in Manhattan, I decide to attend a John Cage event held in the splendid setting of St. John’s Cathedral in Morningside Heights. Music is of course part of it, along with theatrics of some sort. You never knew with Cage, which is part of the allure of his happenings.
The space is magnificent; a giant pipe organ provides the sounds along with singers and trumpets. An awe-inspiring experience even for jaded New Yorkers. Less than an hour into the performance, the attention of the audience is drawn to an activity taking place in the main aisle of the Cathedral every fifty feet or so. Pedestals are spaced in the middle of the aisle. Atop each one rests a glass pitcher full of water, and an empty glass. At each location, a young man or woman formally dressed in black and white, approaches the pedestal and picks up the pitcher. There is a pause. We all watch.
The pouring into the glass begins. And continues and continues. In less than a minute the glass overflows. And the pouring continues and continues. The water streams down each pedestal and splashes onto the marble floor. It forms rivulets and spreads. Soon all the pitchers are emptied. The scene has ended, – the program continues.
But something quite new is beginning for me. The concatenation of events has put me into a trance of sorts. I am aware of my heightened kinesthetic and sensory awareness. Although I seem to be sitting still, I can detect the subtlest of muscle movements ebbing and flowing throughout my body. My breathing is only one of the many sources of the internal shifting of my energy. For a few minutes I am with myself, aware of the multitude of ever-changing sensations. Then my attention turns to my neighbor and to people seated near and far. Everyone seems to be sitting quite still. No one is talking. And yet, and yet .. I can sense and see a multitude of movements emanating from the audience. It is at that point that a phrase arises in my mind:
Infinite unfolding is the nature of creation
That phrase has continued to give me comfort and understanding as the years pass, and helped me accept the permanence of change. I believe that the water unceasingly pouring into the glass was the visual metaphor that cued me into a trance. A trance enabling me to articulate the truth implicit in that metaphor. Creation keeps pouring and pouring. It is the wind of ever-creative time that adds the unpredictable. And it is the unpredictable emergent that brings freshness.
I’ve decided to name this motif “the chalice”, because of the setting where it arose, and the special nature of a chalice. A chalice is a goblet used in religious ceremonies. In this case, I imagine my consciousness as a chalice, receiving the blessed wine of ongoing creation.
The Motifs as Part of a Greater Structure
It was less than a decade after that experience that I began to read the works of Teihard de Chardin. A paleontologist, Jesuit priest and seer, Chardin had seen the wonders wrought by time and evolution up close.
He let the wind of time fill his philosophical sails, and set course towards a promised land where an evolved humanity joined with the Godhead.
I joined him on his voyage, as long as his vessel was constructed from the stout planks of empirical facts. And it was, as he described the entire sweep of the past and took us into the present. He proposed complexification as the driving force of evolution defining it as increasing intra-contextual variation while the context maintains coherence. This process of increasing individual differentiation while social coherence is maintained has accelerated within humanity since the Industrial Revolution. The fall of the Colonialism and the global spread of women’s and other minority rights and democracy can be seen as evidence of evolutionary social complexification. My three motifs currently provide me with vital elements supportive of my spiritual-intellectual structure. I remain faithful to their memory, and their meaning and import deepen as I age.
My butterfly experience supports my life-long work as a therapist, group leader, and teacher. That work has enabled me to both develop my perspective and put it into practice.
The sun motif illustrates both the importance of each individual in the grand scheme of things and the presence of a grand scheme of things. As such, it fits well into my Chardanian structure and grounds it in a visual, natural image.
Considering the chalice, I imagine the words “infinite unfolding is the nature of creation” themselves changing. When I personalize and place them in an evolutionary context they become: “we all play a role within the evolutionary unfolding of creation”.
The experiences that have “lifted the veil” for us are uniquely our own. Giving them credence and weight and reflecting on how they play a role in our lives is something all who have had such an experience can do.
It is yet another way that enables us to further differentiate within the larger context. To consciously join in the unfolding.