On sensing connections in ordinary events

Paul Edmonston stayed at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram for four and a half months in 1967-68, while on sabbatical from Pennsylvania State. He had darshan with the Mother, and was at the foundation of Auroville. He later returned for the 25th anniversary of Auroville in 1993. The present essay is from a journal he kept in 1972-73 while he was a post-doctoral fellow in South Indian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Paul is a long-term admirer of Jung, especially the concept of synchronicity. This essay shows how the a seemingly inconsequential event can branch out in many unexpected ways, intertwining our actions, knowledge and being.


by Paul Edmonston
Toming into my study this morning I noticed that the wind had blown several books to the floor, and picking one up, I began reading Tagore's Gitanjali without having intended so at all. In the introduction by Yeats a sentence or two caught my eye. “The squirrels come from the boughs and climb on to his knees and the birds alight upon his hands.” Also a reference to Nietzsche who said, “we must not believe in the moral or intellectual beauty which does not sooner or later impress itself on physical things." Then I went on to read the small poetic volume through from beginning to end, coming finally to a famous passage which I had seen on the wall of his home in Calcutta inscribed in Tagore's flamboyant hand: 
     When I go from hence let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable. 

     I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus that expands on the ocean of light, and thus am I blessed—let this be my parting word. 

     In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play and here have I caught sight of him that is formless. 

     My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch: and if the end comes here, let it come—let this be my parting word. 

Now it was not my intention to write about Tagore at the moment, but to muse a bit on the often unnoticed and seemingly coincidental or even inconsequential connections in the stream of ordinary events that constitute our ongoing experience, and of which, if we are alert, we can become increasingly aware. I stumbled on this little volume in an old bookshop in Boston some thirty years ago at a time when I knew nothing of Tagore, and even less of India, which was to call me to visit her many years afterwards. Nor did the poetic verse make any sense to me then, and it was put aside with other volumes and only occasionally flipped through out of curiosity once or twice in the intervening years. 

Tut I had been dreaming this morning of both squirrels and birds, and Tagore's tender relationship with these animals came to my attention because of the accident of wind. In the dream I had been concerned with a cat which was threatening a squirrel and biting its neck. In the scene that follows, however, the squirrel remains unharmed and a bird with a large beak caresses my head with its own. It occurred to me that a week ago I had looked through an album of photographs and commentary on Albert Schweitzer and was impressed with the continuing presence of animals around him at Lambarene, and had read some of his statements which revealed his continuing concern for the creation, animals as well as men. One photograph in particular I remember, since it shows a pelican perched atop a fence next to him with its long head and beak curved in a gesture of closeness around his neck. The commentary states that only with Schweitzer would the pelican venture so close and that it often followed him about, returning every night, although free to fly into the jungle. It tells of him practicing at night on his pedal organ and having an animal or two for an audience in his room, and of several animals which slept on his perch or in his room overnight, being let out each morning for the day. And above the picture of him with the pelican around his neck is a picture of him feeding a cat, a combination similar to that which occurred in my morning dream. 

Recently I have been much preoccupied with our relationships, usually brutish and predatory, with most lower forms of life. I had written an essay on ahimsa (the principle of non-violence) calling attention to some of the ways in which we kill to levels of extinction only so we may eat or our dogs and cats may have meat. Finding testimony to Tagore's reverence for life is one new connection in a growing sense of concern for life on the planet, from a man whose countenance I had thought incredibly beautiful when first coming on a photograph of him on a visit to his home. This new contact with Tagore, due to the falling of his little book to the floor at this time, reminded me that I should read his biography, as I have been reading Schweitzer's, although in brief, in order to discover one more model for my life. 

This instinct of respect or dependence for the lower order, called reverence for life by Schweitzer, has recently been brought to my attention as a part of American Indian belief. They believed the animals were intermediaries between man and the gods, and would even address a tree to be taken for use in a sweat lodge before cutting it down, assuring it of the honored place in the ceremonies of which it would be a part. The relationship to Nietzsche’s statement quoted earlier may be noted in Schweitzer’s lifelong attempt not only to formulate his ethic but to make it an integral part of his existence, to demonstrate it in his actions in daily life…to make his intellectual and moral philosophy visible to others in a physical way. Regarding animals, Schweitzer says: 

    In the past we have tried to make a distinction between animals which we acknowledge have some value and others which, having none, can be liquidated when and as we wish. This standard must be abandoned. Everything that lives has a value simply as a living thing, as one manifestation of the mystery that is life. And let us not forget that some of the more evolved animals show that they have feelings and are capable of impressive, sometimes amazing, acts of fidelity and devotion. 
    (From Paris Notes)
Evidence of the continuing yet subtle interconnections taking place in our consciousness among the varying ideas and images to which we are being constantly exposed may be seen in my own case one morning recently when, while opening a can of salmon for lunch, I suddenly had a vision of the live and shining creature heroically leaping the rapids back toward the pools in which it would spawn, and thinking of the wonder of that tender pink food which had once been sparkling life, I truly ate with reverence and with thankfulness for the fact that this small life was sustaining me that day. It had not been but a few days since I had talked to some students about the manner in which man so cleverly has outwitted the salmon by stretching his seine across the mouths of rivers, thus reducing the salmon population to a mere fraction of what it was. This experience reminded me also of seeing a handsome young Indian in an ashram meditating with the most benign and reverent expression over his food before beginning to eat. It stands in stark contrast to the unthinking and hurried way in which so many of us in the West, eating heavy quantities of meat, approach our meals. 

Two other very small experiences recently have further substantiated the subtle effects of interconnecting thoughts, experiences, and events on the mind, since they included feelings and insights in relation to ordinary phenomena. One was my quiet surprise and delight one morning in spring when discovering a host of small minnows swimming in schools in the creek behind our home, since they had seemingly appeared overnight in waters that had exhibited no previous sign of life. Examining the obscure reasons for my inordinate feeling of thankfulness for this simple event, I realized it was because the presence of the minnows was an assurance that the creek was not polluted enough by man to make life impossible, thus making it miracle enough in the present context of events—in the face of man's relentless degradation of his environment. An event which would have been taken absolutely for granted as a child had filled me with a kind of gratitude now, in the present, as an adult. The second event was the discovery that a male and female pair of ducks which have been living in the stream were being followed one day by eight tiny peeping ducklings. Someone later informed me that they had seen the eggs resting along the bank and that one had been lost when either a child or another animal had knocked it into the stream. What the sudden appearance of these young creatures meant, in its miniscule way, was that in this small, hidden place, at least, life could survive—had survived, and this fact alone, at the present moment, when we seem to depend upon so much death, was miracle enough. I think it was at these two times, recently, so simple in their way, that I experienced what is so commonly referred to as reverence for life. 

The connections at work in my own life regarding this matter go on and on. Recently a person who worked with laboratory animals stated that she had no problem of conscience as far as they were concerned, although she was horrified at the sight of a bullfight. In this connection, I found myself reading about ahimsa as it is practiced by the Jains, to the point that even breathing must be cautious lest the believer inhale and kill an insect. Now, it is interesting to find a quote by Schweitzer which brings these several concerns together in an imaginative and an ethical way, balancing the seeming need of man to use animals in his battle against disease while still maintaining a fundamentally ethical awareness of his actions and a sense of his indebtedness to the lower order within a context of basic reverence for life. He states: 

     Those who test medicines or operating techniques on animals or who inoculate them with illnesses in order to help mankind through the results they hope to obtain in this way must never quiet their conscience with the general excuse that in practicing these cruel methods they are pursuing a lofty purpose. 

     In every individual case they must ascertain whether it is really necessary to impose such a sacrifice on the animal for the sake of humanity. They should take a very particular care to reduce suffering as much as is within their power. 

     How many crimes are committed in laboratories where anesthesia is often omitted to save time or trouble! How many more crimes are committed when animals are subjected to torture merely to demonstrate to students things long known to be facts! Precisely because the animal has, by serving in the realm of experimentation, made it possible for such precious information to be obtained for suffering humanity—but at the cost of its pain—a new bond of solidarity has been created between the animal and us. 

     Each of us has, as a result, the obligation to do as much good for these creatures as he can. When I come to the aid of an insect in distress, I am doing nothing more than trying to pay a part of the forever-renewed debt of man to beast. 

It has always been a part of the highly developed ethical consciousness, evidently, to be possessed of the imagination to realize some of the less obvious, subtle, and complex interconnections among persons, animals and events, such as Schweitzer here demonstrates, as well as the courage and the ability to articulate and formulate these relationships for the further enlightenment and sharpening of the conscience of men. It would seem also to be common early in the lives of highly developed spiritual men that they exhibit an almost instinctive or intuitive abhorrence of violence or killing suffered by one order of life at the hands of another. Similarly, the beginnings of most if not all of the great ethical world systems may be traced to the initial, almost physiologically experienced repugnance of an individual conscience when faced with what appear as unnecessary conditions of inequality, brutishness, injustice, and disease among creatures and men. 

Tor example, it takes a sensitive and cultivated intelligence to be able to envision the elaborate chain of acts and consequences preceding such a simple luxury as the delivery to our doorstep of a quart of milk. Or the acts leading to the neatly-wrapped piece of steak. Or the complicity of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens in the elaborate series of operations both preceding and making possible the dropping of thousand-ton bombs or canisters of napalm on anonymous peasants in jungles halfway around the globe. Or the chain of guilt connecting the alcoholic manufacturer, the bartender, the state, and the citizenry which supports or condones them all and the fatal accident on the highways caused by a person who has had too much to drink. Or the elaborate series of interconnecting events between the profiteering speculator in the stock market dealing in war-related industrials and the last final acts of destruction visited by a superior technology on the flesh of real people in war. The superior or the developed ethical or religious consciousness becomes sensitive to and imaginatively aware of these interconnections, so much so that they become an integral part of the fabric of his actions and his view of life, which he then articulates for other men, enjoining them to adopt his precepts, applying principles based upon this awareness in their lives. 

And imagine—it was the seemingly accidental fall of a little book of poetic statements by Tagore which initiated this morning's musings on the interconnection of events. 


    Rabindranath Tagore. Gitanjali. The Four Seas 
    Company Publishers. Boston, 1919. 

    Erica Anderson. The Schweitzer Album. Harper Row, publishers. New York, 1965.

Paul Edmonston has been an artist and art teacher for fifty years. He lives in Athens, Georgia, and can be reached at edmonart@aol.com.
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