She was sitting in the front row – the car had mysteriously failed to start for the first five minutes of the would-be journey, as though projecting her future to this point with a mechanical will of its own. This point: the front row of a group of about twenty people, possessing a collective warmth – she had to admit – within which she was a complete stranger.
They had sounded interesting. Not presumptuous, not critical, just friendly and intelligent.
The speaker was talking; a man with kind eyes. He had the relaxed manner of one who had given many talks. He looked at her, smiled and asked the question, “What is Life?”
It was the end of a miserable event curve that had begun with the car’s idiocy. Now, she felt nineteen pairs of eyes and ears upon her and she wished herself away. Instead, she breathed, wishing to rise to this double challenge of being unknown and facing a question to which there was no complete answer – itself an unknown…
But his eyes – which had been on her – were moving away.. Had his question been rhetoric? The speaker raised his voice to address everyone. “We all need to ask ourselves that, for it is the basis of any spiritual exploration…” he said.
His head turned towards the back of the room, where she could feel someone straining to answer. There’s always a resident swot, she thought, recalling her school days…
“I would say that….” rose the voice from the back. Then it paused….
It was the pause that did it, she would later reflect. The pause that spoke to her and said here’s a gap. You can fill it with what you know. Damn it! She had studied biology in some depth; had created a synthesis in her own head, mixing it with her belief in universal kindness at apparent war with the eternal process that was the unfeeling universe…
“It’s a mysterious continuity,” she said, firmly – filling the gap.
She didn’t need to see to know that all eyes were upon she of the intervention. His eyes, too, restored to her – dancing with mirth at her interruption, nodding at the depth of her answer.
“Yes?” he said, inviting her…
She would apologise to the interrupted man at the back, later… For now, she had something to say… to share.
So… what is life? It’s an obvious question that has taken us thousands of years to approach. Even philosophers have argued over its tangles, unable to frame the properties of ‘living’.
As a child, and keen on cheap horror films, we would go out into garden with old milk bottles filled from the kitchen tap and create coloured mixtures of soil, bits of plants and various other substances – bits of old cement from the builder’s yard next door, that sort of thing. We’d jam our palms over the neck and shake the contents for all we were worth. Eventually, and exhausted in arm, we’d watch the swirling mass of usually dark liquid spin like its own speeded-up universe.
Was it alive?
Of course not. But a billion years ago, above the broken fractures in the middle of the deep sea oceans, with their bubbling, muddy vents, powered by the intense heat from a gap in the Earth’s crust, something did live – according to the most likely theories on the origin of life.
What lived there that contrasted with our dead but sincerely shaken bottle soup? What was it that came into existence and sustained itself, miles from the surface of the sea, coaxed into life by the energy of the volcanic deep-sea trench?
The answer is fascinating and multi-faceted. One very good answer is that we did. We came into existence in that deep ocean trench, a billion years ago. The chain of life that began then resulted in us – a being that can actually look back, with some authority, on the history of life on Earth. But it doesn’t just look back; it asks whether this was a unique, freak event, or whether the universe is teaming with life…
The growing mind that resulted from that self-sustaining life-form can still only describe what life is, not why. The ‘what’ is wonderful and mysterious, but the why is either ignored with disdain or avoided. Science is not good at sharing the ‘truth’ with anything not based on its rigorous, but limiting principles. There are good reasons for this. The ages before the birth of rational thinking were marked by sheer fantasy and religious dogma as to what life was. The resulting materialistic swing of science was a natural reaction – and a good one. Perhaps now, though – as the questions of consciousness pile higher – there will be a loosening of what has become science’s own dogma, and a much deeper sharing of what it means to be human. After all, the human mind invented science, not the other way round.
Over the next few Thursday posts, we will take a journey from those ocean vents where life began, making the leap from chemical to organic – and watching it change its relationship with ‘the world’ forever.
Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.
The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.