Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Theatrical Universe

Though my interests lie in the intellectual, my roots actually deal far more with the artistic than the abstract. To put it a little more clearly, I come from a theater family. My great-grandparents (Ruth and Nathan Hale) were the founders of a series of theaters scattered across the Western United States, several of which bear their name. My parents run one of these, the Hale Center Theater Orem.

All of this means that I was brought up around the stage. I am familiar with theatrical nomenclature, and rules such as "don't touch props" were drilled into my head from a very young age. And while I am not much of an actor myself, I know quite a few of them.

In my time with these actors, I have become aware of the two dominant ways by which it is possible for them to do their jobs: technique and method acting. If you are a technique actor, you ideally control your movements, facial expressions, tones of voice, etc. with exact precision. You know precisely what to do to elicit a certain emotion, and have excellent control over your physical body. However, if you are a method actor, you forgo all deliberateness for an entirely different approach. The method actor, in short, tries to be their role. Insofar as they are able, they consciously try to forget that the world beyond the boundaries of the stage exists, making their mind into the character's mind (at least until the curtain call). Some method actors will even try to "be" their role while offstage, (or off-camera) in order to integrate themselves into it as much as they can.

The reader may wonder what this has to do with mysticism, or even with religion. To that reader, I offer this observation: I believe, as Shakespeare said, that the entire world is a stage. We, as immortal spirits, are the actors which play out the roles of our lives, acting the highs and the lows of our existence as a piece of art. But our spirits do not merely act - they are method actors. In fact, they are so good at it that they rarely, if ever, even recall that they are in a play. And you don't, do you? Yes, I believe that the veil of forgetfulness mentioned in doctrine is nothing less than a fourth wall separating us from our audience and director, none other than God himself.

But doesn't this necessarily conflict with the seriousness of God's plan? Wouldn't it be negating the gravity of salvation to see it through such a light-hearted lens? I don't think so. You see, to display the world as a performance puts the plan of God into incredible context, as it means that we are creating a work of art for the glory of God. Everything we do gains a certain significance when looked at artistically, (as expounded upon here) and so to do this with the plan of salvation makes it infinitely more meaningful. We are judged based on our works, sure. But I believe that we can see our works in the context of a performance. Like any performance, our director will judge the actors by how well they follow the script. And what, pray tell, is this script? It is the role we are foreordained to play, as seen in patriarchal blessings and other places. Of course, this director is a little laid-back, and so we are allowed quite a few artistic liberties. Ultimately, however, God sifts the actor-wheat from the actor-chaff by seeing how well we perform whatever it is we perform.

This has an amazing consequence. As with any play, the hardest roles in this life will be played by the best actors. Think of those born into destitute circumstances or with disabilities - they were given that role so that they could shine where others could not. They are not in any way being punished - God is challenging them due to their ability.

Finally, this play will end as all other plays do, with a curtain call. All of us, whether currently on life's stage or not, will drop our act and show ourselves for who we really are.  At that point, we will no longer see the world as a place full of suffering and misery; we will celebrate it for the masterpiece that it is, giving a magnificent bow amid raucous applause.

I look forward to that day, and to the remainder of the performance preceding it. Break a leg!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Mysticism in Cloud Atlas (the Book)

SPOILER WARNING: If you're squeamish about spoilers and haven't read Cloud Atlas, read no further until you have.

Can a book change your view of the world? It turns out that David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which I read last August, did precisely that.

No work of fiction has affected me as much as this one has. For reasons that you will soon see, I now stand in awe of what before was mundane, amazed at the infinite grandeur that underlies even the most humdrum activities of everyday life. 

Before I get into why that is the case, let me first give an introduction. Cloud Atlas is a 2004 novel by David Mitchell, the winner of several literary awards. It is divided into eleven sections, consisting of five bifurcated stories surrounding a central one like Russian matroyshka dolls. Here is a brief outline of these stories:

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing: The "outermost" story, it tells the tale of an American notary (Adam Ewing) from gold rush San Francisco, returning home across the Pacific Ocean. It is set in 1849 

Letters from Zedelghem: This story, set in 1931, consists of a series of letters from a "broke" young musician (Robert Frobisher) in Belgium, working as an amanuensis for a famous composer.

Half-Lives: The First Louisa Rey Mystery: Set in 1975, this story is written in the style of a mystery novel, and tells of a journalist (Louisa Rey) trying to "out" a conspiracy by a nuclear power plant.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish: This humorous section tells of a present-day elderly publisher (Timothy Cavendish)  who ends up accidentally imprisoned in a rest home.

An Orison of Sonmi~451: Set in a futuristic Korea, this story consists of a fabricant (Sonmi~451) who rebels against a corporate dystopia.

Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After: The middle story, the only one not to be interrupted, tells of a far-future Hawaii (after "the Fall"), a young man's (Zachry's) confrontations with a devil-figure, and his encounters with member of civilization's last remnants.

Though the book is composed of six separate stories, it gradually becomes clear that they form a larger, unified, all-encompassing tale. This story has its own plot-line, its own themes and motifs, and continuous character progression across the six protagonists. However, at least in the first half, this plot-line is not a happy one. It begins simply, with naïveté and innocence on the behalf of Adam Ewing, but as the stories progress, it becomes clear that things are getting much worse. Through corporate conspiracy, abuse of the elderly, and totalitarian oppression, the first half of Cloud Atlas tells the story of a world that is consumed (and ultimately destroyed) by its own greed, egoism, and prejudice.

The middle story depicts a world that has fallen apart. Civilization has vanished, as with technology and medicine, and even the English language has devolved into a bizarre pidgin. There seems be no hope. To make things worse, a devil figure named Ol' Georgie constantly tempts Zachry to do selfish and prejudiced things, especially against a newly arrived member of a technologically-advanced civilization.  But, in each case, he resists. This is the tipping point, the moment at which selflessness begins to triumph over egoism, and when hope starts to glimmer in the darkness of despair. In fact, from Sloosha's Crossin' on, these characters' stories begin to get better and better.

But hang on! How does that work? How can character progression happen reverse-chronologically? Well, the book itself addresses this point. Meronym, the technologically-advanced woman whom Zachry is tempted to harm, tells Zachry that souls don't exist, and that "when you die you die an' there ain't no comin' back". But then, to the audience of his story, he says this:

"Jus' that once I sorried for her. Souls cross the skies o' time, Abbess'd say, like clouds crossin' the skies o' the world. Sonmi's the east'n' the west, Sonmi's the map an' the edges o' the map an' b'yonder the edges."

He then continues this sentiment a few pages later by saying this:

"I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o' that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be 'morrow? Only Sonmi the east and' the west an' the compass an' the atlas, yay, only the atlas o' clouds."

These two quotations, in tandem, are the most important passage in the novel. Not only does it explain the book's title, but here we learn that the progression of a soul isn't bounded by time or place, but can continue wherever and whenever. In fact, this lesson becomes very apparent in the second half. For when we return to Sonmi's tale, she makes progress against the tyrannic "corpocracy" of futuristic Korea, but ultimately fails. But at the end of that section, just as she is about to be executed, she says something fascinating:

"No matter how many of us you kill, you will never kill your successor"

She implies that her fight against tyranny is not yet over, but will continue indefinitely  As a matter of fact, it does, with none other than Timothy Cavendish taking up the mantle. You see, despite the fact that it happened in the relative past, I saw his escape from the abusive nursing home as a direct continuation of Sonmi's rebellion, an extension of her story. In a very real sense, Sonmi lives on in Mr. Cavendish, giving closure to her seemingly fruitless struggle. In fact, this fight continues on even further in the past, with Louisa Rey's outing of the nuclear conspiracy that had threatened her life as yet another manifestation of this timeless war. 

But, in the second to last story, something tragic happens. Robert Frobisher, out of despair, commits suicide, dimming our hopes that his story will reach any satisfying conclusion. But he offers this observation to us, just before he pulls the trigger:

"We do not stay dead long."

And he does not, for on the very next page both Frobisher and the novel resume their stories. You see, Adam Ewing, like previous characters, is a direct continuation of Robert Frobisher's tale, meaning that whatever sadness Zedelghem brought us is made up for in this trans-oceanic voyage. This happens in a very interesting way: Ewing is being treated by a certain Dr. Henry Goose for what he believes is a brain parasite. But in reality, this doctor is poisoning him so as to obtain his possessions. Only a few pages from the end of the novel, Adam seemingly ends his journal, overcome by illness; it is all but certain, given no intervention, that he will perish. But he doesn't! Autua, a stowaway slave whom Ewing helped obtain passage, returns the favor, rescues him from Dr. Goose, and delivers him to actual medicinal care. The implications of this act are immense. It means that selflessness has finally defeated egoism. But it also means that Frobisher's life did not end in vain, as evidenced by the following quotation:

"Autua insists that had I not prevented him from being tossed overboard as a stowaway he could not have saved me & so, in a sense, it is not Autua who has preserved my life but myself."

So, in the end, good triumphs over evil, and Frobisher continues on. A truly happy conclusion to a fantastic novel. But there is yet another passage, the novel's last, which has amazing implications. He decides to go the South to help with the abolitionist movement, and imagines his father-in-law's response to such news:

"'You'll be spat on, shot at, lynched, pacified with medals, spurned by backwoodsmen! Crucified! Naïve, dreaming Adam. He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!'

Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?"

What does this mean, you may ask? Absolutely everything. Are we ultimately insignificant? Are our actions just "one drop in a limitless ocean"? Cloud Atlas ultimately answers with a resounding no. The gospel of this work is nothing less than an emphatic exclamation of the following: you are important, and everything you do matters. For this book is about the self. The self does not end at the boundaries of the skin, as most people think it does, as it continues in all directions, both across space and infinitely into the future and past. 

There is only one main character in Cloud Atlas. From Adam Ewing to Zachry, and all in between, they all share the same being, the same story, and the same soul. Anything that happens to one of them can be said to happen to all of them, and at any given point in the novel you can say that they are all there. I actually believe that this is true of us, as well. Everyone that we encounter, whether meeting them in our day-to-day lives or reading about them in history, is an extension of us. All stories are our story.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

In the Flesh

Imagine that you are locked in a room, and have been for your entire life. As you would expect, there are no doors, and there is only one solitary window that affords you vision of the outside world. From this window you can occasionally see the people that walk by far below, but you can't ever communicate meaningfully with any of them. Naturally, you are very lonely. What you want more than anything is to get out of your cell and join the throngs of people that mill around outside, but it would satisfy you to have a visitor, or even to have a mere conversation. But all these things are impossible, as your captivity is absolute and eternal.

This metaphor epitomizes the human condition. Like our imaginary prisoner, each of us dwells in a place from which we can never depart. This room is impenetrable from both the inside and the outside, and no one has ever visited that of another. If you haven't guessed already, I speak of our bodies, the figurative cells that hold our being captive.

Like any prison, the body's inhabitant wants nothing more than to escape, or to transcend the limitations and boundaries imposed by the flesh. In fact, this is true of all limitations, whether corporeal or otherwise. After all, why do we fall in love? For what reason is escapist literature so popular? Why does jealousy even exist? The only answer is that we long to be free of the shackles of self-hood, to exist across boundaries, to be another. 

To put it another way, mankind has an insatiable lust for the "other". We are discontented with the our current state of affairs, and we want more than anything to be somewhere else. But that is the problem: we can never be somewhere else, because we are always "here". This paradox, exemplified by the body, means that we will never fulfill our desire to transcend barriers in a meaningful way. We can never get "there", because "there" is dangled in front of us like a carrot would be to a donkey.

At least until death, there is no way for us to experience this "other", as our body limits us. What's more, Mormons believe that this can't even happen after death, as we suppose that we have "spirit-bodies" which not even the grave can part us from. Does this leave us with any hope? In fact, it does.

To see this, consider a thought experiment with me: what would existence be like without any bodies, spirit or otherwise? This world would have no limitations, boundaries or absolute definitions, and there wouldn't be a "you" or a "me", but only a cosmic unified "I". Further, there would be no separate things at all - just being, undivided and uncategorized. Now, imagine you were this "I". How would you pass the time? What would you think about? What would you do? If you have a hard time answering these questions, it is because it is impossible to do so - a state of being without an "other" lacks anything interesting or meaningful. For where is this "I"'s happiness?  Nowhere, because there is no "other" to be happy about.

The grand truth of corporeality is this: bodies allow us to be happy. It is precisely because of the limitation and finiteness of embodiment, the fact that there is something "other" than us, that we can have any sense of joy, affection, or even hilarity. Of course, embodiment also allows the aforementioned negative experiences. But I believe that it is worth it, for the body allows us a consolation. What, you may ask, is this boon? Nothing less than love.

What do I mean? Well, love allows us to have the best of both worlds, of both unlimited being and boundedness. It permits us to connect to someone else in an almost transcendental way, allowing us to stretch our being little by little into another. But most importantly, it lets us create an "extended self", existing in another's body while still encapsulated in your own. After all, think of the couple that has been married 50 years - if their marriage was successful, they know each other as they know themselves. They've told each other everything, and they know how the other thinks. They are one, in every way that matters.

It turns out that Genesis was right: it is not good that man should be alone. Because of the "other", and the boundaries of skin that ensures it exists, we can be happy, enjoy ourselves, love, and be loved.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

My Testimony of the Book of Mormon

As of last week, I have finished the Book of Mormon.

This might be a dangerous thing to say, but until recently I had never even come close to accomplishing such a feat. In fact, in past years I was far more interested in reconciling my religion with others than with actually delving into its doctrine and scripture. This has changed. I now know that you must recognize the truth of your intellectual roots before you can begin to look for it elsewhere, and as a result my life and testimony have grown immeasurably richer. If I were to put it boldly, I would say that reading the Book of Mormon has caused me to experience my religion's truth in a way unlike anything else. Here I will try to convey this experience, show that it is indeed a rod leading to God's love, and testify that it is true.

The Book of Mormon is not a collection of disparate stories and sermons - it is a unified whole with consistent and coherent themes. But there is one motif that is more all-encompassing than any other, and it is stated in very clear words near the beginning. I speak of 2 Nephi 2:11, and I now insist that Lehi's teaching of an opposition in all things is the book's most important passage. This work of scripture is filled to the brim with opposition of all sorts, as it depicts persecution, war, suffering, and destruction. But the key truth at its heart is that this opposition leads to harmony. Think of the trans-oceanic journeys in 1 Nephi and Ether, the Nephites' half-millennium-long wait for Christ, and the destruction that occurs just prior to his coming: in each case the conflict leads directly to joy, making it worth more than it would be otherwise. Even seemingly meaningless conflicts like the wars of Alma or Mormon find their import in the significance they give to the reader's lives. All of this speaks directly to us: our own suffering and opposition will ultimately have meaning and be for our good. 

However, there is an opposition which was uniquely significant to me, as it turns out that I was opposed to the book itself. When I read it, I was suddenly struck by how many flaws there were: it was often condemning, had dubious historicity, and was, to put it bluntly, awkwardly-worded. The critical reader inside of me was initially very resistant, wondering how such an imperfect work could have any inherent worth. But I trudged through the "wo unto"'s and the "and it came to pass"'s, having faith that it would ultimately mean something. Though it was very frustrating, and though I felt at times like I should give up, I ultimately emerged from the mists of darkness and experienced something extraordinary: I found that I didn't care about the book's foibles, for I had tapped into the heart of gold beneath them. In fact, the words on the page soon became completely irrelevant. Everything written there was merely a conduit, transparent glass that allowed me to perceive the ineffable light of divine truth within. I ultimately became a prism for this light, as when I was in the resultant spiritual "zone" I became more virtuous, receiving spiritual epiphanies like machine-gun-fire.

I do not believe I could have experienced this state without struggling through the literary flaws which preceded it. The oppositions of language, history, and ethics that some readers may experience with this book are spiritual paradoxes, (koans) which are quite intentional and serve a specific purpose. In truth, the Book of Mormon is a test. These paradoxes check our spiritual mettle, causing the critical reader to either dismiss or believe the claims made therein. For if one is to get anything out of this book, he or she must read it with faith. And if they do so, they will be rewarded.

Though the Book of Mormon was an amazing experience, the reward I speak of came to me in its fullness only near the end. No, I'm not talking about Christ's visit to the Americas, though that was rewarding in its own right. Instead, I speak of the Brother of Jared's divine vision. You see, I had always had a problem with the notion of God's body. To think of the origin of the universe - the link between you, me, and everything else - having body parts like a nose, elbows, or toenails was the epitome of ugliness. Considering this, and that Ether 3 is the most clear elucidation of divine corporeality short of the King Follett discourse, I thought I was headed into a train wreck. But I was to be surprised. I cannot tell you why, but in that moment I had absolutely no problems with the doctrine of God's body. This intellectual peace, my goal since long before I began this blog, was nothing less than miraculous. To me, it was a divine encounter in itself.

But is the Book of Mormon true? That seems to be the key question, doesn't it? Answered with a "no", everything falls apart. It means there is no priesthood, that the first vision never happened, and that all the saints' sufferings were for naught. But if it's true, then all else follows. So, which is it? After taking a course in epistemology, I cannot claim that the words on a page grant me any knowledge about the historical events in ancient Mesoamerica. There are too many factors that might interfere to positively claim you know the book is true. However, this is only a problem when using knowledge in a traditional sense. There is another, better, model of knowledge which makes the Book of Mormon true without any question. Devised by a man named William James, it goes like this: something is true if it proves useful to one who believes in it. Or, if I might rephrase it, something is true if it has "good fruits". And what are the fruits of the Book of Mormon if not good? Think of how many people's lives, including mine, have been made better for reading it. It is beyond measure.

I am suddenly reminded of Alma 32: "O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good". The Book of Mormon, because it has so much of this light and good, is real. Moreover, it is true, in every way that matters. Knowing this, I humbly leave this testimony with you, saying these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Breaking the Fourth Wall

I have recently begun watching the first season of a TV series called Community, which many of you are probably familiar with. It is at once hilarious and incredibly human, but there is one aspect of the show that I admire above all others. You see, Abed Nadir (one of the main characters) knows that he's in a TV show. From acknowledging plot developments to saying "good night" to the audience at the end of an episode, he has the unique ability to see his world for the fiction that it is.

We are not unlike Abed. We too are the handiwork of a creative and intelligent author, none other than God himself, who sustains us from "episode" to "episode" much like a television writer would. Moreover, we too are a role played by some other, more real, version of us. Like Abed's Danny Pudi, we have existed since long before our stint on the airwaves began, and will continue to exist after it is canceled. I speak, of course, of our eternal spirits, the actors that play the parts of our various lives.

But there is one important respect in which most of us are not like Abed: we are unaware of our fictional existence. Sure, a lot of religious people believe the doctrines elucidated in the previous paragraph, but not many take seriously the claim that our world is to God as a television show is to a writer. After all, why should we? Doesn't such a belief border on paranoia or insanity? Perhaps, but I will audaciously claim that this is an insanity worth having. In fact, believing that this world is a fiction of God leads us to have better lives than we would have otherwise.

I'm sure many of you are familiar with the Harry Potter series of books by J. K. Rowling. As a matter of fact, a character from these books serves to illustrate my point quite nicely: Severus Snape.

For the majority of the series, Harry Potter absolutely hates his Potions professor. And it's for seemingly good reasons, too: he is cynical, petulant, and bad-tempered. However, those who read the books inevitably love him, as he is arguably the series' most developed character. But why is there this discrepancy? After all, we nearly always see Snape through Harry's eyes, meaning that there's nothing there to stop him appreciating his professor as we do. But Harry, remaining entrenched in his limited and prejudicial views, does not do anything of the sort. And I think I know why. You see, it is obvious that Snape is a character in a work of fiction, yet Harry is blissfully unaware of this truth. In fact, it is this ignorance itself which directly leads to his lack of compassion. Because Harry perceives Snape as a "real" being, a combination of selfishness, fear, and  laziness prevents him from seeing his professor as the reader does. But if he were to take a leaf from Abed's book, realizing that his world is ultimately fictional, he would become detached enough from it to perceive Snape as he really is.

Let me explain this point more. When we view our ontological peers as real beings who exist in themselves, we tend to lack perspective. It is only when we begin to see the world as a fiction that we can apply the truth that all things in it serve an overarching plot-line. You see, the overly talkative fellow on the bus is there for a reason. I might not know what it is, but when I encounter him as a reader, my annoyance disappears in a surge of appreciation and sympathy. He might be there to add a flash of humanity to what would otherwise be a bleak couple of scenes. Failing that, his awkwardness might be considered lovable, making him a form of comic relief. Whatever the case, it is clear that to view things as ultimately real, or to focus on the humdrum "here-and-now", leads to the erection of a barrier between you and any object of compassion.

This principle manifests itself in other ways, as well. For example, you'd think that dirty dishes are not nice to look at. But if you search "dirty dishes painting" on Google images, you'll find that that's not always the case. In truth, holding up a frame in front of something always makes it instantly beautiful, for when you look at (or listen to) things the right way, you have the ability to see it as the most magnificent of masterpieces. But it is only when we view the world as a reader, a music-listener, or a connoisseur of art that we are able to do this. To live life to the fullest, it is infinitely helpful to acknowledge that we live in what is essentially a work of fiction. It involves placing ourselves with God in the audience, thus breaking the fourth wall that separates us from him.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Two Trees

The world is at war. Though your life may seem tranquil and at peace, you cannot avoid the fact that you, along with every other entity in this enormous universe of ours, are locked in a vicious battle with all other things. This proposition may seem doubtful, dubious, or even insane to you. But if you doubt me, think of your relationship the last person you interacted with. Whether you love, hate, or don't care about them, it is inescapably true that you are two separate individuals looking out for yourselves. Even if you act with altruism, you are always doing it for a selfish reason (i.e. to feel good, to be saved, or to help yourself follow a code of conduct).This endless conflict between the universe's players, where each manipulates the others for their own gain, happens for a simple reason. It is because, as Lehi said, "there is opposition in all things".

If you're like me, you probably want out of this endless struggle. I personally detest the idea of always having to fend for myself, and I desperately want to reach a state where I am at peace with other things. But that is a tall order. Not only does it seem impossible to eliminate conflict, but we are told that such tranquility wouldn't even be desirable. Continuing the above quote, Lehi says "if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility." Is that it? Are we doomed to choose between endless competition or nothingness? Is there nothing better? Thankfully, I have recently discovered that there is. And the secret to this alternative can be found, funnily enough, in the Garden of Eden.

If you were to walk into this horticultural paradise, you would see two magnificent trees placed smack in the middle - those of life and knowledge. Now, when Adam and Eve were placed there, they were forbidden from eating this second tree's fruit. However, they chose to accept the temptation of a certain snake, a wily serpent who claimed that eating this fruit enabled them to become like God, and ate. Consequently, much suffering came about, for Genesis tells us (and everyday experience testifies) that there is now enmity, pain, and labor. However, all of these things are a result of conflict, for as the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is (at least the perception of) opposition.

By virtue of our human existence, we live in a world where we have all partaken of this fruit. In this world, full of alienation and enmity, we both see and act as if competition and conflict were the way of things. We take offense. We are prideful. We scour the world in search for things that benefit us. This all seems rather grim, and may lead us to give up hope in frustration. But this is rash, for there is another tree.

The Tree of Life has been the goal of the Gospel from the very beginning. Seen by Lehi in his famous vision, this tree serves as a metaphor for that which we strive for: to rest from the endless struggle of life. We all seek after it. And though it may at times seem like a futile pursuit, by following the commandments and clinging to the Word of God, we can taste of its delicious fruit. But here's the key: it would not be possible if we had not tasted of the other fruit first.

Each tree's fruit on its own is incomplete. As we well know, to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil leads to conflict and misery. However, to eat of the other tree's fruit alone leads to just as bad a result. It means having nothing at all! No good or evil, no love or hate, no happiness or misery, never-changing and lasting forever. But if we (when ready) eat of them both, we can achieve a result attainable no way else.

You see, these two trees represent the poles of a spectrum of opposites. If we allow both the fruits of knowledge and life to enter into us, then the contrasting values of opposition and love would combine to become something altogether more. It means that we would no longer see the finite and the infinite as mutually exclusive. We would no longer be exclusively selfish - we would be selfless within our inevitable egoism, loving the other as we love ourselves. But most importantly, conflict would reveal itself as the most glorious harmony, hidden in disguise.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Celestial Smorgasbord

Imagine that you are at a banquet, where you were told that your favorite meal is being served. Naturally you are very excited, and, when the menu arrives with that favorite delicacy on it, you are eager to order. However, your server never comes back. You wait....and wait....and wait. Eventually, you pull a passing waiter aside to ask him what's up. He seems amused at your confusion, and he says, as if it were obvious: "But sir, the menu is the meal."

Naturally, if that happened, you'd be sorely disappointed: what you thought would be a delectable meal ended up just being a few layers of laminated paper. However, though it seems silly, this scenario (originally envisioned by Alan Watts) is just an example of the many real-life confusions that happen every day. 

For example, my friend recently began giving me drawing lessons by asking me to draw a CTR ring. However, even after my most valiant efforts, my attempt looked like the most hideous of caricatures. As I watched my friend (a skilled artist) successfully attempt the same illustration, I realized something: my drawing was of my conception of the aforementioned ring, and not of the ring itself. I had spent so much time looking at these items that my mind naturally focused on certain parts at the expense of others, merely out of habit, or convenience. What my friend is able to do, and about which she is continuing to teach me, is the ability to see things as they are, as opposed to how her mind describes them.

Moreover, have you ever noticed how your first impressions of a person rarely indicate who they actually are? Or have you perhaps ever wondered why the more you listen to a song, the more it "gets old"? All of of these are manifestations of the above principle. This is because, in each case, there is a discrepancy between something's appearance and its essence, between how it is described and how it tastes.

A more important manifestation of this confusion dominated my life until very recently. For, as this blog indicates, I have always loved to speculate about spiritual matters. Now, there's nothing wrong with spiritual speculation in and of itself (it's great fun), but it does become a problem when you confuse it with actual spiritual experience. That is what happened to me. I would search and comb doctrines of my religion (and others) for spiritual confirmation, expecting somehow that the pieces would fit together and that things would make sense. But they rarely did. You see, I was deluded; I didn't realize that the Gospel isn't intellectual - it is experiential.  I was at the greatest banquet of all, the titular celestial smorgasbord, but I foolishly tried to eat  the menu, and not the delicious fruit laid out before me.

This expresses a principle very similar to a story you've probably all heard. Very early in the Book of Mormon, the prophet Lehi has a dream where an iron rod leads him to a tree, which has a fruit more delicious than any other he had tasted. Now, as later revealed by Nephi, this dream has a very profound interpretation: the rod is the word of God, while the tree, and its fruit, are His love. However, you should notice that they are not the same thing. In my obsession after doctrine and doctrinal theories, I was trying desperately to bite onto the rod, something that only leads to spiritual toothaches, when all the while the delicious fruit of God was only feet away. It is only when I stopped trying to eat the rod, and instead to hold onto it as a guide, that I actually tasted God's love.

However, despite the rod and the tree's existence as two separate entities, it is also unambiguously true that the former leads to the latter. In fact, this is true for every manifestation of the menu-meal dichotomy. You see, appearance leads to essence - you cannot reach to the heart of something without passing through the many layers that surround it; you can't see the light of a distant planet without looking through a lens; you can in no way eat a meal at a restaurant without looking through the available options in a menu.

This has myriad real-life applications. Returning to art, you can't learn to see things as they are without first seeing them as they appear. Furthermore, you cannot know a person well without having first impressions, and you can't understand the meaning of a book without reading the text. But, most importantly, this principle applies to the Gospel as well. For we cannot experience the love of God without first experiencing his word - reading scripture is necessary for feeling the Spirit. What's more, this principle also applies to the problem of God's body, which I have written about very frequently on this blog. You see, God's body is the outward shell of the eternal, living Reality that is the Light of Christ. However, to experience that light, we must first acknowledge (or even partake of, as in the sacrament) God's corporeal existence.

In conclusion, remember this: the world is a wonderful banquet containing the most delicious food that you can imagine. There are soups of color, salads of sound, and delectable meats of emotion. But, to taste of this smorgasbord, we must first peruse the menu. There is no other way.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Middle

In the July Ensign, Dieter F. Uchtdorf gave a message that I found fascinating. Entitled Always in the Middle, this intriguing article explains how considering ourselves "in the middle" of things can help us live more meaningful lives. But this idea isn't merely useful: it is metaphysically, philosophically, and mystically profound. In fact, by analyzing Uchtdorf's lesson, I believe that I can make connections that would be difficult to make any other way.

First, let me establish a fact about human existence: we long for the satisfaction that comes from extremes. Knowing that by "extreme" I mean the end of any given spectrum, examples of this satisfaction include the "fresh start" of a beginning, the finality of an end, the assurance of holding an idealistic political view, or winning an award. As a part of this, we long to resolve opposing extremes, as happens when two people become friends, when an argument is resolved, or when you watch a crossover (like the Avengers). 

However, this next quotation (from the concerned message) suggests this quest may be problematic:

"We may feel we are at the beginning or end of our lives, but when we look at where we are against the backdrop of eternity—when we realize that our spirit has existed for time beyond our capacity to measure and, because of the perfect sacrifice and Atonement of Jesus Christ, that our soul will exist for an eternity to come—we can recognize that we are truly in the middle."

There is no such thing as a temporal extreme. We may feel that a graduation is "the end" or that a marriage is "the beginning", but ultimately they are transparent phantoms through which you can see infinitely into the future or the past. But there's more:

"For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. [...]" (2 Nephi 2:27) 

The desire for extremes is also a longing to get rid of conflict. Whether (as in politics) we want to utterly destroy the other side, or (as in friendship) to completely merge with it, our lust for extremity manifests itself as a need to eliminate the metaphorical "no-man's-land" between the conceptual foes. Knowing this, the above quotation makes us even more uneasy. "Opposition in all things" necessarily means that there is no such thing as an "unchallenged" extreme, that "resolution" is a fantasy. Since everything has an opposite, there will be no end of conflict between the extremities of any given spectrum, and no one will ever completely belong to either end.

Essentially, humanity is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Whether it be past and future, beauty and ugliness, or happiness and misery, humanity is wedged in the middle of two unmovable opposites. He will never completely partake of either side, and he will never reconcile anything. Grim, eh? So, what are we to do? The answer is simple: we must accept where we are, in the middle.

The doctrines I have elucidated are really very clever, as they force those who really believe in them to come to terms with the here and now. You see, thinking about our eternity makes all measurements of time insignificant. Because the future will never come, and because you will never "arrive" anywhere, you have no choice but to be content with what you have right now. Similarly, since you will always be between extremes, the only rational choice is to be content with being somewhere in the middle. 

Living in the middle leads a person to be infinitely happier than trying to live on either side. Rather than expending your energy in the impossible quest after extremes, it is much better to be content where you are, as you will never be anywhere else.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Present Exaltation

SPECULATION WARNING: I am not preaching certain truth. This post is pure speculation, and could be entirely wrong. 

I have rarely encountered religious scripture as beautiful as what you can find in the Isha Upanishad, a central sacred text in the Vedanta school of Hinduism. A quotation from it follows:

Those who see all creatures in themselves
And themselves in all creatures know no fear.
Those who see all creatures in themselves.
And themselves in all creatures know no grief.
How can the multiplicity of life
Delude the one who sees its unity?

The central message of this text is simple, yet profound: your ultimate, real self is identical with God and the universe. This magnificent idea, not merely limited to Indian religions, also exists in a more diluted form in the mystical traditions of Western faiths (Judaism, Islam, Christianity, etc.). But what about Mormonism? Considering that the Mormon God has a body, it doesn't seem like a hopeful prospect to reconcile the two ideas. And yet, I believe that if we examine doctrine closely, we can demonstrate that the Self is more divine in Mormonism than in nearly any other tradition.

This premise, that the two aforementioned models of God are reconciliable, rests upon a single scripture. Here it is:

"The angels do not reside on a planet like this earth; But they reside in the presence of God, on a globe like a sea of glass and fire, where all things for their glory are manifest, past, present, and future, and are continually before the Lord."
-D&C 130:6-7

This passage, which I have quoted often in my posts, teaches a very important piece of doctrine: since the "past, present, and future" are all  continually manifest before Celestial beings, we know that they reside outside of time. To help conceive of this idea, think of a line which goes through a multi-dimensional space. This line is the history of our world,  flowing like a river from the past to the future, never diverging or wavering. However, God and every other divinity dwell in the infinite height and depth of this place, equally distant to every point on the time-line. Considering this last point, we might modify the original metaphor to make the timeline a circle or sphere, and the divine residence its center. But in any case, we get the impression that exalted entities dwell in a place that is simultaneously apart from and throughout the entirety of time.

Knowing of this chronological boundlessness, we can make an observation which will prove to be key in our pursuit of reconciliation. The point is this: your future, exalted self must exist right now. You see, if and when we become divine, we will begin to see the entirety of time and space as one, meaning that every moment will be there for us to see, including this one. If we return to line metaphor, it becomes apparent that "now" is simply a point along the line, touched as much as any other by the spacious light of Celestial existence. To put it another way, the present moment is a facet of the prism through which all exalted beings, including yourself, continually gaze.

This knowledge has incredible connotations. It means that a version of you, only more perfect and divine, sees all that you do, think, and feel. In fact, seeing as your earthly mind is among the apertures through which a divinity can look, you could say that this "future-me" does everything you do, only vicariously. It's like what a person would experience if they watched a television screen while another person played a first-person video game on it: no control, but full experience. Thus, you can confidently say that this "me", the real me,  is always with you.

But, as I said, the earthly me is only one lens that this divine self looks through. As a matter of fact, every entity in the universe serves as a peephole which you or any other divine person can ultimately use to see the world with. Think of that the next time you dismiss something absentmindedly:  behind every rock, every bush, every dog, and every person gazes the collective eye of the Celestial Kingdom. Thus, we can justifiably say, as Mormons, that "we see all creatures in ourselves, and ourselves in all creatures". 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

"Responsible for Everything and All Men": Mysticism in the Brothers Karamazov

On Wednesday, I finished what is yet another contender for my favorite book of all time: the Brothers Karamazov. It attained that status for two reasons. The first is that the characters in the book are, quite simply, alive. When I read, the author's successful attempt to delve into each player's motives, along with a good dose of "stream-of-consciousness-esque" dialogue, made me empathize with them more than I do with most people, let alone characters in a book. However, more relevantly, the second reason I like it is this: the Brothers Karamazov contains many spiritual insights, more profound than those in almost anything else I've read. This post will attempt to share some of these flashes of religious genius with you, in hope that I can at least convey a small fraction of the spiritual journey I went through while reading.

First, however, we need some context. The Brothers Karamazov was published in 1880, the last and greatest work of the novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, pictured here.

It tells the story of three brothers (plus an illegitimate one, to make four), who are the sons of a certain Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov. This father is a boorish buffoon, with almost no concern for morality or the raising of his children. His oldest son is Dmitri (or Mitya), a troubled soul prone to gambling, drinking, and women. The next is Ivan, the intellectual one of the bunch. The third son (and my favorite) is Alexey (or Alyosha), a sincere and kind monk who is extremely devoted to his religion. The last, illegitimate, son is named Smerdyakov, the product of Fyodor Pavlovitch's rape of a mentally disabled woman. He is as sadistic as Alyosha is kind, once prompting a boy to feed a pin to a dog. Suffice it to say that he has almost no redeeming qualities. 

But, before we get into the spiritual stuff, we need a disclaimer. The Brothers Karamazov, while having spirituality as one of its main themes, is not exclusively about it. There are several characters (Ivan is the most prominent) who refuse to believe in God, and offer lengthy arguments to that effect. So, don't think that I am projecting my own views on this piece of literature; I am only exploring one of its aspects.

Now, my exploration of the Brothers Karamazov's spiritual components will be drawn from a relatively narrow section of the book, specifically Father Zossima's last speech and the immediate aftermath. Father Zossima is Alyohsha's role model and an Elder at the monastery where he resides. I took the following quotations from his lengthy deathbed discourse, which is to me one of the best parts of the novel.

"'You have desires and so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don't be afraid of satisfying them and even multiply your desires.' That is the modern doctrine of the world. In that they see freedom. And what follows from this right of multiplication of desires? In the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; in the poor, envy and murder; for they have been given rights, but have not been shown the means of satisfying their wants." 

I admit that I am guilty of this sin, as, I think, are many people. Lives under the influence of unending desire will ultimately be miserable, as they will always look for something to entertain themselves with, to eat, or to generally make themselves feel better. The only way out of this endless cycle, as Father Zossima later says, is "obedience, fasting, and prayer". Though this solution seems laughable to some, I can testify of its effectiveness personally, as it has made my life indescribably better.

"Brothers, have no fear of men's sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in all things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love."

This is a fantastic promise, and thus deserves our attention. Too often, I think, do we ignore things in our pursuit to love others. We love our family, our friends, or even our neighbors, but do we love animals? Do we love plants? Do we love inanimate objects? These questions (especially the last) may seem a bit silly, but I believe that if we do love all things, we will improve our life. For it's really a question of attitude: if you have an impulse to dismiss things as unimportant, or even to hate things, you will have an attitude of contempt. It is only by extending our love to the entire universe that we can eliminate hate from our souls entirely, and get that much closer to being like God.

"Much on earth is hidden form us, but to make up for that we have been given a precious mystic sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds. [...] God took seeds from different worlds and sowed them on this earth, and His garden grew up and everything came up that could come up, but what grows lives and is alive only through the feeling of its contact with other mysterious worlds."

It is a fact of existence that we do not know everything, and that many things are "hidden from us". This, to me, is incredibly depressing, and so I welcome any solution to such a problem. This quotation is such a solution. Here, Father Zossima says that our thoughts and feelings (and, by extension, our being) do not originate on Earth, but in heaven. If we are to believe him, it becomes apparent that everything going on in my head is a seed which comes from a heavenly plant, and perhaps that such a seed will grow into something like its parent. 

"Fathers and teachers, I ponder, 'What is hell?' I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love."

This short passage, although very "photogenic", (it is the #1 quote for the Brothers Karamazov on Goodreads, by far) is extremely profound. Considering that Jesus' two great commandments both involve love, this makes a lot of sense, for if we don't love God or our neighbor, nearly every Christian church will admit that we've cooked our metaphorical goose. But the brilliance of Zossima's statement is that, instead of saying that this punishment is administered from above, he believes that it is a direct result of not loving. For what is happiness but love? Without it, we are completely alone. It is only by showing love that we can connect with anyone or anything else, and thus avoid being cut-off from everything else.

"There is only one means of salvation, [to] take yourself and make yourself responsible for all men's sins, that is the truth, you know friends, for as soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and all men, you  will see at once that it is really so, and that you are to blame for everyone and all things. But throwing your indolence and impotence on others you will end by sharing the pride of Satan and murmuring against God."

This quotation, which I have saved for last, is admittedly hard to defend. It may even seem directly opposed to everything you've been taught. But it is profound, and moreover, it is true. You see, we are all connected by an intricate web of responsibility. We can do nothing without it affecting something else, and thus (at least in a sense) we are indirectly responsible for every action and every sin. 

This idea is also a very clever way of expressing two religious ideas at once. The first is that we cannot avoid sinning, for none of us are perfect. The second is that I share my fundamental being with all things, meaning that I am connected to everything else, and thus "act" the entire universe vicariously. If we put these two together, it avoids the tendency toward cosmic egoism in the second, and the depressing nature of the first. But more than its metaphysical connotations, it gives a person a vast sense of universal love, as it gets rid of the idea that we are "separate and single" individuals, making our own ways through the world.

And finally, I will share with you my absolute favorite part of the Brothers Karamazov. It happens after Father Zossima dies, and is Alyosha's personal experience of the things his Elder had described (many of which we have discussed). It depicts a religious/mystical experience so profound that it leaps off of the page and shares some of its power with the reader.

"He did not stop on the steps either, but went quickly down; his soul, overflowing with rapture, yearned for freedom, space, openness. The vault of heaven, full of soft, shining stars, stretched vast and fathomless above him. The Milky Way ran in two pale streams from the zenith to the horizon. The fresh, motionless, still night enfolded the earth. The white towers and golden  domes of the cathedral gleamed out against the sapphire sky. The gorgeous autumn flowers, in the bed round the house, were slumbering till morning. The silence of earth seemed to melt into the silence of the heavens. The mystery of earth was one with the mystery of the stars....

Alyosha stood, gazed, and suddenly threw himself down on the earth He did not know why he embraced it. He could not have told why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss it all. But he kissed it weeping, sobbing and watering it with his tears, and vowed passionately to love it, to love it for ever and ever. 'water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears,' echoed in his soul. 

What was he weeping over?

Oh! in his rapture he was weeping even over those stars, which were shining to him from the abyss of space, and 'he was not ashamed of that ecstasy.' There seemed to be threads from all those innumerable worlds of God, linking his soul to them, and it was trembling all over 'in contact with other worlds.' he was longed to forgive everyone and for everything, and to beg forgiveness. Oh, not for himself, but for all men, for all men, for all and for everything. 'And others are praying for me too,' echoed again in his soul. But with every instant he felt clearly and, as it were, tangibly, that something firm and unshakable as that vault of heaven had entered into his soul. It was as though some idea had seized the sovereignty of his mind - and it was for all his life and for ever and ever. He had fallen on the earth a weak boy, but he rose up a resolute champion, and he knew and felt it suddenly at the very moment of his ecstasy And never, never, his life long, could Alyosha forget that moment."

In conclusion, I encourage you to read the book for yourselves. It is amazing.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Thy Thee Thine

For a long time I had a huge problem with the way most people say prayers. The use of words like "thou", "thee", "thine", etc., seemed excessively archaic to me, and thus very unfitting for a conversation with your heavenly parent. They reeked of vain repetition, lacking all of the sincerity that I would normally use in prayer. However, I was wrong. It turns out that using such Elizabethan language in your prayers helps it become more effective, and here I will attempt to explain why.

I've had several Sunday School and Seminary teachers tell me that the reason we use such language in prayers is for respect. As a matter of fact, this is true, but not in the way you would expect. For most of these teachers openly had in mind the kind you would have for authority, like using "Mr." or "Mrs." in front of a teacher's name in elementary or secondary school. It turns out that this interpretation is dead wrong. You see, "thou", "thee", etc., are supposed to engender an entirely different kind of respect. But first, let me introduce you to someone:

Martin Buber was a Jewish philosopher who lived from 1878 to 1965. He is arguably most famous for his distinction between "I-It" and "I-Thou" relationships, explained in a book entitled Ich und Du, or I and Thou. The premise of this idea is that an I-It relationship involves someone's encounter with a conceptualization or image of another person, while an "I-Thou" relationship pertains to two beings whose essences meet, so to speak. When I am "I" and you are "Thou", there is no qualification or pretense between us, only two individuals who see each other as they are.

Now, if a respected scholar like Mr. Buber decided to use the word "thou" to describe such an intimate personal relationship, how on earth can we claim that "thou" is a term used to characterize authority? In short, we can't. And it isn't just Martin Buber that uses the word this way. This connotation can be found in word history as well, as demonstrated by this selection from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

"The plural [you] at first was used in addressing superior individuals, later also (to err on the side of propriety) strangers, and ultimately all equals. By c.1450 the use of thou to address inferiors gave it a tinge of insult unless addressed by parents to children, or intimates to one another."

In other words, "thou"'s original meaning is so unlike our normal associations that, except in cases of very intimate relationships, it was actually used to address inferiors. This type of language usage will probably be very familiar for students of French, Italian, Spanish, and other such tongues, as each uses two different types of pronouns to address two different types of people: the formal and informal. They use the formal to address their social betters, people who are older than them, etc., but they use the informal for more relaxed, friendly situations. And, for example's sake, in French, Italian, and Spanish this informal "you" is "tu". Looks familiar, eh?

All this leads up to a very profound conclusion. If the editors of the King James Bible and Joseph Smith used the word "thou" in human prayers to God, it means that, in their respective works, God is inviting us to treat him as our equal. It does not by any means indicate that he is our equal, but rather that he condescends to our level, asking to be treated as an intimate relation, as a friend. In short, the reason why it is so important for us to use "thou", "thee" and "thy"  is because such usage is a deliberate act of connection with God, an act of respect in which you abandon all social barriers between he and the pray-er, where you meet each other authentically and openly. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Little Prince, The Alchemist, and the Promptings of the Spirit

For ages, I have had a huge problem with one of the ways the universe is run. I refer specifically to separateness, or the existence of barriers of space, skin, knowledge, or emotions that exclude things from one another. This problem of barriers (often specific to those between God and man) has consumed my philosophical life, and as a result many of my blog posts concern it. This will be another. Here, I will examine two very similar works of fiction, the Little Prince and the Alchemist, and try to see what they have to say on the aforementioned subject.

We begin with the Little Prince.

 The Little Prince, a novella written by Antoine de Saint-Exupery in 1943, is easily a candidate for my favorite book of all time. I say this because it is, so to speak, insightfully dense: it has the most insights into spirituality or human experience per page of any book I have ever read.

The book begins with the narrator's lament of his wasted potential as an artist. He begins by describing how he, as a child,  made an odd yellow shape as a drawing.

As a quick aside, what do you see? One's initial reaction is to call it a hat, which is exactly what the "grown-ups" to whom the narrator showed it thought. In reality, it is a boa constrictor that has swallowed an elephant, as demonstrated by his next drawing:

When they saw this clarifying sketch, the grown-ups quickly told the narrator that he should cease drawing, and focus on more "useful" subjects like geography, grammar, etc.. Though he followed their advice, he continued to show the first drawing to everyone he met on his travels, and ask them what they saw. The answer, inevitably, was a hat. 

The main story begins many years later, as the narrator crashes in the Sahara desert. There, he meets the Little Prince, a boy dressed in strangely regal attire. He asks the narrator to draw him a sheep, but he gives him the aforementioned first drawing instead. To his shock and awe, the Little Prince correctly states that it depicts an elephant-boa, and asks him again to draw him a sheep. The narrator makes a first attempt, but is rejected. Apparently, it is "too sickly". He tries again, but the Prince notices that this second drawing has horns, and is therefore not a sheep, but a ram. He tries yet again, but this time the sheep is "too old". Finally, the narrator gives up, and makes a drawing of a box, saying that the sheep is inside.

Coming as a complete surprise to the narrator, this makes the Little Prince content. This encounter has a profound effect on the narrator, making him realize that not all people are like the grown-ups. But, sadly, he realizes that he is a grown up, as explained in the following quotation: 

"My friend never explained anything to me. He thought, perhaps, that I was like himself. But I, alas, do not know how to see sheep through the walls of boxes. Perhaps I am a little like the grown ups. I have had to grow old."

Here the book states explicitly the issue with which I began this post: we cannot see through the walls of boxes, or into the bellies of snakes. In other words, we can't connect with people or other entities beyond the boundaries that separate us from them. However, if we are to believe this novel, apparently some people can. But how?  Luckily, the novel solves the problem. Near the end of a prolonged flashback of the Little Prince, the narrator recounts his encounter with a very wise fox, who says this:

"And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye"

This quotation seems to suggest that our normal way of looking at things is deficient, and is thus responsible for our inability to connect across barriers. But what alternative is there? That is to say, what does the Fox mean by "the heart"? For the answer, we must turn to our next book.

The Alchemist is a book written by Paulo Coelho, first published in 1986. While nowhere near as subtle as the Little Prince, it rivals it in the profundity of its insights, if not the quantity. It tells the story of a young Spanish shepherd boy named Santiago, who, following an omen from his dreams, travels to the Egyptian pyramids in search of treasure.

The book makes many metaphysical observations, but they all revolve around a central concept: the Soul of the World. Some of these observations follow:

"Intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything, because it's all written there."

"[The] Soul of the World allowed them [the alchemists] to understand anything on the face of the earth, because it was the language with which all things communicated."

"Listen to your heart. It knows all things, because it came from the soul of the world, and it will one day return there."

These seem to suggest another solution to the first problem posed above, and illuminates the Fox's previous answer. If we can connect to the "Soul of the World", we can by understanding traverse the barriers that separate us from other things. But what is this soul, really? The connection to intuition in the first quotation makes me think of something probably very familiar to most readers. For to what do most Mormons attribute sudden flashes of insight? The answer is nothing less than the Holy Spirit.

By comparing the Little Prince, the Alchemist, and Mormon doctrine, I hypothesize that the promptings of the Spirit allow us to see into the mind of God, at least for a moment. By following our divine inner natures, or our hearts, we are able to experience flashes of God's insight, which connect us to other things. But the key here is that they do not come through regular perception. To have this experience we must learn to use an entirely different sense, one of pure love, which is as impossible to describe to another as sound would be to a deaf person. That's why I would never be able to tell you what I experienced through this second sight. But it is definitely achievable, and that alone gives me comfort.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Mysticism in the Media: LOST, Part 2 (The Finale)

SPOILER WARNING: If you're squeamish about spoilers and you haven't watched the last episode of LOST, don't read this post until you have. 

The second half of my analysis of LOST will concern the final scene of the series' last episode, titled The End.

Many people were disappointed by the ending, saying that the series didn't end up answering many of the questions that came up over the course of its run. This is true, to an extent. But this scene is so perceptive, so beautiful and so all-encompassing in its scope that I believe it makes up for any of the show's transgressions. Knowing this, in this post I intend to analyze this scene and explore its spiritual components.

First, a quick summary of what happened. The Jack featured prominently in this final scene is the Flash-Sideways Jack, in the world where the plane never crashed. He is in the middle of a grand awakening: everyone who was on the plane in the main world is starting to remember their lives on Island. All except him. From his perspective, he is surrounded by a bunch of people he does not know, all saying that he was their friend in another world. It scares him. He insists to himself that this reality, the Flash-Sideways world, is all there is, even after he is given preliminary glimpses of his Island life. 

Just before the first video below starts, Jack was in a car (parked outside a church) with Kate, his on-Island love. She insists that if he goes inside, all his questions will be answered.

He walks inside and sees his Father's coffin, which was lost by airport customs and only recently returned. He circles around the casket, nervous to actually open it. He finally is brave enough to touch the coffin, and in a surge of relief the memories of his Island life come flooding back to him. Everyone he loved and lost, and all the adventures he had are finally restored to his mind. 

Finally beginning to understand, he opens the coffin, but it is empty. For an instant, his doubt and fear returns, until a voice from behind causes him to turn around. Jack's dead father stands there, in the flesh. Jack, shocked, asks him how he could possibly be there. Christian (Jack's father) turns the question around and in turn asks Jack "How are you here?". Jack turns his recent epiphany over in his head, still processing the data. It finally comes to him: "I died too". He remembers his as-yet-unseen death, and realizes that the Flash-Sideways world is some sort of afterlife. Feeling strangely relieved, he embraces his long-estranged father,  finally able to say that he loves him. After a long hug, he asks his father for some details as to the nature of the Flash-Sideways world. Christian affirms that it is real, just like everything Jack has ever experienced. Seeing Jack's confusion, Christian tells him that it is outside of time, so that individuals who died at different times could all meet there.  He then says that the Jack and his Island friends made the Flash-Sideways world as a place where they could find each other after their deaths, reassuring him the reason they are all there  is because they spent "the most important part of [their] life" together. Jack then suddenly recalls something Kate said in the car: that they were going to the church to "leave". After Jack tells Christian this, he confirms it, but offers "moving on" as a better expression. A nervous but increasingly happy Jack asks Christian where they are going, to which he replies "let's go find out". 

"Meanwhile", the on-Island Jack is mortally wounded by his encounter with the Island's source. He stumbles forward, knowing that he has only minutes left to live. He walks through the bamboo forest until he reaches the spot where he woke up in the very first episode. No longer able to stand, he falls down. He lays there alone, until suddenly he hears a dog's bark. The dog Vincent, who woke him up in that first episode, lies down next to the dying Jack, comforting him. With only moments left to live, Jack looks up and sees a plane pass by, letting him know for sure that his friends are safe. He smiles, and knowing that his purpose here is fulfilled, he closes his eyes and expires.

Jack and Christian step into the main area of the church, where everyone he had come to know and love in his Island-life is there, all showing their love for one another. Happily, he acknowledges Locke, his one time rival. He proceeds to hug Desmond. He then proceeds to embrace Boone, Hurley and Sawyer; Finally, he sees Kate, and takes her hand. Everyone takes their places in the church's pews. Christian then pats him on the shoulder and walks down the center aisle to the back doors, which he opens. A bright light fills begins to fill the room, enveloping all who are there. Jack, overcome with joy, excitedly enters the world to come.

Amazing, eh? Now, I had a friend who claimed that LOST was like a crossword puzzle. In a crossword puzzle there are intersecting big words and small words, and often by filling in the small words you can have enough letters in the big word's space to guess what it is. He claimed that in the end, LOST had no "big word", indicating that the various pieces of LOST didn't resolve themselves into some higher meaning. I highly disagree. In fact, I can think of at least eight (one of the numbers!) higher meanings that emerged in the final moments of LOST. Here they are:

What Happened, Happened: Just before Jack lowers Desmond into the Heart of the Island, he tells Jack of his encounter with the Flash-Sideways world, where the plane never crashed. He insists that he is going to travel there, and offers to help Jack go there as well. But Jack refuses, saying that "there are no do-overs", and "what happened, happened".   This latter phrase refers to Daniel Faraday's insistence to the survivors, once they begin jumping through time in Season 5, that they cannot change the past. But it has a deeper significance than meets the eye. By saying these things, he affirms that his life on the Island matters, and that he shouldn't try to escape from it. This is precisely Christian's sentiment in the second video above, when he says that "everything that ever happened to you was real". In short, Dave was wrong. The Island is not some easily escapable dream in someone's head: it exists, and everything that happened there means something.

Man of Faith: For the bulk of the series, Jack Shepard and John Locke stood apart as the manifestations of two opposing viewpoints. Jack was a man of science, referring to his need for evidence and his constant skepticism, while John was a man of faith. Their ideological battle continued for several seasons, ending when John Locke died. However, Jack did not remain a "man of science" for the entirety of the series. Beginning in his encounter with Jacob's lighthouse, where he discovered that his life had been guided from the very beginning, he changed, and began to be as faith-centered as you can get. This came to a head in The End, where he agreed with the Man in Black to extinguish the Source, even though he knew he had to protect it. He had faith in Jacob's plan, knowing that things would work out in the end. But this is not mere confidence; he didn't even know what the result of his actions would be. After all, he jammed a giant stone cork into a hole (the height of ridiculousness) not knowing what he was doing, why he was doing it, or how it would work. It is a leap of faith. 

But this new-found faith of Jack can also be found in the final scene. Kate told Sideways Jack that he needed to go into the church, in order to "leave". The remarkable thing is that, even though Jack had no idea what this meant, and even though he is very aware that this might be the end of the world as he knows it, he ventures inside. This faith is displayed even more when Jack expresses his wariness at "leaving" to his father. Christian  responds simply: "let's go find out". This statement, and Jack's acknowledgment of it, is the ultimate leap of faith: I don't know what's coming, but I'm confident enough that it will be a good thing that I'm eager, even excited to learn what it is. It is like they have just blown open another hatch: a new world full of possibility, wonder and hope remains inside.

Live Together, and You Won't Die Alone: In one of The End's deleted scenes, a curious Ben asks Desmond what existed in the Flash-Sideways universe. He responds with one word: love. This admittedly isn't understandable at the point where the scene would have been placed, (which is probably the reason why it was deleted) but it make all too much sense after viewing the final scene. For it doesn't portray anything but love: love between Jack and his father, love between the various romantic pairings, and love of each person in the group for everyone else. Moreover, one could easily say that the entire series had been building up to this moment thematically. After all, didn't Jack say that "if we don't live together, we're going to die alone"? The great truth is that they did live together, and that each of them will enter the next life as one, overwhelmed by the others' love for them.

Resurrection: The last episode is probably the strongest example of a tendency which I noted in the previous part of this post, that it portrays spiritual stories in a new light. The concerned story is probably very familiar to you, probably more so than any other, as it is none other than the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ. For Jack, just like Christ, gave his life to save the world. I firmly believe that if Jack had not re-plugged the Source, all things would have become purely material and mortal, just like the Man in Black. There would be no such thing as a spirit or an afterlife, meaning that a) death would be the end, and b) the final scene would be impossible.  But Jack did plug the cork back in, meaning that he became the Christ-like savior of all people's immortal souls.

The last scene provides the climax for this scriptural representation. For when Jack opens his father's coffin, his Father isn't there. That phrase, repeated by an angel at Christ's tomb, and actually uttered by Jack in White Rabbit, perfectly conveys the despair any person feels at loss. We literally fear that they are no longer there, that they have ceased to exist. But both stories say that one need not worry, for from behind both Jack and Mary Magdalene the one they mourn speaks, showing us that they continued to exist after their death, that they are there.

Light: Some might consider the end of the final scene, where the Losties become engulfed in light, as a little cliche. However, if they do, they are missing the incredible significance that light has as a motif. For light is at the center of all that happens on the Island. First, it was the shining light of the Hatch that comforted John Locke in his moment of despair. But more importantly, the literal light at the Heart of the Island (known in earlier seasons as a buried electromagnetic force) is one of the main actors of the series: it healed John Locke, sent people traveling through time, and even crashed Oceanic 815 on the Island.  But even more significantly, in Across the Sea Jacob's mother states that this light contains "life, death, and rebirth". Whether we think of the first and last scenes, Aaron's  birth/Boone's death, or even the flashbacks, LOST has always been about the contrast of what is gone and what is here, of what is dead and what is alive. Thus, considering the Mother's information, perhaps we can say that the Light has been the driving force behind all of the action on the Island, making the final scene that much more meaningful.

To Remember: When Jack asks his father why the he and his friends needed each other, he gives a simple answer: "to remember, and to let go". This, to me, is the thesis of LOST. I believe that if we remember, let go, and help each other do both, we can perhaps achieve our life's purpose and end up like the Losties did.

First, what does Christian mean by "to remember"? The answer has been staring us in the face ever since the pilot, for what is a flashback if not an act of remembering? Starting when they arrive on the Island, each character spends about half of their episodes recalling the past. But this is more than mere reminiscing, for the two storylines' parallelism ensures that they are also coming to terms with the past. Whether it's Jack's obsession issues or Charlie's drug problems, remembering the past allows them to confront it and let it go.

To Let Go: The whole series has been centered around people letting go. When they come to the Island, each character has an issue which they must get rid of in order to progress. I've already mentioned Jack's and Charlie's, but we could also consider John Locke's need to prove his ability, Hurley's food problems, Sun and Jin's marital issues, Michael's relationship with Walt, and Sayid's remorse over his past as a torturer. The fantastic thing about this series, though, is that nearly all of these characters will let go of their baggage and move on. 

Moving On: "Moving on" isn't just an activity; it's a way of living. To "move on" means to be ready to forsake the past and accept the future. It involves a willingness to "leave" everything that holds you back, that  halts your progression. 

But if we think of "moving on" literally, at least for the moment, we can see that this too has been a center point of the series. For from the very beginning, the Losties have always been going somewhere. The series is centered around the various places they are trying to reach on the Island, ranging from the Hatch to the Others' Camp to the Radio Tower. But none of these are so symbolically important as the very first and last voyages, for the trip from Sydney to the Island and the trip from the Church to the next life are the capstones between which the series is built. You see, the latter is a parallel of the former. You can see it visually, as the pews of the church are like the rows of seats in a plane, and the back of both places opens up to a bright light. But more significantly, both involve leaving behind a place filled with suffering and baggage to one of freedom and peace. This is the great secret hidden in the heart of the last scene: this parallel tells us that the the place to which the Losties are "moving on" is actually a greater and more wonderful version of the Island. You can be sure that this place has all of the Island's life, wonder and adventure, and that everyone who goes there will be forever happy and peaceful. 

There you go. If you read it all the way through, I apologize for the length. It's just that I feel extremely passionate about LOST; it is my favorite TV series ever, and I believe it deserves the attention I have given it.