“The satisfaction derived from solving a problem with an experiment was a very heady experience, almost addicting. Looking back, I realize that nurturing curiosity and the instinct to seek solutions are perhaps the most important contributions education can make. With time, many of the facts I learned were forgotten but I never lost the excitement of discovery..”
― Paul Berg, PhD, Biochemist & recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1980
What is life? What is it to be alive? If life is a mystery, can science explain it? Can spirituality?
After a flurry of fall activity, like so many leaves, things have settled in my life, leaving time to think, plan and reflect. And today I’m thinking about my 10th grade biology teacher, Bill Woodside. My sister texted me this morning to let me know that he passed on December 1st. I had been thinking about writing him last month and the news resonated through my body. Had I se
nsed that he was preparing to die? Am I that connected or was it a coincidence? I wonder what he would say about psychic knowledge? Was he a spiritual man? I don’t know. I know that he was a great lover of the outdoors, and a teller of tall tales but there’s so much I don’t know about Mr. Woodside.
What I do know is that his class changed my life. Or maybe I should say that the Divine used his course to inspire me and set me on my life’s path? We Americans tend to think that we are in charge of our lives, creating our future and calling the shots. But the older I get the more I am sensitive to the unseen forces that have shown up, over and over again, with an insight, a suggestion, or some needed guidance.
High school was a difficult time for me. Among my 10th grade classes, Mr. Woodside’s biology class was a favorite. Tall, lanky and eccentric as hell, Mr. Woodside loved to tell stories including one about a supposed ancestor who had been on the Hindenburg, and one involving a dead, bloated cow carcass that exploded when his hunting partner poked at it, covering them with cow guts. I remember him doing a demo of a dissection while sipping on his coffee, deeply savoring both, as if embalmed cat dissection went with coffee like a fine pinot noir might pair with a ribeye. So disgusting, and he seemed to love grossing us out! Looking back, I feel that he modeled a way to be that resonated with me. He gave me permission to own my own idiosyncrasies. When I started teaching biology to college students, years later, I remembered his example.
While Woodside’s theatrics make good stories, biology class wasn’t all stories and theatre. The moment that really changed my life happened while he was teaching. It was something about his description of the lock and key model of enzyme catalysis, complete with a roughly drawn illustration, through which the Divine seemed to reach out and grab my attention. Of all the things I learned during high school, this moment stands out as a kind of peak experience. Everything became still. An inner sense came alive, telling me to pay
attention. I felt that Mr. Woodside was disclosing to us an esoteric secret of the universe: how enzymes perform chemical transformations. This, I thought, must be “life” at its simplest level. I did a little math. If there are 100,000 enzymes in a human, knowing how they all work at this level would surely disclose the secret of life at the most profound level.
Seven years later, as I was applying to doctoral programs in biochemistry, I knew that the inspiration behind my decision traced back to that moment in biology class. My belief that studying enzymes would disclose the secrets of life motivated me to choose an enzymology lab, committed to the study of enzymes and how they work, for my doctoral research.
Looking back three decades later, it seems obvious to me that scientific research could only get me so far in my quest to understand life. What started as a biological search for truth suddenly turned into a spiritual exploration in 1987 when I had the first of many awakening experiences. It’s interesting that I didn’t study religion, mysticism or philosophy in college, but the truth is that I was not at all interested in them. I did not believe they could help me answer my question. I was interested in biology, and later biochemistry, and committed to my search for truth via biochemical research. It would take a next “act of God,” an awakening I experienced in 1987, to make me suddenly interested in spirituality and mysticism.
It seems to me that my life’s motivation has functioned like a 3-stage rocket. Scientific curiosity, the first stage, got me launched and well on my way. And when my energy for biochemical exploration started to wane, a second stage suddenly ignited, fueled by spiritual experience, a glimpse of oneness. This second stage engine motivated me to take up a whole new series of challenges and prepared me for new insights and opportunities. I became an explorer of the spiritual territory known variously as the Divine, God, or Buddha Nature. The experiments I once performed using test tubes, I now performed within my own subjective awareness. My search had turned inward, from objective truth to the subjective.
These days, after decades of spiritual exploration, I seem to have arrived at a third phase in which I am freer from Earth’s gravity and enjoying a sense of weightlessness and awe at the spectacle of life. It’s quite a view and so very different than where I was back in high school.
So thank you, Mr. Woodside, for setting me on my way. Your class deeply inspired me and launched into a career as a research biochemist. I am profoundly grateful to you for your teaching and for being a vehicle through which the Divine could reach me and light my curiosity. It’s been the ride of a lifetime! I imagine you know on your final journey, or at least your next one. May the love of all your students support you as you venture on! May all our lives be graced with teachers like you, through whom the Divine can do its magic.
PS. Was there a special moment in your life when your life’s path suddenly became clear to you? If so, did it come through a teacher? A friend? I’d love to hear your stories. To reach me, you can simply “reply” to this email or write me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Here’s to our ongoing awakening!