In the mid-eighties, when I was an actress living in New York, a friend of mine invited me to a “Rebirthing” seminar. She had reenacted her own birth with a professional rebirther several times and had found that it helped her connect to, and let go of, some of her psychological pain. At the time, I was very interested in mining my own psychological pain in the hope that it would make me deeper and sexier.
The core tenant of rebirthing, as I understood it, was that all psychological pain emanates from one’s original birth trauma. Passing through the birth canal into the cold, harsh world is so upsetting that we repress the memory. However, the pain of that trauma lives on inside us and the only way to release it is to relive it by paying lots of money to put on a bathing suit, submerge oneself in a tepid hot tub, and reenact it over and over until one feels better.
The testimonials at that rebirthing seminar were compelling but the start-up weekend package was too pricey for me. I tried some of the techniques in my bath at home, but without a big outlay of cash and a rebirthing expert holding my hand the experience was hollow.
However, my interest in rebirthing kicked off a period of spiritual promiscuity that only slowed down when I had children. I’d hook up with a self-help movement only to take a shine to a guru or an inspirational phrase. I bounced back and forth between Shirley MacLaine and non-blaming techniques. No one path held my interest for very long and I refused to commit.
In the past couple of months several people have asked me if I plan on going on any spiritual retreats when I’m in India. I’m not at all closed to the idea, but I haven’t planned on anything yet. Lately, I find that moments of spiritual clarity have hit me in unexpected and profoundly ordinary ways. I don’t doubt that spiritual practice would give me even greater insight and prepare me for understanding spiritual truths when they reveal themselves. And I’d hate to think that there are hordes of truths hanging around and screaming “pick me” that I’m simply too busy or too spiritually lazy to recognize. But these days, when I have to make the choice between contemplating the beauty in a grain of sand and changing the cat litter, the litter wins.
So I’m taking my spiritual nuggets where I find them.
Last night at dinner for example Spencer and Murphy were talking about the possibility of there being life on other planets. The conversation was kicked off by a recent discovery that a microorganism in a California lake substitutes arsenic for phosphorus. If I understand the importance of this correctly (and it’s entirely possible that I don’t), this means that life does not need to confine itself to the elements that we previously thought essential. If a toxin can be a building block of life then who knows what else can be a building block.
Murphy couldn’t understand why scientists had confined themselves to the known building blocks in the first place. He’s six so he said it more simply, “Dude, why does everyone think it has to be stuff we already know about? Of course aliens are going to be made up of something different. They’re ALIENS!”
I encouraged Murphy to finish his beans because they were one of the building blocks of dinner for this human boy. And as we continued talking about the universe I thought about our habit of assuming that the unknowable must be based on some small part of what we DO know (the world being as flat as a table for example). The habit is understandable. It’s too frightening to imagine that we know absolutely nothing about what is before us or around us. What’s more, it feels positively irresponsible to admit total powerlessness over our ignorance. Surely a lifetime of study and experience must have some relevance. We can’t simply throw up our hands and say, “Hell if I know -- anything is possible.”
“Maybe that means,” Spencer said in his man/boy tone, polishing off his applesauce, “that there are different Goldilocks zones all over the universe.”
“Goldilocks zones?” Pat and I interjected simultaneously.
“Sure, it’s the part of space where conditions are,” he said, making air quotes. “‘just right’ for life.”
“Huh, really?” said Murphy pushing his beans around.
“Did you learn about this at school?” Pat asked Spencer.
“No. It was in that Steven Hawking book you had,” Spencer said, clearly in his element (no pun intended). “It says that Earth is in the Goldilocks zone. But if life can be made up of all kinds of different building blocks, then it makes sense that there’s a whole lot more than just one Goldilocks zone.”
“Are you sure it was Steven Hawking?” Murphy said. “The guy that sounds like a machine?”
Spencer dabbed his mouth with a napkin, “Oh, yes.”
As the chatter continued to wind around arsenic, zones, aliens, and Murphy’s insistence that beans have seeds and are therefore a fruit, I felt the lightness of not knowing anything. About science for sure. But about everything else too. If one accepted the possibility that the future does not have to be modeled on anything we’ve previously experienced or known, then I certainly couldn’t predict what our lives would look like in the new year when we would return from India.
All I knew was right there at the dinner table. These were the conditions just right for my life. Good conversation with a man and two boys in a modest apartment building somewhere on the planet Earth.
Looking over at Pat, I wondered if my grasp of this simple truth made me sexier. And I could tell by the glint in his bifocals that it did. It certainly did.