Three Good Articles on Sufism from the New York Times

Following the attack last week on the Sufi shrine in the northern Egyptian Sinai, I came across three articles in the New York Times that I hope everyone will find as interesting as I did.

The first, “Who Are Sufi Muslims, and Why Do Some Extremists Hate Them?“, from last week, gives a good thumbnail sketch of the nature and origins of Sufism.

The second, “The Muslims in the Middle” is from August 2010, and addresses the position of Sufism in the modern world, especially in the US.

The third, “Sufi Sect of Islam Draws ‘Spiritual Vagabonds’ in New York“, from last year, describes some of the services and practices currently found in US Sufism.

Elon Musk: Say ‘Sweet Dreams,’ Humanity

 Elon Musk: Say 'Sweet Dreams,' Humanity
Robot overlords?

Credit: Tatiana Shepeleva/Shutterstock

Elon Musk has once again warned about the dangers of unchecked artificial intelligence, this time in response to a viral video of a robot doing amazing acrobatic feats.

Twitter user Alex Medina, a designer for Vox Media, posted a clip of a Boston Dynamics humanoid robot called Atlas doing a backflip with the short caption: “we dead.”

In reply, Musk wrote, “This is nothing. In a few years, that bot will move so fast you’ll need a strobe light to see it. Sweet dreams.” 

This is nothing. In a few years, that bot will move so fast you’ll need a strobe light to see it. Sweet dreams… https://twitter.com/mrmedina/status/931291808394440706  

He then went on to elaborate on his comment in a follow-up tweet.

“Got to regulate AI/robotics like we do food, drugs, aircraft & cars. Public risks require public oversight. Getting rid of the FAA wdn’t [sic] make flying safer. They’re there for good reason.”

This is just the latest warning from Musk about robots, which he considers “humanity’s biggest existential threat.” At a talk at the National Governors Association meeting in July, Musk said lawmakers need to start regulating robots before they start “killing people.” He also signed on to a 2015 letter by technology luminaries urging the United Nations to ban killer robots. [History of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (Infographic)]

Elon Musk’s fear of robots is shared by many brilliant scientists. Stephen Hawking has also warned on numerous occasions that artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Billionaire and software icon Bill Gates has said he doesn’t understand how some people aren’t concerned about the potential threat of A.I.

The robot shown in the video probably doesn’t pose any threat to humanity — yet. It’s still not as nimble and versatile as an ordinary human, and according to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Atlas isn’t meant to be a killer robot. Instead, it’s designed as a disaster robot that could do things like search for humans in rubble, where it would be too hazardous to send human beings.

Originally published on Live Science.

Dying Woman Sorry She Won’t Get To See 37-Year-Old Son Grow Up

November 26, 2017 (theonion.com)

TULSA, OK—Saying she only wished she’d be around to look on with pride as he matured into an adult, dying woman Maureen McCarthy told reporters Monday that she was sorry she would never get to see her 37-year-old son grow up. “I was so looking forward to seeing the type of person Daniel will develop into once he leaves the house and ventures out into the world,” said McCarthy, adding that it broke her heart to realize that she wouldn’t be around to meet his first girlfriend or see him graduate from college. “Getting a driver’s license, landing his first real job, voting in his first election—God, there are so many milestones I’m going to miss. If only I just had a few more years.” At press time, McCarthy smiled as her darling son lounged on the couch reading comic books and decided to focus on whatever precious time was left.

Shelter from the Storm “live ’76”


Shelter From the Storm
Bob Dylan

‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm
And if I pass this way again, you can rest assured
I’ll always do my best for her, on that I give my word
In a world of steel-eyed death, and men who are fighting to be warm
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm
Not a word was spoke between us, there was little risk involved
Everything up to that point had been left unresolved
Try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm
I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail
Poisoned in…

Designing A Robot You Want To Have A Beer With

Article Image

I recently had a conversation with a colleague that works with me in the MIT AgeLab. He specializes in AI and machine learning. As we walked and discussed his current work on autonomous vehicles, I asked him “where would you like to take your research?” Without missing a beat he responded – “I would like to build a robot that you would want to have a conversation with.”

Robots may be rapidly losing their novelty. It seems that in just a few short years they have become ubiquitous. Sometimes we don’t even recognize the robots that are living among us. Once things of science fiction, they are now in nearly every discount store. Some are toys. Hasbro’s Joy for All robots are designed to provide companionship to older adults while PARO a robotic seal serves as a therapeutic intervention helping those suffering from PTSD or from dementia. Thanks to Amazon EchoGoogle Home and others, ‘bots are making shopping lists, playing music, controlling home lighting and temperature, even offering personal exercise routines. Other robots are vacuuming our floors and cutting our lawns.

Most people see robots as complex devices to fulfill a specific task. But, beyond obvious applications in transportation, law enforcement, logistics, work, shopping and healthcare, robotics will soon reshape our most personal moments.

Changing global demographics and living patterns may provide a new role for AI – keeping us company. Today, nearly 30 percent of households in the United States are households of one. Home alone living is more pronounced in some cities than others. For example, nearly half of all households in the cities of Atlanta and Washington, DC are people living solo. In some parts of Europe nearly half of households are comprised of a single person. Euromonitor reports that over the next 14 years, households of one will increase faster than households comprised of couples, families or roommates. Nearly 120 million new single person households will be formed worldwide over the next decade and a half.

That brings me back to my friend who plans to build a robot you would want to have a conversation with – the emphasis is on want. A recent article in Wired suggests that even robots designed for sex may be far less complex than design challenges associated with creating the intimacy one needs to feel and want to have a conversation. Wanting to have a conversation with someone depends on many factors. One of them is the likeability of your conversation partner.

Well beyond the formidable technical requirements of engineering a conversational robot are the equally challenging elements of likeability.Understanding what behaviors, physical features and other elements contribute to what makes us want to share a few minutes with someone, or some thing, will require integrating insights from the social and behavioral sciences as well as the arts and humanities.

The 2004 presidential election provides one dimension of what likeability might mean in the public’s mind. Many observers found it difficult to explain George Bush’s 2004 defeat of John Kerry. Pollsters and pundits came to the conclusion that Bush’s victory was less about policy and more about who was more likeable. George Bush was described simply as the guy who you’d want to have a beer with. The beer test is now considered the standard for both electability and likeability.

What design features and capabilities would a robot need to include for you to want have a beer (and a conversation) with it? Can we design a likeable robot?

Appearance does matter. What would you want your ‘bot to look like? Should it have a human form – somewhere between cool and creepy? Some people might prefer an animal shape similar to a favorite pet. Others might want an entirely novel creature – a talking narwhal perhaps?

Would gender matter? Just as online navigation systems allow users to choose the gender of the voice providing directions, what gender would you want your conversation buddy to have?

And, then there is the conversation itself. What would you want to talk about with your ‘bot – news, weather, money, sports, other people? Netflix videos? Romance? Sex? Should your robot have a sense of humor?

Robot conversations will demand an entirely new level of interpersonal trust. Are beer ‘bot chats to be confidential? Would you expect your robot companion to keep all your secrets? After hearing your secrets, would you want advice from your AI?

If you find the idea of having a conversation and a beer (or any other beverage of your choice) with robot interesting, help us identify the elements of your ideal robot. We are collecting ideas and preferences in a brief survey and invite you to contribute. Take our survey here. This is not a scientific poll, but rather a thought exercise to inspire and inform our thinking.

Likeability is a profoundly human perception and quality. If we are to develop a robot that we want to spend time with and speak with, not just give orders to, we will need to better understand those human qualities before we can engineer them into our new AI friends at home.

Image by Shutterstock

Walt Whitman on Beethoven and Music as the Profoundest Expression of Nature

by Mario Popova (brainpickings.org)

“Feeling, life, motion and emotion constitute its import,”philosopher Susanne Langer wrote of music, which she defined as “a highly articulated sensuous object.”

Although many great writers have contemplated the power of music, few have articulated it more perfectly or more sensuously than Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) does in Specimen Days (public library) — the sublime collection of prose fragments and journal entries, which gave us Whitman on the wisdom of treesand which the poet himself described as “a melange of loafing, looking, hobbling, sitting, traveling — a little thinking thrown in for salt, but very little — …mostly the scenes everybody sees, but some of my own caprices, meditations, egotism.” And what a beautiful, generous egotism it is.

Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

One cold February evening in the last weeks of his sixtieth year, having finally recovered from the stroke that had rendered him paralyzed for two years, Whitman treated himself to a concert at Philadelphia’s opera house. Two decades after he wrote of music as “a god, yet completely human… supplying in certain wants and quarters what nothing else could supply,” Whitman found himself surrendering to its transcendent transport in a way that eclipsed every other musical experience he’d ever had, revealing to him the very essence of music’s power. Enraptured, he writes:

Never did music more sink into and soothe and fill me — never so prove its soul-rousing power, its impossibility of statement.

Particularly enchanted by the orchestral splendor of a Beethoven septet, Whitman meditates on whether music might be the purest and profoundest expression of nature:

I [was] carried away, seeing, absorbing many wonders. Dainty abandon, sometimes as if Nature laughing on a hillside in the sunshine; serious and firm monotonies, as of winds; a horn sounding through the tangle of the forest, and the dying echoes; soothing floating of waves, but presently rising in surges, angrily lashing, muttering, heavy; piercing peals of laughter, for interstices; now and then weird, as Nature herself is in certain moods — but mainly spontaneous, easy, careless — often the sentiment of the postures of naked children playing or sleeping.

One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

Long before scientists illuminated why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity, Whitman intuited the singular mind-body attunement of performance. More than a purely aural bewitchment, he revels in the full-body, creaturely delight of music — both of playing and of listening:

It did me good even to watch the violinists drawing their bows so masterly — every motion a study. I allow’d myself, as I sometimes do, to wander out of myself. The conceit came to me of a copious grove of singing birds, and in their midst a simple harmonic duo, two human souls, steadily asserting their own pensiveness, joyousness.

Specimen Days is a beautiful read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with German philosopher Josef Pieper on the source of music’s supreme power, Aldous Huxley on why it sings to our souls, and Wendy Lesser on how it helps us grieve, then revisit Whitman on the connection between the body and the spiritwhy literature is central to democracy, and his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.

Primo Levi on the Spiritual Value of Science and How Space Exploration Brings Humanity Closer Together

by Maria Popova

(brainpickinsg.org)

“It’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality,” Ray Bradbury observed in his forgotten conversation with Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke about the future of space exploration. Three years earlier, on December 21, 1968, a romance of the most imaginative caliber became reality when three astronauts launched into the cosmos aboard the Apollo 8 spacecraft and returned six days later with the iconic Earthrise photograph — Earth’s first look at itself, taken on Christmas Eve from aboard the spacecraft. The striking image stirred in humanity a shared and unprecedented tenderness for this planet we call home. It awakened a new ecological awareness that catalyzed the environmental movement. It even inspired Carl Sagan’s Valentine to the cosmos nearly a quarter century later.

The Apollo 8 mission was the costliest investment in space exploration thus far, but who could put a price on its largely unanticipated cascading consequences for science, society, and the human spirit?

Primo Levi (Photograph © Jillian Edelstein with kind permission of the artist)

On the eve of this momentous occasion for humanity, the great Italian Jewish scientist, writer, and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi (July 31, 1919–April 11, 1987) considered the spiritual value of such scientific ambitions in a beautiful essay titled “The Moon and Man,” included in his altogether indispensable The Mirror Maker: Stories and Essays (public library).

Shortly before Isaac Asimov’s witty and wise retort to those who challenge the value of investing in space exploration, Levi writes:

It seems that in a few days common consciousness has changed, as always happens after a qualitative leap: you tend to forget the cost, the effort, the risks and sacrifices. They were there undoubtedly, and they were enormous: nevertheless, today we still ask ourselves whether it was “money well spent.” We can see it today, and yesterday we could see it less well: the enterprise was not to be judged on a utilitarian scale, or not chiefly in those terms. In the same way, an inquiry into the costs encountered in building the Parthenon would seem jarringly out of place; it is typical of man to act in an inspired and complex manner, perhaps adding up the costs beforehand, but not confining himself to the pure, imminent, or distant advantage, to take off for remote goals, with aims that are justification in themselves: to act in order to challenge a secret, enlarge his frontiers, express himself, test himself.

More than half a century later, the recent discovery of gravitational waves stands as a supreme testament to Levi’s point. LIGO, the observatory responsible for the breakthrough, is the costliest project the National Science Foundation has ever funded, exceeding $1 billion in total — an investment that went far from unquestioned in the decades between LIGO’s launch and its groundbreaking feat. And yet the discovery ushers in a new era of gravitational astronomy that might be as revolutionary as Galileo’s trailblazing telescopic observations once were — after all, almost everything we know about the universe so far comes from observing its light via telescopes, and who knows what secrets it might whisper or bellow now that we’re learning to speak its sonic language. Who could possibly put a price on such a radical leap in our understanding of the universe and our place in it, such a courageous reach into the unknown?

Earthrise (December 24, 1968)

The most valuable thing to be gained from this endeavor to know the cosmos, Levi argues, is this new kind of bravery, which didn’t exist before the dawn of space exploration:

Our world, in so many of its aspects sinister, provisional, diseased, and tragic, has also this other face: it is a “brave new world” that does not recoil before obstacles and does not find peace until it has circumvented, penetrated, or overwhelmed them. It is braveness of a new type: not that of the pioneer, the hero at war, the lone navigator. This, even though praiseworthy, is not very new or very rare: you can find it in all countries and in all ages, and it isn’t even specifically human. Also the wolf, also the tiger and bull are brave, and so without a doubt were our distant progenitors and the Homeric heroes.

We are at once similar and different: the bravery from which the lunar adventure sprang is different, it is Copernican, it is Machiavellian. It defies other obstacles, other dangers, less bloody but longer and heavier; it confronts other enemies, it confronts common sense, it confronts “it’s always been done like this,” the laziness and weariness in ourselves and around us. It rights with different arms, portentously complex and subtle, all or almost all created from nothing during the last ten or twenty years by virtue of intelligence and patience: new technologies, new substances, new energies, and new ideas.

Illustration from Blast Off, a vintage children’s book that envisioned a black female astronaut decades before one became a reality.

As if to remind us that at any moment when the improbable becomes possible, human nature is such that we immediately take for granted what we had only just moments ago taken for impossible, Levi considers the sheer miraculousness — a miracle enkindled by our scientific doggedness and ingenuity — of a human being leaving the planet and voyaging into the cosmic unknown:

Man, the naked ape, the terrestrial animal who is the son of a very long dynasty of terrestrial or marine beings, molded in all of his organs by a restricted environment which is the lower atmosphere, can detach himself from it without dying. He can endure exposure to cosmic radiation, even without the domestic screen of air; he can remove himself from the familiar alteration of day and night; he can tolerate accelerations that are multiples of gravity’s; he can eat, sleep, work, and think even at zero gravity — and perhaps this is the most astounding revelation, the one about which, before Gagarin’s exploit, it was permissible to entertain the greatest doubts.

Art from The Three Astronauts, Umberto Eco’s vintage semiotic children’s book about the role of space exploration in world peace

This capacity for transcending our limitations, Levi reminds us, is the great hallmark of the human species:

Not only is man strong because he has made himself so since the time a million years ago when, from among the many weapons that nature offered the animals, he opted for the brain — man is strong in himself, he is stronger than he estimated, he is made of a substance fragile only in appearance, he has been mysteriously planned with enormous, unsuspected margins of safety. We are singular animals, solid and ductile, driven by atavistic impulses, and by reason, and at the same time by a “cheerful strength,” so that, if an enterprise can be accomplished, be it god or evil, it cannot be set aside but must be carried through.

And yet the largest reward of such feats, Levi reminds us, aren’t their gains for a narrow field of science but their broad unifying effect on humanity — that “cheerful strength” becomes a centripetal force drawing us together toward a common center of purpose and participatory pride in the astronomical accomplishment. A quarter century after Einstein considered how the common language of science brings humanity closer together, Levi considers our “deeds of courage and ingenuity”:

Confronted by this latest evidence of bravery and ingenuity, we can feel not only admiration and detached solidarity: in some way and with some justification each of us feels he is a participant… so even the one least connected with the colossal labor of cosmic flights feels that a small particle of merit falls to the human species, and so also to himself, and because of this feels that he has great value. For good or evil, we are a single people: the more we become conscious of this, the less difficult and long will be humanity’s progress toward justice and peace.

The Mirror Maker is a magnificent read in its totality. From Kafka to chemistry, it brims with Levi’s cheerful curiosity about the world and his staunch solidarity with the human experience across the entire spectrum from the macabre to the mirthful. “In my writing,” Levi once reflected, “I have always strived to pass from the darkness into the light,” and in this uncommonly wonderful collection he takes us along for the luminous passage.

Complement this particular portion with Simone Weil on science and our spiritual values, physicist Sean Carroll on the existential value of poetic naturalism, and the little-known story of the remarkable women who powered space exploration.

The Day the Door to the Universe Opened

Posted November 20, 2017 (theshiftnetwork.com)

By Jean Houston

My father, Jack Houston, an agnostic Baptist and a descendent of Sam Houston of Texas, wanted to marry my mother, Maria Annuciata Serafina, a Catholic born in Siracusa, Sicily. So dad had to go to religious instruction school, taught by a young priest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. He and the priest traded jokes instead of theology, and finally the priest said, “Oh, Jack, you’re just a natural born pagan. Here, I’m going to give you a learner’s permit so you can become a Catholic. But if any children come along, you have to bring them up Catholic and send them to Catholic school.” My father said, “Oh, yeah, sure, sure, I just want to get married.”

Well, I in due course came along. The year that I was five, my father, a comedy writer, was thrown off the Bob Hope show for what was referred to as “an excess of high spirits,” meaning he probably played some practical joke on Hope, and he was sent away for a year or so. With my father out of work, we soon found ourselves living with my mother’s parents in the Sicilian section of Brooklyn—or Brookalina, as my grandmother referred to it.

Since my father had promised to send me to a Catholic school, I went to St. Ephraim’s in Brooklyn. Everything was fine except that my father would “gag up” my catechism and give me the most interesting questions to ask the poor little nun in the morning. Like, “Sister Theresa, I counted my ribs and I counted Joey Mangiabella’s ribs, and we’ve got the same number of ribs. And I wonder, if God created Eve out of Adam’s ribs, how come we all have the same number of ribs?” Before the startled nun could respond, I added, “I’ll prove it! One, two, three, go!” And, right on cue, thirty little children lifted their undershirts.

Then there were the Jesus questions. “Sister Theresa, how do you know that Jesus wasn’t walking on rocks below the surface when he seemed to be walking on water?” And, “Sister Theresa, when Jesus rose, was that because God filled him full of helium?” Then finally, one day, the great question, the one that is in the mind of every little Catholic child at one time or another. This was such a great question, I checked it out beforehand with Denise Canzineri, who said, “Yeah, I’ve been wondering about that,” and Joey Mangiabella, who said, “Yeah, you’ve gotta ask that.”

Well, the mother superior was in the room that day. I raised my hand and Sister Theresa, who by the way lisped a great deal, said, “Yesh?” I said, “Sister Theresa”— I looked around and everyone was encouraging me—“did Jesus ever have to go to the bathroom?” Well, that did it. The mother superior went flying out of the room. And Sister Theresa, in this huge torrent of rage, leaped up and yelled in her lisping fashion, “Blashphemy, Blashphemy! Sacrilish and blashphemy!” She strode over to her desk, pulled out a sheet of oak peg, tacked it up on the wall, and in India ink, wrote in big letters, JEAN HOUSTON’S YEARS IN PURGATORY. From then on, every time I asked a question I shouldn’t have, I’d hear, “Blashphemy, blashphemy!” and she’d mark a big X on the board. Each X equaled one hundred thousand years. At the end of first grade, when I turned six, she added it all up: three hundred million years in Purgatory.

I went home sobbing. There was my father, typing away on his jokes. He said, “What’s the matter, kiddo?” I said, “Daddy, I have to go to Purgatory for three hundred million years and it’s all your fault.” And he began to howl with laughter. He picked me up, put me on his shoulder, made the sound of a choo-choo train with his feet, and went, “Purgatory, Purgatory, Purgatory, Purgatory, toot, toot! Make way for the Purgatory Special!” He ran downstairs, out into the street, and past our Sicilian neighbors, shouting, “Purgatory, Purgatory, Purgatory, Purgatory, toot, toot!” The neighbors threw open their windows, called out, “Eh, there goes that Crazy Jack,” and yelled out some choice words in Sicilian.

I asked, “Where are we going, Daddy?” He said, ‘To the movies, kiddo. You think you have problems? Ha! Wait till you see what they did to a real saint, wait till you see how they hogtied poor old Bernadette.” So we continued on to the Fortway Theater in Brooklyn, where The Song of Bernadette was playing. We sat down next to an old lady who had a chest full of holy medals. The picture began, and every time Jennifer Jones as Bernadette showed up, the lady next to us would cross herself and sigh in Sicilian, “Oh, what a beautiful saint!”

When the Virgin Mary shows up in a vision—one of the great spiritual scenes in the motion picture—the poor old lady next to me keeps crossing herself and exclaiming in Sicilian. Suddenly, a horrible, mule-like whinnying laugh begins to fill the theater. It goes on and on. And it’s coming from my father, who’s in complete hysterics. “Daddy, shhh, this is the holy part,” I said. He’s hysterical, he can barely talk to me, and people are turning around and making evil Sicilian gestures at him. The lady next to us is muttering, “Diablo, diablo!”

I shushed him again, and he said, through his guffaws, “You know who that is up there on the screen playing the Virgin Mary? Linda. We met her last year at that party in Beverly Hills. Linda, Linda Darnell. Hot dog, I told her she’d go far!” He found the incongruity between her Hollywood life and the role she was playing absolutely hilarious. He couldn’t stop laughing, so I pleaded, “Daddy, go to the bathroom, get out of here.” He went stumbling up the aisle, still in hysterics. When he came back, he was pretty well-behaved, except for a few occasional snorts.

Going home from the theater, I was heady with purpose. As soon as we got home, I started walking purposefully toward the front door, and my father said, “Hey, kiddo, are you mad at me?” “Yes,” I said. He asked, “Well, where are you going?” I said, “Daddy, I don’t want to tell you where I’m going because you’ll laugh at me.” “No, no, I promise,” he said. “Oh, yes, Daddy, you will, you can’t help yourself,” I said. “No, no, I promise,” he said again. “Where are you going?” With great pride, I said, “I’m going to see the Virgin Mary.” “You are?” he said. “Hey, that’s a great idea, I’ll go with you!” He grabbed me by the hand, and began to skip down the street with me, singing a horrible song, which I will never forget — ”We’re off to see the Virgin, the wonderful Virgin of Lourdes! We’ll join the hordes and hordes and hordes, the hordes to see the wonderful Virgin of Lourdes!” Appalled, I told him, “Daddy, go away, and don’t you follow me! This is the most important thing I have ever done in my entire life.”

I ran back home, and up to the second floor, where we had a guest room with a very deep closet. There were no clothes in the closet because Chickie, my dog, had staked it out as a sort of dog nursery, and she was lying there nursing her nine puppies. I moved the puppies out into the room and said, “Chickie, you can’t be here. I’m sorry, but I don’t want the Virgin Mary to step on you.” I got on my knees, crossed myself, and I looked at the walls, thinking, “Boy, this looks just like a grotto.” And I began to pray: “Virgin Mary, please, please, please show up in the closet, just like you did before Bernadette in Lourdes. If you do, I’ll give up candy for a week. No, two weeks, okay? Now I’m going to close my eyes and I’ll count to ten. And when I open them, you be there, okay? Okay.”

I closed my eyes, counted to ten, and opened them. No Virgin Mary. Instead, Chickie was bringing one of her puppies back into the “grotto.” I crossed myself again, and said, “Virgin Mary, this time I’ll give up my favorite food — chicken with lemon and garlic sauce and stuffed artichokes — and I’m going to count to twenty-nine, and you be there, okay? Okay.” I closed my eyes, counted to twenty-nine, opened my eyes, no Virgin Mary — but Chickie had brought two more pups back into the closet.

I began to count higher and higher numbers. And I gave up everything. I mean, I gave up all sugar, I gave up all fats, I gave up everything except broccoli, which I hated. Finally, I said, “Virgin Mary, maybe you just don’t know where I live. It’s 1404 Avenue O, and Denise Canzinarri is jumping rope downstairs. I think you’ve got to cross the Brooklyn Bridge and go left. And I so much want to see you and I don’t know what else to give up. Please, please come. This time, I’ll count to 167, and you be there, okay? Okay.” I closed my eyes and counted very slowly to 167, actually seeing her in my mind’s eye, flapping across the Brooklyn Bridge, and turning left toward my house.

I opened my eyes, certain she’d be there. No Virgin Mary. But there was Chickie contentedly licking all nine of her puppies. Giving up, I left the closet and walked over to the bay window. I just sat there, totally empty, in a dream-like state. I looked down, and saw my grandfather, Prospero Todaro, bending over trying to light the scrub pot by the fig tree in our front yard. I looked up, and saw a plane flying across the sky.

And then, it happened. I must have, in my innocence, unwittingly tapped into the appropriate spiritual doorway, for suddenly the key turned and the door to the universe opened. Now, it wasn’t dramatic in any visual or auditory way. I didn’t see or hear anything differently. All I can say is that suddenly everything opened up and the whole world moved into meaning. Literally, all of reality was there and it was all very good and interrelated and moving together — the fig tree in the yard, Chickie and her pups, the plane in the sky, the sky itself, my little Mary Jane shoes, my chewed-up red pencil, my grandfather’s huge stomach, the little boy fishing in the lake who waved to me during a train ride across Kansas, the chipped paint on the ceiling, the silky ears of corn in a Texas cornfield, and all the music that ever was — all were in a state of resonance and ecstatic kinship. And I knew absolutely that I was an important part of this process. In the midst of this epiphany, I heard my father enter the house downstairs, laughing. Immediately, the entire universe joined in and began laughing — field mice tittered, and so did angels and rainbows — everything was laughing together in an extraordinary spiral of joy.

Years later, when I read The Divine Comedy, I remember Dante’s description of his great vision in paradise: “d’el riso del universo” — the joy that spins the universe. That’s what it was like, this incredible laughing, this joyous unity, this great connectivity of everything with everything else, this universal fellowship, and this perfect, glorious feeling of love. It was a knowledge of the way everything worked— through love and joy and the utter union of everything with All That Is.

This experience has remained with me all my life. It was so very deep that it’s influenced everything I’ve tried to do and everything I’ve tried to be. It was alive through childhood and adolescence, this state of passion. I may have almost lost it for a while because I got a little bit over-educated. But whenever I lose touch with it, it always comes back. It was the single most luminous, most important experience of my life.

Jean Houston, PhD, a scholar, philosopher and researcher in Human Capacities, is one of the foremost visionary thinkers and doers of our time. Long regarded as one of the principal founders of the Human Potential Movement, she is noted for her ability to combine a deep knowledge of history, culture, new science, spirituality, and human development into her teachings. She is known for her inter-disciplinary perspective delivered in inspirational and humorous keynote addresses.

Since 2003, Jean has been working with the United Nations Development Program, training leaders in human and cultural development as well as in Social Artistry, a community-leadership training program she developed. Together with other international agencies and companies, she has worked in over 100 countries over the last 45 years.

A prolific author, her 26 books include Jump TimeA Passion for the PossibleThe Search for the BelovedThe Possible Human, and A Mythic Life.

Click here to visit Jean’s website.

This story appears in Phil Bolsta’s book, Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything. To order your copy, click here.

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