December 11, 2016
It is a beautiful overcast early Winter morning and the view from our kitchen out over the hills surrounding Athens is so comforting. I love the feeling of being nested into this community and this energetic space of river, hills, and sky facing the rising sun (hidden behind the gray cloud cover). As Anna and I were pouring our first cups of coffee at the breakfast table I felt tempted to open my laptop and see if we had the winning numbers for last night’s Powerball drawing. (I learned a bit later that we did not.) But at the same time I didn’t want to open the laptop. Anna asked why not and I said, “Because opening the laptop opens up a portal that tears a hole into the fabric of your existence.”
Once I said it this way, I realized how true this is. What I was most enjoying at this point in our morning together was the sense of unity in space and place. The atmosphere created by our windows and the hidden morning sun and the breakfast table in the window and the view out over the deck was one of completeness, of comfort, of home. I knew that once I opened the laptop, the screen would suddenly dominate the entire scene, drawing all of our contiguous homey space into its own spatial dimension out into the virtual environs beyond the screen itself. The screen light would fill this corner of the kitchen and then cause our own space and atmosphere to flow discreetly yet surely into the world stretching out into the screen world. And I was quite happy in this world right-here-right-now.
The same is even more true of televisions in that once they are hooked up to television cables (tele-vision, vision teleported elsewhere), you are then drawn into a world mediated by someone or something else, some corporate entity whose only purpose of being is to draw you in in such a way as to make you surrender your own boundaries of place and self as you enter the videated universe of television programming and commercial advertisements. The sounds completely take over your atmosphere and, by extension, your body. The curious thing about what Joni Mitchell called the “blue TV screen light” back in the black and white days of videated experience up to the present moment in “full color experience” (my mother couldn’t wait to get a color TV in 1970 so that she could see the true color of Johnny Carson’s ties) is that while the initial experience of the emanating TV glow and sound is that of an intrusion into your familiar space, a reverse circuit of flow is actually established by means of which our world, our environment—having been initially penetrated, then captured—is now drawn in reverse motion into the world of the screen. Our entire fabric of experience passes through this miniature everyday portal into the beyond of our local atmosphere.
My point is not that this morning I could not appreciate the portal draw of the screen and the alternate universe lying on the other side of the glass, but that I did not yet want to let go of my hold on experience on this side of the screen—not yet. Instead I wanted to spend more time enjoying the view outside our kitchen morning windows beneath the comforting early winter clouds out over Bong Hill and Witches Hill and beyond to the mountains of West Virginia, out there where the sun rises and starts each day for us.
And then I had a realization: the sky itself is our original portal. The sky is our original laptop screen that during the day encloses us in the variety of cloudy and sunny skies from morning to night, only then to open out onto a universe of stars and planets in the night sky. Those sky orbs had been there all day too, of course, but it is only on clear nights that we see the sky open out onto the galaxies beyond and allow for a diurnal rhythm of daytime enclosure and nighttime expanse. Thus the sky serves as our original portal, our experience of passage from one world of experience into another.
Henry Corbin explores this inside-outside phenomenon in his exploration of a tale by the Sufi saint Suhrawardi: “As is suggested, at the end of Sohravardī’s tale, by the symbol of the drop of balm exposed in the hollow of the hand to the sun, it is a matter of entering, passing into the interior and, in passing into the interior, of finding oneself, paradoxically, outside, or, in the language of our authors, ‘on the convex surface’ of the Ninth Sphere—in other words, ‘beyond the mountain of Qāf’” (Swedenborg 6).
Pools of water obviously also played this role in the days before computer screens. They continue to offer this experience of being situated between varying universes. At one moment the surface of the water reflects the sky and clouds and sun and trees and projects them inward as though into a subaqueous world on the other side of the water’s surface. Then with a shift of light and perspective we see below the surface to the stones and fish and water weeds “actually” existing below the water’s surface. And when we slip down under with a diving mask, we then see another layer of existence below the surface and, looking upward from down under, see the water’s surface now above us as the boundary between this watery world and our usual world up there on land. It is not so difficult to see how people in the olden days caught on to this portal phenomenon provided by water and began the practices of scrying and other divinatory explorations of alternate realities.
After a while, humans experimented with these above-and-below and inside-outside positionings and eventually created windows. (Bill Gates came along later.) And now we inhabit enclosures that stage this dynamic of alternate spaces in our very habitations. Cut a new window into a wall or a skylight into a ceiling and a new universe is made possible at once. We then see how “ceiling” contains the heavens that name it and reminds us of the world beyond our denser enclosures.
So in the end, what I have chosen this morning is to sit here in the comforting enclosure and expanse that my little kitchen corner affords me of this inside-outside, here-and-beyond portal experience (“portal” also refers to ordinary doors, after all) before opening up the laptop and watching as its screen goes from an unlit opaque object within this space to a luminescent portal onto other spaces.
The larger point dawning on me in this morning light is that the experience of portals, of transporting our awareness from one space and time to another, is not so occult as we might imagine. The sky is the original portal, as are pools of water and cave entrances and rivers flowing out of sight. Just imagine what other universes these experiences are preparing us for.