Heart versus Mind

Every morning, I lie in Peggy’s bed while she massages my shoulders. I look through her window into a canopy of green and, if I squint, I see faces in the canopy. Today, I saw a buck-toothed cocker spaniel without a lower jaw. His green ears blew in the breeze, and his eyes were as intense as those of a space alien from a scary movie. Last winter, the leaves being gone, I saw the same poker-faced gray cat everyday for months. These canopy denizens stare at me as I stare at them, and they seem more real to me than the 23 children who died in India last week. 

A great many atheists are literalists who think poorly of the impreciseness of metaphor, the emotionalism of symbols, and regard mythology as the inadequate expression of ideas that aren’t worth expressing.

Thirty-five years ago, I worked as a paid carpenter at a farming commune near Natchez, Mississippi. I never talked to any of the residents about religion or spirituality, but noted that they lived literalistically if not mechanically. I say this partially because of the scorn they felt for holidays. They avowed to make everyday as special as every other day, but the result was that they made no day special. Or so it seemed to me.

I’m a rationalist in that I dont believe in the supernatural, and I do believe that everything, everywhere, every time, has a natural explanation. Yet, in my heart, I’m not a very good rationalist because, whether it’s true or not, my image of a good rationalist is of someone who is calmly analytical, whereas I’m intense and unable to defend much of what I experience. Faces in greenery would mean nothing to a good rationalist. Feeling intimately connected to a cedar-clad Clayoquot berry picker (photo by Edward Curtis, 1915) would never happen in the life of a good rationalist. Almost believing, as I sometimes do, that I have stepped out of time would be viewed by a good rationalist as delusional. Fearing death even while being unable to believe that I will ever really not exist would be considered pathetic by a good rationalist . To a good rationalist, a thing is either real or not real, but I can never satisfy myself on this point because so much of what I feel strikes me as neither.

I went camping in the Coast Range last week and came back with a fifty pound sandstone boulder from the North Fork of Smith River. When I saw this rock, I remembered how much Bonnie loved camping and particularly how much she loved to retrieve sticks from the water, and I decided to bring it home and put it on her grave. Forevermore, I will think of her when I see it, and will picture her standing beside me when I found it because her presence was so strong within me. How, I asked myself, can such a joyous creature ever really die, but if it can, what is the good of life? I had no answers, and this made me want with all my heart to believe that she lives, but if not her, then at least the elements of which she consisted. A good rationalist would put the dead in their place and move on with life, but I carry the dead within me, and I can never entirely convince myself that they’re gone.

Long before Bonnie died, I saw her in the backyard one day. She was walking in one direction, and I was walking in the other, and we passed so closely that I could have touched her. “Hello Bonnie,” I said as I wondered why a dog with no place to go would be going there so resolutely. A few moments later, I saw her asleep in the front yard, but she couldn’t have gotten there from the backyard because they were separated by four gates (two on each side of the house) that were all closed. My rational mind knew that Bonnie couldn’t have been in both places, and I agreed with my rational mind, yet I had seen her in both places. Such occurrences put me in the crazy-making position of disavowing that which I want to believe in favor of that which I want not to believe because the former seems so improbable and the latter so rational.

Do I consider it even remotely possible that Bonnie (or, at least, Bonnie's image) might have been in two places, or that there is consciousness apart from what we call life? Yes, very remotely, for four reasons. One is that I can imagine all manner of extraordinary things that are unknown to science (which, after all, is only a few hundred years old and the province of a primitive species). The second is that people in all times and all places have had all manner of amazing experiences similar to some that I have had from childhood onward. Thirdly, such occurrences don’t contain internal contradictions as do, for example, descriptions of "loving" deities that behave viciously. Finally, it would be irrational for me to deny any possibility of an underlying reality behind my experiences simply because people who believe such things strike me as credulous or because it pleases me to consider myself a rationalist.

I wouldn’t attempt to give odds for having really seen Bonnie in two places because I don’t know enough to give odds for that in the same way I could give odds for it raining in western Oregon tomorrow (0-10%, the same as everyday in July), but any odds greater than none would mean that it was possible. Even if they were only one in a trillion, pretty much everything in the universe would seem to qualify. For instance, if you were able to list all the things that had to happen exactly as they did from the dawning of creation just for you to exist, it would surely take many lifetimes.

It is for such reasons that I remain, to a minute degree, open to the acceptance of things I can't clearly define, things that most rationalists would flatly deny. All I have to offer in this regard are feelings, questions, and a few unexplained experiences, but they are sufficient to make me unwelcome among rationalists, and insufficient to make me welcome among people who consider themselves psychic or spiritual. I simply don't know enough to belong to either camp, so I stand alone where the light filters through the trees and makes ever-changing patterns and shadows that both delight and torment. I just wish I could  settle my mind on what is true. A good rationalist, or a good believer, would say that he already knew.


Rob-bear said...

The heart has reasons that the mind never understands. Strange, but true.

Blessings and Bear hugs!
Bears Noting
Life in the Urban Forest (poetry)

stephen Hayes said...

Is it important to be a good rationalist? I love your line: I remain open...to the acceptance of things I can't clearly define. To me, this provides purpose and energy for living.

Elephant's Child said...

Oh Snow. I don't think you are alone in the way you think - not by a long way. And anyone who falls into this category 'A great many atheists are literalists who think poorly of the impreciseness of metaphor, the emotionalism of symbols, and regard mythology as the inadequate expression of ideas that aren’t worth expressing.' is not someone I would be comfortable with - and has closed themselves off to so much.

Winifred said...

Oh my Snowbrush, such questions! Too difficult for me I'm afraid. Love the photo of Bonnie, that water looks beautiful. Must bring back lovely memories of her.

Marion said...

Well, if there was ever a real angel, it would have to be a dog. Perhaps your Bonnie was an angel.

I still cry, missing our Great Pyrennes, Cody. He was a 100 lb. furry heart walking around, teaching us how to *BE*. If he ever found a pile of wild kittens, he always brought them to us, gently in his mouth. Then we'd bottle feed the little bastards and Cody would raise them, bathing them and playing with them. (That's the reason I have 6 cats now, because of that dog. Every time I put a kitten back, he'd go get it again. God, he loved cats!) We had to have him put down last year due to severe, painful arthritis and there's still a hole in our heart where his presence was. We kept some of his soft toys for the cats and they sleep with them. I know they miss him, too. xo

Charles Gramlich said...

Been quite a while since I've had a numinous experience. Kind of would enjoy one, but only of certain types so I don't wish for them.

CreekHiker / HollysFolly said...

Fascinating as always Snow! You were missed last week!

PhilipH said...

Loved ones continue to live on in our hearts and minds. A truism. When we die we too shall live on, in the hearts and minds of others.

This makes sense, to me. But that's about all. For when our life is over our heart and mind no longer exist. We are dead and all of our memories are dead.

BUT we could live on forever, in the minds of others - even though in ever-decreasing ways.

Take the case of a baker selling Xmas puddings claiming that his puddings contain the original ingredients of Queen Victoria's actual Xmas pudding. Just a small portion was 'purloined' years ago and was included in the baker's pudding. Each year a new batch is made, each containing a portion of last year's batch.

That 'original' pudding thus goes on and on, for as long as the baker makes them. But it ends at some point.

My daughter Clare said that she was annoyed that Religious Education (RE) is a compulsory subject in all schools. She went to see the RE teacher on the parents' evening and discussed her son's (Jake) achievement in this subject. Clare asked the teacher why RE was compulsory. The teacher said the curriculum is decided by law ... and then said: "We have to discuss the various religions but actually I'm an atheist!" What do you make of that?

Robin said...

Another poignant, reflective post, dear Snow. You KNOW I am a *Heart Girl*...perhaps sometimes too much...but hey - that's who I am.

The photo of Bonnie is so wonderful...

You, dear friend, have a HUGE and LOVING Heart... all sarcasm and skepticism aside.. you are a sweet man....really. (Vicki would absolutely agree..)

Love, always,

♥ Robin ♥

All Consuming said...

I consider myself a rationalist too, but accept that I cannot possibly know the answer to some things, and these things, well the 'ratioal' answer might be well beyond my current capability of understanding. I don't mean religeously, I mean simnply that...hmm...well, let's say that we are all part of some enromous computer game, a cosmic one perhaps...if it is true, then that's a rational thought. I have no answer for some things that have happened to me Snow, some really odd experiences,so I stay open to that, just that, the fact I don't know as of yet, if indeed I ever will. I think it would be arrogant to say there's a clear cut answer to all this madness, this gladness that drips through the hourglass. You have a mind that won't be constricted. And that is a good thing, if not a trying one at times. Also, you havea wife who gives you back massages every morning, you lucky son of a gun. I love that you brought back the stone for Bonnie, it was instinctual and perfect. Xxx

kj said...

Why label yourself at all?

Labels tend to include or exclude but what is the point ? Nature and heartbeats are chaotic; why not your perceptions and experiences too?

This question you ask, I don't understand, snow :

How, I asked myself, can such a joyous creature ever really die, but if it can, what is the good of life?

Why would someone or something precious become anything less when it ceased to exist? I carry the living love and pulse of every person, animal and memory within me and I just do and just will.

You may have seen my post that I had a true blue hallucination from the oxycodone for my pain control. Is it possible (likely) your views of Bonnie could have been tipped by drugs?

I am glad you see faces in bushes. I teaching my 6 and 4 year grand kids too 'see' in that way. Surely some of the great masters thought themselves to be your definition of rationalists, but I can't imagine any creative person who doesn't see. And I can't imagine any person lacking in innate creativity

Love to you, my friend.


Snowbrush said...


"Is it important to be a good rationalist?"

In describing a rationalist as I did, I was creating something of a straw-man for the purpose of the post, although being a good rationalist is important to me in the sense of wanting to feel welcome SOMEWHERE. As it is, I view my welcome by almost any group as dependent upon my willingness to keep my mouth shut regarding whatever points of the group's dogma I don't accept.

"Is it possible (likely) your views of Bonnie could have been tipped by drugs?"

It was not a period during which I was taking drugs of any kind unless you count vitamins.

You may have seen my post that I had a true blue hallucination from the oxycodone for my pain control.

I envy you that. I take 30 mgs at a time, and I don't hallucinate.

"Labels tend to include or exclude but what is the point?"

What IS the point? Well, "label" is just another word for noun, and have you ever tried communicating without nouns? You can't even even interpret or order your experiences within your own mind without labeling them, and even those who claim to hate labels use them in every sentence (the word "I" is itself a label). Let me give you an example of the importance of labels, I can name a lot of plants, stars, rocks, and so forth, and I sometimes run into people ("spiritual" people mostly) who are dismissive of my interests. They would argue that they can appreciate a plant, a star, or a rock just as much if they don't have a name for it, but if I were to take a walk with such a person, and you were to ask us how many yew trees (or volcanic rocks, or certain stars) they saw and where they were, Mr. or Ms. I-don't-need-labels couldn't tell you if you did your damnedest to describe what a yew tree, or a volcanic rock, or a certain star looked like, and where they would have been found, the reason being that, if a person doesn't know the names of trees, stars, rocks, etc. these things all tend to run together in their minds (just as do people if you don't know their names), whereas, for me, the various plants, stars, and rocks stand out one from the other, and so I see what other people miss. Labels enable us to "see the trees for the forest." As for labels that say who we are, if someone describes herself as having all the characteristics of a pragmatist, an animist, a philosophical idealist, or whatever, yet says that she doesn't call herself such-and-such because she doesn't like labels, I would see such a person as someone who toys with meaning rather than embraces it. KJ, since you appear to support, to some extent, the avoidance of labels, may I ask what you see as the benefit?

Snowbrush said...

"Why would someone or something precious become anything less when it ceased to exist?"

I missed a question, being in something of a hurry--at least that will be my excuse. Certainly, one could say the opposite to what I wrote. For instance, one of my favorite flowers is the daffodil, but this doesn't mean that I would value it more if I saw it everyday forever. Indeed, I might value it less. Yet, the analogy is imperfect in that flowers are a method of regeneration, whereas death is almost certainly the end of existence, and, because of this, is also tragic. I would hold that this is true regardless of what anyone can say about it being nature's way to make room for other creatures, God's little proving ground, or etc. It seems to me that there is a species'-wide conspiracy to minimize death's seriousness. I take pleasure sometimes in thinking about how many people I've outlived, yet I know it's a rather senseless pleasure inasmuch as death at sixty-four versus death at 100 is but 36 years against eternity. I would agree that our time is precious in that it is all we have, but there is a sense--that is stronger within me--that it is also disappointing in that it is all we have. Imagine, for example, that every morning, you got up and created a painting that, however good, represented the best that you could do, and that every afternoon, was burned. You would end life with a lot of burned paintings, and then the day would come that there were no more canvases left, and you might very well wonder what it was all about. But, you ask, why take such a dour view, why not just enjoy the good that life offers? Allow me to offer another analogy. Think of life as like an outdoor party on which it rains. You make the best of things, and it can still be good in its way, yet you might reasonably think that it could have gone better. For example, you wrote recently of all the things you won't be able to do this summer. Yes, that is how life is, and it tends to become increasingly that way with age and/or infirmity. We're limited in time, resources, health, and potential, the new British baby as well as the latest arrival atop a Cairo dump.

Snowbrush said...

P.S. "'This question you ask, I don't understand, snow: 'How, I asked myself, can such a joyous creature ever really die, but if it can, what is the good of life?'"

Part of why you interest me are those times when you are at a loss to understand what I'm talking about. I could simply not be expressing myself well, but my assumption is that more people are closer to being like I than like you in regard to these things, so I'm wondering if those who read that part of the post that you had reference to will feel as you do about it, or if it will resonate with their outlook as it does with mine.

possum said...

You might THINK you are standing alone, but maybe you aren't!

Being Positive of something is so limiting, don't you think? And then what happens to one's universe when they discover they were wrong? Or do they just find a way to explain it away...

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful post and one that I have thoroughly enjoyed reading.
I'm sorry for your loss as I understand the pain of such an experience.

A book comes to mind that may be of interest to you..
Many Lives Many Masters written by Dr Brian Weiss
It is food for thought and has added to my perspective of living and dying... and has dissolved a lot of my fears.

And.. I came across the words below recently and they popped into my mind whilst reading your post.

"I am one of the searchers. There are, I believe, millions of us.
We are not unhappy, but neither are we really content.
We continue to explore life, hoping to uncover its ultimate secret.
We continue to explore ourselves, hoping to understand.
We like to walk along the beach, we are drawn by the ocean, taken by its power, its unceasing motion, its mystery and unspeakable beauty.
We like forests and mountains deserts and hidden rivers and the lonely cities as well.
Our sadness is as much part of our lives as is our laughter.
To share our sadness with one we love is perhaps as great a joy as we know-
unless it be share our laughter.
We searchers are ambitious for only life itself, for everything beautiful it can provide.
Most of all we love and want to be loved.
We want to live in a relationship that will not impede our wandering, nor prevent our search, nor lock us in prison walls; that will take us for what little we have to give.
We do not want to prove ourselves to another or compete for love"
author unknown

Anonymous said...

best wishes from Robyn
I forgot to sign off on my comment

Snowbrush said...

"I still cry, missing our Great Pyrennes, Cody."

This was a beautiful story. Maybe you tried it for all I know, but both our dogs had arthritis so bad that it was either relieve their pain or put them to sleep, and then we discovered Metacam. Within three days, this drug worked so well on dogs that were crying and limping that we were astounded. It's expensive, but our vet matched Internet prices, so that cut the cost nearly in half.

"You might THINK you are standing alone, but maybe you aren't!"

I would love to know other such people (you're one, I take it), my experience being that people usually identify as materialist, spiritual, or religious. I'm closest to the materialist end, yet I'm not comfortable there either. What is your experience?

"I came across the words below recently..."

By James Kavanaugh, a name I haven't heard in years but was among my heroes during the late sixties (he wasn't the only former priest I looked up to). He wrote something else that I've thought of doing a post about:

"I burn all self-help books or tapes in which hyped heroes tell me how easy it is to put one's life together...I need those who are still wading through pain who must struggle at times just to hang on. I don't believe in quick fixes and I'm outraged when anyone promises one."

Anonymous said...

Thank you for making the time to visit and comment at my blog.

Also thank you for asking to use some photographs for screen savers.. I am delighted you would like to do this and the answer is yes you are welcome to do so.

and just a thought about "self help"
we often need to help ourselves so we can help others... it goes around and around.. often in the nicest possible way.

The book was recommended to me by someone I respect and most likely not one I would have read without the recommendation.
It is an easy read and I believe you might feel compelled as I did to finish it.

One of the things I enjoy about living is nothing is set in concrete and we are able to change our minds/lives if we choose... after all what we believe to be true is our truth and the truth is so flexible. x

Snowbrush said...

"One of the things I enjoy about living is nothing is set in concrete and we are able to change our minds/lives if we choose..."

Ah, but can we choose? My thought is that if I believe that something is true, I can't help but believe it, but if I don't believe it's true, I can't help but not believe it. Of course, you might just be referring to a willingness to consider beliefs that contradict those which one already holds, and I can go with you that far. In any event, the quote I shared about self-help books wasn't meant to apply to the book you recommended because I didn't think it was intended as a self-help book. As for reincarnation, are you familiar with Mehitabel the Cat?

Anonymous said...

I've just got back here... no I don't know the book Mehitabel the Cat.. but now I will seek it.

and yes the book was not intended as self help, though some may view it that way.

love your posts by the way

James said...

Just thinking -- listing everything that had to happen...since the dawn of time would take longer than it took for it all to happen, since every moment there probably were many relevant things happening simultaneously, many of which would take longer to name than it took for them to occur. The universe often moves faster than thought, and usually much faster than language.