Thursday, November 24, 2011

The I That is We


If there is one cliche that has been constantly drummed into our ears by countless religious leaders, it is the claim that "we are all one". We hear this so often that we take it no more seriously than a soft-drink commercial. And why should we take it seriously? There is nothing in the world we see to indicate even remotely that it might be true. All over we see people jockeying for position, trying to surpass each other in money, status, comfort. One person's success means another's failure. At any given time, two different people cannot be elected president or win the Academy Award for best actress or be the richest person in the world. One man gets the girl, and the other does not. The verdict of appearances is obvious: we are not all one. Our name is Legion.

This is why, in order to understand the statement that we are one and to see if it makes any sense whatsoever, we have to go past the evidence of the senses and the world we see. To do this, we need to look into ourselves and see what we are made of -- not in terms of proteins and chemicals, but of how we experience ourselves.....

If you look into your own experience, you will soon see that it comes in two basic forms, one might almost say "flavors". There is the world of physical experience, of the outer world of the five senses, which is to a great degree public; we can discuss it and compare it with others. There is also the world of inner experience: thoughts, images, feelings, associations, dreams. This is more or less private (the dream I had last night is practically certain to be different from everyone else's). These two worlds have been given various names in different esoteric traditions. The Kabbalah calls the first world Assiyah, or "doing": the world of physical manifestation. The second is Yetzirah, or "formation": the world of images, forms, concepts. Esoteric Christianity refers to these as the body (or the "flesh") and the "soul" or "psyche", respectively. (The word in the Greek New Testament translated as "soul" is psyche).

There, it would seem, we have the totality of experience: body and soul, inner and outer worlds. In fact, modern Christianity speaks of human beings as made up of body and soul. Ancient Christianity, however, said that we are composed of three entities: body, soul and spirit. "I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (I Thessalonians 5:23). Soul and spirit are two different things: "For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit" (Hebrews 4:12). What's the difference between the two? If you consult even the most learned authorities in contemporary theology, you'll probably conclude that they don't know. This is a crucial distinction that has been lost in Christianity, and Christianity has never been right since.

To go back to our own experience, we can see that although experience can be comparatively easily divided between inner and outer, between soul and body, what is left out is that which experiences. If there is an "I" that can witness even its own most private thoughts and desires from a remove, this "I" must be distinct from them. This is a very subtle but very profound point. It's not terribly difficult to grasp (although it will probably be easiest for those with a certain amount of meditative experience), but it is often forgotten. This witness is always that which sees, so of course it can never be seen. "What you are looking for is what is looking", said Francis of Assisi. The Hindu Upanishads say, "You could not see the seer of seeing. You could not hear the hearer of hearing. You could not think the thinker of thinking. You could not understand the understander of understanding". Hindu philosophy identifies this witness with the Atman, usually translated as "Self". As I said in Chapter Four, the Gospels refer to it as "the spirit", "the kingdom of heaven", the "kingdom of God", and "I am". Some esoteric Christian texts, especially those of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, call it the nous or "consciousness". If one grasps this point, suddenly an extraordinary amount of what was baffling and cryptic in mystical literature of all types becomes remarkably clear.

This consciousness is not limited to humans or even to living beings but subsists in everything, no matter how apparently inanimate. Thomas Edison once said, "I do not believe that matter is inert, acted upon by an outside force. To me it seems that every atom is possessed by a certain amount of primitive intelligence. Look at the thousands of ways in which atoms of hydrogen combine with those of other elements, forming the most diverse substances. Do you mean to say that they do this without intelligence?" Sir William Crookes, a renowned British physicist of the late nineteenth century, said, "Every atom has sensation and power of movement". This does not mean that a hydrogen atom has a conscious ego like ours or even of the sort that we observe in the most primitive life forms. But under certain circumstances, the atom "knows" how to recognize an oxygen atom and "knows" how to react with it to produce certain chemical combinations such as water. From our perspective, this is mind at a very rudimentary level, but it is mind nonetheless.

We can take the matter a step further and say that this universal, all-pervasive mind is God in his immanent aspect: "For in him we live, and move, and have our being", as Paul told the philosophically sophisticated Athenians (Acts 17:28). Esoterically, this immanent aspect of God is called the "Son". The Jews of the first century A.D., influenced by Hellenistic philosophy, called it the Logos, usually translated as "Word" but meaning something more like "reason" or even "mind" -- particularly mind in its structuring and organizing aspect. Because it's also known as "I am", Christ, speaking in the person of this Logos, can say in the Gospel of Thomas, "Split the wood and I am there": what in us says "I am" is also present in everything. Christ, again speaking in the person of the Logos, also says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). This "I am" is the gateway to universal consciousness and beyond it to the experience of the transcendental Father who is the ground of all being. Such an interpretation transforms this verse from a narrow sectarian claim into a profound insight into metaphysical reality. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, "If you have heard [and understood] not me but the Logos, it is wise to agree that all things are one".

Heraclitus also said, "The Logos is common to all, but most people live as if they had minds of their own". Although the Logos, mind, subsists in all things, in day-to-day experience the "I" can be, and usually is, fixed in a stance of opposition against the rest of the world. It is frozen in egotism and isolation. Vladimir Solovyov observes:

      "This abnormal attitude toward everything else -- this exclusive self-assertion, or egoism,
        all-powerful in our practical life even though we deny it in theory, this opposition of the
        self to all other selves -- constitutes the radical evil of our nature. It is characteristic of
        everything that lives, since every natural entity, every beast, insect, and blade of grass,
        separates itself in its own peculiar being from everything else and strives to be every-
        thing  for itself, swallowing up or repelling what is other (whence arises external,
        material being). Therefore, evil is a property common to all of nature."

As Solovyov stresses, "radical evil" is not limited to humans. It is a universal force, which far outstrips the petty sins of a single species on earth. This is why Paul can say that "the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain until now" (Romans 8:22). We do not, probably cannot, know how this drama plays out in the lives of different species, on this planet and possibly on others, or in the dynamics of the universe itself. The twentieth-century French alchemist Henri Coton-Alvart daringly suggests that matter itself is constituted of the resistance of this radical evil to the light of God: "The regions whose extent is of the order of magnitude that we attribute to the atom or the neutron, or even smaller, are.... places void of light, in which nothingness, the spirit of negation, exclusively prevails".

In any event, what Solovyov calls "this abnormal attitude toward everything else" is not something that arose once in a primordial past. It occurs on a moment-to-moment basis. In humans it is largely perpetuated by the mind's own identification with its contents. There is a world of difference between having a thought and remembering that you and the thought are not the same thing. Most of what passes for waking life is in fact a kind of sleep, a half-conscious identification with the thoughts and emotions, which inevitably imply a "me" and "mine" set off in opposition to the rest of the world. (The emotions in particular are, in the esoteric Christian tradition, usually called "passions", a significant choice of words in that it emphasizes the passivity of consciousness in regards to its own contents.) As many spiritual teachers have emphasized, it is necessary to detach the consciousness, the true "I", from its contents in order for liberation to occur. This is arguably what the text from Hebrews means when it speaks of the "cleaving asunder of soul and spirit". It does not refer to death but to liberation of the consciousness ("spirit") from enslavement to its own experience ("soul" or psyche). This is why practically all esoteric traditions put such emphasis on meditation, which is the day-to-day process that makes liberation possible.

As the fixity of ordinary identification begins to dissolve, the psyche is increasingly experienced as a kind of flowing -- the "stream of consciousness" made famous by twentieth-century literature. The "I" becomes able to watch its own experience as a film unfolding before it. But then questions arise: If all of what passes for "my" experience is in itself a sort of other -- a film that I can watch from a distance -- who or what is this mind that is doing the looking? And where is the dividing line between my mind and someone else's?

That is precisely the crux of the matter. As the mind begins to dissolve its attachments to its "own" experience, it begins to regard itself not as an isolated thing but as part of a larger mind. There is no real border between this "I" and the collective "I" in which we all participate. This is sometimes known as "the I that is we".

Such, of course, is not our day-to-day experience, which is all too easily cut up into conceptual categories. Esoteric Christianity depicts the broken shards of the androgynous primordial human, huddled in coats of flesh, in the figure of Adam. The Self or true "I", the part of the mind that is capable of transcending this isolation and restoring Adam to his pristine unity, is known as Christ. "For in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive" (I Corinthians 15:22). This theme goes back to the earliest days of Christianity, for example, in the epistles of Paul: "So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another" (Romans 12:5). "There are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all..... For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all members of that body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ..... Now are they many members, yet but one body" (I Corinthians 12:6, 12, 20).

Christ in this sense does not refer to the historical Jesus, but to the Great Work of the restoration of this cosmic unity, in which each of us has a part, whether we know it or not. To quote Solovyov again:

      "This body of Christ, which made its embryonic appearance in the form of a tiny 
        community of the first Christians, is growing and developing little by little. 
        At the end of time it will encompass all humankind and all nature in one 
        universal divine-human organism, because the rest of nature is, in the words of 
        the Apostle, awaiting with hope "the manifestation of the sons of God."

Whatever connection we may make between this body of Christ and the historical Jesus, it is clear that the two cannot be equated in any simplistic sense. And while "the tiny community of the first Christians" may also have played a crucial role, it is hardly likely that they initiated the process, which in all likelihood has been going on since the beginning of time itself.

The theme is in fact older than Christianity. We have already looked at the Zoroastrian myth of Gayomart. The Hindu Rig Veda (dated from 1200 to 900 B.C. or sometimes earlier) describes the generation of the universe in very similar terms. The universe comes about through the sacrifice and dismemberment of Purusha, which is portrayed in the Vedas as Man, the cosmic human, but which -- even more profoundly -- means consciousness, "the seer of the seeing", or as defined by the scholar of Indian religion Heinrich Zimmer, "the living entity behind and within all the metamorphoses of our life in bondage". The Vedic hymn says:

      "The Man has a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet. He pervaded the
        earth on all sides and extended beyond it as far as ten fingers.
             It is the Man who is all this, whatever has been and whatever is to be. He is the
        ruler of immortality.
            Such is his greatness, and the Man is yet more than that. All creatures are a
        quarter of him; three quarters of him are what is immortal in heaven."

What is most radically the Self, the "I", Purusha, is nothing other than this transcendent principle known as the Christ, an idea we also find in Paul: "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me" (Galatians 2:20). Indeed, Paul's entire theology is incomprehensible without reference to this truth. Without it, one might, for example, find oneself trapped in the endless controversy about whether one is saved by faith or by works. For Paul, it is neither faith nor works that saves us but union with this cosmic Christ by realizing that the "I" that lives is the Christ that "liveth in me". What it saves us from is not the banal hell of popular imagination but the true hell of isolation from the common Life that pulses throughout the universe. In this light, we can see how Christianity may be rescued from the specious theological debates that have reduced it to a faith of scribes and Pharisees.


From ~ Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity, pgs. 134-45
By ~ Richard Smoley