When I was 12 years old I stumbled upon a book about the human brain. The first line said something like: “The human brain is so complex that it can’t even understand itself”.
The line reverberated all around me with great illumination, as if I’d just been shown an essential truth. It was my first introduction to mystery.
I’ve never been one for religion. I never saw the benefit of breaking life down into shoulds and shouldn’ts, or the need for stories that tell of the origin of things. But I have been one for reverence. Reverence for the very fact of being alive, and for all of life itself (including rocks, mountains, water, stars, and so on).
Last summer I was hiking with a friend along a trail. We were wending our way through the dark old woods of coastal British Columbia. Huge trees had fallen, one over another. Others stood tall, but with limbs starting to die. And from the fallen trees new plant life grew – red huckleberry, baby hemlocks, sucking the rich nutrients out of the ‘nurse logs’, as they are called.
"I feel confused," said my friend. "When I look at the dead limbs I know that they’re beautiful, but the living limbs fill me with a sense of strength and joy. They are so vital I want to relate to them, but then I’m conflicted about the dead.” (To be fair, we were looking at a half-dead arbutus tree. The living limbs were papered with a rich cinnamon bark and plush with eruptions of thick green leaves, while the dead were a gleaming but ghostly silver.)
I was baffled. “They’re all in it together,” I said. “It’s one cycle, one relationship. The living is eating that which was once alive. Each thing has its time, its place in the sun, and then it topples, giving rise to the next.”
“But isn’t that depressing” he said, “that life is just about eating and being eaten? Doesn’t it all seem meaningless?”
Something inside me snapped. I felt a wave of heat, one could say righteousness or rage.
“Life is NOT meaningless.” I said. “And it is NOT just about eating and dying and being eaten. That is ONE way of looking at it; it is just one of the MANY glorious things that are happening here. But there are an infinite number of others, and on levels we can never conceive of. To seek for meaning in life is… near-sighted. Ill-informed. It’s secondary to the fact of life itself.
“It is only when asking for a definitive meaning that the possibility of meaninglessness arises. It is only when asking WHY that you split yourself from the inherent BECAUSE. If you don’t ask for it to be explained, then you are left with pure life, which is, in itself, a gift.
“For you, alive, to ask about the meaning of life is a bit like if someone has just offered you a cup of tea. And instead of just accepting the tea, and drinking it, you pause. ‘Is this really tea?’ you say. ‘What is the purpose of this tea? I’m not sure if the cup really exists or not; if it is all in my head, or what it all means….’
“For God’s sake!” I continued. “Be grateful! Accept it. Someone has just given you tea! The questions just get in the way.”
My poor friend. It is likely I had completely misunderstood his point. But my outburst clarified something that I know I needed to hear.
This morning I read a line about contemplative prayer, a practice suggested by the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing from the 14th century. I only read one line. It said something like “Don’t focus on what you are, but that you are."
The mere fact of being.
I return then to the brain.
The human brain is so far beyond our reckoning that, in my mind, by definition it will never be able to understand itself; it will always be limited by the questions it is asking.
But by allowing itself to BE, by accepting the mere fact that it IS, and allowing itself to feel that it IS… is not unlike accepting that cup of tea.
“Thank you, this is delicious, just as I like it…” and then graciously taking a sip.