The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Some Thoughts about the Ocean and the Universe

How to bear the gravity of being.

Some Thoughts about the Ocean and the Universe

In many ancient creation myths, everything was born of a great cosmic ocean with no beginning and no end, lapping matter and spirit into life. In the cosmogony of classical physics, a partial differential equation known as the wave equation describes how water waves ripple the ocean, how seismic waves ripple rock, how gravitational waves ripple the fabric of spacetime. In quantum physics, a probability amplitude known as the wave function describes the behavior and properties of particles at the quantum scale. Virginia Woolf described the relationship between consciousness and creativity as “a wave in the mind.”

Waves lap at the bedrock of being, beyond the scale of atoms, beyond the scale of stars, to wash up something elemental about what this is and what we are.

This dialogue between the elemental and the existential comes alive in a splendid poem by the astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999), composed as she was dying in the prime of life, included in her superb posthumous collection A Responsibility to Awe (public library), and read here by Amanda Palmer to the sound of “Optimist” by Zoë Keating:

by Rebecca Elson

If the ocean is like the universe
Then waves are stars.

If space is like the ocean,
Then matter is the waves,
Dictating the rise and fall
Of floating things.

If being is like ocean
We are waves,
Swelling, traveling, breaking
On some shore.

If ocean is like universe then waves
Are the dark wells of gravity
Where stars will grow.

All waves run shorewards
But there is no centre to the ocean
Where they all arise.

Couple with Rachel Carson on the ocean and the meaning of life, then revisit Elson’s poems “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” “Theories of Everything,” “Explaining Relativity,” and “Let There Always Be Light (Searching for Dark Matter).”


Wholeness and the Implicate Order: Physicist David Bohm on Bridging Consciousness and Reality

How to “include everything coherently and harmoniously in an overall whole that is undivided, unbroken, and without a border.”

Wholeness and the Implicate Order: Physicist David Bohm on Bridging Consciousness and Reality

Life is an ongoing dance between the subjective reality of what it feels like to be alive, to tremble with grief, to be glad — what it feels like to be you — and the objective reality of a universe insentient to your hopes and fears, those rudiments of the imagination, the imagination at the heart of consciousness. We are yet to figure out how these two dimensions of being can be integrated into a totality. We are yet to figure out how the known physical laws can cohere with each other — relativity, the physics of the very large, is still at odds with quantum field theory, the physics of the very small — and yet to figure out how those physical laws give rise to the wonder of consciousness.

The urgency of this integration is what the physicist David Bohm (December 20, 1917–October 27, 1992) explores in Wholeness and the Implicate Order (public library).

“Planetary System, Eclipse of the Sun, the Moon, the Zodiacal Light, Meteoric Shower” by Levi Walter Yaggy, 1887. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Bohm — who devoted his life to “understanding the nature of reality in general and of consciousness in particular as a coherent whole, which is never static or complete but which is an unending process of movement and unfoldment” — writes:

To meet the challenge before us our notions of cosmology and of the general nature of reality must have room in them to permit a consistent account of consciousness. Vice versa, our notions of consciousness must have room in them to understand what it means for its content to be “reality as a whole.” The two sets of notions together should then be such as to allow for an understanding of how reality and consciousness are related.

Acknowledging that these immense questions might “never be resolved ultimately and completely” — that they might belong to what Hannah Arendt insisted were the unanswerable questions that make us human — he adds:

Man’s* general way of thinking of the totality, i.e. his general world view, is crucial for overall order of the human mind itself. If he thinks of the totality as constituted of independent fragments, then that is how his mind will tend to operate, but if he can include everything coherently and harmoniously in an overall whole that is undivided, unbroken, and without a border (for every border is a division or break) then his mind will tend to move in a similar way, and from this will flow an orderly action within the whole.


The way could be opened for a world view in which consciousness and reality would not be fragmented from each other.

A generation after the Swiss philosopher Jean Gebser contoured a view of this unfragmented reality in his notion of “the ever-present origin,” Bohm considers what arriving at such a holistic view would take:

Our general world view is itself an overall movement of thought, which has to be viable in the sense that the totality of activities that flow out of it are generally in harmony, both in themselves and with regard to the whole of existence. Such harmony is seen to be possible only if the world view itself takes part in an unending process of development, evolution, and unfoldment, which fits as part of the universal process that is the ground of all existence.

Art by Thomas Wright from An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Such a way of viewing reality, Bohm argues against the grain of our reductionist culture, requires fully inhabiting all aspects of the mind, including those that elude the clutch of quantification:

The proper order of operation of the mind requires an overall grasp of what is generally known not only in formal, logical, mathematical terms, but also intuitively, in images, feelings, poetic usage of language, etc… It is needed for the human mind to function in a generally harmonious way, which could in turn help to make possible an orderly and stable society… This requires a continual flow and development of our general notions of reality.


A new kind of theory is needed which drops these basic commitments and at most recovers some essential features of the older theories as abstract forms derived from a deeper reality in which what prevails is unbroken wholeness.

In the remainder of Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Bohm goes on explore how the relationship between thought and reality illuminates the way this unbroken wholeness is enfolded within each region of space and time. Complement it with Iain McGilchrist on how we render reality and John Muir on the transcendent interconnectedness of the universe, then revisit Bohm on creativity, the paradox of communication, and how we shape reality.


The Challenge of Closeness: Alain de Botton on Love, Vulnerability, and the Paradox of Avoidance

The psychological machinery of our commonest coping mechanism for the terror of hurt, rejection, and abandonment.

The Challenge of Closeness: Alain de Botton on Love, Vulnerability, and the Paradox of Avoidance

The hardest thing in life isn’t getting what we want, isn’t even knowing what we want, but knowing what to want. We think we want connection, but as soon as contact reaches deeper than the skin of being, we recoil with the terror of vulnerability. There is no place more difficult to show up than where marrow meets marrow. And yet that is the only place where two people earn the right to use the word “love.”

Our avoidance of that terrifying, transcendent place holds up a mirror to our most fundamental beliefs about life and love, about what we deserve and what we are capable of, about reality and the landscape of the possible. That is what Alain de Botton explores in this animated essay probing the psychological machinery of avoidance in intimate relationships — where it comes from, how to live with it, and where it can go if handled with enough conscientiousness and compassion.

In The School of Life: An Emotional Education (public library) — the book companion to his wonderful global academy for skillful living — De Botton explores the deeper dimensions of avoidance and how to live with it, both as its proprietor and its partner. Recognizing the paralyzing fear of hurt, rejection, and abandonment at the heart of avoidance, he writes:

One of the odder features of relationships is that, in truth, the fear of rejection never ends. It continues, even in quite sane people, on a daily basis, with frequently difficult consequences — chiefly because we refuse to pay it sufficient attention and aren’t trained to spot its counter-intuitive symptoms in others. We haven’t found a winning way to keep admitting just how much reassurance we need.


Instead of requesting reassurance endearingly and laying out our longing with charm, we have tendencies to mask our needs beneath some tricky behaviors guaranteed to frustrate our ultimate aims.

Avoidance is one of the commonest ways of hedging against our fear of rejection and hurt — a coping mechanism for disappointment that we developed when the people first tasked with caring for us let us down. De Botton writes:

We grow into avoidant patterns when, in childhood, attempts at closeness ended in degrees of rejection, humiliation, uncertainty, or shame that we were ill-equipped to deal with. We became, without consciously realizing it, determined that such levels of exposure would never happen again. At an early sign of being disappointed, we therefore now understand the need to close ourselves off from pain. We are too scarred to know how to stay around and mention that we are hurt.

With an eye to the undertow of vulnerability beneath all avoidant patterns, he adds:

If this harsh, graceless behavior could be truly understood for what it is, it would be revealed not as rejection or indifference, but as a strangely distorted, yet very real, plea for tenderness.

A central solution to these patterns is to normalize a new and more accurate picture of emotional functioning: to make it clear just how predictable it is to be in need of reassurance, and at the same time, how understandable it is to be reluctant to reveal one’s dependence. We should create room for regular moments, perhaps as often as every few hours, when we can feel unembarrassed and legitimate about asking for confirmation. “I really need you. Do you still want me?” should be the most normal of enquiries.

Complement with philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility and Hannah Arendt on how to live with the fundamental fear of love’s loss, then revisit Alain de Botton on the importance of breakdowns, what makes a good communicator, and the key to existential maturity.


Dead Stars: Poet Laureate Ada Limón’s Stunning Love Poem to Life

“We’ve come this far, survived this much. What would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?”

Dead Stars: Poet Laureate Ada Limón’s Stunning Love Poem to Life

We know that the atoms composing our bodies and our brains can be traced back to particular stars that died long ago in some faraway corner of the cosmos. We know what will happen to our own atoms when we ourselves die. Still, something in us quivers with incomprehension at the notion that every single one of our capacities — love and mathematics, the bomb and the Benedictus — is the churn of discarded stardust. And yet it is precisely this fact that renders us miraculous — creatures of matter, capable of seeing beauty, capable of making meaning. This is our inheritance. This is the bright star of resurrection lighting up our exquisite aliveness.

U.S Poet Laureate Ada Limón channels this cosmic destiny of ours in her splendid poem “Dead Stars,” found in her collection The Carrying (public library) and read here by the poet herself during her altogether wonderful lecture at Portland’s Literary Arts, to which I have added the requisite benediction of Bach.

by Ada Limón

Out here, there’s a bowing even the trees are doing.
            Winter’s icy hand at the back of all of us.
Black bark, slick yellow leaves, a kind of stillness that feels
so mute it’s almost in another year.

I am a hearth of spiders these days: a nest of trying.

We point out the stars that make Orion as we take out
      the trash, the rolling containers a song of suburban thunder.

It’s almost romantic as we adjust the waxy blue
      recycling bin until you say, Man, we should really learn
some new constellations.

And it’s true. We keep forgetting about Antlia, Centaurus,
      Draco, Lacerta, Hydra, Lyra, Lynx.

But mostly we’re forgetting we’re dead stars too, my mouth is full
      of dust and I wish to reclaim the rising —

to lean in the spotlight of streetlight with you, toward
      what’s larger within us, toward how we were born.

Look, we are not unspectacular things.
      We’ve come this far, survived this much. What

would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?

What if we stood up with our synapses and flesh and said, No.
      No, to the rising tides.

Stood for the many mute mouths of the sea, of the land?

What would happen if we used our bodies to bargain

for the safety of others, for earth,
      if we declared a clean night, if we stopped being terrified,

if we launched our demands into the sky, made ourselves so big
people could point to us with the arrows they make in their minds,

rolling their trash bins out, after all of this is over?

Complement with the uncommon astronomer-poet Rebecca Elson’s “Antidotes to Fear of Death” and “Let There Always Be Light (Searching for Dark Matter),” then revisit the poetic physicist Brian Greene’s Rilke-lensed reflection on how our creaturely limitations give life meaning.


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