Monday, February 1, 2010

The Spiral of Growth

I love reading. I mean, I really love reading.  Reading is one of my all-time favorite past-times, and I will read just about anything I can get my hands on.

When I was a child, I used to go to the library and just flit from section to section reading any- and every- thing.  It was only natural that I would end up working in bookstores for many years.

There was one day, shortly after I started my first job in a bookstore, that a mother came in with her son (maybe 6 or 7 years old).  He obviously did not have the passion for books that I do, to put it mildly.  As soon as I was able to get his attention, during a momentary break for breath during his screaming fit, I asked him what he enjoyed doing.  Where would he rather be?  He told me about some toy in the toystore just down the mall, and I knew it had something to do with jungles.

"Would you like to go swinging on the vines in a jungle?"  I asked him this in a conspiratorial sort of way, hinting that this would be a kind of secret between us.  I grabed a copy of Tarzan and read him a few passages, talking about what we might see as we swung through the jungle.  From there, we "swung" over to mystery and roamed the streets of London with Sherlock Holmes.  As we turned the corner, we caught up with Captain Nemo and dove 20,000 leagues under the sea with him.

As we came up for air, we ended up on the Galapagos Islands with Darwin, studying the various animals he found.  This took us into a study of turtles and tortoises that will never be matched.  The turtles, we knew, carried the ancient Indian world on its back, and thus we flew up to the stars to try and catch a glimpse of the giant turtle on its journey through the universe.  Pictures of stars led us into a photo book of flowers, and we almost made it all around the bookstore by the time his mother was finished.

The little boy left in giggling tears, unable to contain his enthusiasm and excitement to come back again.  By the way, I think I was 15 at the time, and that experience further fueled my love for books.

To this day, I still will read most anything I can get my hands on.

Recently, a book called "The Universe Within Us" came across my path, and this book has changed the way I view certain things in my world.

In it, the author describes the traditional scientific view of the classification of the world, otherwise known as taxonomy.  She begins with a large circle cut in two, sort of like a French Silk pie, if I'm the one serving it.  One side was the mineral world and the other the biological.  She then to proceeds to divide the biological side into numerous pieces, like my wife would that same pie if she were serving it. At first, she just includes the vegetable and the animal kingdoms, but then goes into the more "modern" understanding of "monera, protoctista, fungi, plantaea and animalia", with us human-types being in the last one.

As you can imagine, this is a very divisive way of looking at the world, and does not really conform all that well to reality.  It certainly does not address the important questions of the different areas of that pie, nor the deep spiritual questions of life.  It only seems to make a vain attempt at placing everything within simple compartments.

From that basic description of "scientific" taxonomy, she then looks at a quote from 'Abdu'l-Baha, found in Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 336.  This is the quote (too lengthy to quote here) in which He defines the various kingdoms, such as the mineral (with its attribute of attraction), the vegetable (with the attribute of growth), the animal (with the senses and intelligence) and the human (with its many attributes of virtues, planning ability, moral choice and so forth).  These she places in concentric circles, with the mineral in the centre, showing how each kingdom encompasses all the ones before it.  In other words, the animal kingdom includes the attributes of growth and attraction from both the vegetable and mineral kingdoms.  The human kingdom includes all the ones before it, too.

But even these concentric circles do not quite seem to cover it.  They, too, are ultimately divisive in nature, for you are either in one circle or another.  There is also no clear indication how something would move from one circle to another, and how we, as humans, would progress in our development.

From there, she takes an intuitive leap and points out that a spiral would also fit in with 'Abdu'l-Baha's description, and at the same time be more in accord with what we see around us.  This spiral shape to the metaphor has other benefits as well, which I will get into shortly.

The way this works is that the mineral kingdom is located near the centre, with its attribute of attraction.  As you move fuly around the spiral you are then in the vegetable kingdom, with its attribute of growth added to the attraction.  From there, you spiral into the animal kingdom, with the senses, and then on into human kingdom.

But as you can imagine, the spiral shape implies that it keeps going further inward than we can perceive, and it keeps going outward beyond us.  There is room for growth.

It also allows for other quirks such as the "ability" for stalactites and stalagmites, as well as various crystaline formations, to grow.  You can easily place chimpanzees and dolphins closer to the human end of the animal spiral, realizing that the division is not as clear cut as we first thought.  This is similar to Wittgenstein's famous question about pointing to the colour red on a rainbow.  Where is the red?  It is sort of from here to somewhere around there.

It also adds another dimension regarding our own growth.  This spiral implies that we begin in the mineral kingdom, as an egg and sperm cell, not yet showing the attribute of growth.  As soon as those two cells unite, growth begins

And even though the soul is already somehow associated with the newly formed unicellular body, it takes time before anyone can perceive the attributes of the animal senses in that growing group of cells, much less the attributes associated with the human kingdom.  Those attributes are all there in potential, and will take time to actualize.

This is what I find most fascinating: this idea of taking time to realize the potential.  For, after all, isn't that what we see in everyday life?

We watch a child who has grown their body to a certain stage of development stumble and fall as they are learning to walk. As our intellectual capacities are developing, it takes time for us to grasp certain points in school, far before they are second nature to us.

Recognizing this pattern of striving for excellence by trying to reach beyond what is currently available to us, she asks what we are currently striving for.  The answer, she says, is virtuous behaviour.  Our intellectual development puts us in the position of having to make moral or ethical choices and, if you're anything like me, you stumble and fall far more often than that little child who is trying to learn to walk.

The outward path of that spiral, the part that is just beyond our current capacity to envision, will, I believe, become far more clear as we learn to act virtuously.  It becomes far more real to us as this virtuous behaviour becomes second nature to us.

But will this happen in our lifetime?  Well, will it happen in my lifetime?  Not likely.  I will probably experience more development in this area after I pass on, but for now, I have to begin.

This is how this new paradigm, based, to my eye, on the Writings, has shifted how I perceive so much around me.

I know that I will die.  It is only a matter of time.  In fact, it is a matter of time.  The real question is "How can I prepare for that eventuality?"

The way that I perceive the world right now will say a lot about how I prepare.  If I believe that I am only a highly developed animal, destined to go back to the mineral kingdom, then my preparation will be to acquire as many "toys" as I can, and live vicariously for as long as I can.

But if I perceive death as a stepping stone on the path of my development, moving me closer and closer to my spiritual destiny, then I will prepare for that eventuality to the best of my ability.
Our perspective of these issues plays a vital part in how we live.  This perspective also plays a major role in how we die.

After all, two things we cannot escape are death and taxonomy.

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