At the foundation of your life, of my life, of all our human lives spiritual and otherwise, is seeing how we are all completely woven out of each other in a strange, haunting and terrible way where now we are one thing, now we are separate. I have no idea why things are like this, although I understand it is not unlike the way the universe is structured, where if you look at it from one angle everything is particles while from another angle everything is waves.
In the world we occupy from one angle everything is absolutely distinct and unconnected. You are you. I am I. As is that cat, that mountain, this ocean. And, and, at the very same time from another angle, equally true, we are one, we are woven out of each other and have only one existence. Usually we only see how we are disconnected. Less often we come to see how we are all one. Whichever way we see, neither perspective taken by itself is completely healthy.
But, as soon as we discover both are true, and not true in some abstract and distant way, but as your truth, as my truth, then things happen. I have found this insight the saving vision. It has opened my heart as well as my mind, and has allowed me to find a way to walk on this planet. And I’ve seen how this has been true for many, many others.
Without this vision, now one, now separate, we are lost and subject to the whims of appetite. With it, well, we’re still lost and subject to the whims of appetite, but we have also been given a conscience, a soul, a perspective that allows our choices to be more healthful, useful, meaningful. It is the vision of a wise heart.
I believe this insight, perspective, no word quite captures the stance it gives us, can be described in any number of ways. The Buddhist Sunyata works. I’m partial to Boundless. But, I’m also comfortable with God language to describe what it is we encounter as the source, the sustaining and the goal of our lives. God of course is a word so rich it defies simple summations. God can be the ground of being. God can be the most intimate experience of a loving presence. God can be one’s imaginary friend. By the bye, these last two are not the same thing.
Personally, I do not believe there is an entity with a human-like mind controlling the direction of things. Could be, but I find the evidence sketchy at best. Rather I find God a way to name the flow of relationships, each one creating the next things in a cosmic dance. Or, sometimes, I find this encounter a bit like those newspaper cartoon characters from the last decade of the twentieth century, Calvin and his stuffed tiger Hobbes riding down some great hill, a mad dash toward an uncertain end, but every inch of the way exhilarating, frightening and lovely beyond saying. And, I like the fact that when the word God is introduced the whole matter is forced open. No one person owns the definition, not me, not you, no one. It is too big, too wild, too weird.
More important, at least to my mind, is how in the last analysis I find there is no self in the sense of an entity separate from the flow of things. I’ve looked hard, I find nothing that isn’t conditioned, isn’t subject to change. And I see no reason to think it is less true for anything in this world made up of things that have come together, interact, and eventually, break apart. This is true for God. And this is true for you and for me. We are all more intimately connected through the flow of cause and effect than the most tightly woven rug. In an absolute way, we are one thing. This can be a hard truth, in part perhaps, just because it is so inescapable. However, just stopping there is missing something very important. There is that now separate as well as that now one.
So, it’s all a bit complicated. Perhaps you’ve noticed this about life.
Caught only within the separate our thinking becomes disordered, and more importantly, our actions are perverted, often hurtful to others, and ultimately hurtful to ourselves. Still, and very, very important within that now separate I also believe we have the tiniest smidgen of free will. I think it happens because whether we are conscious of it or not, we also are part of that one. This gives us a dynamic reality, and allows us to see what is going on in a relatively accurate way. We are of course the product of uncountable conditions flowing together, and so in one sense there is nothing that can be called free will. But the very complexity of all those conditions, particularly that ability to perceive the connection, creates a certain freedom of movement. Shove comes to push and we can say yes and we can say no.
Of course, at some level even that yes and that no are determined. In a world so tightly connected, where everything is a reaction to some other action, it has to be. But that’s taking a pretty high order view of things, and not where we actually usually live. And it is looking at the now one without taking into account the reality of the now separate, with all its possibilities. And here’s another hard truth: the one without that separate is a dream, disconnected, without power.
What we choose moment by moment is a big part of what is created in the next moment of the dance.
What we choose matters. It matters in your life. It matters in mine. It matters for people we will never meet. And therefore that now separate can be precious, wonderful, glorious.
We just need to also know somewhere in our bones that now separate.
We need to be present to the mystery as it presents.
Finding this as our personal truth is the stuff of the spiritual quest.
In human societies mostly it is religions that have provided the ways for us to find meaning and purpose. And this is a conundrum because all religions are in some ways false. Once the first word tumbles from someone’s mouth dynamic reality has become a picture, a symbol, an idea. At best a map, but never the territory. Yes, that’s also true of what’s being written here. So, caveat emptor! But what’s often worse with religions is that the map is put in a lovely frame, hung high, candles and incense is burned before it and that map is worshiped. And sometimes if someone notices it’s a map, or just a wild doodle, and says so; they are denounced by those who have invested everything in it being true. It turns out there are lots of very creative ways to hurt and kill people if you want to. Still, some words and some religions are a little bit less false than others.
And near as I can tell most all religions offer somewhere within the dark halls of their institutions some authentic insight into this now one, now separate. So, in varying degree each also contains pointers to our liberation, our direct, visceral insight into this now separate, now one, and how our choices count.
We just have to be careful as we make our way.
As something completely natural this insight is, of course, also found outside the spiritual realms.
People of any religion can come to this place, and people with no religion can come to this place. As someone said, the spirit lists where it will. Still, more often the most useful pointers are found within the so-called mystical threads of religions.
The one that have been most helpful for me on my path has been Zen Buddhism. I’ve also been informed by other traditions ranging from the Christian mystical tradition to Vedanta to Sufism and most of all through Western liberal religion as manifested within Unitarian Universalism. And, each of these religions in its own way is false. With that first word spoken, with that first idea that tries to cram what is into some box, making it a beautiful thing of rather limited value.
Also religions have a number of tasks. One of these tasks is helping people on their way to that wise heart which is our common birthright. Some other tasks were once useful, but are not now. Some have never been useful. There is the whole crowd control thing, and as a subset the socialization of people; religions and the state rarely have been separate from each other.
I personally am uninterested in questions of first cause or end times, which informs much of Western religious thought. Well, except we are all, always living in end times. Ain’t that the truth?
I also find the parts of the religious enterprise devoted to healing in the sense of curing illnesses are simply a hangover from pre-science, pretty close to worthless when they aren’t actually dangerous, and not in the good way. And I actively despise the corollary of some religions about how getting right with something will make you wealthy. Those who think that haven’t met the truly wealthy. Of course there are tiny truths in all these assertions, the mind is a powerful thing and intention has astonishing possibilities. But here’s a harsh truth: adjusting one’s attitude is not going to set a broken bone nor cure cancer. All the good thoughts in the world are never going to replace visiting a doctor or learning to balance one’s checkbook.
Now there’s nothing wrong with attending to health and finances. We must. It’s just a mistake to think these issues are usefully engaged as something “spiritual.” And even more important I find people thinking they’re being spiritual when they’re really concerned with health or finances are distracted from the real enterprise of spirituality, of religion, the justification for putting up with all the nonsense from bishops and priests and holy writ that reinforces tribal identities, that hold up those purity codes which separate out sheep and goats. There is one justification for all this nonsense. They also over the ages have protected the great way in each of our cultures. And that great way is simple enough.
Awakening to who we are, and learning how to act from that place.
I love the bumpersticker “Don’t believe everything you think.” (Yes, I caught the irony of the statement, thank you…) In fact, I don’t think it quite goes far enough. Don’t believe anything you think. Only don’t know. This is the universal solvent.
I think it hard to see through to the heart of the matter unless one has a regular discipline of sitting down, shutting up, and paying attention. I think having a human guide who has walked the way before an important thing, if not absolutely necessary, pretty darn close.
And one more thing.
It does seem to me that religious moral or ethical codes often appear to be little more than crowd control. And codes delivered with the authority of God are to be distrusted on their face. But, at the same time, I think we need a container to create our lives that is formulated out of paying attention to how we relate to life and death, how we speak to each other, how we relate to the things of life, how we treat our sexuality and sexual lives and how we choose to cloud or open our minds and hearts. In short we need to attend to how we relate to each other and to the world of which we are a part. I think these issues are both personal, the most intimate of all, and belong to the communal sphere, what society is all about.
So, we need to see that great nondual, we need to have authentic practices, and usually a guide, and we need to walk a path of harmony with what is. Not necessarily taken up in that order, but each aspect seems to inform the others, so all three…