Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#416: The Smile

Late last summer I was out on the Pleasure Pier filming kids fishing. I wanted to take advantage of the fact young visitors were out enjoying an activity I used to indulge in when I was growing up. Most were pretty respectful of their catch, returning it to the water after removing the hook. But there was one group of about five boys who felt otherwise. They'd catch an undersized kelp bass and start slapping it around with the hook still in its mouth. I found their abuse disgusting and told them in no uncertain terms I felt what they were doing was an insult to life. Their response was predictably immature.

About that time I finished a book by Deepak Chopra entitled Why is God Laughing. It was the first book by him I'd ever read and it resonated with me. I have always said that some of my deepest spiritual experiences have happened under the sea. There is an area in the dive park where relatively few divers go. I call it the "Kelp Kathedral" and I think Rev. Ron understands why I go there on Sundays. Back in the late 1970s when I first met him, he was the divemaster on John Magilavy's dive boat "Oceanus" here in Avalon and we (Chuck Liddell's Catalina Island Odyssey) were the booking agents for the boat.

Chopra's premise was definitely not mainstream Christianity, Judaism or Islam. He had the gall to suggest that God might be the sum total of all that exists in the Universe rather than an angry old man (of the Old Testament) that sits in judgment of us, or even the New Testament's loving God. I have never understood religions based on fear, any more than I can "understand" politics and propaganda based on it. Life to me is joy... I am happy to be alive and try not to take life for granted. This is why I get ecstatic about discovering a "new" species or observing a "new" behavior in an old "friend."

I find the study of ecology and evolution to be wonderful revelations of the beauty and "mystery" that is life. There is much comfort to be had in recognizing that we are a part of an incredible network of living things across the planet... and out into the universe around us, where I believe thousands or millions of planets with life exist. This does not bring me fear, but great joy in knowing I am a part of it. It is one of the primary reasons I became a marine biologist (after considering math, history, fine art and poetry in college). I have never lost the wonder I feel in encountering nature, something that began when I was very young. I preferred collecting insects in the fields or snapping turtles in the streams around my childhood home near Chicago to playing baseball or football (although I loved going to Wrigley Field to watch "my" Cubs or my great Uncle "Papa" George Halas' Chicago Bears).

Back in the early 1980s I wrote a computer-based book on astronomy which I titled AWEstronomy. I spent nights many looking through my telescope at other galaxies, nebulae, stars in the Milky Way and our own solar system's planets. The immensity of the universe was not frightening to me, it was awe inspiring... for I am a small part of that as well as our ecological/evolutionary matrix right here on Earth. I loved to dwell on the concepts of astronomy, and taught courses in it as well. One of my favorite concepts was the scientific "fact" that our bodies are made of debris from exploded stars (see my previous column on "Proving we are the stuff of which stars are made"). The early Universe began with mostly hydrogen and helium, insufficient building blocks for carbon-based life forms like ourselves, the plants and other animals here on the Water Planet... or for silicon-based creatures like my friends on the planet Xanadu.

No, it took millions of years for hydrogen fusion inside stars to create the elements like carbon, silicon, nitrogen and oxygen that were needed for humans to evolve. I see this as no contradiction of anything but the most "literal" interpretation of the Bible, which was largely written and modified by imperfect human beings over the last few thousand years, often for their own political agenda. Sorry, folks... I just don't buy that part... although it provides a good code of ethics (or morality if you prefer) with which to live our lives. And I don't believe that the God of Creation rather than Creator (in the usual sense), is going to damn me to Hell (or even Purgatory) because of that. Maybe for a few other things... I live my life largely based on the Golden Rule, which is common to Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity and many other religions. I do so not because I seek reward in the afterlife, but because I think it is the right thing to do here on Earth.

Before I stray too far, let me say that my fundamental belief is the wonder of creation, of the critters in the ocean as well as those on land... and on other planets. This even extends to human beings who are also pretty amazing as a species. Unfortunately in our largely urbanized population, people are too often detached from their real support systems... those of the water, earth and sky. Too many see nature through the eyes of television which often distorts and sensationalizes things (just watch "Shark Week" for examples).

Chopra referred to God as smiling and laughing... at the beauty of the Universe, and even at the inconsistencies often displayed (especially in our own species). My favorite poet (Robinson Jeffers), marine biologist ("Doc" Ricketts of Steinbeck's Cannery Row fame) and novelist (John Fowles in The Magus) all talk of "the smile" that comes with an understanding of this "divinely superfluous beauty" and the ability to "break through" our daily routines and actually see that at its fundamental level. To see that all life is interconnected through ecological interactions and evolutionary time. To see ourselves as a part of that "whole" and not separate from it as we so often live our lives. The smile comes from the realization that "what might not be is." Life is indeed a miracle.

I keep a Buddha's head on a bookshelf in my living room, and two framed pictures of one in other rooms to remind me of this. The Buddha is smiling "the smile" that comes from understanding this inter-connectedness of all life, of all existence. I enjoy this sense of connectedness while I'm diving, or hiking the hills of our island, or watching a sunset at Little Harbor. I think my sense of humor comes in part from this understanding. And on the few occasions when I feel sad, it is often because I see others who just don't "get it" and think that their business success, their material possessions and other achievements are what is ultimately important. Or I observe people like the kids fishing who don't respect life in all its forms. Of course this state of awareness lasts only so long for like everyone else, I have to eventually focus back on work.

I guess we'll just have to see when we achieve the "afterlife." For now, I will continue to take great pleasure in my encounters with "the real world" and continue to do what poet Gary Snyder, from the environmental movement in the 1960s and 70s, refers to as "the real work." I'll retain the same sense of wonder and openness that I did as a child. As poet Robinson Jeffers wrote "The happiest and freest man is the scientist investigating nature, or the artist admiring it; the person who is interested in things that are not human. Or if he is interested in human things, let him regard them objectively, as a small part of the great music."

© 2010 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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The smiling Buddha... it says it all.

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