Our True Nature

 

“The Buddha taught that our true nature is emptiness- a lack of a permanent Self- and when this true nature is realized, the divine states of the Brahma-viharas – loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity- emerge.”

“In the teachings of the great yoga masters, our true nature is Brahman, the universal soul, of which the individual soul is simply a part. When this is realized there is ‘satchidananda,’ the awareness of bliss, from the knowing that pure awareness is our ultimate nature.”

“There are moments small and large when we are filled with the transcendent, as though we have been lifted out of our bodies or the Divine has entered us as grace.”

“Both the path of transcendence and the path of immanence are beautiful, whole, and worthy. It is your heart that must find its true path.”

–excerpts from “Realizing Your True Nature,” by Phillip Moffitt

 

 

Inspired this week by a personal challenge to the true nature of our world and our humanity, it occurred to me that any unnecessarily extreme version of a worldview, whether it is based on science or religion or philosophy, can mitigate our ability to navigate  in the world of our everyday living, and if we could only see that much of the discord in the world could be lessened significantly by striving for a balanced approach to addressing any of the most vexing questions we are engaged in answering, we might find that greater progress is possible.

No matter how much effort we pour into finding an explanation of how everything works in the physical universe, and no matter how much progress we achieve in all of the related sciences surrounding our subjective experience of human consciousness, any effort to compose a comprehensive accounting for every aspect of our existence, if it does not include the contributions made possible through transcendence and immanence, will likely fall short of an actual understanding of our true nature.

One need not be an advocate of Buddhism in order to arrive at a better understanding of our true nature as living beings, and although ideas like the ones expressed by Phillip Moffitt provide an excellent starting place for approaching the subject in conversation and study, even those with no inclination generally to support specific religious viewpoints can join the conversation by examining the basic principles they address.  Whether or not we embrace such ideas as a matter of course or bring other opposing views to such interactions,  giving consideration to the full realm of possibility, at least as a starting point to explore the ideas presented in the quotes above, is a helpful tool in our progressive discernment process.

 

 

We are beginning to see a few hopeful signs in the willingness of scientists, philosophers, and poets, to at least listen to a greater range of ideas from their unique viewpoints, which include sincere scientific approaches, as well as genuine philosophical and spiritual inclinations found often in music, art, and poetry.  Just because some ideas come from a creative approach to human expression, they shouldn’t be automatically dismissed as “wishful thinking,” and well-reasoned, thoroughly-researched, and innovative scientific ideas should be given commensurate consideration when they are presented in the interest of moving our understanding forward.

In asking ourselves questions such as, “What could account for our intuitive sense of the unity of all life, when such clear divisions exist between species and among all levels within major branches of the tree of life?,” or “Why does anyone suppose because we are not able currently to fully account for experiences of transcendence and immanence as measurable phenomena, that giving consideration to the potential existence of such an idea isn’t worthwhile?,” we begin a dialog that can lead to an expansion of the realm of what’s possible.

 

 

I was recently able to review a National Geographic documentary, distributed by PBS, and appearing on Disney Plus streaming service, called, “The Greeks,” and prior to the Greek Civilization, much of what occurred in the world was cloaked in superstition and thought to be the result of the influence of benign Gods and malicious demons, but according to this presentation, that all changed once the Greeks set out to understand the world through reasoning and focused attention on philosophical thinking.  The mini-series is informative and interesting with a number of modern-day thinkers contributing to an overall view of how the Greeks contributed to important changes in the course of human history.

Did our inclination to abandon the notion of Gods and Demons influencing and directing the fate of humanity in the world originate in Ancient Greece?  According to historian, J.M. Roberts, who wrote a volume of “Ancient History,” published by Duncan Baird Publishing, 2004:

 

 

“The Greek challenge to the weight of irrationality in social and intellectual activity tempered its force as it had never been tempered before…They invented the philosophical question as part and parcel of one of the greatest intuitions of all time, which was that a coherent and logical explanation of things could be found…the liberating effect of this emphasis was felt again and again for thousands of years…It was the greatest single Greek achievement.”

Whether or not a “coherent and logical” accounting of consciousness might eventually include aspects of transcendence and immanence as essential components is still an open question, but a comprehensive account of the true nature of things begs the question, and requires a serious look at the kind of philosophical thinking inspired by the Greeks!

The Throne of the Invisible

Coasting to Eternity, Near Big Sur, California2

“By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but nature more,
To mingle with the universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.
Dark-heaving; boundless, endless, and sublime,
the image of Eternity,–the throne of the Invisible!”

– George Gordon Noel Byron from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

 

The words that normally flow in great waves from my heart have, of late, fallen silent, even though my life has been pressing me into contemplation and reflection much more than usual.  I have been engaged in a cooperative process with my siblings of caring for my mother, who is, in her own words, “facing eternity.”  In the face of this perplexing “drought,” what I feel seems to make no sense at all.   I have been in a heightened state of awareness, as the world around me swirls with an avalanche of decisions, distractions, and intrusions, all which seem to be disrupting the momentum of my life.  I can barely assimilate the many notions and questions which press on me currently,  and the circumstances of my existence hardly seem like a life presently.  This posting is an attempt to see through the chaos and to attempt to find the light.  I need to move forward toward the future in some way in order to see clearer, and to feel stronger.

I feel sometimes that I am bound away, destined to be far removed from all that I know, into a future which I could not know or see in a million years.  It might be a heartbeat away or not to come for many years, but I know it is there waiting.  An avalanche of distraction is not dissuading me from the task at hand, and there may yet be some purposeful element to be revealed.  My mind is going in so many directions simultaneously that concentration has become challenging.  As is often the case, when such conditions present themselves, I tend to turn inward.  Resting in bed this morning, I was reminded of a passage from “Anam Cara,” by John O’Donohue:

“If we become addicted to the external, our interiority will become hungry with a hunger no image, person, or deed can still.  In order to keep our balance, we need to hold the interior and exterior, the visible and the invisible together.”

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Time seeks us out occasionally to remind us of its passing, sometimes in subtle ways, and at other times dramatically. The passing of time can mark the ending of a period of joy that evokes melancholy, or it can signal the relief from the pressure of a deadline. It can deliver us regrettably at a point of agonizing separation, or finally to a point beyond prolonged pain. In every case there is likely some underlying wisdom to be gleaned at that moment. For better or worse, our response can ultimately only be to move forward, each of us at our own pace, if we are to live fully and well thereafter. With the additional perspective of passing time, we can usually see more clearly, the wisdom contained in these pivotal moments, and whatever degree of difficult pain we may have endured, in retrospect, usually seems less daunting, however indelibly imprinted it may be in our memory.

One of the major disadvantages of the accelerated pace of modern life is the increasingly shorter time there seems to be allocated for contemplation. So rare can the opportunity present itself to engage in it, that when we are standing at a significant crossroad in life, which may require a choice with long-term consequences, we are wholly unprepared for contemplation. In order to reverse this trend, it is necessary to make a dedicated effort to increasing our regular attention to shifting our awareness in a quiet, thoughtful manner. A consistent practice of setting aside even small blocks of time everyday to simply stop the world and get off for a few minutes can work wonders. Taking a walk outside briefly if the conditions permit, looking up at the sky; sitting quietly and breathing deeply if it is safe to do so; even just sitting in the shade or out of the weather if it is inclement can bring a moment of beneficial repose. The idea is to fully withdraw from the routines and scenes of everyday activities briefly to give you the opportunity to disengage from the flow and let the constant stream of thoughts subside.

tranquility

Reading this afternoon when the house finally got quiet, I was reviewing Colin McGinn’s book, “The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World,” and I was struck by his insistence that as humans we “postulate unobservable entities…because otherwise, we would not be able to explain what we observe.” This strikes me as argumentative rather than instructive. While our psychological desire for explanation and inclination to rationalize are fairly universal in human development, it seems unlikely to me that it is strictly due to having no other avenue to pursue in every case. As is often the case with our hunches, expectations, and even during anticipation, our intuitive responses and instinctive awareness can often alert us to the presence of actual phenomena. When we sense danger, or have expectations of success after becoming reasonably expert at certain tasks, we are tapping into our inner awareness and memories of our previous experiences. We are not predicting the future when we have a hunch about what is wrong with the car that turns out to be correct, but neither are we conjuring “unobservable entities.”

evolution of consciousness

Postulating the existence of molecules, atoms, quarks, and the like may seem like an attempt to explain our observations, but it may also be that we are connecting to a level of awareness which is an enhanced perception of an independent reality, made possible by capacities which we have totally independent of our inclinations to conjure and explain. We have seen throughout the history of science, an “unobservable nature,” or quality to many phenomena that did not preclude an explanation and an eventual comprehension of it. It has always been my contention that we must first imagine a possibility before we can ever determine if it has any basis in temporal reality. There are some phenomena that are observable and known, and some that are unobservable and known, so it seems reasonable to me that my inclinations to consider a spiritual component to humanity in general, and to consciousness in particular, may simply be currently unobservable, but subjectively very real. I have been in the presence of certain individuals with whom I have felt a powerful, yet unobservable, spiritual connection, even though they themselves could not explain the awareness of it. In my own case, I have been sometimes painfully aware of my own nature in this regard, but have not been certain just how to make any useful progress in getting others to become more aware of what is clear to me, though not observable through any temporal methodology.

What seems to be consistently missing from McGinn’s arguments is a willingness to pursue them to other possible resolutions. Although he acknowledges the existence of a variety of possible explanations for consciousness, he prefers to argue that it makes more sense to say that we are “unable” to comprehend it, rather than suggest any solution which cannot be empirically demonstrated.

The Buddhist teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche, wrote about the “two aspects of mind,” calling them “ordinary mind – flickering, unstable, grasping… and the nature of mind – a primordial, pure, pristine awareness, that is at once, intelligent, cognizant, radiant, and always awake.” This idea is quite a leap from conventional thinking, but if there is a subjectively real interaction with a transcendent nature to our existence, it implies a reference to that which cannot be understood simply through normal sensory experience, and by its very nature, cannot be comprehended or described accurately in temporal terms alone. Its source may very well exist beyond what is observable and accessible as a temporal phenomenon.

Before we are born, and after we cease to exist within our bodies, we may reside in a state of being so radically outside of our understanding, and unobservable in temporal terms, that our attempts to reconcile what we are able to understand, and what is beyond our understanding, forces us to contemplate and consider the very transcendent source we seek….