Communications from the Field

“To live your life is not to cross a field.” Hamlet poem in Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak

The edition of “Dr. Zhivago” that showed up in my family’s home when I was still young had poems in the back called Zhivago’s poems, and they are among my favorite poems. In that version, I recall that a footnote to the above line informs the reader that this is a Russian proverb. And for me, especially now that the word “field” conjures up an image of the entirety of experience as well as the context in which we define our ‘reality’, it seems wonderfully evocative to imply that there is anything in life that is not crossing the field in which we pass our days in this world. So is Pasternak, or the fictional Zhivago, merely noting the discrepancy in scale between taking a morning walk in a neighboring field and living out an entire lifetime in what Jon Kabat Zinn called ‘the full catastrophe”?

I used to send a subset of the Zhivago poems to friends at Easter, especially those that have a past or present Christian faith, because a number of these poems have wonderful images of the meaning of that time on the Christian calendar. I have to quote from memory because I don’t have the translation which I read many years ago when I lived in Montreal:

The cross strains against the sky
Like a wind spout in a storm
I fall on my knees, dazed and biting my lip.

These three days shall pass
But they will cast me down into such emptiness
That I will have to grow up into the Resurrection.

(My recollection of a few lines from the poem: “Mary Magdalene I”.)

As a non-Christian, I love how this presents the act of faith as so personal: a transformation that we each have to undergo ourselves if it is to mean anything real for us.

The several Google versions of the Zhivago poems I found on-line jarred my recollection of the version I had read as a young man. I suspect I am not alone in the way that I incorporate into my memory something far more extensive than whatever the experience would have conveyed initially—as if memories are always a work in progress. In addition to what I was reading and experiencing at that time in my life, there is also the respect I developed in later years, working with people with disabilities who were sustained by their strong faith, in lives that were incredibly challenging. And in even more recent years, the word ‘field’ has widened to invoke a particular exploration of the way we each, as individuals, participate in the terrain of influences and energy that offers the potential for intimacy to the isolated self making his way in his hard-edged world.

When I think of myself as ‘crossing a field’ I envision myself as a young man traipsing through autumn fields picking up burrs and stickers from the countryside and carrying them across fences and stiles where they shake off in neighboring pastures. But some never shake off and remain in a mind that continues to wonder about the field of this human lifetime and what it means to cross it.

It seems that we never really return to where we started. The field of our experience seems to have consistent characteristics but—even though we can fall into deadening ruts in the course of your life—we are never quite the same person and therefore our interactions with the contexts we deal with can never be quite the same. Even when we are bored with what seems possible for us, the quality of our boredom itself changes. It’s a good thing it does, because this can lead to us making a change, and to taking a chance on the unknown. At least that has been my experience. I can still remember the image in my mind when I determined to go forward instead of back, in the moment of panic that I have described elsewhere (in Chapter Two of “The Flying Caterpillar”). It was a simple but powerful thought: The unknown ahead can’t be worse than my fear of giving up and limping back to my life in Montreal, defeated. So I might as well just push through this feeling of hopelessness—snarling and salivating on the road ahead.

Exploring this image, that living life is like crossing the field of our interests and fears, a question comes to mind. Are we trying to fit in with this field that keeps appearing before us, or are we mowing and cultivating it in an effort to make it fit better with our personal needs? Are we explorers for land developers?

I don’t ask this to begin a discussion about whether we should settle for the ‘reality’ of our lives, or become activists and resist what is harmful while supporting what is good. That’s not a trivial question but I would like to look at a different aspect of our relationship with the field of our experience.

Like the chicken that crosses the road because she happens to be walking and the road shows up in front of her, the field of our experience may also be what shows up in front of us when we are walking, looking at a computer screen, or reading the obituary of an old friend.

We can also ask who built the road or planted the seeds that cling to our pant leg as we traipse through the countryside of our days and years. Not just who, but how, when, why, whether, with what purpose; and is the field fenced off with “No Trespassing” signs stuck on every fencepost and tree trunk. Does the field of our experience welcome us, do we think of ourselves as a landowner, farm laborer, or just a Sunday stroller? Is the field we cross a gated community, a space flight to Titan, or perhaps a steel trap closing on the freedom for which we once yearned?

What comes to mind for each of us when we use that word “field”? A field of knowledge? A field rolling out in vast spaciousness, with open vistas, accommodating and inviting us to explore? Or a field of time, embracing and welcoming our memories, our plans, our hope to have a few more breaths, a few more heart beats in the unrelenting count down of a human life?

If we want to enter more fully into the rich associations that are already present in our minds, where should we start?

Here’s an idea. Perhaps the field is a living presence that is communicating with us. I’m not thinking of a pantheistic deity or of Gaia—a living Earth—although I like these images. I’m thinking of how seamless and intimate our relationship with our perceptual and emotional environment is. Our experience doesn’t need us to call it forth, like a ringmaster leading the bike- riding bears in their perambulations under the big top. It can feel more like we are the sensitive screen on which the events of the day project themselves. When we are aware and feeling present at the same time, don’t we feel like we are in the midst of everything that is happening: participant, interpreter, and audience all at once? Whatever is happening doesn’t have to consult us beforehand, because we are already in the midst of it all.

Perhaps, whether we are aware of it or not, our relationship with the field we are crossing is similar to experience and awareness themselves. We are already part of the field; we are a node of self-awareness which extends beyond our own physical borders–if those borders even exist–so that the field of knowing knows itself by being known—not created by, but appearing through, the portal of our interest and involvement.

And, if so, then it is not a huge stretch to consider that the field is always communicating with us. How could a field communicate with an individual wandering across it? In absolutely everything that the wanderer sees, thinks, ponders, senses, experiences . . .

I’m unfortunately all too familiar with the feeling that ‘the field’ has stopped communicating with me: that I’m the one who must say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, in order for any engagement to transpire. And I think for some people, the sense of wandering through an open meadow of possibilities and of blooming wild flowers, in which we are in sensitive communion with all we behold, can shut down almost completely.

When I look back at my own experience during those times when desperation and fear of the future utterly replaced any openness toward what would come next, it seems that the field of potential experience had been replaced by an encapsulating cell with no window.

When I tried to describe my experience in a bathtub in Montreal a few weeks ago, feelings of failure and insufficiency gathered in my mind. There was another dismal low point a couple of years later, in a Calgary YMCA motel room, which felt like the inevitable consequence of the darkness that I still carried from my years living in Montreal, now opportunistically surfacing to exploit a time of weakness. In Calgary, Alberta, after a summer of farm laboring jobs, with the autumn harvest gathered and the job boards in the Farm Labor Pool almost empty, I despaired of ever finding another farm job. Those laboring jobs had given me a new confidence in myself: pitching hay bales; driving a tractor with a cultivator dragging behind, over a ‘section’ of land (a square mile of prairie); picking rocks, which come up each spring to the surface of farm land, and throwing them into a rock catcher pulled by an unattended tractor driving unattended behind. But now, with the winter beckoning, I found myself unable to draw upon any faith that life, or the Lord, would provide; and an old self-image of the corporate drone replaced the recent images of a person discovering new possibilities in the open field of the living.

I haven’t had a lot of experience in overcoming hardship. My difficulties always seem more psychological than anything caused by external situations. I seem to invent issues and project them onto a field that I perceive as lying outside myself. And then the field communicates those threats back to me, as if they were actual enemies to my happiness preparing to take over my life.

I expect that this psychological tendency is what makes the TSK image of the “field communique” so illuminating and appealing to me: the idea that when I know myself to be a part of the field, then all my experience and whatever appears become a kind of self-discovery. When I know the field as what I naturally discover within it, an invitation to live is both given and accepted.

“This, then, is the ongoing meaning that the communique expresses: the whole sustains the identity of each particular part, while each part in turn confirms the manifested whole.” Dynamics of Time and Space, page 17.

I would like to explore what TSK calls “the field communique” from a particular perspective, which arises frequently for me. It’s kind of a chicken and egg question. But, instead of two temporal phases in the ongoing evolution of a species (and the paradox of an egg needing a chicken to lay it, and a chicken needing an egg to hatch out of), I’d like to ask a broader question. Do we know ourselves to be alive in the environment of a world (the field of our experience) because we have been born into it? Or is our personal world an unknown, even mysterious, blending of an environment into which we have been born, together with what we make of it all?

Do we consider ourselves to be the creator of our own destiny? Or are we fundamentally participating in a complex, integrated process that dictates how we live our lives?

Sometimes, paradoxically, the fullest expression of our power may be to acknowledge that we are not as independent as we imagine. I suspect that most of us prefer the idea that we call the shots, or at least are the final arbiter of what we care about, support and exemplify; but perhaps true potential is best served when we view ourselves as collaborators within the field of life that supports us.

What I love about Tarthang Tulku’s image of the “field communique” is that it does away with a number of sterile questions such as the debate about whether life is determined or we have free will. It also renders irrelevant the issue of whether we live in a substantial, physical reality or are projecting our perceptions and expectations onto an amorphous realm which thereby remains hidden from us. If we are one with the milieu that provides us with all our experiences, issues of polarization cease to be fundamental.

If the field is communicating with us, then a lot of positive elements are illuminated and reinforced in our relationship with our world. We are included as intimate participants in all that appears before us. We enjoy a true position of power: not the illusion that we are in control, but the power that comes from listening and responding to a seamless communication which includes the entire field of our interests and concerns.

I find this way of looking spot on, but I expect that it seems exotic to many people. We rarely encounter ways of teaching, reporting and knowing that present the receiving mind as a participant in all aspects of the transmission. Books and lectures tend to be presented as receptacles of information–available to whoever chooses to avail themselves of them—which exist in the world quite independently of who checks them out.

The concept that preexisting things each occupy their substantial place in a physical world does not eliminate a considerable variety of alternatives nor the freedom we enjoy to pick our own path, but challenging this assumption (that the world exists entirely apart from us) can feel like a spring cleaning of the mind and lead to the discovery of new possibilities. We may even notice that the world is brighter when we allow it to be.

When we believe that we live in a realm of substantial, physical objects–and that we have to develop appropriate knowledge before our interests can connect with them–we pronounce ourselves self-propelled, sensate entities in a basically mechanical universe. This picture leaves little room for intimacy or for spontaneous discovery.

I don’t think that it is fanciful to explore another vision: that our perceived reality is a communication. We don’t even have to worry about whether this communication has a communicator behind it.

We can start with moments—listening to a moving piece of music; standing on the edge of the sea as waves crash over the rocks; feeling the wind passing over us and through the branches overhead—times when we already feel that our world is communicating with our innermost heart. We can look at the times when, after struggling to understand something, or to accept something that has happened, we feel that a connection has been restored between ourselves and the world in which we live. And then we can ponder the insufficiencies, the obstacles, and the frustrations we experience and ask. “What is being communicated to me here? What am I failing to hear?”

The ‘field communique” brings us right to the heart of time, to the heart of space, and to the heart of knowledge. A ‘field’ provides a familiar image—not just for farmers and students of cosmology—which conjures up an open space, in which the propagation of energy is more fundamental than all those bouncing baby particles. Our relationship with our field, which we are always traversing, provides a deeply personal connection with the unfurling, swirling time that is our life. Measured out by each step and each thought, the field of time is always present, beyond any attempt we could make to divide it up or confine it to our agendas.

And the ‘field communique’ provides a wonderful image of our capacity to know the knowable realm in which we live: which is the birthright of our human being. Deeply true to this relationship—a marriage between what is known and the one knowing—we can question our usual image of ourselves: a dark figure who shows up, hat in hand, to receive the handouts of a mechanical universe which hardly notices his presence.

“Bound to its claims, we lose sight of the indeterminate aliveness of the field communique. By choosing to ‘point out’ what is happening and appoint ourselves it owners, we move toward abstraction. As we ‘pin down’ experience and ‘zero in’ on what is really so, we turn our intelligence over to the pre-established constructs of the communique. We have framed a reality that has no heart.” Dynamics of Time and Space, Page 24.

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