October 21, 2010

God in New York!

Posted in Philosophers, Theologians tagged , at 10:27 pm by tiffanyannbrown

A good friend recently introduced me to the American author, speaker, and Presbyterian pastor Timothy Keller who wrote the book The Reason for God: Belief in the Age of Skepticism and founded the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City where she used to attend (lucky girl!). As a result, I listened to a 2008 lecture he gave at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA regarding his book, which you can view here:

A very impressive and knowledgeable speaker, Keller lays out the reasons for believing vs. not believing in God, pointing out that the argument for God is better than the argument against God, supported by material from literary classics, philosophy, anthropology, and a multitude of other disciplines. He further mentions that the primary reasons for believing vs. not believing in God are either due to intellectual, personal, or social factors. For example, one might be drawn to a particular religion because they can identify with a certain group of friends who all subscribe to the same belief system, while another may have a personal experience that suddenly spins that person onto the path of belief vs. non-belief. Overall, it was very refreshing to hear this pastor speak, and I would highly recommend taking the time to pick up one of his books, or at the very least, listen to one of his lectures.

In a similar vein, there is also an Episcopal church out of Manhattan called Trinity Wall Street that has been putting on a National Theological Conference for the past 40 years.  In the year
2000, I remember sitting in on a live broadcast of their “God at 2000” conference, which was being shown at one of the auditoriums on the California State University, Chico State campus. I had intended to sit in and listen to just one speaker to obtain my “extra credit,” but ended up staying for the entire day to listen to all of the presentations! That year such captivating speakers as Karen Armstrong (a British author of numerous works on comparative religion, who first rose to prominence in 1993 with her highly successful A History of God and a former Roman Catholic nun); Marcus Borg (an American Biblical scholar and author); Diana Eck (Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard); Lawrence Kushner (a Jewish Rabbi based out of San Francisco); Hussein Nasr (Iranian University Professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, and a prominent Islamic philosopher); and Desmond Tutu (a South African activist and Christian cleric who rose to worldwide fame during the 1980s as an opponent of apartheid) gave speeches. Overall, it was very refreshing to witness such theological scholars come together to participate in an open dialogue, despite their obvious on-the-surface differences. To learn more about the Trinity Institute, its national conferences, and to view video clips of past speakers, click here.

In closing, just for fun … in case you’re not sure what faith you are, there is a resource that can tell you. Answer 20 questions about your concept of God, the afterlife, human nature, and more, and Belief-O-Matic™ will tell you what religion (if any) you practice … or ought to consider practicing. You might just be surprised!

Please click here to take the quiz.


September 28, 2010

An Exploration of Noetic Science

Posted in Experiences, Science and Relgion tagged , , , at 11:17 pm by tiffanyannbrown

What do Harvard-trained neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, Nasa-trained astronaut Edgar Mitchell, and spiritual guru Deepak Chopra all have in common? If you haven’t already guessed it’s that they all share a background firmly grounded in science—neuroanatomy, engineering, medicine—but due to one circumstance or another have all come to question traditional Western science with respect to their understanding of the world in light of a significant personal experience. In short, they are all explorers of noetic science.

So, what is noetic science? According to one definition, it is “a multidisciplinary field that brings objective scientific tools and techniques together with subjective inner knowing to study the full range of human experience.”

In 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor suffered a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain, causing her to re-think her entire approach to brain research, while also opening her mind up to the possibility of other types of existence. She has written a book documenting her experience called My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, in 2008 was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, and has also appeared on Oprah. From an interview with http://www.vision.org, she discussed what happened to her sense of reality when the stroke occurred:

I lost the cells that defined the boundaries of my body, where I began and where I ended. In the absence of that information I had the perception that I was at one with all that is: I am blended with all of the atoms and mind, because the brain chatter was gone, so there was this absolute silence … We have a group of cells inside our brain that tell use we are solid. Okay, I’m a solid. But for eight years I did not exist as a solid; I existed as a fluid entity in a fluid environment. This was a marvelous experience-to be that enormous in the absence of the distraction of language that has to label everything in my world. Its absence put me in a position to simply experience the energy dynamic of all particles around me, and it was a beautiful experience.

The full interview can be read here, and below is an excerpt from one of her interviews with Oprah.

With Edgar Mitchell, it was an otherworldly experience in space that led to his questioning of the nature of reality and resulted in a decision to start The Institute of Noetic Sciences, a nonprofit research, education, and membership organization whose mission is advancing the science of consciousness and human experience to serve individual and collective transformation.  From the biography on his web site:

Trained as an engineer and scientist, Captain Mitchell was most comfortable in the world of rationality and physical precision. Yet the understanding that came to him as he journeyed back from space felt just as trustworthy—it represented another way of knowing. This experience radically altered his worldview: Despite science’s superb technological achievements, he realized that we had barely begun to probe the deepest mystery of the universe—the fact of consciousness itself.

In his own words, below is a summary of Edgar Mitchell’s personal experience in space.

As for Deepak Chopra, an endocrinologist and former Chief of Staff at the New England Memorial Hospital in Stoneham, Massachusetts, it was a general unhappiness with Western medicine that prompted him to change his approach from pill-prescribing to mind-body healing. To date, he has written 56 books ranging from alternative healing practices to topics on consciousness. He is currently the Medical Director of the Sharp Institute for Human Potential and Mind-Body Medicine in La Jolla, California, and lectures and teaches worldwide.

Throughout his research, Chopra has been led to believe that consciousness is more than just a byproduct of one’s brain but rather something more fundamental, non-local, and independent of space and time. See the below video for more details.

Despite coming from different scientific backgrounds, it’s interesting to see how the three above-mentioned individuals have all reached similar conclusions after having traveled three very different paths to obtaining such knowledge. For more information on noetic science, please visit Dr. Mitchell’s web site, www.noetic.org.

September 8, 2010

The Ecstatic Experience

Posted in Experiences tagged , at 10:09 pm by tiffanyannbrown

In the words of Emily Dickinson, “The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.”

Everywhere I looked this past week I saw “Burning Man” and frankly, the beckoning has become a bit tiresome. For those of you who don’t know what Burning Man is, read on.

If it wasn’t for seeing a constant stream of well-decorated RVs and dust-covered vehicles adorned with bicycles passing through Reno, it was being parked next to one while filling up my tank at the gas station. If it wasn’t running across old “Burning Man” email exchanges pondering the cultural significance of the event with my favorite professor in college, it was running into the story “Burn Baby Burn” by Charlie Johnston while flipping through this month’s issue of Nevada Magazine. If it wasn’t hearing about the general care practitioner who rescued me from excruciating pain at a gymnastics class after dislocating my elbow in 2008 that got married at Burning Man last week (who also happens to be an acrobat that used to perform with Controlled Burn), it was having Burning Man photo essays bombard my desktop while filtering through the daily Reno Gazette Journal business headlines. It was noticing that certain people from my office were visibly missing in order to take part in the festivities, again. It was my 50-something-year-old daycare provider telling me she had just returned from the ‘vacation of a lifetime.’ It was seeing the memorizing pictures pour in throughout the week on my friends’ Facebook accounts, capturing their unique and individual experiences.

So what is Burning Man? According to one of my favorite professors, it is “as convincing a demonstration of the power of ecstatic experience as the world has ever seen.” In a 2008 he sent me an email describing the event and why he thought I needed to attend it. He wrote:

With about 50,000 people expected this year, the event has basically doubled in size just since I started going in 2002.  Preparations are taking some hours each week already.  For others, the building of art cars and palatial camps is well underway in warehouses and garages across the country.  It is as convincing a demonstration of the power of ecstatic experience as the world has ever seen, I think.  All of the preparation tells us that it is not about a formless or purely entropic ecstasy.  There is obviously direction and intent in this, so the ecstasies are in a sense structured.  This is a bit paradoxical, but poetry is like that also … Burning Man is obviously contrived, but it really propels you some distance.

After reading this I wondered more about ecstatic experience. According to the book “The Mystic Experience: a Descriptive and Comparative Analysis” by Jordan D. Paper:

The ecstatic experience of self-loss, the mystic experience, is often understood as a union of experience as well as an experience of nothingness. Far more frequent are unitive experiences without the loss of self. In other words, we experience a union with God or the cosmos or a merging with a larger entity, but we remain aware of ourselves being so conjoined; that is, the union is not total, for we still exist, in some sense, and remain cognizant of the union …

What causes these experiences? From the reports, there seem to be many so-called triggers. These would include near-death experiences, the effects of meditation, the experience of childbirth, the effects of intense prayer or meditation, the use of psychotropic substances. An intense aesthetic experience, often of nature—a sunset, a beautiful scene, flowers, music, a painting, and so forth—may lead to a unitive experience or simply an experience so intense that it is, in itself, ecstatic. For those theologically inclined, ecstatic religious experiences are due to the grace of God.

Clearly, the ecstatic experience that is Burning Man lies at the core of what makes the event so special to the thousands of people who attend the event each year from all walks of life. (From a Northern Nevada Business Weekly article entitled “For a week, Gerlach joins Las Vegas, LAX as busy air destination,” a spokesman for the airport said carriers would bring an estimated 15,000 air travelers from 34 nations to Reno for Burning Man.)  It’s why those who attend the festival return to everyday life devoid of the language necessary to capture the essence of the experience. It’s why you hear about how the event “blew their mind” or “changed the way they now see the world” and why they will most certainly return again the following year. In the words of my professor:

The irony is that I now think of Burning Man as my most reliable week of sanity each year. In my case, it was not an acquired taste; the moment the greeter at the gate uttered the ritualistic ‘welcome home’ I knew right where I was … sooner or later the participation in anything worthwhile means letting go of the already and diving into the not yet, getting into the swing of it on one’s own.

In closing and on a much lighter note, click here for a 2 minute clip from Comedy Central’s Reno 911 poking a little fun at Burning Man.

Or, you can click here for a link to a video attempting to describe one individual’s experience on YouTube.

No matter which way you look at it, Burning Man is certainly an event of cultural significance worth exploring, assuming you can see past all of the fanfare and distractions through to the essence of what it truly is.

September 3, 2010

Food for Thought

Posted in Philosophers tagged , at 10:32 pm by tiffanyannbrown

From an article entitled “Time and Impermanence in Middle Way Buddhism and Modern Physics,” by Victor Mansfield of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Colgate University in New York (click here for link to full article), here is some food for thought!

If phenomena don’t independently exist, then how do they exist? The Middle Way tells us that they dependently exist in three fundamental ways. First, phenomena exist dependent upon causes and condition. For example, carrots depend upon soil, sunlight, moisture, freedom from rodents, and so forth. Second, phenomena depend upon their parts and attributes. A carrot depends upon its greens, stem, root hairs, and so on. Third, and most profoundly, phenomena depend upon mental imputation, attribution, or designations. From the rich panoply of experience, I collect the sense qualities, personal associations, and psychological reactions to carrots together and name then or designate them as “carrot.” The mind’s proper function is to construct its world, the only world we can know. The error enters because along with naming comes the false attribution of inherent existence, that foundation for desire and aversion.

I found this article quite interesting because it provides a new way of thinking about what something or someone really is – dynamic and ever-changing as opposed to static and definable. And interdependent as opposed to independent. The author also illustrates the point that a single person or possession can mean many different things to many different people.  Who or what then is this person or that thing? Nothing more than the sum of its associations? How does what we think about or how we think in general affect our own realities? What can we do to change the way we think about things and people in order to live a more purposeful and constructive existence?

Though the point of the article was actually to draw comparisons between Buddhism and modern physics, I found it enjoyable on a variety of levels, but mostly because it points to the idea that everything on Earth is interconnected from the level of science. The author also touches on such concepts as the theory of relativity, its link to our concept of what time really is, as well as the theory of Boltzmann’s box which proved that atoms cannot exist separately even when isolated.  He writes:

In contrast, we could ask what happens when our philosophic view embraces the false notion of independent existence. The late David Bohm, known for both the depths of his physics and philosophy, said it very directly when he wrote:

‘It is proposed that the widespread and pervasive distinctions between people (race, nation, family, profession, etc., etc.), which are now preventing mankind from working together for the common good, and indeed, even for survival, have one of the key factors of their origin in a kind of thought that treats things as inherently divided, disconnected, and “broken up” into yet smaller constituent parts. Each part is considered to be essentially independent and self-existent.’

According to Bohm, many of the evils of our modern world are traceable to a view where “Each part is considered to be essentially independent and self-existent.” In other words, one in which things inherently exist. I tried to show above that, although we commonly assume for simplicity that a system, such as Boltzmann’s box, is independent from its surroundings, such a view misleads us. This is bad enough in physics, but when a race, nation, or person views themselves as fundamentally independent, then the stage is set for calamity—the stuff of our daily headlines.

Click here to learn more about Middle Way Buddhism.

August 28, 2010

The Myth of Progress vs. The Myth of The Fall

Posted in Philosophers tagged at 10:39 pm by tiffanyannbrown

More than ten years ago now, I remember reading an essay entitled “The Great Initiation” by Richard Tarnas, a Harvard graduate famous for his book, The Passion of the Western Mind. On his web site, I recently came across another interesting article entitled “Is the Modern Psyche Undergoing a Rite of Passage?” In it, he discusses the idea that our society and world is at a fundamental crossroads in human history.

Below is a quote from the article (I’m going to quote heavy because he does a better job of explaining than I could do myself):

If we examine many of the intellectual and cultural debates of our time, particularly near the epicenter of the major paradigm battles today, it is possible to see looming behind them two fundamental interpretations, two archetypal stories or metanarratives, concerning the evolution of human consciousness and the history of the Western mind … One could be called the myth of progress, the other the myth of the fall.

More on the “Myth of Progress”:

The first, familiar to all of us from our education, describes the evolution of human consciousness, and particularly the history of the Western mind, as an extraordinary progressive development, a long heroic journey from a primitive world of dark ignorance, suffering, and limitation to a brighter modern world of ever increasing knowledge, freedom, and well-being … The apex of human achievement in this vision begins with the ascendance of modern science and individualistic democracy. The view of history is one of progressive emancipation and empowerment. It is a vision that emerged fully in the course of the European Enlightenment, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, though its roots are as old as Western civilization itself.

More on the “Myth of the Fall”:

The other view, whose presence has become much stronger in our cultural discussion in recent years, though it was always present to one extent or another as a compensatory countercurrent to the progressive view, describes this story in quite opposite terms. In the form this myth has taken in our era, the evolution of human consciousness and the history of the Western mind are seen as a tragic story of humanity’s radical fall and separation from an original state of oneness with nature and with being … In this perspective, both humanity and nature are seen as having suffered grievously under a long domination of thought and society associated with both patriarchy and modernity, with the worst consequences being produced by the oppressive hegemony of Western industrial societies empowered by modern science and technology. The nadir of this fall is seen as the present time of planetary ecological disaster, moral disorientation, and spiritual emptiness, which is the direct consequence of human hubris as embodied above all in the structure and spirit of the modern Western mind and ego.

Throughout the 26-page article, which you can read by clicking here, Tarnas discusses the difference between these two worldviews in depth and goes on to make the grand statement that these two stories actually constitute two parts of an equation, or that the “larger story is one in which the two opposite interpretations are exactly intertwined to form a complex but integrated whole.” It is within this statement that I find hope for humanity despite all of the current setbacks we’re experiencing, but the author still isn’t clear about what that integration will look like, when it will occur, or how we’re going to get there.

In a similar vein, in his essay Tarnas references a statement made by Carl Jung (often considered the first modern psychologist to state that the human psyche is “by nature religious” and to explore it in depth) that seems to reflect his thinking quite closely, but also rings true to the current state of affairs we are experiencing today:

“[A] mood of universal destruction and renewal … has set its mark on our age. This mood makes itself felt everywhere, politically, socially, and philosophically. We are living in what the Greeks called the kairos—the right moment–for a “metamorphosis of the gods,” of the fundamental principles and symbols. This peculiarity of our time, which is certainly not of our conscious choosing, is the expression of the unconscious human within us who is changing. Coming generations will have to take account of this momentous transformation if humanity is not to destroy itself through the might of its own technology and science … So much is at stake and so much depends on the psychological constitution of the modern human.”

The reason why I like Tarnas is because he’s so well spoken and fun to read.  Certainly worth a click if you’re interested in exploring more. He is the founding director of the graduate program in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, where he currently teaches.  He also teaches on the faculty of the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, and gives many public lectures and workshops in the U.S. and abroad.

You can find his web site at http://www.cosmosandpsyche.com.

August 27, 2010

Trixie Ann Schubert

Posted in Inspiring Stories tagged at 10:56 pm by tiffanyannbrown

In 1965 my grandmother, Trixie Ann Schubert, died in a plane crash. She was accompanied by Joan Merriam Smith, the first woman to fly the equatorial (Amelia Earhart) route around the world, and had been planning to write her life story when their 182 Cessna suddenly malfunctioned over the little mountain town of Wrightwood, CA. Though I never met Trixie, I feel like I’ve known her my entire life thanks to journals, lectures on tape, family photos, news stories, and memories that have been passed down along the way. I came across this quote recently about grandparents, which I thought was really neat:

The history of our grandparents is remembered not with rose petals but in the laughter and tears of their children and their children’s children.  It is into us that the lives of grandparents have gone.  It is in us that their history becomes a future.

The year before she passed away, she wrote an inspiring letter to her three children that eerily foreshadowed her death. Some of the reasons she was so inspiring include the fact that she was a foreign news correspondent, aviatrix, author, lecturer, and mother of three, but more importantly, that she set time aside for the more important things in life. Click here to view her biography.

Without further ado, below is a copy of the letter she wrote to her children, just brimming with purpose, love, and intention:

Dear Monkeys Three – Patrice, Heidi, Norman:  I write this merely to emphasize what you already know – that every breath I breathe is with love for you three and with gratitude to God for having so blessed me with you.

I write, anticipating no problems on the solo flight I’m about to fly, but because I’m somewhat of a fatalist (that all happens by His permissive or positive will and that it is sufficient in life to fulfill our mission here on earth with the living prayer, “Let me be an instrument of Thy will” and nothing else matters) and consider all possible contingencies as my Cub Scout (Norman) knows, wisdom lies in being prepared in all things as much as possible.

This flight is a challenge, one with which I feel capable of coping, or I would not make it.  There is a selfish motive, too.  I want to make you as proud of me as I am of you (and this is not a false pride).  Our love must be bound by purpose, initiative, fulfillment, accomplishment and you three are well launched on that track; we are not born in the image and likeness of God to vegetate.

You have nothing in life to fear, NOTHING, while you adhere to the magnificent faith bestowed on you in Baptism.  Don’t frustrate life by trying to understand all that you KNOW by feeling and experiencing.  The mystery of faith implies that we accept some belief on faith alone; as we accept so many mundane matters because they “work” as we expect them to, even though we don’t understand how (you know – electricity, growing grass, birth, love, – yes, and pain and sorrow).

Temper the truths you hold in faith with tolerance for the beliefs of others, with integrity (don’t imitate; be yourselves above all else and only then do you radiate charm, assurance, warmth, confidence).

As a child when my Mother died, I felt life was over and it wasn’t, though it was at the same time diminished and augmented.  I felt it again when Daddy died when I was not yet adult and had hopes of his being with us as a family again.  And when Nannie died I wanted my world to end, never dreaming that she would come back to me in you three and that she never really left me.  “I will be near, helping and praying for you whenever you need me” she promised, and she’s there – helping, waiting.

Love binds – eternally, you shall discover if you haven’t already.  Obey Daddy and be as tolerant of his few foibles as he always has been of me.  He is an exceptionally wonderful man, as if you didn’t know.  My love grows for him – always a good test of marriage.  That’s enough now of maternal commandments; no one yet has improved on the original ten anyway.

With you, and loving you – ALWAYS.


On a closing note, you can click here for a link to the 1965 Ogden, UT newspaper story documenting the plane crash.

August 26, 2010

Celebrating Greg Tropea

Posted in Inspiring Stories tagged , at 12:05 pm by tiffanyannbrown

A favorite professor of mine passed away recently, who not only inspired me to reach new levels of thought, but who remained a great friend over the course of the past 10 years. Through a review of old emails and much introspection, I’ve decided to start a blog on the premise of not only discovering but exploring new ideas, picking up where I last left off with him nearly 10 years ago when life was much more adventurous as a full-time student.

Greg not only inspired me to dig deep, “question everything,” think critically, challenge myself, and embrace the abstract, but to make time for people, live openly, give generously, and act kindly. Most of all – he taught me to put the time aside for deep thought and meaningful conversation.

Below is an email I’d like to share, dated May 24, 2006:

“I’m swamped with grading, Tiffany, but one of the things you said in your note brought me back to our conversation last September. In September, we talked about whether living a good life was enough, and as you recall, we agreed that ethics alone would not satisfy the spirit. I think that conversation connects to your thoughts below about putting the important things on hold to take care of the mundane details first. Each of these thoughts, in its own way, seems to me in danger of leaving the spirit out of the picture, the former by not knowing what it is missing and the latter by deciding for that absence.

The mundane details will always be there. Sure, some greater measure of stability may be achieved, but remember the Buddha’s observation that existence has the nature of dukkha, which we can think of as “It’s always something.”

As I see it, putting your best intuitions on hold is like saying you’ll listen to the lower harmonics of a piece of music now and the higher harmonics later. In neither case will there be much satisfaction or understanding.

Our entire life is our learning experience. I don’t think I’m telling you anything new in saying that the course a life takes depends in large measure upon the soul’s attunement. It affects how you perceive and relate to everything. Moreover, as Sartre reminds us, while the activities of the day may be mostly determined by the demands of our professional and personal involvements, HOW we engage in those activities is our choice to make.

So I am not suggesting unrealism or that pitiful new age caricature of wishful thinking. Working constantly for the fullest spectrum of consciousness you can attain will give you a perspective and vision at key decision points that mere strategists will never have. It’s not an either-or, it’s a both-and. Having your calculations and skills in order, like living the ethical life, is the minimum requirement, not the fulfillment of our life’s promise.

Lifetimes go by in the blink of an eye and people with spiritual gifts can get lost in the world. I don’t want that to happen to you and I know you don’t either.

As ever,

I remember the very first day in 1999 that I sat in Greg’s Eastern Philosophy class, sizing him up as strange. With long, gray hair pulled back into a ponytail and sporting a long trench coat I instantly made the rash assumption that he and I would find little in common, but in no time at all I was completely enamored with him.

According to an article in the California State University, Chico student paper entitled “Greg Tropea Remembered by Friends”:

A former student recalled Tropea with gratitude. Sitting in Tropea’s logic and critical thinking class as a freshman in the late 1980s, Deedee Vest felt like her mind was opened to new ways of thought, she said. “It changed my life and how I viewed everything,” Vest said.

Reading this, it became apparent to me that I was not the only person made to feel this way. And therein lies the truth that this man was at the core someone both authentic and amazing who lived his own life to the fullest, while inspiring others to do the same. Please click here to read more about Greg Tropea.

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