The Mysteries of Birth

By Sally Dougherty

Birth is a starting point, an official beginning, but many of its mysteries lie in what comes before. For birth is the culmination of a process of conception and gestation that often is not apparent to us. It’s the result of preparation and growth, the effect of causes that generally remain hidden.

Birth often marks a transformation, whether of a seed to a plant, a caterpillar to a butterfly, or an aquatic fetus to an air-breathing infant. The mechanics of how something comes into being from something else is the subject of intense investigation, and scientists have learned a great deal. Anyone can access photos and videos of once unseen processes – a dividing cell, a baby developing in the womb, nebulas where stars are forming -- and learn about the underlying biology, chemistry, or physics, but there are still countless mysteries in these fields awaiting understanding. Moreover, such scientific information doesn’t tell us “why” these processes take place, or give them significance. For these human questions we must still turn to philosophy, religion, the arts, and self-reflection.

Being “born again” in the religious sense may mean many things. It can denote merely going through a prescribed ritual or experiencing a rush of spiritual emotionality, but it can also be the expression of deep tides within one’s being, the result of a period of inner gestation. Some people project this experience outward, and speak of encountering a divine being or teacher. Others project it inward, and speak of the experience in terms of an inner divinity, higher self, or atman. I believe all these ways of looking at inner spiritual birth or transformation say more about our psyches than about the experience itself. Still, how we understand our experiences has important consequences for us and others. Our viewpoint and explanation may be constructive or destructive, limiting or liberating, exclusive or inclusive. The smallness of human nature, whether in individuals or institutions, all too often co-ops spiritual experience for grandiose, self-centered, or manipulative purposes. It can be hard to keep one’s balance or sense of perspective.

In one sense, each of us is constantly giving birth to ourself as we change from moment to moment, continually expressing our potentials more fully. Socrates spoke of himself as a “midwife” of the soul, aiding in bringing the soul to birth in a person’s life. To do this, he prodded people to become more fully aware through self-examination and analysis, so that they could go through life consciously rather than by mere habit or unscrutinized conventional thoughts and acts. We can look on daily life as being a similar kind of midwife. Situations we face, people we deal with, our thoughts, feelings, and reactions present opportunities to expand our vision and transform our being, however modestly. Sometimes we re-make ourselves almost unthinkingly, by osmosis from what surrounds us. But such development can also be intensely creative.

Birth deals with life, with change, with unknown sources and future developments; therefore I believe it will always hold many mysteries to explore. Talk delivered January 2009

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