Friday, July 30, 2021

The Art of Living Lightly


In his closely observed life, Joseph of Copertino proved himself a mystic known for his frequent ecstasies and phenomena of levitation. The friar appears as a giant counter-example to the one-dimensional metaphysics of physicalism.


Levitation is more than a fantastic phenomenon—it’s also a symbol of transcendence.  But there are less literal ways of looking at the phenomenon, ways that ordinary folks like us can relate to, threads of wisdom from Joseph’s otherworldly career we can weave into the mix of every day life mundane life.


Was Joseph perhaps the herald of a new travel technology, des­tined to displace the car, the boat, the airplane? I think that misses the mark?


Instead of technology, let’s think of etymology: take the Latin word, levare, “to make light,” the root of two words, levi­tation and levity. Notice there’s a less literal sense of “making light,” captured by the word levity. Here one “makes light” of all sorts of things; but you do it figura­tively and mentally.


So, is there a wisdom of levity that corresponds to the showmanship of levitation? Could levity alter the way we experience the world? Are all life’s problems as grave, heavy, and oppressive as they often appear to be? Or could we learn to take our pains and pleasures, our failures and successes, a bit more lightly?


“Look upon the world as you would upon a bubble”, said the Buddha.  “Look upon it as a mirage.” Oppressed by the gravity of existence, an attitude that “makes light” of things  might well diminish the weight of suffering. Are there ways of “making light” the overbearing heaviness of being? Suppose we applied “making light” to our diet: that is, how we eat, drink, and consume what we need from Mother Nature. Making light would benefit our health: our bodies, the economy, the environment. Suppose that by eating and drinking less, we literally got lighter—lost weight. We could count that as a kind of levitation!  It would make our life-style lighter.


As far as living levity, what about the benefits of making light of our possessions? We don’t have to copy Joseph and fly into a panic like the saint did when a well-meaning woman offered him a new set of underwear.  No sugges­tion here that we don hairshirts and become ascetics, but that we cultivate an attitude of non-clinging toward what we think are our possessions. Ownership, after all, is an illusion; even our bodies are on loan from Mother Nature.


Come to think of it, levity--making light of things--has a sub­versive side. What if whole populations lightened up on their over-advertised needs and broke the commandments of their capitalist overlords? In making light of our appetites, we  would change our habits of consumption. If we could do that en masse and come together with the focus on the real needs of humanity, we could transform life on earth.   


Levity can be a versatile ally in the war with the heavies of the great world.  Call this enlightenment, if you like--holding one’s beliefs, assumptions, and prejudices lightly.Living lightly, thinking lightly, taking things lightly all serve to lighten perception and  consciousness itself. And the point? Well, shedding overweight beliefs and opinions, brushing aside the rabble of rowdy thoughts, we might gradually dismantle our cognitive filters and clean out the emotional deadweights.  The world would light up for us in surprising and perhaps delightful ways.


I laughed out loud reading for the first time about the friar’s zany flights.   Why laugh at the image of Joseph flying backwards? It seemed to cause a kind of spasm, a feeling of release, and the sound of my laughter was the sound of my worldview exploding.









Miguel said...

Michael, we not only get lighter when we lose weight, but those of us with ‘a few extra pounds’ also feel lighter, especially when we shed a significant amount. Here is another way in which I have started to feel ‘lighter’. As I approach retirement, I have begun to lighten up the load with respect to my professional life: Cleaning my office by getting rid of old data files, papers, textbooks, etc., that one accumulates over the years. I have also learned to become lighter by letting go of the need to maintain a certain high level of scholarly activity in order to remain ‘competitive’. So what if this year I skip that annual conference that I have been attending consecutively for over 30 years? Frankly, all of this unburdening feels great and I love it! I just need to work on becoming a little lighter in other areas of life. Now, about those 'few 'extra pounds' .... :)

Michael Grosso said...

There are all sorts of ways to lighten up, Miguel. That's why I call it an art. It all adds up as you move on--or maybe that's the wrong metaphor--it all gets subtracted. Personally, the more fruitful challenge is to lighten the mind up. In the end, the body will follow along.

nick herbert said...

On this topic of shedding possessions, one of my favorite comments (attributed to unidentified zen monk):At lastI have forgotten the name of that purple flower!

Michael Grosso said...

That, Nick, has to be the deepest way to shed possessions--forget they ever existed! It's one thing to get rid of something physical. It's another to get it out of your mind. The ultimate diet is the one we practice with our minds.

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