Our Own Life and the Life of the Universe Are One

In many posts on this blog, I have been exploring the concept of God. I hope to help us to move past old rigid images of the big man in the sky with a beard and white robe, the judge, the king, these all too human inventions that people have created in the quest for understanding, or often, in the quest for power.

The mystics of almost every tradition tell us that our images cannot come close to what divinity might be all about. But the mystics also speak to us of something, or no-thing, that is not a being, but more like a process, more like an energy that permeates all beings, an energy of which we are a part, and of which we can come to greater awareness.

“We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh invites people to do an exercise, to begin to grasp with our minds the symphony of the larger whole. He invites us to think about an object—it could be any object. He talked about a table, but I like to reflect on a piece of bread. Find a piece of bread and hold it in your hand. Then, let yourself imagine what has conspired in order for this bread to be here in your hand.  

First of all, think of the wheat. In order for it to grow, it needed topsoil, with its fungal and bacterial components, its minerals and small worms. It needed the decomposition of the plants of many years, decades, and even centuries to create this fertile soil. You can continue to let yourself follow in this line of imagination, or if you want to follow my imaginings, go to this link to an earlier post.

One could keep talking all day to follow all the threads of connection linked to just one piece of bread. Paraphrasing what Thich Nhat Hanh would say:

If you grasp the bread’s reality then you see that in the bread itself are present all those things which we normally think of as the non-bread world. If you took away any of those non-bread elements and returned them to their sources…[the honey to the bees, the metal to the mines, or the farmers to their parents], the bread would no longer exist. A person who looks at the bread and can see the universe, is a person who can see the way.

As long as we think of God as “up there” somewhere, like a father or a king or some other kind of person, we imagine that we are separate from God, we imagine that we can think or not think about, believe or not believe in, pray or not pray to that God. But in a spirituality of connection, the gaze shifts to understand that there are no truly separate things, that there is no separate self or separate God—that our “own life and the life of the universe are one.” Maple in Spring MJ DSC03502

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Dancing Out of Time

Fireworks

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Individual consciousness is simultaneously familiar and mysterious. Rene DesCartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” Jill Bolte Taylor was a brain scientist who had a debilitating stroke at the age of thirty-seven. A blood vessel burst in the left side of her brain. Because of her training, she was able to observe her own mind deteriorate as she lost the capacity to think, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life.

But there was a surprise in this—as her left brain shut down, her right brain took over, and she experienced a different form of consciousness—an all-encompassing sense of bliss, a sense of timeless unity with the universe. Years later, after she recovered the skills of the left brain, she wrote the book, My Stroke of Insight, to describe her journey and what she learned. She said:

To the right mind, no time exists other than the present moment, and each moment is vibrant with sensation. Life or death occurs in the present moment. The experience of joy happens in the present moment. Our perception and experience of connection with something that is greater than ourselves occurs in the present moment. To our right mind, the moment of now is timeless and abundant.

During her stroke, Taylor lost the sense of herself as a separate being, she lost the memories that identified her self to her self, yet she gained an experience of herself as the whole universe—there were no boundaries that separated her from everything else. What she describes resonates with the Buddhist understanding of enlightenment, or Nirvana, a shift of consciousness from experiencing time, to experiencing “all is now,” from experiencing space, to experiencing “all is one.”

When I was growing up, eternity was described as what happened to us after we died. But Taylor speaks of eternity as something that can be experienced right now within our own minds. The experience of total peace and total connection is available at any moment. She writes:

The first thing I do to experience my inner peace is to remember that I am part of a greater structure, an eternal flow of energy and molecules from which I cannot be separated. Knowing that I am a part of the cosmic flow makes me feel innately safe and experience my life as heaven on earth. How can I feel vulnerable when I cannot be separated from the greater whole? My left mind thinks of me as a fragile individual capable of losing my life. My right mind realizes that the essence of my being has eternal life.

Since Taylor is a scientist, she brings a different perspective to what is usually perceived as the mystical. She can help our left brain understand and make sense out of the right brain. She can help us to rationally comprehend what the mystics speak of when they talk of being one with the universe, or finding eternity in the present moment. And so perhaps we must reshape our understanding of the spiritual journey. It may be not so much a journey through time, as a journey out of time, from one form of consciousness to another.

Quotes from Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, p. 30 &160.

Face to Face

Clouds DSC04297When I was a devoted Catholic child, I learned about the saints who had visions of angels or the Blessed Mother Mary or even Jesus himself. There were the children in Fatima, and Bernadette of Lourdes, and Margaret Mary Alacoque, and Joan of Arc. I wanted to have a vision, too. I prayed for Jesus or Mary to come and show themselves to me and speak to me directly. I imagined spirituality should include a holy person coming down from the sky and standing in front of me. It never quite happened that way. Why not, I wondered? Why tell us these stories if we could not have those experiences?

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most famous of the 19th century intellectuals who became known as the transcendentalists, wrote something similar in 1849:

The foregoing generation beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?”

A spiritual journey is our search for our own “original relation to the universe.” A spiritual journey is our search for our own face to face, personal experience of “God and nature,” whatever those might turn out to be. A spiritual journey brings us to our own experience of the larger reality of which we are a part, our awareness of connection to the earth, to each other, and to the Mystery within and between all life.

When I was growing up, it seemed that only a few special people might have such a personal experience of that Mystery. But now I believe that I was confused about what I was looking for. Let me use an analogy here. I was looking for something like a trip to a great auditorium to see “The Mystery” in concert; but the Mystery really emerges more like the sound of a tune in one’s own imagination.

Quote from the Introduction to Nature; Addresses and Lectures (1849).

Mystics & Heretics

An emphasis on spirituality as experience is not really new. It can also be found among those who were called mystics in all the great religious traditions. They were sometimes called heretics because they didn’t worry too much about dogma. We don’t really have the language to adequately describe spiritual experience. When we use words like God or Goddess, we are just grasping at straws, using words and images to try to convey what cannot be defined.

Fire DSC04621The poet Rumi, a Sufi mystic in the tradition of Islam, said that language doesn’t matter, the words we use don’t matter. “The love-religion has no code or doctrine.” Spirituality is not about what we believe, but what we feel. What matters is seeing, touching, knowing, loving. What matters is the burning of our hearts. He says we must become friends with our burning.

[Quotes from The Essential Rumi, trans. by Coleman Barks]