My father and I have a respectable relationship. We schedule ahead to talk on the phone, no more than once a week, no less than once a month, and have done so for years now. We request permission and set parameters before moving to different topics. I look forward to our talks, which never carry on for more than an hour.
I broke protocol one day by springing something on him. I would be writing an autobiographical account of my work and was even talking with a writing coach. Predictably my father sidled up — donning his well-worn robe of co-dependent judge and jury, imagining himself my most essential and trusted advisor. His MO — to promptly poke and prod the sorest parts of my self-esteem about my work.
Equally predictably, I unleashed a few heated words. I stopped myself before I had inflicted too much damage, shook off my wounded pride, and added calmly, “All I need from you is to know that you hear me and you support my efforts.”
He was gruff and defensive. “You asked for my reactions.”
Silence. Then a bit more silence. “Did I?”
He hemmed and hawed and finally chuckled at his own wounded position. I saw that I had some responsibility in us getting into the mess. I had strayed from protocol. (Later, I apologized.)
In hopes of smoothing the feathers ruffled by his rather rude prodding, I checked with him as to whether we might continue our talk. He said yes.
“You said that you don’t understand the scope and meaning of my work. Does that mean you’ve been putting on an act as we’ve talked about it now and again over the last few months? Are you pretending to have moments where you feel illuminated?”
“No,” he said, thoughtful but cautious. “It does seem true. At least when I see it in parts. Subconsciously true. I can’t tell you why, but it does seem to be so.” He paused. “I don’t get the whole thing though.”
I thanked him for sharing and said it was helpful for me to hear that. I appreciated him showing up and being willing to have his own full experience, even when it meant him expressing that it is difficult sometimes not to conclude that I must full of hot air.
Understanding reality in parts is in many ways ideal. We as perceivers have some parts and not others. Sensory organs, locations, timeframes. Those are literal parts. There are figurative ones too.
The whole-ness is big of course, but there’s something else. The consciously aware part of us gets disoriented when we look into reality’s grandness, “pull the veil back” as mystics since ancient times have referred to it. It is my experience that people’s tolerances for disorientation vary but skew towards less to none is better.
The reason big picture inquiry tends to be disorienting is that reality collides with meanings. We experience our perceptions of the parts we know as central not only to reality but to the meanings we derive from life. It is not necessary for them to be so, but it is if we want a neat story wrapped up with a bow.
Knowing the irreducibly true dynamics of reality has proven so difficult over so long. Not only is it not possible to sustain that kind of looking beyond a glimpse, there is now an entrenched assumption that it is not possible. That permits one to conclude “The reason it hasn’t been done, it is that it can’t be done.” But when it comes to existential inquiry, I see that belief as just so much self-important ass-covering.
I have done more discussion and research on the topic than I care to admit. Let me assure you. I find no logical reason or stated rational position that justifies the assumption that the whole cannot be grasped intellectually. Just as importantly, no logic says that individuals must be able to grasp the whole of it in order to derive benefit from it. My father not understanding the “whole thing” of what I do (getting at irreducibly true dynamics of reality) is only a problem for the part of him that wishes he could but is unable. It does not separate him from the truth of it. He can “subconsciously,” as he said, comprehend something of it, or for that matter nothing at all. It is still the case that he himself is a full part of the “whole thing.”
I learned a long time ago to settle for this, and not just with my father. Depending on my mood, I view I can’t tell you why, but it does seem to be so alternatively to be a compromise, a shortcoming, or a puzzle. In it is, most basically, a recognition of the disorderly loose end to the “story” of reality as well as a mutual respect with the so-ness of the universe, which makes that kind of “getting it” fundamental to my work.
It does not make for a big following. In fact, I am very familiar with the sound of a pin dropping.
Over the years I have come to appreciate that, when unearthing questions of epic proportions, the achievement is often to “carry on.”
My own ability to “carry on,” and even enjoy life a great deal despite being drawn to doubt very deeply most aspects of reality, is because of the bell of truth.
A deep experiential part of us is like a bell. When an essential truth strikes it, your whole being rings with a felt sense of TRUE. The bell and its contribution to experience of truth is beyond opinion. It is not “win the debate” true. It’s not “correct” or “right” because those things are relative to something else.
At moments like I’m talking about, all divisions of reality like conscious/unconscious, real/imagined and even past/present/future fall away. There is not even self-righteousness because it is so true the self temporarily dissolves. The truth is righteous — within the self as experiencer. The ringing of the bell carries the experience that my experiences/beliefs/felt sense can be both authentic and right with the world. I am affirmed by existence itself.
When the bell rings true, perceptions shift. You have received an essential combination of command and permission. Inquiry about reality begins because the true thing is registered within as worth grasping in its full weight and meaning.
When the bell is muffled, as is often the case, truths and especially Truth get muffled. You’re “it” in a game of Telephone or Pass-it-on. Waiting at the end of a long line of mumbling whisperers for a hint of Truth. Laugh out loud funny in that context.
Truth-ringing can be tricky. People frequently claim to hear or otherwise experience the truth. Psychopaths report hearing outrageous truth claims that may cause them to do harm.
With the bell I’m talking about, there is nothing to “do” about what is heard. The ringing is its own satisfaction. It is humbling. Nothing is required, so as soon as you say “listen to me [fear me, bow before me, help me], I have the truth” you are in a sense disconnected from its essence.
Integrating felt truths is a process that takes time and brings with it the inevitable air of mystery. I recognized early on the importance of being able to hear the bell, and found things that brought me in closest contact with it. I participated in the ordinary parts of life with my fair share of gusto yet also had this emerging bell-life through which I sought to stimulate this special listening. That included martial arts and topics such as complex systems, vitalism, chaos theory, theoretical physical and cosmology, and philosophy (Eastern and Western).
Once, I reverberated with a particular sound that, upon hearing it, left me with no doubt I was capable of striking the bell that is true not just for me but for all.
Looking back, I was 18 when I got the first hints of the special tension that would put me in touch with this sound. (I am 48 as I write this.) I was age 24 when I experienced the metaphorical ringing of the bell. Its sound, which I describe to you now as “to strike the bell that is true for all,” made an indelible mark on me. I experience ordinary self-doubts but not once have I descended into serious doubts about the process by which my work emerges. It forged an unflappable peace, you might be able to relate to it as a sense of purpose, that stabilizes me to the core.
The sound was dramatic and memorable. I presume it was internal, but really I have no idea. I was alone in my woodsy, rural home in North Carolina at the time. A vivid moving image did accompany it, which would have made the experience poetic except that nothing in the imagery resembled what I knew of bells. It has taken me writing about it all these years later to recognize how to describe the experience to others.
Leading up to the momentous sound was a day packed with odd events, months of intense dreams, and years of mounting (and multiplying) questions that took me into the depths of how and why we know what we know. Eventually I would come to ask the questions too why we do what we do? and why we feel what we feel?
The intensity that hearing the sound created in my life journey, both at the time and since, has never been exhausting or stressful. Mostly it is both stabilizing and intensely pleasurable. At a practical level, I experience what I would call enhanced curiosity and an unquenchable thirst for mystery.
What the sound felt like was the sweetest, most inviting vibration ever, resounding with a startling command, intense in the broken silence. The command was non-verbal, though as I write about it now I have words I can give it. They were, SHUT UP AND LISTEN.
If that offends, imagine instead a pointedly calm voice issuing the phrase LISTEN AND LEARN.
If both commands strike you as unnecessarily melodramatic, then you try getting the attention of an accomplished martial artist, on staff at a university research center, ripe for marriage with her main squeeze who was an infectious disease doctor.
Life was in for a shake up. Not the first to punctuate the simple though mystery-rich life of a budding, innovative, unstoppable metaphysician. (That’s me!)
Now, all these years later, it was my turn. Shut up and listen dad. It’s not that hard. Don’t take it personally, but I should know.
– MK McGee, July 2020
Published here Aug 2022