The Cosmic Dance
We often get so wrapped up in our daily routines and responsibilities, it can be easy to lose sight of those big picture questions which ultimately drive us. With our noses pushed to the ground, marching forward, day after day, the Elephant knocks her trunk against the small door in the back of the room, probing us: “Really, what are we doing? What’s the point of all this? Please tell me.”
Many find comfort and a suitable solution in the form of a personal God, but for me, ever since I was a little kid, that never sufficed. Questions kept nagging at me. Like, why would this supposed all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God care about me? Given that He oversees the operations of the entire Universe, wouldn’t He have more pressing concerns to occupy His time then spy on my every move? I mean, I was just some mediocre student with an unhealthy addiction to candy, baseball cards, and MTV. I couldn’t possibly be THAT important to warrant the Supreme Beings undying attention, could I? And if He did in fact create the Universe and all of existence, who created Him? It just didn’t seem to add up to me…But, I couldn’t come up with any better answers either.
I continued ignoring the Elephant’s incessant jostling until my early twenties, when I came to an important realization: the practice of philosophy is a lot less about finding the right answers as it is about finding the right questions. So I decided to re-frame the Elephant’s inquiry, turning it into an optimization problem: maybe I don’t know why I’m here, but given the fact that I am here, how do I maximize the experience that I do have? More specifically, how do I maximize the aggregate sum, over the duration of my life, of all these positive felt experiences — such as love, connection, sense of purpose etc — while concurrently minimizing those negative felt experiences…Starting with how I choose to spend this present moment, right here, right now?
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I was twenty-two when a friend first handed me a copy of an Alan Watt’s book, introducing me to the world of Eastern philosophy. I immediately felt a kinship with his voice that I never felt before, as his message penetrated into the heart of the optimization problem. It was so simple and intuitive, I almost felt a bit disappointed for not having thought of it myself: the solution could be wholly described in three letters, E-G-O. All these anxieties we harbor stem from this built-up separate self we’ve constructed over our lives. If we focus our efforts on the minimization part of the equation — on letting go of these negative emotions which weigh as down — then in doing so, we build a solid foundation for the growth of all those positive states we wish to cultivate. To put it another way, Dissolving the ego gives space for those emotional states we seek to flower.
Over the years, I broadened my study in the world’s spiritual traditions, from the mystic sects of the Big Three (Gnostics of Christianity, Sufis of Islam, Kabbalists of Judaism), to other ancient and indigenous mythologies. What I came to recognize was that although the fine print often varies, some themes emerge: principally, among them, the idea that God isn’t some objective entity ‘out there’ — it’s a concept describing what we find when we shed away all these layers of ego separating us from Whole Unity, from that realm outside of temporality and logic in a boundlessly flowing sea of pure presence. This makes sense from an epistemological standpoint also: Diabolic stems from ‘separate’ and ‘other’. It’s this built-up sense of separation which engenders what we conceive as Evil — the lack of empathy, the urge to conquer, to control, possess etc — while also preventing us from experiencing Transcendence. These mystic traditions teach us that the promised land isn’t some place of real estate up there or something to experience after we die; pure love is only found in the present, but to experience the eternal gift, our journey beckons, with scary monsters guarding the gate, diabolic forces of our own construction.
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I’m sure at this point, I’ve managed to agitate, if not outright bring to a slow simmering anger, a fair number of readers. What I’m suggesting, is that both the Atheists, and the Religious, as conventionally understood, are clinging to, or attacking, a straw man god. To quote the late mythologist Joseph Campbell:
“Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions are fact. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result, we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies…If you think that the metaphor is itself the reference, it would be like going to a restaurant, asking for the menu, seeing the beefsteak written there, and starting to eat the menu.”
To many, the idea of a subjective God sounds strange, foreign, and possibly bordering, if not outright, non-sensicle. The notion of a separately existing self is so deeply entrenched into each of our psyches we often don’t think twice about it. We look ahead and see the screen in front of us, we look over our heads and see the clouds above us, we stand up feeling the ground beneath us and admire the breeze brushing alongside us. All of our common senses (the “collection of all these prejudices we acquire by age eighteen”, as Einstein famously declared) unequivocally suggest that we are, in fact, separate from this outside world in which we are perceiving.
This idea is also the foundation of science: that there exists some objective universe out there waiting for us to discover and uncover. Since the enlightenment, science — and with it, this notion of objectivity — has been the vehicle driving us along our path of perceived progression. Interestingly, however, if we look at its shining breadwinner, the branch of knowledge which has produced the greatest number of discoveries transforming how we live, it paints a very different picture.
Quantum mechanics — whose mathematically precise formulas form the basis for over one third of the global economy — tell us that our common senses have it all wrong. In test after test, it demonstrates, with resounding clarity, that objectivity is an illusion and that our perception is absolutely integral to the reality that is continually unfolding. I would encourage you to read any of the writings of the early founders of quantum mechanics, powerful stuff indeed. I would be happy to meander on about how earth shattering and paradigm shifting I think these findings are, but given my complete lack of credentials on the subject matter, it seems more appropriate to now open the floor to the founding fathers. (I managed to gather them all here in an open forum discussion today on the significance of their findings, for your listening and viewing pleasure.)
Niels Bohr kicks things off: “If you think you can talk about quantum mechanics without feeling dizzy, you haven’t understood the first thing about it”. Werner Heisenberg, shaking his head back and forth, adds in agreement, “The smallest units are, in fact, not physical objects in the ordinary sense of the word, they are forms, or structures, or — in Plato’s sense — ideas”. Erwin Schrodinger, adjusting his glasses, with a somber expression painted across his face, points out the illusory nature of time: “For eternally and always there is only now; the present is the only thing that has no end”. Max Planck, stroking his mustache and then lifting and waiving his finger in the air, chimes in with a high pitched German accent: “I regard consciousness as fundamental, I regard matter as derivative of consciousness” and adds that “Mind is the matrix of all matter”. What appears to be a giddy grin brushes across Planck’s normally stoic face from excitement over his last pithy one-liner. Then, John Archibald Wheeler, mentor to Richard Feynman as well as many other influential Physicists, gets up out of his chair and stands to face the audience. With a glowing smile painted across his face, he stretches his arms open, and proclaims: “Useful as it is to say the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld. There is a strange sense that this is a participatory universe.” He continues, “We are inescapably involved in bringing about what appears to be happening”. Then, returning to his seat, shaking his head with his forehead cupped in the palm of his right hand, Wheeler admits that “Sometimes I have moments of clarity where I see all of reality as a figment of my imagination”. The four other forum participants all nod their heads in agreement and let out a collective laugh. Werner Heisenberg then thanks the founders for such an engaging discussion and offers the audience one last kernel to consider, cutting right to the crux of the ummm matter: “Matter doesn’t exist; there only exists Spirit”.
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In my mid twenties, when I first started reading up on quantum mechanics, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Intuitively, the ideas had a certain appeal, but they just seemed so out there, I couldn’t relate this ‘crazy’ quantum world to the reality that I was experiencing on a day to day basis. As a result, I pushed aside any spooky extrapolations from the quantum world, and I continued going about living the life that I could experience and feel as real.
In the past few years, however, as I continued to veer further and further away from any semblance of a ‘conventional path’, more and more chinks began to appear in my world view. I started to think more deeply about the instrumental role that our beliefs have in informing how we perceive and interact within our sphere of reality, and I realized, that I housed a contradiction, a war which ensued between my conscious and unconscious minds.
Intellectually, I understood some things; I could see the illusory nature of self and time, and I would be quick to praise our dynamic creative potentiality. But these thoughts were just the exposed tip of a massive iceberg rooted in an unconscious mind still submerged and shackled by a cultural narrative of separation. No matter how much I wanted to experience this ‘subjective God’, and despite such a fervent desire to free my wings and fly, these unconscious beliefs, steadily accumulating since birth, they were an onus beyond my strength, and with my head barely above water and body fully submerged, I was imprisoned in a past, victim to nature and nurture’s broad strokes.
But then, with my decision last year to leave my Chicago home — giving away the vast bulk of my possessions and embracing that traveler’s ethos to build my home where I reside in that particular moment of time — I set-off into an open plain with a few vague ideas of where I might want to go, but without a proper trail map to get me there: this was the whole point after all though, to put into practice all these pieces of cute yet superficial knowledge that I’ve been collecting over the years like an ambitious yet blind hoarder. So, filling my lungs with a deep breath of Life, arms crossed and eye-lids shut, I free-fell into a wild wide unknown. And with this leap of Faith — not a faith in any deity outside of myself, but a faith in the unwavering legitimacy of this present moment, in her abundance, in her absolute appropriateness — I could feel the ground beneath me tremble and the tectonic plates within me begin to shift.
It was a shift away from holding on to my diabolic representations — entrenched in this dominant culture of separation — to a world of metaphor where unfolding reality was more and more viewed through a symbolic lens (symbolic — originating from relational, to unite and bring together). Experiences of synchronicity surfaced to the fore, guiding me, imbuing me with a sense of confidence that this is the right path, the path that must be, as I lunged forward step after step. Life began to sing with jubilation, each interaction, breathing flames of purpose; I could feel everything within this small sphere of reality that I was observing as absolutely integral to the grandiose cosmic play in which I was a participant: not only as the leading role in my own script, but through each interaction, I was also called into another’s play, a brief blazing dance in a glorious moment within eternity.
Lost in this cosmic dance like a whirling dervish, I could feel the solid wall separating Mind and Matter begin to melt; accompanying it, however, was an understanding that I could no longer accept myself as a victim of the world out there: I must take full ownership for the weight of the world, not only for what I choose to seek out — the love, the beauty, the warm soft kisses of laughter and smiles — but also, the misery, the injustice, the ugliest of the ugly and darkest of the dark: hoisted up upon the shoulders of a giant, an infinite chain of cause and effect linked together through the entirety of existence, it has all collaborated to bring me here, speaking with you, occupying this particular position in space and time while observing this particular world. There could be no other way. The archetypal Hero — representative of that authentic self within the depths of each one of us, waiting to be awaken — emphatically shouts Yes to it all. There is no room for judgement of any kind, for what is must be. But in the same breath, there is no room for nihilism either: just as the present moment has grown from the soil of all moments past, this present moment is absolutely indispensable to which of the infinite array of potentialities that we manifest, our impact spreading outward like the ripples of a stone skipping into a lake, reverberating out to the shores of all existence. The influence of a vital person cannot be understated. The Hero understands this — not from mere intellectual understanding, but from that deep visceral knowledge invariably giving way to action — and smiling in the face of it all, he holds the present moment as a seed in the palm of his outstretched hand while the Universe flowers into being.
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Henry David Thoreau once declared that “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil for every one at the root”. This holds true in both the personal and societal level: we mistake the cause with the symptoms, and unwittingly or unwillingly, we continue applying band-aid after band-aid while the demon runs amok.
The characters in this diabolic play change, but the story-line remains the same: whether its those bankers, those evil corporations, those crooked politicians, the illness always seems to reside outside of ourselves; as such, we unthinkingly cast out stones like we’re sitting on our back porch spitting out sunflower seeds under the summer’s scorching sun. But really, the question must be asked: who are we to judge?
Such delusional creatures that we are, we love to praise our high moral fiber: of course, if we were that wicked politician, we’d do everything differently, we’d never commit those atrocities, and we’d be such good benevolent leaders, right? But the glaringly obvious fact remains: if we were that person — and had the aggregate sum of all of their experiences — well, then, we would in fact be that person, and as such, do precisely as that person does. That same capacity for committing evil — as well as good — lie within each one of us, and by denying that part of ourselves — pretending that in the mist of the muddy bloody war, that somehow we’re clean — we then project those same undesirable traits that we avoid out there into the reality that we share. Nothing too ground-breaking here, it’s just straight out of the psych 101 textbook: “own your shit, or your shit will own you”.
The Hero recognizes all this, and as such, He carries all the burdens of the world on His shoulders; it all has meaning and purpose: not just in the new-age city ‘everything has purpose in my world — except all those other tragic occurrences outside of that which I attribute to unfortunate chance’ — type of way, but really, I mean everything: the totality of existence. We’ve mutually constructed all this with our moment to moment beliefs, so it’s all part of us. Again, it must be stressed: this is not a call to apathy but rather one to full ownership. And that’s at the heart of these mystic conceptions of God after all: when we keep shedding away our layers of illusion which our egos’ hold onto for dear life — literally — all we’re left with in the end is a flowing stream of consciousness running through whatever ‘us’ is, in this particular present moment in time. The Hero takes full ownership of that.
I realize that some readers might by sitting down, shaking their heads and thinking, “this dude, is he really going from the first person to referring to himself as ‘the Hero’ — and with a capital H nonetheless! — what ego…talk about good irony!” And I get that, it sure might come across like that. But my conscious intention was rather to use the Hero as a deeper archetype that’s within each one of us, waiting to be awakened: an idea we can think of and strive towards.
It’s for this reasoning that I see so much value in re-considering Jesus — especially in our shared Judeo-Christian traditions which we are born from. Now, Jesus as a historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth — as as a guy that happened to have died on a cross, during some specific period of time — I have little interest. But as a metaphor, as a figure outside the realm of time, an eternal archetype that’s within each one of us, in that, I can see a lot of value. We all need reminders after all: and it’s sure easy to lose site of the forest when we’re bush-whacking through weeds all day long. Just imagine, though, how the world would look, if everyone, when faced with a difficult decision — or rather any decision for that matter — pondered to themselves: “what would Jesus do?” And by Jesus, of course, I mean that symbolic representation of pure presence, of unconditional love, ego dissolution and whole unity. Seems like there definitely could be worse worlds to live in, no?
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After a circuitous path, returning to the Elephant’s initial inquiry, we see that life, in of by itself, has no meaning. Or rather, maybe it does, but this mere mortal right here can’t ascertain it. Regardless, I don’t think it’s that relevant: what we do know, is that life, as a whole, does have meaning: but not through any exogenous factors, it comes through the meaning that we bring into it. We are nothing more, in fact, then walking and talking purpose-producing machines. It’s on us to see and feel it, to light our dormant Hero in fiery flames, in the air we breath, in the thoughts we summon, and with each utterance, action and connection we forge, Life runs through us, pulsating in our veins.