I was wrong about what is real. The taste of buttered toast on my tongue, the vibration of my viola, the scent of my baby daughter’s neck sang in my veins like joy, and I did not want to look beyond. My five senses were more than enough.
Beyond my individual reality, science defines reality by measuring things. I sat in a machine called an airplane, a noisy metal tube with wings. Twenty-seven hours later I stood in Mongolia. I cannot see radio waves, but I hear music played a year ago by a string quartet in Europe. A blood test shows crazed cells, and I watch a doctor tell an old woman that, even though she feels fine, she will be dead in a few months.
I stand in a hospital room. The gurgling of the old woman in the bed startles us. The sounds stop. Her daughter shrieks and throws herself over her mother’s legs. “Don’t leave me, Mom! Don’t leave me alone!” A quiet doctor bends over, listens with his stethoscope and straightens up. His voice is kind. “It’s over,” he says.
Is it over? What’s over?
Is there something beyond what I can see and hear? Do my senses tell me all that is real? Are the only real things what science can measure? Can anything exist beyond today’s scientific knowledge?
Three hundred years ago, everyone believed the idea of bacteria to be ridiculous. We did not have microscopes, and people laughed at the idea of little bugs that made us sick. Even as recently as the 1980s, scientists jeered at the idea that bacteria caused ulcers. Finally, desperate to prove his case, a young doctor named Barry Marshall drank a glass of H. pylori bacteria and gave himself ulcers so that other scientists would stop jeering and starting using this knowledge to cure patients. Science often rejects new, surprising versions of reality.
What was it that made my mother’s eyes shine so as she lay dying? I was two feet away. What could she see that I could not? Where did the radiance come from? Why did she lift her arms in such joy?
Was it real? Can I trust what I saw?
Many scientists say deathbed visions are not real. They say there are natural feel-good substances in a dying body that cause such visions.
Many ministers and priests say the exact opposite—that deathbed visions are an early taste of heaven, sent to comfort the dying. But if I look further and study common beliefs in most religions, I find cruel exclusion and punishment of people who are surely innocent.
Still other great thinkers, including some scientists and theologians, disagree with both common religion and science, saying that there are realities that we cannot measure yet.
I feel trapped between the authorities of science and religion. How can I judge what is real or not real?
I think I can trust my five senses. Can I? Beyond that, can I trust my intuition, my sixth sense?
I think back to the dead bodies I have seen. My grandmother’s body feels like an empty eggshell. The outer shape is there, but it’s obvious that her essence has gone. I think of a cadaver we worked on in nursing school. Certainly a body is real. It can be weighed and measured. Certainly a physical body stops working when it is damaged beyond mending.
My daughter asks, “Where is Grandma now?” “Her body is at the funeral home,” I answer. But is that body Grandma? Did I tell my daughter the truth?
What about the joy in Grandma’s eyes—not the eyeballs themselves but the light in her eyes? What about her experience of being alive—the pleasure she took in beating egg whites perfectly, the fear she felt lying alone in the nursing home, the love she felt for her son? What about her awareness, her consciousness?
Love is real, but there is no way to measure it that matches a toddler’s instant recognition. Even though science cannot measure consciousness, we experience it constantly. Many who love deeply have touched their beloved’s essence after death. Many have sat and talked in dreams or felt a joyful, tender touch that they recognized.
What my five senses tell me is only part of reality. What my intuition tells me adds a lot but still is not everything that is real.
What I know is that there is an exquisite expanse that I can touch if I try. I must be willing to move past my own five senses, past my sixth sense to an openness that stretches differently than what we call time and falls deeper than what we call dimension.
In this openness, everything is possible.
It’s okay if I just sense this and do not name it anything. No one can name this for another. One person might call it God, and another person might name it consciousness.
For me, it is the mystery that sings when I play my viola, the whirr of a raven’s wings as it flies over my head, the laughter shining in my daughter’s eyes. It is the joy I feel when my lover holds me, and it is the comfort a starving child feels when I feed him warm rice.
I can get there by sitting in silence. This mystery is the broth that nurtures me. Its flavor is clear and subtle, but it is real.
I might still be wrong about what is real. Life has taught me to take both ministers and scientists with a grain of salt. Surely I can’t imagine all that is possible, but neither can they. What is yet to come seems impossible or frightening or silly.
What I know for sure is that my awareness is real. I am awareness; I am consciousness. That is who I am—not the money I earn, not my name or my role in my family, not my physical body.
Beyond that I don’t know anything. I am open to all that is. I am open to being, now, in this moment. Nothing more is needed.
By Jean E. Gendreau
(copyright 2015 by Jean E. Gendreau)