Religion and Spirit

The Seven UUA Principles: Comments

After facilitating a discussion of the book With Purpose and Principles edited by Edward Frost for a book group and facilitating a series of discussions with the congregants at MLUUC, I have a few general thoughts that I want to share that I have taken from the above experiences.

Broadly speaking, it seems to me that problems in promoting and practicing many of the principles ultimately depends on judgment. Not judgment of the principles but judgment of self and others. Being non-judgmental of oneself and of others makes possible, for example, such things as recognition of inherent worth, compassion and acceptance, among other qualities. Non-judgment also is important for being able to encourage spiritual growth in self and others and a search for Truth and meaning in self and supporting the same in others. Being non-judgmental makes possible an act of identification, which is critical for being able to identify with the other and to feel a sense of unity with him or her.

Some recent research on the effectiveness of psychotherapy and counseling examined the problem of failure of these efforts to help some clients. What the study revealed was that many people who failed to benefit had a common self-judgment. The self-judgment evident in many such participants was that they didn’t deserve to get better. Clearly, self-judgment can thwart the efforts even of someone who has sought help with their problems. Likewise, judgment of others can thwart efforts that you make to be accepting of, respectful of, compassionate toward or otherwise fully open and supportive of others. While facilitating discussions of the seven principles, I have heard people say or imply that they found this to be difficult or impossible with some people.

Further, some of the other principles promote values like democratic processes, world community and the interdependent web of existence. Acting on these and other similar values also cause some people difficulties. I would suggest that problems acting from these values are also related to judgment. To be non-judgmental in these instances requires feeling a sense of unity with the people voting, with people unknown to you and living in other cultures and about efforts to preserve the interdependent web of existence.

The ability to be non-judgmental largely comes down to one’s perspective. Western culture, in particular, tends to hold to perspectives that interfere with being non-judgmental. One such perspective is materialism. Adherents to a materialist perspective largely accept the scientific materialist hypothesis that the universe came into existence through an inexplicable cosmic accident (the so-called Big Bang). Further, the unfolding of that event through time and space progresses through an evolutionary process governed by random events that determine the direction that the unfolding takes. In this view, the universe and any life in it came about through a random process. Being a random process, the outcomes are accidental and imply no purpose, and lacking purpose has no meaning. So it is a purely nihilistic view in which there is no reason to cultivate a non-judgmental perspective. Alternatively, there are traditional religious perspectives held by many people in the West, which are mostly dualistic views that see the world as a moral battle between good and evil, the dammed and the saved. Such a perspective is clearly built upon a foundation of judgment.

Christian Unitarianism held that God is One. I would also suggest that the One God would be all inclusive. If God is all inclusive, then everything that exists is a manifestation of God, which includes every living thing. All is in God, which is not the traditional Christian understanding of God. In other words, panentheism (all-in-God), which should not to be confused with pantheism (all-is-God), to use a religious term or to use more philosophic terms nondualism or monistic idealism.

Further, Christian Universalism held that every living being is, at root and in the eyes of God, divine whether or not they recognize this, are Christians or have even heard of Jesus. If every being is at root divine, then each is a part of God or Source, if you prefer. There is at root no separation between living entities. They all arise from the same Source and return to that Source when they transition from the material world. Think of waves arising from the ocean and collapsing back into the ocean.

I have argued in a critical post on my website (Standing on the Side of Love) that Unitarian Universalism, largely without realizing it, implies a nondual perspective. A perspective in my view that could more easily lead to non-judgment in the practice of the seven principles. I don’t think the UUA considers itself to be promoting such a perspective, and if it does, it hasn’t articulated it very well. The best articulations of a nondual perspective can be found in some Eastern religious philosophies, e.g., Tantra and in philosophical idealism in the West. To anyone interested, I would suggest the writings of Christopher Wallis on Tantra and those of Bernardo Kastrup on idealism. You will also find a number of posts on my website that address nondualism and idealism. You might begin with the brief posts Standing on the Side of Love and Love and Hate in Human Thought.

In both posts, I suggest that “evil” is essentially the face of ignorance. The ignorance is an ignorance about the divine nature of humanity and oneself. In a philosophical system arising from some forms of Eastern thought, the spiritual nature of people is viewed as being manifest along a bipolar dimension that runs from ignorant to enlightened with many points in between. Thus, one can forgive an ignorant person while at the same time rejecting “evil” actions that result from that ignorance. This is possible because at their core they are a manifestation of divinity, God or Source.

The prevalence of ignorance among human beings and the difficulties of overcoming it underlies the concept of reincarnation in some of these philosophical systems. Reincarnation is the method by which the many lifetimes needed to overcome ignorance and achieve enlightenment is accomplished. All people evolve and grow spiritually, but it often isn’t apparent in the course of a single, brief human lifetime. Treating people who engage in “evil” actions, arising from ignorance, with respect, dignity and justice while resisting and preventing their behavior is viewed as more likely to facilitate their spiritual evolution than being vengeful toward them and imposing demeaning and cruel punishments.

There is one caveat on taking a nondual perspective. While conceptually learning about a nondual perspective can be useful, to truly embody it you need to experience it. Trying to understand nondualism purely through the intellect is a bit like trying to imagine what chocolate taste like having never experienced the taste before. It is fine to study nondualism enough to get the basic ideas involved in a nondual perspective. However, you should then spend your time on contemplation and meditation to open yourself to the experience. As the Kriya yoga master Sri Yogananda advised his students, “Read a little and meditate a lot.”

I have been meditating pretty much daily for over a dozen years now and have come to practice what I refer to as gestalt-field meditation as a way of being open to nondual experience. It is a method that I would be happy to teach to anyone interested. I can’t guarantee that this or any other method will definitely get you to an experience of nonduality. You just have to be open to it and be patient. In the meantime, one should go as far a possible with practicing the principles based on a purely conceptual understanding of non-judgment and a nondual perspective.

Infinite Universe

I recall that even as a child the visible universe challenged me. I looked in awe and wonder at the night sky in its immensity. I asked myself what could contain it? To my young mind there was no knowledge of extension beyond sight or of the concept of infinity. But bring forth that knowledge and the impossibility of the universe only expands. I am still in awe and wonder at the very thought of an infinite universe.

If someone asked me what can contain the infinite universe, the only possible answer that comes to mind is consciousness. I learned that as a philosophical system this answer is based in idealism. As a theological system, the answer is based in panentheism. I will try to explain.

To begin, no explication of systems such as these can be had without first offering the root assumption that the narrative is built upon. I lay down as my root or core assumption the assertion that the “infinite” universe arises from primordial consciousness or, perhaps better still, source consciousness. If the universe is “infinite,” then source consciousness must be at least if not more inclusive than the “infinite” universe. To clarify, I use the term “infinite” with quotation marks to indicate my uncertainty about what the word means. It is, I think, beyond the keen of the human mind and certainly beyond mine.

The implication of the above root assumption is that our reality arises within consciousness. I will borrow an analogy, from Bernardo Kastrup, based upon dissociative identity disorder (DID), a.k.a. multiple personality disorder. Hopefully, this analogy will illustrate my impression of an idealist reality. The description will not adhere rigidly to descriptions of clinical DID. That said, imagine that you are a person with (DID). In this condition you may have multiple identities. Each identity is distinguished from the others and each is playing a different role and controlling conscious awareness with a different flavor, at different times and under different circumstances. Now imagine that the person with DID when asleep relaxes the barriers separating the identities from one another, and when s/he dreams, all the identities have a character in the dream.

The context in which the dream unfolds is common to each identity. However, each identity has a different perspective on the content and a different system of beliefs, values and goals, to varying degrees, from the other identities. Thus, each has a personal reality that includes a version of the common content and that has been processed through his/her beliefs, values and goals. Each identity has a dream character that plays out its role in the dream. Each dream character interacts with the common content as do the other dream characters and each dream character is part of the common content. In short, the dream we imagine is much like a fully functioning reality though more constrained in scope.

Now, take the above description and apply it analogously to the everyday reality that you experience. Your reality, like a dream, has common content that is drawn on by everyone. Subgroups, to varying degrees, may draw on specialized content common to the subgroup. The common content has evolved from necessity through the creativity and intention of consciousnesses grappling with need or desire. In other words, content evolves, and the more it is employed, the stronger it becomes. At first, in a manner of speaking, as an experiment, then a habit and finally a virtual addiction, which gives it a strong presence within the common content. It is a form that began as a thought and evolved into something with much greater actuality. It has become deeply embedded in memory and at times this memory is an object of consciousness. As an object of consciousness it becomes subject to manipulations that we often call thinking.

We also perceive thought forms as “real” objects outside of ourselves – think fork, cup, shovel, etc. You perceive many characteristic of a thought form that may include representations that have color, smell, texture, density weight and extension in space. These thought forms comprise your reality. You assume that they exist outside of you, but do they? What do you know of things that exist outside of you? Nothing. You have no experience with anything that exists outside of you because everything you know is confined within your consciousness or, if you prefer, awareness. Others may agree with you about the “external” characteristics of forms, but they share common content with you and are just as confined within their consciousness as you are in yours. Your assumed reality “out there” is completely inaccessible to you. It is just an idea, belief or an assumption. Enter deep sleep or die and the world ceases to exist for you because it is no longer an object of consciousness.

Earlier, I suggested that new thought forms arise through creativity and intention. However, all thought forms reside within source consciousness. We, as characters playing out an evolving narrative within source consciousness, absorb new thoughts from source consciousness. How accessible those thoughts are depends on the degree to which a person can relax the barriers separating one’s embodied consciousness from source consciousness. Relax the barriers and a question posed, with genuine desire and need for an answer will find an answer emerging from source consciousness. This is why answers often come in the form of dreams. That is, our barriers are more relaxed during sleep and dreaming. We call asking such questions and answers to them creativity or insight.

So, whatever one perceives becomes an object of consciousness and cannot be shown to exist anywhere else other than in awareness. Try to specify one thing that you can prove exists outside of your consciousness. If you think about it, you will realize that you can’t use agreement by others as proof because everything they “know” exists within their consciousness. Know also that your “body” is a thought form that exists as an object of your own consciousness, which is an extension of source consciousness. You live in a matrix of thought forms that, upon being perceived by you, can become objects of consciousness. Once you are aware of these forms they may also become memories.

You have no way of knowing the actual nature of a thought form. Your perception of it gives it characteristics consistent with your perspective, but it could exhibit very different characteristics if perceived from a different perspective. You are not an objective entity performing on a stage, independent of you, that you construe as external reality. However, you contribute to the creation of both yourself and the reality in which you perform.

In short, you and your perspective on reality are simply a strand in the carpet of source consciousness. You exist to make experience possible for source consciousness. You are an experience collector for source consciousness gathering experience from a unique perspective. It is through such experience that source consciousness comes to know its own potential and to evolve in ways that maximize that potential. The greater your realization of the nature of your reality and that of others, the greater is the evolution of your consciousness and your contribution to the maximization of source consciousness’ potential.

That is your purpose for being. To the extent that you fulfill that purpose, your life is a meaningful contribution to source consciousness. To the extent that you are ignorant of the nature of your reality and that of others, the more prone to error you are and the less growth enhancing are your contributions.

Love and Hate in Human Thought

Consider the notions of infinity and the finite. This pair of concepts embody both a contradictory and a complementary relationship. The two concepts compliment one another in that each makes the other more understandable through their contrast. They are contradictory in that each conveys a meaning that is 180 degrees out from the other.

The finite can only exist as a reduction of the infinite. That is, the finite is a subset of the infinite. Now consider an ocean and a wave. The wave can only exist as a subset of the ocean. The finite can never subsume the infinite and a wave can never subsume an ocean.

Let’s now think about “love” and “hate.” According to many spiritual traditions, love is the underlying dynamic of the universe. It is also said by many spiritual traditions that hate arises from fear and that fear is a corruption of love. The logic of the ocean and the wave can help us frame love and hate. It is far more likely that “love” is like the infinite or like an ocean because it is easy to see that “hate” is a more contracted expression than love. Thus, it seems appropriate to think of hate as a subset of love. A subset in the sense that hate arises from a corruption of love by fear that is engendered by spiritual ignorance (see my post The Nature of Evil).

Let’s end this brief discussion with the concepts of “good” and “evil.” I would argue that, like love, good is ontologically superior to evil. Good is the value field in which evil arises just as an ocean is the field in which waves arise. Thus, we can view evil as a subset of good. The infinite, waves, love and good can be thought of as all-inclusive fields in which contradictory and complimentary factions arise. These factions serve the function of making experience possible from the possibilities opened up through the contrasts they provide. After all, you could not experience temperature in the absence of the contrast provided by hot and cold.

Note: This brief comment was stimulated by the writing of the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo.

Precept versus Practice

Christianity purports to hold love as a value and through precepts such as “love one another” attempts to make it an essential aspect of a religious life. However, the evidence for its practice by Christians is sparse, at least in my experience. Even Christians who seem to exemplify the precept often report something different. For example, the “saint” Mother Theresa has often been offered as an example of Christian compassion and love. On the other hand, I’ve read that she denied this and attributed her behavior to a sense of duty. In short, she seemed to be saying that she acted according to a behavioral form, that is, she acted according what she thought she should do not from how she experienced the world around her and how she felt toward that world.

What is missing here is the lack of practices that develop the ability to be love in the sense that Jesus meant and contemporary spiritual teachers mean. To hold love as a value and advocate for it is simply not enough. Without specific practices designed to actualize love in one’s way of being, love as a value is an empty shell, and a precept such as “love one another” is meaningless. Thus, the result is someone who acts according to an idea or belief about what love should look like but does so not out of love but out of duty or some other motivation.

By way of a concrete analogy, consider a military recruit on a rifle range where marksmanship is valued. The recruit is given the instruction to aim true and shoot straight (precept). Unless this recruit arrives already adept in the use of a rifle, he or she will be largely clue less about how to implement the instruction. What the recruit needs is a practice that develops the skills necessary to aim true and shoot straight. This requires someone skilled in the practice to teach it to the recruit who in turn then engages the practice until the desired level of skill is achieved. Such a practice may have multiple components, such as, body position, breath control. sighting, adjustment for wind, trigger compression and extinguishing reflexive actions; e.g., closing the eyes when firing.

I would suggest that what Jesus and many other spiritual teachers mean by love is grounded in an ability to moderate the ego-self in which its needs and wants are primary and other people’s needs and wants are secondary or even irrelevant. It is only when one has learned to stand aside from the ego-self and its inherent self-centered- ness that it is possible to be love and to engage the world from love. Some spiritual traditions have practices that help one learn how to stand aside from the ego-self. They also have practices that target specific problems that need to be overcome, such as negative feelings toward someone in particular that make it difficult to stand aside from the ego-self that harbors those feelings.

To my knowledge, Christianity has no such practices. Or, perhaps I should say, it has had individuals who developed such practices but they were suppressed and prevented from becoming a part of the religion. In many cases, the person who developed the practices and exhibited their effects was isolated or declared a heretic and in some cases put to death. In contemporary times there has been some effort to introduce the practice of meditation into Christianity through the Centering Prayer movement. One of the earliest advocates was Fa William Johnston who went to Japan to proselytize and took up Zen as a way to better understand the culture. He got more than he expected (Christian Zen, 1971).


On Nonduality

To be clear about this topic, understand that nonduality is a concept represented by a word. The concept is not the experience. No matter how much effort you put into thinking about and analyzing the concept, you will never touch its essence. It is like trying to tell someone who has never eaten an orange what the experience of eating an orange is like. Description can never replace experience. What I will try to do here is use a metaphor to perhaps paint a somewhat more communicative word picture of nonduality. In the end, though, if one really wants to know nonduality directly, one must eat the orange, so to speak. I’ll end this with a quote from a Zen Master when asked about nonduality, who said, “Not two, not one.” I would suggest that his intent was to convey that both are numerical concepts.

The metaphor I will use is that of an orchestra, which will represent the entirety of all physically manifest reality. As the orchestra begins playing, the harmony of all the instruments creates music. The members of the orchestra are individuals and their instruments are separate objects. The relative relationships between these musicians, their instruments and their output represent duality or the world of separate things. The music, which is the single harmonious integration of all the separate contributions into a singular whole, represents nonduality. However, this is an idealized metaphor, so let’s back it up.

Imagine that this orchestra consists of 1000 people, of which you are one, each with a musical instrument. The level of musical competence of the players ranges from novice to expert. Some can read music and some can’t. Now imagine that his group sets out to play a symphony. Also, add into this image the lack of a musical director. In this scenario all of the players begin playing their instruments. A few know the symphony, some can read music and have sheet music for guidance, and most of the group neither know the symphony nor can read music. The effort begins, but the output is not nearly as pleasing as in the initial description above. Nevertheless, the relative relationships between these musicians and their instruments’ output represent duality or the world of separate, relative things. The sound output is still the product of all the separate pieces representing a singular whole or nonduality. This is probably somewhat more like the way of the world. A somewhat chaotic state that is slowly organizing itself into greater and greater coherence, albeit with both forward and backward steps.

Now as a participant in this process, ask yourself what you should do to facilitate the evolution of coherence and the production of a recognizable symphony, allowing that a perfect rendition of the symphony is unlikely. You have at least two options: 1) You could listen carefully and identify the players who are contributing the greatest amount of disorder into the effort and go take away their instruments and eject them from the orchestra. Considering that there likely would be resistance to this, you might find other members who see the situation the same way that you do and organize them into a cadre of music police. 2) You could ignore the disharmony and attempt to narrow your focus down on the members who are producing the best musical output and follow their lead. In this case, you are both attempting to contribute to coherence by coming into harmony with the output of the better players and contributing to coherence by serving as an example to the players in need of guidance. Perhaps you can think of other options but you get the general idea.

The point is you can either become absorbed in the inharmonious output of some of the individual players and contribute little or nothing, or you can focus on a strand of harmony running like a smooth eddy in a turbulent stream and strengthen it. In short, come into harmony with the dynamic process that is the evolving whole or focus on the separate pieces.

This brings up the issue of “evil,” which is a relative concept. What you think is evil may not be viewed as evil by someone else. Perhaps there is a definition of “evil” that could be universally agreed to, but I’m not sure what it is. The closest that I can come up with is “actions arising from ignorance brought about by a highly egocentric view of one’s life circumstance.” However, one can still recognize that ignorance is also masking the divinity that lies within the “evil” doer. This does not mean that you can’t act in self-defense or defend others. The advantage that arises from recognizing ignorance as merely a mask for dormant divinity is that if one is compelled to respond, the response will be no more than is necessary and will not be fueled by strong emotions such as anger, hate, revulsion, etc. I have an entire essay devoted to this view on my website, so I won’t expand on it any further here.

Let’s look at the idea of evil relative to the orchestra metaphor. Think of the incoherent players as “ignorant” and their disharmonious output as “evil.” You can get angry with these players and decide they need to be stopped and ejected from the orchestra, which will no doubt be resisted and could lead to actions on your part that might be viewed as “evil” by some of the other players. You could also recognize these players as simply ignorant of the musical ability that they have dormant within themselves and try to be a model for them or even offer them guidance. What the experience of nonduality brings is a perspective that sees all the players connected through the divinity that resides within them whether they are aware of it or not. Each and every one of the players is an implicit strand within the holistic, dynamic process that emerges as the symphony.

I hope that this was useful but do keep in mind that it is just an imperfect pointer for nonduality, which is only truly known through a transcendent experience, never through concepts and ideas. Peel the orange and eat.


The World Is An Illusion ?

“The world is an illusion” is a statement that gets tossed about in some quarters. It is my intention in this essay to share my understanding of the statement. An illusion is defined as “something that deceives by producing a false or misleading impression of reality. Most people that I have talked to about the title statement take “illusion” to be equivalent to “mirage.” A mirage has no substance, function or meaning. There is a big difference between a distortion of or misleading impression of something and its total absence. I would include in the idea of illusion the  revealing of an aspect or part of something rather than the whole. To take a simple example, think about what your impression might be if your first experience with a dog was only the tail. Your impression would surely result in a false or misleading perception of the actual nature of a dog. The word “world” in the title statement is probably better represented by the phrase, “your experience of and beliefs about reality.” Thus, we might translate the statement to read, “Your experience of reality provides a misleading impression,” while recognizing that “experience” begins as a perceptual phenomenon. This does not mean it has no substance, function or meaning. If someone uttering the title statement or someone hearing the title statement understands “illusion” as meaning “mirage,” I think the meaning of the statement is misunderstood. I think the original intent was to suggest that our perceived reality might seem to be true and correct but is in fact false or misleading. Hereafter, the word “illusion” is used to simply mean a distortion in our perception that results in a false or misleading impression of reality.

It is also likely that what you perceive is largely a cognitive construction. Neuroscientist Don DeGracia has pointed out that vision research shows that the visual cortex receives more input from the brain itself than from sensory input through the eyes. The eyes in turn are said to only take in about a fifth of the available sensory data. This appears to support the idea that we actually construct what we see. Persons who have been blind from birth and that medical science provides with an intact vision system still have to learn to see images that you take for granted. Some actually find the experience so confusing that they say they would prefer to be blind and wear dark glasses to block stimulus input. I will end this introduction with a quote from Albert Einstein that you might ponder, “Reality is an illusion, albeit a persistent one.”

 In the following, I will discuss the translated title statement relative to four perspectives, where the fourth is the likely source of the title statement.

The first perspective is biological. I will briefly describe here a way of looking at perception from an evolutionary perspective. There is only one person that I am familiar with who has developed and conducted research on this evolutionary perspective. If you’re interested in the details, I recommend you read Donald Hoffman’s book, The Case Against Reality.

The research done by Hoffman and the resulting scientific theory views what we perceive as “fitness icons.” Hoffman’s research and theory suggests that evolution has shaped our perceptions to be finely tuned to those aspects of the world that have fitness implications for us as biological organisms. Fitness refers directly or indirectly to things important for survival and reproduction. One way to look at this is that anything we perceive, including our body, is an “object” in a field of energies (note, what we call matter is just concentrations of energy) that go well beyond what we can sense. Evolution has shaped our sensory organs to only recognize those characteristics of the energy field that have fitness implications for humans. Further, what we perceive in a fitness icon is a representation of its critical features for us presented in a form that is most meaningful to us. There are many aspects of our environment that don’t have fitness implications for us and to which we are essentially blind. The limited amount that we do perceive seems to us to be reality. The belief that we see reality as it is, is an illusion. It is only a particular take on a segment of the sensory field. Your personal perception of reality is not reality as it is. It just seems that way.

The second perspective is psychological. Almost all normal people have what might be called a personality, self-concept or ego with which they identify. Whatever you wish to call it, this is what most people think they are. Bill, for example, has a lot of characteristics that he would ascribe to himself, such as hardworking, fairminded, charitable, shy, a poor public speaker, apolitical, good with animals, a victim of an abusive father, and so on. All of these things and more are woven into a personal narrative, and this narrative is based in large part on memories of past experience. This narrative gives Bill a road map that tells him where he fits in. It also provides a ready explanation for things that he thinks, feels or does. It shapes his life by determining what he believes he can and can’t do, what he expects from life and how he goes about being in the world.

The thing about personal narratives is that they are to a great extent a fiction. To begin with, the narrative is comprised of selected memories from the pool of all the memories available. These selected memories, like all memories, are subject to editing and revision. Research shows that memories are not stable though we like to think they are. Memories change over time in both subtle and dramatic ways. Even two or more people having a similar experience will create different memories of it. This is often apparent in conversations with siblings about experiences shared in the home while growing up. In the course of weaving the memories into a narrative some license is taken in order to create a cohesive story, which is believed without question. The narrative seems like who you are but it is just a psychological construct that is mentally active whenever you aren’t focused on a task. You frequently review, update, edit and reinforce this narrative to the exclusion of many other possible variations on the narrative. The psychological construct posing as you is a constructed fiction, which does have elements of truth in it. I would say it can also be thought of as an illusion because it is a distortion of your complete body of perceived experience. Usually, those experiences that have a strong emotional component are the ones selected to weave a story around. Your construed personal reality is who you believe you are. It seems like it is your true “self,” but it is an illusion in the sense that it is to some degree a distortion of your fully lived experience. I have discussed this further in a post (among others) titled The Natural Mind on my website and in Chapter Four of my ebook, Self-Agency and Beyond.

The third perspective is cultural. This is a much larger narrative than your personal narrative but a narrative nonetheless. Every culture and sub-culture has a story that explains to members who they are, what they should believe and how they should act. This narrative is embedded in history, literature, media, myths (e.g., self-reliant individualism) and other means of conveying and reinforcing the story. Cultural narratives often overlap a nation so we can, for example, talk about the American culture or the American story — albeit with sub-plots. In some cases, the culture is broader than a nation and may, for example, be tied to an ethnic group (e.g., the Kurds) spread across several countries. What seems to be true to you is but one of many stories that could be woven about your culture by making different assumptions and emphasizing different events, different people and different interpretations. In fact, for anyone who takes the trouble, it is often much easier to see the revisions, editing and modifications of a cultural narrative across historical time than to see it in one’s personal narrative. This first became apparent to me when, as an undergraduate, I took a three-term course in constitutional law. I completed this course seeing the U.S. Constitution as providing a foundation more like shifting sand than a rock solid foundation. Identification with a cultural narrative is belief in just one of many potential constructions. While it may seem to you to be correct and true, it is an illusion in the sense that it is a distortion of the total cultural experience. If you would like to explore this dimension in greater detail, I recommend Jeremy Lent’s book, The Patterning Instinct and an analysis based in neuroscience by Iain McGilchrist titled, The Master and His Emissary:The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. It is also not hard to find explications of alternate stories about cultures, especially from groups diminished by the prevailing story.

To summarize the first three perspectives, you have biologically imposed limitations and restrictions on what aspects of reality that you can perceive and how you construe them. You create a fictive-self as a tool for negotiating your way through life and explaining your thoughts, emotions and actions. You adopt a belief in a constructed cultural narrative in which to embed your personal narrative and try to sync the two to work together. All of these, in their own way, distort the deeper reality from which they are extracted. In short, relative to the deeper reality they are illusions. In most cases useful and also true in a superficial sense.

 The fourth perspective is the really deep dive in this essay. There are a number of labels that might be used for the fourth perspective. I will call it the spiritual perspective, because that is a term commonly used these days for some of the things that will be discussed. This is a perspective recognized by many traditions, including Christian, Buddhist, Moslem and the Vedantic and Tantrik traditions in India.

When talking about religious and theistic philosophical systems, it can be said that they often have two faces. The exoteric face, which is the public face and is most visible through its churches, temples and so forth and by its practices, ceremonies and rituals. The exoteric face is most often associated with systems of belief. Then there is the esoteric face, which may be associated with monasteries, ashrams, and even ascetics and hermits. The esoteric face is most often associated with systems of practice (see the Introduction and Part II of my ebook Self-Agency and Beyond) and personal experience of gnosis (intuitive knowledge of spiritual truth). The esoteric is a side of Christianity that has largely been absent for some time, but is currently seeing something of a revival. This segment will draw on the esoteric face and the teachings of individuals referred to as sages, awakened, realized and enlightened among other labels. The presentation will be somewhat generic rather than tradition specific.

The view from this perspective asserts, on the basis of phenomenological knowing or gnosis, that the material cosmos, including all life forms, are epiphenomena that arise from a universal primordial awareness/consciousness that has no beginning nor end. I make a distinction between awareness and consciousness in the Introduction to my eBook Self-Agency and Beyond but will hereafter stay with the term consciousness. This primordial consciousness contains the material cosmos but is not limited to the material cosmos. In another essay, I describe the cosmos as like a cosmic egg, characterized by locality*, floating in a sea of primordial consciousness (characterized by non-locality*). A sea of consciousness that is inherently intelligent, creative, inquisitive and unconditionally accepting of its own being and everything that arises from it, This type of conception can be found in either a theistic version called panentheism (see Part III of my eBook SelfAgency and Beyond or one of several essays such as this one) or a philosophical version called monistic idealism (see the works of Bernardo Kastrup and in particular The Idea of the World, which is for most readers not the book of his to begin with. I suggest starting with A Rationalist Spirituality). You can find a list of most of Kastrup’s books along with an audio interview about each book on a page on my website.

This view further asserts that particularized consciousness in each biological organisms is simply a contracted kernel of primordial consciousness that in its particularized form is unaware of its roots in primordial consciousness. The material cosmos was “imagined” into being by primordial consciousness to serve as a basis for the evolution of life. Life serves as the vehicle for kernels of particularized consciousness and in a self-conscious life form that might be called personal consciousness. The purpose of particularized consciousness is to provide primordial consciousness with the opportunity to explore its own infinite potential through experience. Experience arises out of the tension that is created through complimentary pairs, such as, satiety and hunger, hot and cold, life and death, love and hate, good and evil, male and female, health and disease, and so on. Once set in motion, this system is independent and autonomous, allowing full expression of whatever it generates.

This is a complex perspective with many variations that all point to much the same conclusions. The paragraphs above hardly do justice to the perspective but that was not their intent. If you want to explore the fourth perspective further there are a number of reference links above. You might also read Part I of Tantra Illuminated by Christopher Wallis for the philosophical foundation for the yoga tradition based in Tantra. You can also find additional essays on my website by employing the search engine or looking at the titles page. Finally, you might get some idea of this from the poem Conundrum that I recently wrote and that can be found on this page.

Many persons who have realized their true nature as vehicles for primordial consciousness and have opened to consciously embodying primordial consciousness have made statements such as the title statement for this essay. Their intent seems to be to convey that there is a deeper reality beneath what seems to be reality to most humans. From their perspective, what most of humanity calls reality is in fact closer to a lucid dream in primordial consciousness. This does not make it any less real or meaningful to participants in the “dream” but what the “dreamers” perceive as reality is a false or misleading perception of the deeper reality underlying it and therefore can be called an illusion. A similar statement that is associated with this perspective is that “There Is No Doer” about which I have also written an essay titled Are We Merely Divine Puppets?.

* locality and non-locality are physics terms that essentially mean within space/time and beyond space/time respectively.


David Center

Further Ruminations on Meaning in the Universe

Several years ago I wrote a poem titled “Rumination.” In some manner, I sense that I am returning to that earlier poem. Pretty clearly the underlying theme of that poem was a quandary about purpose and meaning in the universe and therefore in human life. The key question is, does the universe have a purpose? If so, then life has meaning to the extent that it contributes to that purpose. If not, how could life have meaning? One attempt to answer the last question is the proposal that our meaning derives from context. In other words, we create meaning from our social context, which narrowly includes family and friends. More broadly it includes work and engagement with social networks. In short, meaning is contextual and the context is the world created by culture — the web of the world. Contextual meaning is a distraction from the larger issue. A distraction that some can lose themselves in but others find unsatisfying.

For those who find contextual meaning unsatisfying there are two basic paths that can be followed in the quest for meaning. One path is that of contemporary science. While there are scientific mavericks loose in the world, mainstream science declares that the universe arose out of randomness and has no purpose. Further, that the life that evolved in this random universe also arose out of randomness and has no purpose beyond perpetuating itself. Life that is intelligent and self-reflective is devoid of underlying purpose and meaning and therefore pointless. Why should such a being care whether or not a life without purpose or meaning is perpetuated? Its only possible justification is contextual, and if that is sufficient to sustain it for a few decades, then its biological programs will do their best to drive it into reproducing. Regardless, it will shortly unwind as a living community of cells and slide back into the oblivion that it arose from.

Oblivion is a fate that most such beings fear, for they recognize it as a permanent loss of awareness. Once recognized, a common antidote is denial coupled with immersion in the distraction of context. Those for whom this proves not sufficient are often observed to suffer from existential angst. Symptoms of existential angst often manifest as despair and depression or rage and violence. The former may attempt to find solace in addictions and the latter may seek release through acting-out. So, if you follow the path offered by mainstream science, you can lose yourself in the temporary world of the mind, suffer despair or embrace rage.

The second path open to the quest for meaning is spiritual in nature. One branch along this path is exoteric religion. The exoteric form of religion is the public face of the religion and is directed at the masses, e.g., Islam or Judaism. Most, if not all, exoteric religions address the issue of purpose and meaning. Unfortunately, religions tend to become social institutions, and while they may provide some support for purpose and meaning, they usually end up simply becoming an option in the contextual search for meaning. All too often, they become a toxic option as evidenced by religious authoritarianism and religious terrorism. There are, however, other branches along the spiritual path. The esoteric form of religion is private, individual and typically pursued by a small minority, e.g., Sufism or Kabbalism. Often, this is a minority oppressed by the exoteric institution. In other cases, a private, individual path is pursued independently of any religion. It is primarily this latter case that holds some promise..

For those people who are on the independent, esoteric path, lineages of teachers often become more prominent than religious institutions, especially in the east, e.g., India. Transmission moves from teacher to student, where the student often becomes a teacher to other students and so on. These lineages have their roots in mystical experiences in which the experiencer comes to a direct knowing that is purely a private, personal experience. It is not something that can be given to another but it can be pointed at as a form of guidance. The delusion that anyone on this path must be careful to avoid is that of mistaking the pointing with the thing in itself.

What mystics frequently offer when willing to talk about their experiential knowing is that the universe arises from a creative, intelligent Source or Primordial Awareness in which everything arises. The fundamental characteristics of this Source are awareness and unconditional acceptance of all that arises within awareness. Some of these mystics suggest that we and the physical universe exist as specialized objects of consciousness in this Source or Universal Mind. The purpose for the universe is to support life and the purpose of life is to support individuated states of awareness. Individuated awareness exists to interact with other states of individuated awareness within the context of physicality. The purpose of these interactions is for Source to explore its potential and to evolve in understanding of that potential. Thus, the universe has a purpose and we have a role in that purpose and therein lies our grasp on true meaning.

Following the spiritual path in search of meaning requires that one open to direct knowing, so that one’s own awareness can know its connection to Source. This is a phenomenological knowing of the truth of the underlying reality that the above description is merely pointing at with words and concepts. Belief in the description and holding it to be true out of faith is falling into the delusion warned against. Such an act is how religions come to be and devolve into a mere source of contextual meaning.