It’s in the little things, of course.
The feeling for me is of a lightness of being, brushing my five year-old daughter’s hair as she grows it long. Spending a good couple of hours completing a Lego set together. The way that the children sing. Right now their signature tune is The Night Begins to Shine from the Teen Titans Go! series.
These are things that make me smile.
But it’s also in the big things. Feeling creative, feeling skillful, successfully navigating through the situations life presents, feeling in control of one’s destiny.
The experience is the same – a physical lightness, an energy, a flow. In many respects a polar opposite to depression.
I often think of it like buoyancy – the kind of buoyancy that allows a hot air balloon to become lighter than air and as such rise up. In that lightness all the horizons open up. And, implicit in that analogy is a sense of verticality: that some experiences, some states of being, are higher than others.
But what do we mean when we talk of some experiences as being high and others low? And how do we arrange our worlds in terms of higher and lower?
Consciousness – that phenomenon of Nature – rests itself atop a huge architecture of material platforms which make it possible. Note how the mind and the central nervous system are utterly dependent on the circulatory system, digestive system, immune system etc. whirring away – minute by minute, day by day, and all the years of our lives.
Considered as a timeline, each stage in the evolution of the biosphere, for example the development of the magnetic field, the oxygenation of the atmosphere, and to later stages such as the establishment of peaceful, liberal and technological societies, creates a gateway for nature to take its course onto a ‘higher’ plane.
I thus see Consciousness as riding upon a huge pyramid of material factors which make any of this possible.
(Observe the similarity with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, except at the top I think is not self-actualisation but rather the purest, sharpest, brightest, lightest experiences of Consciousness. Perhaps versions of selfhood are located in the supporting levels just below that).
I’m reminded of something Isaac Newton wrote when commenting on the transformational discoveries he made in his own time:
To myself I am only a child playing on the beach, while vast oceans of truth lie undiscovered before me […] If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.
I love this quote for two reasons. Firstly because it captures that sense that we are all standing on the shoulders of giants. But also because we are all ultimately like children playing on the beach – I think it captures well what I understand by a lightness of being.
So there’s a sense, therefore, of being ‘inside’ a vertical architecture. What environments bring out my lightness? What am I being called into?
Little decisions can be transformative. The nights are drawing in now, but over the summer taking the chance to sit, maybe even take dinner, outside in the garden of an evening can transform conscious experience. Lorinda shows me her agapanthus flowers in full bloom. She explains that they are related to onions but look at the way the petals fan out in a starburst, she marvels. Like a firework. The lightness of being as enjoyed by a gardener – where all the labour creates a platform, or a sanctuary, in which those delicate beauties emerge. Later when I am tired and want to go to bed she calls me out again – it’s a clear sky and we can see the Milky Way galaxy. She gives me a nudge, I follow, and we find our lightness of being.
But how do we arrange the world vertically? And why are our arrangements different? To one person, their home town might seem stagnant and contemptuously familiar – like a pit out of which we need to escape in order to know the world. Or, alternatively, we might take pride in our home town – its people, its history, and what we still have to learn about it. In the latter case the home town is the gateway to the world; our little base within the world.
Objects might be perceived as light or heavy – but this depends upon the contextual frame. I’m thinking about all the symbolism of the Church: the bible, the idols, the praying etc. Who are these light for? These same symbols and these same rituals may be energising for some, and burdensome for others.
Perhaps it has something to do with feeling as though we are on a frontier – that we can perceive a four-dimensional pathway mapped out within or through these objects, acts, and rituals.
An elderly person who had had a secular upbringing, becomes heavily involved in the Church. They feel they are on a trajectory towards the heavens, and without coming to faith they may have been left flailing and confused as they approach their twilight years. It is so much more to do with aesthetics and a kind of immersive ‘insider’ experience than it does with cold reason. For another person, having grown up with the Church, but who has made an adult choice to leave the Church, these same rituals and rites may seem utterly burdensome – like lead weights or shackles that need to be thrown off to engage with the world in its lightness.
Children too are forever discovering new pathways. Think about when the toddler first learns that the square peg goes in the square hole, and the half-moon peg in the half-moon hole – their discovery is revolutionary, and is an experience of lightness for them.
What I understand by a lightness of being is that it can be enjoyed simply in the present – in this present moment - but it can also propel us into imagined futures.
There is a idea in psychology about the capacity of people to delay gratification in anticipation of greater rewards later on. The famous – and hotly debated - Stanford marshmallow experiment was thought to have shown that the children who were able to refrain from eating the one marshmallow put in front of them in the promise of receiving two later, were the ones that went on to have more desirable life outcomes, higher educational achievement and better health indicators. The child that eats the one marshmallow is the hedonist, enjoying their present; the child that waits for the two that are promised is the eudaemonist – prepared to sacrifice pleasure now for a greater happiness later on.
I call the latter lightness in four dimensions. We put labour into learning a foreign language, saving up to go travelling, buying a house, or indeed tending to a garden. These labours require an investment in the present but we’re propelled on by our imagined future, our pathway through time. Returning to parenthood – I think most parents would agree that raising children can be and very often is hard work, involving exceptional sacrifices of time and freedom. I remember this being a particular shock to me when I first became a Dad – like my whole world transformed overnight.
But those same self-sacrificing parents are also able to offer a veritable flood of joyful memories and stories, and a seemingly endless wellspring of pride and love when asked about their children. The lightness of being for a parent is in the long-game; the journey through time, as we watch our children grow.
And that leads me onto a final thought today. Why do we delight in seeing others rise; why do we delight in their lightness, perhaps even as they go on to surpass our own? I think it’s a bit like the delight Lorinda feels about her agapanthus flowers. The environments that gave rise to us, and which we work hard to nurture and maintain, are now the environments in which others are flourishing. I imagine myself as an elderly person or a grandparent – in my time of decline – delighting in seeing the continued blossoming of life. I see their trajectory, as they rise off into the future. It is a delight accessible not just to those who have become parents, but to all who have in whatever ways created life or nurtured others.
This I think comes pretty close to capturing my understanding of what the Buddhists mean when they talk about the state of egolessness. In an ego state we are terrorised by the idea of personal death; the ending of our own time and personal participation. In egolessness we fall in love with our common origins and delight in the life that goes on.