May 09, 2006

Just as they are . . .

I was walking the path around our yard the other morning when the first oriole of the season flew in front of me, his bright orange feathers catching the morning sun as he landed in a tree 50 feet away.

I shouted a happy greeting like a kid who has just seen a friend enter the playground, Then I paused as deep joy swept through me. I turned to the oriole, I folded my hands and bowed a silent greeting, Hindu fashion, relishing the moment.

This event was neither anticipated, manufactured, nor staged in any way, It simply happened – and I have similar experiences quite frequently, triggered by things as diverse as a daffodil stem poking through the ground, or Orion throwing his leg up over my trees and climbing into the late fall sky.

They raise deep questions for me.

  • What is this joy?
  • What are its biological underpinnings?
  • Why should I experience it?

Each of these objects – some neuroscientists might call them “images” - give me pleasure – the oriole, the daffodil, and Orion – but how and why? They don’t offer me clothing, shelter, food or sex. They don’t stroke my ego or caress my body, or convey to me in any rational manner the answers to the mysteries of life. So why should I care about them? Why should they strike such a deep and joyful chord for me? Why do I impulsively – without any conscious thought – respond positively to them?

Associations you might say. They are familiar and I like my life and they are reminders of how rich and good and full life is? Yes – I agree. So what? I’m not sure what any of these words – “rich” and “good” and “full” mean. Again, the events don’t seem to satisfy any basic needs that I can identify, or that are usually codified.

The only answers I have are spiritual. Deep within me I want to be connected with the universe. These objects – these actions – these fleeting moments – provide that connection. For a moment I feel immensely well – immensely at peace – united with the essence of being. I can accept such descriptions – but they leap ahead of what we know in a rational way and I want to close the gap.

Why should I want to be connected? Why should it give me pleasure – whatever that is – to feel I am connected? Is that an answer? I’m not sure it’s even an explanation. I know enough – very little, I grant you, but enough – about how the brain appears to function to know myself as a wonderful, biological machine that has all these neat parts that work together in somewhat predictable fashion. Fascinating. But I don’t know enough – and I’m not sure anyone does – to tell me what neurons were stimulated when that oriole flew in front of me, what area of my brain was activated, what chemicals were released, or electrical activities initiated, or why any of this is useful to me in terms of survival as an individual or a species – in short, it doesn’t tell me why or how this happens.

I grant you, someone might have the answers, especially to how. I at least feel that question is answerable. Someone may be able to tell me what is happening inside my brain to create this experience. They even may be able to tell me why this evolved because it somehow fits into the scheme of evolution. That would be helpful and I would love to know it. But I suspect that even if this can be done, the great mystery remains. For even if we can know what chemicals are manufactured and released at the time we experience the sensation we call “joy,” and even if we know exactly which sparks jumped which gaps to result in various muscles moving to utter a sound of greeting to an oriole, can we ever say what “joy” is? If we understand the mechanism that produces it, does that means we understand what has been produced? Or is that to remain a mystery?

I suspect the Buddha might smile gently at my question, knowing that he already described my experience with the oriole when he said: "How wonderful! How wonderful! All things are perfect Exactly as they are!."

Part of me can accept that answer. The other part of me says, no - press on. This question is at the nexus of science and spirituality. For me both worlds are equally valid - the one revealed by science and the one revealed to us through mechanisms we don't begin to understand. But the question has to be asked. We need to at least try to build a bridge connecting these two worlds - or if nothing else, be able to identify the gap - the point where one ends and the other begins

As always, your answers or comments are welcome. Please email me at

Posted by Greg Stone at 04:22 AM