The Universe Isn’t Here to Give You Lollipops and Kiss Your Boo Boos


I opened my Facebook page to be treated with a quote attributed to the new age guru Eckhart Tolle, “Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.”

I thought, my goodness, I guess, okay if you’re addressing a middle class person in the First world. Sure, it can be invaluable to take what is thrown at you as an opportunity to look more deeply.

But, there’s an enormously disturbing and false premise here.

To get a sense of that, how about a thought experiment: How would these words ring if addressed to a woman living in a refugee camp in Batai in the South Sudan watching her child dying of starvation?

The presupposition here is that the universe was created for you, you specifically, and that everything that happens is happening for you, on your behalf.

In fact there is a truth in that assertion.

We are indeed woven out of the stuff of the world, what happens anywhere, is part of a mysterious whole of which we are a part, and for which we can see ourselves at a center, not the center, but a center. We all have value.

The gift of wisdom, however, is not that our egos count for anything in particular. And here is where we find the lies in that assertion. The universe doesn’t care for you as a person. Without love or malice it will toss you about, and at some point it will kill you. The universe doesn’t have a plan for you.

The universe just is.

Meaning. Purpose. These are human things. Lovely things in my experience. But not things to be projected onto the universe.

In fact the great cognitive error, the reason for much of our anguish is when we confuse that ego for divinity, for the congregation of things that become for the duration of a flash of lightning as “me,” as something more than the organizing principle of a temporary coagulation of a corner of the cosmos. The problem is thinking our egos are somehow important in a greater scheme of things. And, worse, in projecting that scheme of things onto the universe.

Seeing where things are going is a skill set of being human. Projecting it onto the cosmos is painting lipstick on a hurricane.

It creates a deity that I personally would never want to encounter in a dark alley. Here, you’re rich beyond all reason. Here, you’ll live a brief and violent life before being torn apart for someone’s pleasure.

The invitation of the spiritual life as I’ve encountered it, is an invitation to see. To be present. And in that presence to discover how we are both individuals, precious in our passingness, and part of something gigantic, powerful, terrifying, horrific, and lovely, all at the same time.

And this is worth giving a large part of our lives to truly understand.

If we see ourselves in our passingness as part of the whole, the insight that is wisdom, well, it probably doesn’t do a ton of good for that woman and her child, but it might make those of us in better circumstances inclined to do something to help.

And that’s nothing to sneeze at.

For instance, if you’re not in dire circumstances, how about noticing what is going on elsewhere is happening to someone in your extended family? You don’t even have to adjust your attitude. Just send some money to someone who can do something, like these people.

Or, and, it might incline us to try and shift things in this world, if just a bit, toward care and responsibility for all…

I won’t make a link for this, the options are too wide, and too personal.

But so important.

This is all about the intimate way…

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  • Erik Johnstone

    Hello!
    I hope that this note finds you well.
    Thank you for that; it’s a much needed sword that cuts through the delusion of “feel good” pop spirituality that just doesn’t square with the pain and distress that so many experience as their immediately reality. Because while the truth of emptiness is real, the truth of provisional our conditional reality is equally and simoultaneously real.
    In Gratitude,
    Erik

  • Ellen Skagerberg

    Aren’t you projecting your First World feelings on to that hypothetical refugee Sudanese mother? Perhaps she has a religious faith that puts it all into context. Maybe she’s not feeling the horror of the unnecessary death of her child, but some relief that the child’s suffering is ending, and enjoyment for the daily cup of rice. We wouldn’t know unless we talked to her, and maybe not even then.

    There’s some pity here for “other people’s dreadful circumstances,” an assumption that they must be beaten down with despair and horror, when perhaps my own privileged Santa Rosa friend is in more pain mourning for her father who just died of pancreatic cancer.

    So, don’t address words about the disinterest of a godless universe to that Sudanese mother, okay? She may well be experiencing her life the way Eckhart Tolle recommends, finding beauty and meaning in suffering in a way that you or I cannot. It may not make a difference how much we feed people if we puncture their strength and hope, their means of understanding and appreciating that which you’re calling merely random and disinterested. In fact, if we all compared worldviews, she might very well come away pitying us.

  • http://www.boundlesswayzen.org jamesford

    I don’t think that’s my point, Ellen. I’m offering a thought experiment to see how Mr Tolle’s pointing to a universe that is serving the individual’s need is going. I have no clue what that mother is thinking and what religion she is or is not finding comforting at that moment. What I have found, however, is that there is a glib approach to suffering that supposes this ills are all lessons that personally offends my sensibilities, as apparently my words offended you. My judgement, such as it is, is not how that woman finds a way through, and I’m all for people doing what they need to get through, but rather that appeals to a universe that is built around “me” is going in a wrong direction, and one that will in the end betray the believer. I’m just standing at the corner pointing in a direction I think will prove more helpful to most people who might happen upon this blog. So fondly…

  • Ellen Skagerberg

    I wasn’t offended, James, but we can’t have everybody in the choir always singing, “Yeah, Rev; right again!”
    Out of context, that Tolle quote may be a straw man in any case; Tolle also says, “Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is.”
    It’s not that I agree with the Life Gives You Lessons approach; I too find that to be baloney and just as interventionist as Jesus changing the traffic light to green so I can get to my haircut appointment on time. What we can benefit from, however, is noticing where our awareness and responses get “stuck.” One person has a minor fender-bender and is devastated (maybe because their uncle died in a car crash years ago); the next just brushes it off as one of life’s random annoyances. The fender-bender is neutral, not “sent by Life” to teach you, but we can nevertheless be taught from it, mostly through our own reactions to that or any other event. (“Hmmm, I reacted really strongly to that fender-bender; what’s up with that?”)
    Ane yet, as a guiding worldview, I’m not convinced that making the case for meaninglessness, suffering, and random horror provides enough incentive for an individual to continue the personal “beingness” experiment. “To be, or not to be”? The Universe doesn’t care, life is brief, meaningless, and painful (though occasionally pleasant), and the only beauty and meaning are those which we humans assign — where’s the “good news”? Or is the whole idea of “good news” (i.e., “reason for living”) merely another human construct?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind James

    Hi Ellen, I was going to delete my immediate response and go in a different direction. I’ve not read Mr Tolle, so I am only responding to the quote. And it reflects a position I find troubling. Like when my friend was mugged and then was asked by a mutual friend, “So, what was the lesson you needed that led to the mugging?” That friend needed a good slap. The point for me is not that the universe is meaningless, that’s just another human construct. My point, the healing, mysterious salvific point, as I best understand it, is that in presence, in being present, there is something healing, astonishing, and even holy. I’m trying to point to that stance, which is both a being and a doing. Your friend, James

  • Rasmus Schröder

    Big subject. Just one comment: Don’t discredit the person. The person (human person) might be the most fun the universe ever had! Getting spiritual for me, includes most of what you wrote! And… exploring and enjoying this inexplicable predicament of “physical” existence.

  • http://dalaigrandma.blogspot.com Jeanne Desy

    Hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear (or read) someone saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” I don’t think they are talking about simple cause-and-effect, more like what you wrote above. That particular sentence is a way of summarizing a conversation about something that is hard and discouraging by moving away from emotion and returning to some idea of rightness. I wonder what people would say if they just didn’t say that. Maybe, “Well, it’s too f_____ hard.” Maybe acknowledge that.

  • Christina J.

    Also, to return to the Sudanese mother -
    Even if she has a religion that puts in context the death of her child -
    I know for me, it’s harder to learn, or let one’s heart break open, when I myself am hungry, much less starving.
    This is one concrete example of the universe specifically refusing to line up for me to come to a more solid spiritual ground.
    While true awakening does not discriminate we still live in this interconnected world & causes do have specific effects.
    Without wounds we don’t have awakening, but wounds come with their own challenges.
    Is my intuitive sense of it.
    The universe…is.
    And it’s our function to [learn, return, continue to] love.
    But maybe what’s being said here is, let’s not conflate the two?

  • Chris

    Hello all,

    I find it amusing that all of you think you can explain away in a few words what is essentially inside you. It does not matter your social status or who you are. Awakening is just that…Awakening.
    I know. It is not to be found in words at all. Eckhart is JUST a portal, that’s all.
    The egoistic mind in all of you WILL try ALWAYS to discourage you from realizing who you are.
    I will leave you with this….”One decision, changes your entire reality. but that one decision you have to make again and again and again….until it becomes natural to live in such a way.


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