Excellence Reporter: Rosalyn, what is the meaning of life?
Rosalyn W. Berne: In my early childhood I encountered the spirits of people who were deceased. This taught me that there is something really special about being alive; that human life on Earth is precious, as it gives our souls an opportunity to have learning experiences, such that we might eventually remember who we truly are. Such experiences also deepened my sense of mystery about life, such that I’m not entirely sure I know what life is, let alone its meaning. In that context, I offer a few reflections on the clearest meanings I have come to understand:
First, that the breath of life is something we share with every other breathing being, which is one means by which all of life is connected. I recall the time my husband and I visited Papallacta; a small town in Ecuador located at 10,600 feet in the Andes. I had the horrifying sensation of not getting enough oxygen from the air, until I noticed some birds moving in a grove of trees. I was calmed in realizing that while trees do use oxygen, they release more than they take in. And those birds were breathing. I got the sense that the trees, the birds, and I were all breathing, together. My understanding of breathing expanded even further when I visited Arenal volcano in Costa Rica and heard the rhythmic sound of gases expelled from its active cone. I was stirred to tears, feeling that volcano was “breathing,” with me, and that Earth itself is alive.
Second, that human life is a beating heart. Right after her birth, I held my daughter Zoe in my arms as she struggled for breath, her heart beating, but faintly. She lived only three days after that, and with her dying I began to glean that being alive gives us the capacity to learn what it is to love. Through the suffering, which is inevitable with living, the meaning of my own life has been to learn what it is to love, but also that this awareness is fleeting.
Deeper than the breath and the heartbeat that sustain our lives, is the indwelling spirit. On any given day, especially if the air is fresh, the sky is clear, the breeze is balmy, and my loved ones are doing well, I sense the pure joy of being alive in this body-self. But when my attention is on the pain and anguish that life can bring, I may feel at a loss for why I, or any of us, is here on this earth. In those times, if I can shift into inner silence, sensing into and beyond my flowing breath and beating heart, I can find the stillness that reminds me that what I AM, is love. My daily challenge (and perhaps the meaning of my own life) is to remember that!
~Rosalyn W. Berne, Ph.D. is an associate professor at the University of Virginia, where she explores the intersecting realms between emerging technologies, science, fiction and myth, and between the human and non-human worlds. Her writing and teaching focus on engineering and society, and ethics in technological development. Beyond her academic life, she has authored books in the body/mind/spirit genre, which explore spiritual growth arising from encounters with animals and other beings. She and her husband live on a small farm in central Virginia.
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