“In the middle of things, we are born, we live, and we die.”
R. Carlos Nakai (b. 1946)
In the Middle of Things is the title of a selection on a wonderful recording of native American flute music by R. Carlos Nakai (Earth Spirit, Canyon Records). Since first hearing this music and reading Nakai’s brief comment about it (as noted above), I have continued to regard it as a beautiful evocation of spiritual life.
To live in the middle of things is to understand life and everything about it as a series of events unfolding in time. But more than this, it is to understand time itself as part of a more encompassing, timeless reality—an infinity. Just as time provides the framework within which our physical/material world unfolds, infinity is the all-encompassing reality within which time unfolds, along with everything that transcends time.
We can sense our unity with a time-transcending reality through the remarkable powers of human consciousness. These powers give us an ability to see beyond the limited contours of what we can physically observe and analyze. And if we are in the middle of “all this”, of everything that we or anyone else can know or imagine, analyze or intuit—in the middle of everything that is, was, or will be—we can reliably trust that what we belong to is what everyone and everything belongs to, namely, a unity of infinite variety.
Belief in our fundamental unity is the underlying, overarching assumption of this website. And tapping into this belief is what is understood here as tapping into our natural, common spirituality, which we share with all so-called “others”—the breath of authentic life.
The wonder of human consciousness is that it allows us to see ourselves and our world as expressions of both finite and infinite life. It allows us to envision and reflect on both the immediate (physical, time-bound) events we are involved with, as well as the transcendent (non-material, timeless) reality out of which everything emerges and into which everything returns.
The significant point here is that each of us has an innate capacity to express oneself as a unique individual living in the middle of a unity of infinite variety. And surely, a person’s spirituality flows fundamentally from this basic, human capacity, rather than from adherence to a system of beliefs and practices, however insightful, inspiring, and life-sustaining the system may be. Here is an affirmation of this understanding from a fifteenth century philosopher, Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464).
Humanity will find that it is not a diversity of creeds, but the very same creed which is everywhere proposed … Even though you are designated in terms of different religions, yet you presuppose in all this diversity one religion which you call wisdom.
[Cited in Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells (2004), p.3]
The phrase “in the middle of things” has been around for a very long time. It was used (perhaps for the first time) by the classical Roman poet, Horace (65–8 BCE), to describe the way gifted epic poets launch listeners into the midst of a story (in medias res), rather than begin with events that precipitated the action. It is not hard to find examples of this narrative practice in many cultural traditions. [For instance, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (7th century BCE); the great Indian epic Mahabharata (8th century BCE to 4th century CE); Shakespeare’s Hamlet (ca 1599-1602).]
Today, many novelists and cinematic creators plunge their audiences into the middle of things by making use of flashbacks or manipulating timelines in ways that suggest events always belong to a continuum: they begin, they develop, and they come to a kind of resolution, which may or may not be understandable. What this kind of narrative context implies is that each aspect of a story is an integral aspect of it: without any part of the story, the narrative would be a different one. And if the story that we are referring to is the story of reality itself—the wholeness of all narratives, past, current, and to come—what can we leave out without doing damage or disservice not only to the overall story but also to our own story? In concert with many spiritual teachers throughout history, Alexander Pope (1688–1744) points to this integrated or wholeness view of reality by reminding us that in the vast chain of being “wisdom infinite must form the best.”
Vast chain of being! Which from God began, / Nature’s aethereal, human, angel, man, / Beast, bird, fish, insect, what no eye can see, / No glass can reach; from Infinite to thee, / From thee to nothing … / From Nature’s chain whatever link you strike, / Tenth, or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.
From, Essay on Man (1734)
Because everyone and everything is an integral, irreplaceable part the wholeness to which we belong, we express ourselves most completely and creatively—most spiritually— when we celebrate the unity that is the heart of the diversity of our world. And we can do this in any of the everyday circumstances of our lives by reminding ourselves that we are not separate from anyone or anything we encounter.
But of course, recognizing our fundamental unity is not always an easy thing to do. A great many aspects of our societal/cultural environments (especially those related to the hegemony of science and technology) urge us to think of ourselves as independent, even autonomous individuals. Given this situation, there is clearly a need to arouse our attention to the realization that we are fundamentally interdependent persons whose lives are intimately woven into the fabric of the wholeness of reality. It is my hope that the material contained in this website will respond to this need and provide readers with an opportunity to reflect on the fundamental interdependence implied by living “in the middle of things”.
Each droplet is one more sparkle in the cascading water … Each moment is one more instance of an infinite present … Each person is one more telling of the story of us all.