Monday, September 6, 2010


There is something to be said about standing on the edge of a high cliff. The kind of cliff that has an un-survivable fall. A rocky gorge, or a terraced mesa top, or a canyon that provides a spot with an actual point between life and death. A place were you can press yourself against that thin membrane dividing your sure footing on solid ground and an irrevocable plunge into the abyss.
There is a fascination at such a point. The mind grapples with what it might mean to jump, or to slip and fall, or to be somehow unfortunately catapulted over the edge. It is impressed and intrigued by the prospect of such a catastrophic end. We throw rocks to watch them fall and gage the trajectory. We listen for the evidence of contact with the bottom and note the time it took. We call out to hear our echo and listen to birds call, or for the distant sound of water below, or to silence.
An unfenced edge is both dangerous and wonderful. A cliff edge you can walk right up to unimpeded and unwarned is the epitome of wild. There is a special thrill when such a thing is come upon unexpectedly on a hike in rough terrain, or in a desert place, where your path suddenly intersects a chasm with a perilous precipe. We come to such an edge and we know we are up against a choice between life and death. A choice that we are able to make with out a force in the universe to stop us. We hold ourselves on the edge of our mortality and choose, unless we are suicidal, to affirm life. We can linger there until the full force of gratitude for life crystallizes in side us. Until we see clearly how precious our next breath is and follow that beam of illumed regard all the way down the line of our engagement in the world.
The soul may see something else in that abyss. Where the mind sees the fall and the end of all its plans, or all its trials, the soul may recognize an un-bounded ness, a beginning, or a returning to a condition of free flight. We may stand there with complex impressions of fear and longing, dread and attraction. The death at the bottom, after all, is only the body. Broken bones, torn flesh and spilled blood do not account for all that we are. And so the soul sees, perhaps, a launching pad. A wonderful flight to take. In this respect, the edge of a cliff can invoke a sort of spiritual experience. A point of contact, or a very close proximity between our physical and our soulful selves.
This is not to say that everyone will experience the same thing at the edge of a cliff. For some raw fear with dictate the entire effect. There are those that recoil at the thought of a cliff and see it only as a proximity to avoid. for others dullness and insensitivity may inform them. For me, such an edge is a treat.
Where I grew up in the southwest there are lots of edges at the tops of cliffs. Mesas and mountains provide ample opportunities and the river gorges are spectacular. I can say that with all my hiking and scrambling around in wild places, I never came seriously close to going over an edge. There are accidents, but in real life, a cliff edge, even the most surprising, appears to the eyes at least several paces before the feet get there. The most dangerous edges are the ones where the lip is unstable. Overhangs that give way underfoot are problematic, and so are cliffs that begin at the end of very steep hillsides. For the most part, though, cliff edges are very hospitable. The lip is usually stable. Often a rock outcropping provides a place to sit, and there is always a view. One can be relatively safe on a cliff edge given an appropriate respect for the situation and a little common sense.
There is a place for fences and guard rails and walls along the edges of cliffs. High traffic areas and such. Crowds and cliff edges are never a good combination. There are places where you can pay for a extreme view. The Grand Canyon has a new glass bottom observation deck that hangs over the edge, and the Royal Gorge in Colorado has a suspension bridge you can walk across. If you are in New York City the observation deck at the Empire State Building is intense. But these experiences are controlled and you will be hard pressed to get them to yourself. Lingering, meditating, or have a long conversations with God while others are waiting for a turn at your spot doesn’t work out so well. I am all about checking out the sights where I can, but there is something significantly enhanced about an edge without a fence, or a paved walkway, or an entry fee.
If there is an aspect of life that requires a confrontation with danger, then there is also such a thing as being too safe. There may be a need to come to that edge. To test our limits, find them in some experiential form. It is hard to talk abut the proximity to death with out being filtered as morbid or thrill seeking. I am, by the way, neither of those things. And to mention the soul or a “spiritual experience” immediately gets red flags flying. How can you breach a topic that runs the gambit from tripping on peyote in a sweat lodge to lying prostrate on a marble floor at the feet of the Pope? That is a chasm as vast and treacherous as any river gorge in the southwest. My attempts to define words like these are like getting stuck in quicksand So my efforts have become a process of stripping away definitions, and connotations, and filters, and suppositions, and trying to bring them back to my own experience. Evan if that experience is imperceptibly subtle and un-dramatic.
If you wonder, as I do, about life after death, or about a distinction between the flesh and the soul, and you find your self sitting on the edge of a cliff, you know that you are on the edge of knowing for certain. You know that a distance of about six inches is all that is between you and full experiential expertise. If your interests have been persistent, you may well have studied and explored and found a whole host of proposed answers to proposed questions that you come to realize no one can definitively answer. Speculations, theologies, philosophies, ideologies and a spectrum of religious persuasions are as abundant as boasting. Our heads get clogged with competing, and often contradictory claims, of knowing. There is a body of literature on the subject that is massive and insurmountable. Lives are lived in sack cloth to get a hint.. And then we come across the issue of the subtleties and cunning of our own mind and ego. We realize we are able to feign an interest in a subject like the afterlife while ever building defenses against the terrifying prospect of actually confronting it. Kind of like building a space ship with out a door. “I want to know, lord help my not wanting to know“.
I haven’t had particularly dramatic experiences with regards to my own spirituality. No personages have appeared to me, no visions or voices, no boon or elixir handed to me out of the clouds. No animal ever spoke to me and no ghost or demon ever came out of the mist to torment me. My testimonies are ordinary and effectively banal. I am occasionally inspired and influenced by people and events. I get the occasional eerie shiver up my spine’ and sometimes I see things as good indications of divine intervention. I attempt to follow the teachings of Jesus; at least the ones I can assimilate into my life, and I go to church, although, admittedly, not with a great deal of enthusiasm. Most of what I read for fun is, in one way or another, religiously or spiritually oriented. I try to cover a lot of territory. With respect to the moments and events that most influence me, I am usually drawn back to what I am fortunate to have simply seen. Beautiful sights and places and events, some very personal and some public, that have the force of natural astonishment. Scenes and situations that have the power to move me, if only for a brief moment, out of myself and into a condition of reverence and awe. Such occurrences are often relatively peaceful. They may even list toward a pleasant feeling of bliss, a wellbeing, and a mood of wonder. Gratitude, humility and appreciation for creation may be present, but usually not in hugely disruptive dosages. Sometimes my head is clearer than it was, or I may get a new idea to inspire me, or see where I have gone astray, or I may simply note a worthy sentiment. I have learned to appreciate and value such moments.
In the right setting, it’s not so much death that is drawn into focus, at the edge of a cliff, as life. Death is just there to sort of make the issue more clear. If you can appreciate death, without all the abstractions we shroud it in, an appreciation for life can be simplified as well. Imagine being in a park and seeing a figure sitting on a bench. You know this figure is death, and you know that your time is not necessarily up. Would you go sit with this figure, or flee? Would you be intrigued? Would you risk it? It is possible that such an encounter could draw us into a state of acute awareness of our living. One where we see how dull and asleep we can be through most of our daily affairs. And if we consider the precious and limited gift this life is, we may come away with a great gift. If we avoid such things because they are dangerous, do we consider how dangerous it is to be caught up in a drudgery of unreflective existing? How dangerous it is to be in a fog, and completely consumed in the trappings of security, and insurance, and all our best laid plans while our life spills out of us?
I love life. If for nothing more than what I get to see. And there is so much more. Love and relations, and children, and creatures, and projects, and ideas, and music. I love the world and lots of it’s sensual manifestations. It’s am amazing creation. But I can fantasize about a plunge off a cliff. Perhaps hold my arms out and lean a little bit into the wind with a drop of a thousand feet below. Not to die, but to evaporate, or disintegrate. To imagine a leap into the mystic in an act of faith. A head long rush into the ultimate mystery of existing as if I were with out a care in this world and sure of another. It is not as if we are with out expectations. All of our religions focus on a world beyond this one, and the tongue of culture never stops wagging about this person’s near death experience or that persons prophesy. Our mythology and fairy tales rear us up on notions of the netherworld and the very structure of our language belies an obsession with what lies beyond. Heaven and hell, Nirvana, Purgatory, That great hunting ground in the sky. We love this stuff. We can even make it an emphasis so dominant that all we do, and say, and live is focused, somehow, on what will come after this life. We can live as if the purpose of this life is to live another one imbued with all sorts of cherished notions.
It is possible to hold such an acute expectation of the afterlife that this one is held in disregard. We can hear words drip off tongues that belie a distain for the things of the flesh. As if we are not made of the dust of this earth, or as if the God of the old testament was somehow errant when he beheld his creation and said “It is good.” I heard a man in a bible study once respond to a question about what God might think abut us. He used a scriptural reference to filthy rags. There was a moan of affirmation in the class as if it was appropriate to think of ourselves this way. Wow. I tried to imagine what it would be like to think of my own children as filthy rags and decided right there that man’s notion of our relationship to God is not for me.
I have a good friend I call a realist. He isn’t an atheist or a believer. He simply takes life at face value. Life is, for him, what it appears to be. My friend, when pressed to pose an answer about an after life, simply says that when he dies he will know. There will be an afterlife or there won’t be anything. For him, this simple answer to a profoundly perplexing and vexing question, is easy and simple and apparently satisfying. My friend is no more or less soulful than I am and his lack of interest in such unknowable things is not preventing him, in any way I can see, from living a good and moral life. He, by the way, likes a good cliff edge too.
With all due respect to the religious paths people choose, or to those who peruse some unaffiliated devotion to spiritual enhancement, I am not completely convinced of a clear and decisive advantage. I know plenty of people who are dear and precious on both sides of the religious/secular equation. And I know people who are seriously messed up on both sides of the equation. The gifts of the spirit, or the qualities of aliveness and authenticity, of wholesomeness, or radiance, seem to be most present in the least pretentious. People who embrace life and accept it on its terms. People who have learned what humility really is and have set aside rash judgementalism and condemnation so they can hold onto grace and gratitude. These people seem to arrive at their dispositions by various and sumptry ways. Some via devotion and obedience, and others by way of rebellion and disastrous folly. It’s hard to say I know what is best when so many unforeseeable alternatives exist. There are traps and dangers in religion just as there is a risk in too much worldliness and we come across pit falls and stumbling stones in the temple and the market place.
I wonder, sometimes, if it is not enough to step back from all the pressing should ness of our expectations and dangle our feet, and our imaginations, over a good edge once in a while. Just to ponder and reflect. Maybe our soul, knowing something of immortality, is not in such a hurry, or too overly concerned about all the details of how our own death will result, or what it will be like. It’s possible that too much of a focus on what comes next can pull us away from a simple and immediate awareness of what we are experiencing now. Perhaps it is possible that a good cliff edge, a sunny day, a rock outcropping and a little time to sit and reflect is as safe a place as a soul can be in a world of ever present spiritual and mortal conflict. A little perspective applied to our cherished notions can’t hurt. And an edge approached with due respect, if it can bring us up close and personal with the stark and absolute alternative to living, may be just the reminder we need that each breath is a precious gift.


John J. Franks IV said...

It is Amazing how you can encompass so many things in a short blurb.

Points well explained and sensible in a warped kind of way :)

It works, You should come home and sit on the cliffs of your youth. When more guts than brains ruled....

The Abyss can be as deep standing on firm ground, as it is leaping off a thousand foot cliff....

Perceptions, it is all in how you view it. Simple, Neat, and Packaged.

Anonymous said...

I also know standing on cliffs - facing failure. Always, this is terribly public...resisting the siren song of those cavernous and dreadfully seductive ravines.

Randy said...

"Terribly Public" ouch. "dreadfully seductive" as in leap of faith? Castanada's leap in to the abyss? Or the seduction of ending the terribly public humiliation? We need to consider the alternitive well, sometimes,to get to the point were the public doesn't really matter, and the deradfull doesn't matter, and all that really matters is the decision we still have the capacity to make. To reboot, or dump and reload, or hide out while the world wars with itself. Or just keep on keep'n on. and look for reasons to smile.