In this vast, incomprehensible universe, we are but tiny specks – but we are tiny specks who want so much. In fact our very specky nature is part of what compels our extreme wants. We want not to be hit by asteroids, we want to have enough speck food. We want the other specks to like us.
This maddening desire probably starts as early as the womb, when we want to scream but can’t without filling our mouths with amniotic fluid. You finally emerge out to air to find you can scream but that’s just about it in terms of ways to get milk, pacifiers, and other irresistible pursuits.
We get older and we can say “milk” and “pacifier” but by that time we’ve moved on to other desires… fun and fulfillment and protection from monsters both real and imagined. Even if we think we can start to make a framework to see how it all might start to fit together, it doesn’t mean the we have the frames we want.
And so our organic brains fire away, thinking up desperate ways to get our grandest dreams with our limited little hands.
How, then, to exert any amount of control in a world we don’t understand? You can work hard, you can dream big, but in the end it’s still kind of a tragic crap shoot.
When I was young, my answer was to pray. I prayed in church and before meals and before bed; asking prayers and thanking prayers and just general conversation with someone out there who might care.
Lately, though, the phrase “thoughts and prayers” has come to make me nauseous. It’s the all-too-familiar words droned by those who could do something but choose not to. The church itself seems largely unable to combat this heavy sedentary inertia, choosing instead to comfort the conservative rather than fight for what’s right.
And so we the disillusioned turn to despair, or to drinking, and just throw up our hands.
But really, in a vast and incomprehensible universe, there must be options beyond static petitions and despair – beyond all hope resting on our deity and all hope resting on ourselves.
Enlightenment might just come from Benedict Cumberbatch – as is so often the case (right? Prove me wrong here :)). Or rather, we can learn from the ideas the Ancient One teaches Doctor Strange, but you know Benedict is somehow behind it.
After Doctor Strange initially doubts the Ancient One’s reliance on non-traditional scientific principles and the mystic, she reminds him that when he reattaches a severed nerve, it is the cells inside the body that do the healing. The same is true of antibiotics or vaccines – medicine is helping the body to do the fighting, the medicine is not in control, and neither is the doctor. You don’t even need to completely understand how the body is working to help it.
She shows him an MRI, an acupuncture map, and a chakra drawing, showing how all these people understood only a small part of the body and yet they could make a difference. By keeping his mind open to these and other possibilities, Doctor Strange might do yet more.
Likewise, in the musical “The Secret Garden,” there is a song in which the sickly boy Colin starts to get better. He had always avoided exertion on his doctor’s orders, but going into his mother’s secret garden is tantalizing. He and his friends sing in the garden, “Come spirit, come charm, come days that are warm, come magical spell, come help him get well” and a vividly kinetic dance supports that something strange but significant is happening. And being outside working with his friends does in fact help him get well, even though they might not have understood exactly how.
Both Doctor Strange the Secret Garden illustrate a paradox of getting what you want: to gain control, you must first give it up. To effect change, you must give up your stranglehold on the ways you think it should happen. To make an impact, you must be willing to be impacted.
It brings to mind traditional Christian paradoxes that seem frustratingly incomprehensible; the first shall be last, you must lose your life to gain it. Or slightly more prosaic Lego Movie lesson, in which regular guy Emmett’s empty mind allows room for the big, unconventional ideas that help all the Lego people see things differently and save the day.
This phenomenon is studied even outside of the realm of religion and legos, if you can believe it. Leonard Mlodinow is a theoretical physicist who has fascinating ways of describing how our minds work. In his recent book “Elastic,” he describes the necessity for “flexible thinking in a time of change.” We need to be ready to accept new paradigms of thinking to thrive – especially in this confusing times. That comes from a bottom-up sort of thinking, the sort computers don’t yet do very well. Spontaneous idea generation leads to associations and eventually full blown innovations. We have to be open to this process, even though we don’t understand it.
One suggestion he has is to find time where we are not focused on any one thing – because that’s when the mind can let in the weird ideas, the ones generally held at bay because they aren’t immediately useful. Zone out and let it flow.
Anyone who has had a spark of inspiration probably can recognize this – the idea that seems to come from the beyond, and how you have to be open to it. That’s one reason I love yoga class – it’s a lovely pleasant void, where the occasional idea can just sidle into the mind. Meditation is also a way to clear your mind and prepare for elastic thinking.
It’s Doctor Strange (as a surgeon), going into the hospital room helping cells heal themselves. It’s the kids in the Secret Garden, taking Colin to the garden but relying on nature and the spirit to heal Colin. It’s us rolling out our yoga mats and following along in class, allowing our bodies and minds to make themselves more complete in their own ways.
Of course, centuries of religious folk have felt this way too, and many of them much more open to elastic thinking than those who simply say the word “prayers.” In fact, in the book “The Secret Garden,” Colin’s friends actively pray in a Christian way for him to get well. And really, in the end, that change in how they ask for help is only in semantics. It’s acknowledging we are just a speck; an important one, but one that is wholly dependent on forces it cannot understand.
If I’m to try to have elastic, paradigm-shifting thinking, then perhaps I should take a page from the characters in the Secret Garden book and expand the my own scope of the word “prayer.” At the very least, we shouldn’t just let it be the domain of those who don’t really care to act.
Perhaps prayer is being open to elastic solutions and brand new paradigms. Perhaps prayer is verbalizing that openness and making it more real. Perhaps prayer is looking out as a speck into an infinite unknown, and looking for help – help we can’t define, however, and help whose source remains unknown. Or we don’t want to use the word “prayer,” maybe we just get into Warrior I pose. With our speck feet rooted on our little planet, we extend our arms up into the infinite beyond, and wait to see what wonders might come.