On Independence Day, I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. We didn’t plan to do this. My daughter, my friends, and I were headed downtown to walk around revolutionary sites. But we emerged from the subway right where the walkway starts, and those iconic arches looming above us, inviting us to cross over to the Great Holy Land of Brooklyn. Like many unplanned things, it turned out to be rich with meaning.
I call it Great Holy Land of Brooklyn because walking around the Heights and Cobble Hill used to fill my now-22-year-old daughter with nostalgia—a fierce longing for her what she regards to be her true home, the place of her first and happiest decade of life. Yet, as a recent college graduate she now also understands what it is like to long for the future, to have a sense of anticipation about finding her true place in the world.
We dwell in the midst of the unknown. We know this, or rather the body senses it. The physicist Stephen Hawkings defines “synchronicity” as nostalgia for the future. This makes sense because synchronicity is shot through with the uncanny sense of being given a clue from another level, of following a trail of cosmic breadcrumbs towards a deeper meaning. Even if our rational mind has talked us out of it, the body feels that there is a greater truth to be revealed, a greater pattern or whole. Synchronicity delivers the little shock that reality is alive.
Walking in Brooklyn was charged with synchronicity for me. I didn’t long for the future in the way that a 22-year-old longs for the future. A middle-aged person just can’t get as excited about what life will be like in twenty years—we naturally start focusing on the journey rather than the ultimate destination. The synchronicity I felt was a longing to find a path or a way to be part of a larger life.
My body knew the way through the brownstone streets, remembered the old haunts, the bookstore, the park, the cafe. I felt the ghosts of old experiences, old loves and sorrows and certainties. And that was just it: they were ghosts, no longer alive. I had lived in Brooklyn cocooned in my own little bubble of experience–and my experience had flowed on.
It was as if I had been drawn to Brooklyn to find clues about what the Buddha (or his early followers) called “the three marks of existence”– that everything in our lives is characterized by emptiness, impermanence, and the suffering or unsatisfactory feeling that comes as we experience how everything and everyone slips through our fingers.
My friend told me she thought I seemed to be walking around Brooklyn in a trance of memory, but I was actually experiencing the feeling of longing to wake from a trance. The trance-like look I may have had to do with realizing the insubstantial and fleeting nature my experience–even formerly intense experience. I realized I had been independent those ten years there, and now I longed to know my interdependence–to really feel and know a connection with a larger world.
In an upcoming book An Unknown Earth, which will be excerpted in the new issue of Parabola, philosopher and author Jacob Needleman describes discovering (or rediscovering) a feeling for the Earth and the Sun: “Such feelings are quite prior to, earlier than, feelings for one’s mother or father. They are written into the being of man.” Needleman does not stint on portraying the scale of the world that science is discovering—“not only the infinity of stars, but the infinity of galaxies and clusters of galaxies…Levels and levels of worlds—worlds within worlds within worlds.”
We dwell in midst of the unknown. Some among us in all cultures and times, from shamans to the Buddha to Socrates to the great modern philosopher Immanuel Kant, have seen and explained how the structures of the mind shape our experience of reality. How we, ourselves, are the deepest unknown. Below the level of consciousness, in the body, we feel this. Our popular culture reflects and projects our fears and wonder at this knowledge.
Can we break out of the bubble of our own experience and come to know a greater reality? All the contributors in the upcoming issue of Parabola encourage us to deepen our awareness of just this question. Nipun Mehta describes a pilgrimage to India: “our goal was simply to be in a space larger than our egos, and to allow that compassion to guide us in unscripted acts of service along the way.”
Can a feeling or a wish to see beyond the known be a guide? In the course of their pilgrimage into the unknown, Mehta and his wife find a way to see life in a new way–as a gift, not a means to an end. Contributor Barbara Berger describes suddenly seeing the magic and possibility in the negative space of a great painting. Her recognition is full of that primal feeling that Needleman describes: “My own un-knowing wasn’t a weakness after all, not a symptom of something wrong, something to fix or solve. It was part of a greater mystery….”