From Science to God 4-5
“My studies in experimental psychology had taught me much about neurophysiology, memory, behavior, and perception. Yet, despite all that I was learning about brain function, I was no closer to understanding the nature of consciousness itself. The East, however, appeared to have a lot to say about the subject, and so did many mystics, from around the world. For thousands of years such seekers had focused on the inner realm of the mind, exploring its subtler aspects through direct personal experience. So I began to look into meditation and other spiritual practices. I soon discovered that during deep meditation, my habitual mental chatter began to fade away. Thoughts about what was going on outside, what time it was, how the meditation was progressing, or what I wanted to say or do later, occupied less and less of my attention. Random memories of the past no longer flitted through my mind. My feelings settled down, and my breath grew so gentle as to virtually disappear. Mental activity became fainter and fainter, until finally my thinking mind fell completely silent. I had transcended (literally ‘gone beyond’) thinking.”
Today’s column is the fourth in a five-part series, <www.peterussell.com>.
“The one ‘I am’ at the heart of all creation, Thou art the light of life.”
My studies in experimental psychology had taught me much about neurophysiology, memory, behavior, and perception. Yet, despite all that I was learning about brain function, I was no closer to understanding the nature of consciousness itself. The East, however, appeared to have a lot to say about the subject, and so did many mystics, from around the world. For thousands of years such seekers had focused on the inner realm of the mind, exploring its subtler aspects through direct personal experience. So I began to look into meditation and other spiritual practices. I soon discovered that during deep meditation, my habitual mental chatter began to fade away. Thoughts about what was going on outside, what time it was, how the meditation was progressing, or what I wanted to say or do later, occupied less and less of my attention. Random memories of the past no longer flitted through my mind. My feelings settled down, and my breath grew so gentle as to virtually disappear. Mental activity became fainter and fainter, until finally my thinking mind fell completely silent. I had transcended (literally “gone beyond”) thinking.
Indian teachings call this state samadhi, meaning “still mind.” They identify it as a fundamentally different state of consciousness from the three major states we normally experience-waking, dreaming and deep sleep. In waking consciousness we are aware of the world perceived by the senses. In dreaming we are aware of worlds conjured by the imagination. In deep sleep there is no awareness, neither of outer world nor inner world. In samadhi there is awareness, one is wide awake, but now there is no object of awareness. It is pure consciousness-consciousness before it takes on the various forms and qualities of a particular experience.
In the analogy with a video projector, this fourth state of consciousness corresponds to the projector being on, but without any input, so that only white light falls on the screen. Likewise, in samadhi there is the light of pure consciousness, but nothing else. It is the faculty of consciousness without any content.
THE ESSENCE OF SELF
When the mind is devoid of all content, you not only find absolute serenity and peace, you also discover the true nature of the self.
Usually we derive our sense of self from the various things that mark us out as individuals-our bodies and their appearance, our history, our nationality, the roles we play, our work, our social and financial status, what we own, what others think of us, and so on. We also derive an identity from the thoughts and feelings we have, from our beliefs and values, from our creative and intellectual abilities, from our character and personality. These, and many other aspects of our lives, contribute to our sense of who we are.
Such an identity is, however, forever at the mercy of events, forever vulnerable, and forever in need of protection and support. If anything on which our identity depends changes, or threatens to change, our very sense of self is threatened. If someone criticizes us, for example, we may feel far more upset than the criticism warrants, responding in ways that have more to do with defending or reinforcing our damaged self-image than with addressing the criticism itself.
In addition to deriving an identity from how we experience ourselves in the world, we also derive a sense of self from the very fact that we are experiencing. If there is experience, then there must, we assume, be an experiencer; there must be an “I” who is doing the experiencing. It certainly feels that way. Whatever is going on in my mind, there is this sense that I am the subject of it all. But what exactly is this sense of “I-ness?” I use the word “I” hundreds of times a day without hesitation. I say that I am thinking or seeing something, that I have a feeling or desire, that I know or remember something. It is the most familiar, most intimate, most obvious aspect of myself. I know exactly what I mean by “I.” Until, that is, I try to describe it or define it. Then I run into trouble.
Looking for the self is rather like being in a dark room with a flashlight, and then shining it around trying to find the source of the light. All one would find are the various objects in the room that the light falls upon. It is the same when I try to look for the subject of all experience. All I find are the various ideas, images and feelings that the attention falls upon. But these are all objects of experience; they cannot therefore be the subject of the experience.
Although the self may never be known as an object of experience, it can be known in another, more intimate and immediate, way. When the mind is silent, when all the thoughts, feelings, perceptions and memories with which we habitually identify have fallen away, then what remains is the essence of self, the pure subject without an object. What we then find is not a sense of “I am this” or “I am that;” but just “I am”.
In this state, you know the essence of self, and you know that essence to be pure consciousness. You know this to be your true identity. You are not a being who is conscious. You are consciousness. Period.
This core identity has none of the uniqueness of the individual self, just the opposite-it is the same for all of us. Being beyond all attributes and identifying characteristics, your sense of I-ness is indistinguishable from mine. The light of consciousness shining in you, which you label “I” is the same light that I label “I.” In this we are one.
CONSCIOUSNESS AS GOD
To many, the statement “I am God” rings of blasphemy. God, according to conventional religion, is the supreme deity, the almighty eternal omniscient creator. How can any lowly human being claim that he or she is God?
When the fourteenth-century Christian priest and mystic Meister Eckhart preached that “God and I are One” he was brought before Pope John XXII and forced to “recant everything that he had falsely taught.” Others suffered a worse fate. The tenth-century Islamic mystic al-Hallaj was crucified for using language that claimed an identity with God.
Yet when mystics say “I am God,” or words to that effect, they are not talking of an individual person. Their inner explorations have revealed the true nature of the self, and it is this that they identify with God. They are claiming that the essence of self, the sense of “I am” without any personal attributes, is God. The contemporary scholar and mystic Thomas Merton put it very clearly:
“If I penetrate to the depths of my own existence and my own present reality, the indefinable am that is myself in its deepest roots, then through this deep center I pass into the infinite I am which is the very Name of the Almighty.”
In the twelfth century, Ibn-Al-Arabi, one of the most revered Sufi mystics, wrote:
“If thou knowest thine own self, thou knowest God.”
Shankara, the eight-century Indian saint, whose insights revitalized Hindu teachings, said of his own enlightenment:
“I am Brahman… I dwell within all beings as the soul, the pure consciousness, the ground of all phenomena… In the days of my ignorance, I used to think of these as being separate from myself. Now I know that I am All.”
This sheds new light on the Biblical injunction “Be still, and know that I am God.” I do not believe it means:: “Stop fidgeting around and recognize that the person who is speaking to you is the almighty God of all creation.” It makes much more sense as an encouragement to still the mind, and know, not as an intellectual understanding but as a direct realization, that the “I am” that is your essential self, the pure consciousness that lies behind all experience, is God.
This concept of God is not of a separate superior being, existing in some other realm, overlooking human affairs and loving or judging us according to our deeds. God is in each and every one of us, the most intimate and undeniable aspect of ourselves. God is the light of consciousness that shines in every mind.
I AM THE TRUTH
Identifying God with the light of consciousness brings new meaning and significance to many traditional descriptions of God.
Whatever is taking place in my mind, whatever I may be thinking, believing, feeling or sensing, the one thing I cannot doubt is consciousness. Consciousness is my only absolute, unquestionable truth. If the faculty of consciousness is God, then God is the truth.
The same applies to other people. The only thing I do not doubt about you is that you are conscious and have your own interior world of experience. I can doubt your physical form-indeed, modern physics tells me there is nothing really there, no material thing, that is. All that I perceive of you is a projection in my mind. I can doubt what you say. I can doubt your thoughts and feelings. But I do not doubt that “in there” is another conscious being like myself.
Like God, consciousness is omnipresent. Whatever our experience, consciousness is always there. It is eternal, everlasting.
God is omniscient, all-knowing. So too, consciousness is the essence and source of all our knowing. It lies behind all understanding.
God is the creator. Everything in our world, everything we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch; every thought, feeling, fantasy, intimation, hope, and fear; it is all a form that consciousness has taken on. Everything has been created in consciousness from consciousness. I, the light of consciousness, am the creator. I am the God of my universe. And you are the God of yours.
God is Almighty. What greater power is there than the power of consciousness to appear as the myriad of forms we experience, everything in the world we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.
THE MATERIALIST MINDSET
Not only do traditional descriptions of God make new sense when God is identified with the faculty of consciousness, so do many spiritual practices. The key is the way we create of our personal reality.
In much the same way as our various scientific paradigms are founded on an even more fundamental belief, or metaparadigm, the various assumptions that determine the meaning we give to our experience are based on a more fundamental mindset. We believe that inner peace and fulfillment comes from what we have or do in the external world.
Tragically, this way of thinking actually prevents us finding true peace of mind. We can become so busy worrying about whether or not we may be at peace in the future, or so busy being angry or resentful about what has stood in the way of peace in the past, we never have the chance to be at peace in the present. The general effect of this material mindset is to put our inner state of mind at the mercy of the external world.
We do not have to perceive the world through this mindset. If we perceive things from the perspective that everything we know is a construct of consciousness, everything changes.
With this shift, whether or not we are at peace is no longer determined by what we have or do in the material world. We created our perception of the world. We have given it all the meaning and value it has for us. And, we are free to see it differently.
Nothing has to be achieved in order to be at peace. All we have to do is stop doing-stop wanting things to be different, stop worrying, stop getting upset when things don’t go as we would wish, or people don’t behave as we think they should. When we stop doing all the things that obscure the peace that is there at our core, we find that what we have been seeking all along is there, waiting silently for us.
This, to me, is Spirituality 101. It is a universal principle, independent of time, culture, or religious belief. And it is the core principle from which many spiritual practices unfold.
The conventional understanding of forgiveness is of some absolution or pardon-something along the lines, “I know you did wrong, but I’ll overlook it this time.” But the original meaning of forgiveness is very different. The ancient Greek word for “forgiveness”, is aphesis, meaning “to let go.” When we forgive another we let go of the judgments we may have projected onto them. We release them from all our interpretations and evaluations, all our thoughts of right or wrong, of friend or foe.
Instead we see that here is another human being caught up in their own illusions about themselves and the world around them. Like us, they feel the need for security, control, recognition, approval, or stimulus. They too probably feel threatened by people and things that prevent them finding fulfillment. And, like us, they sometimes make mistakes. Yet, behind all these errors, there is another child of God simply looking for peace of mind.
Even those we regard as evil are seeking the same goal. It is just that for one reason or another-who knows what pain they may have endured in their childhood, or what beliefs they may have adopted-they seek their own fulfillment in ways that are uncaring, and perhaps even cruel. Deep inside, however, they are another spark of the divine light struggling to find some salvation in this world.
Forgiveness is not something we do for the other person so much as something we do for ourselves. When we let go of our judgments of others, we let go of the source of much of our anger and many of our grievances. Our bad feelings may seem justified at the time, but they don’t serve us-in fact, they usually cause more damage to us than they do to the other person. The freer we are of our judgments and grievances, the more at peace we can be in ourselves.
This change in perception is the essence of a change of consciousness. When I first heard of higher states of consciousness, I imagined they would bring awareness of subtler dimensions, possibly new energies, or some other aspect of reality that was beyond my everyday perception. Over the years, I have gradually realized that enlightenment is seeing the same world, but in a different light. It is not seeing different things so much as seeing things differently.
GOD IS LOVE
Love is another quality frequently ascribed to God. This love is not to be confused with what generally passes for love in our world, which, more often than not, has its origins in the same materialist mindset that runs many other areas of our lives. We believe that if only other people would think or behave as we want them to, we would be happy. When they don’t, we may find ourselves feeling upset, angry, frustrated, or some other less-than-loving emotion. When we meet someone who we think will satisfy our deeper needs-someone, that is, who matches our image of the perfect person-our hearts are filled with warm feelings towards them. We say we love them.
Such love is conditional. We love a person for their appearance, their manner, their intellect, their body, their talents, their smell, their dress, their habits, their beliefs and values. We love someone whom we feel is special; someone who matches our expectations, someone who will satisfy our deeper needs, someone who will make our life complete.
Such love is also fragile. If the other person gains weight, develops some annoying habit, or does not care for us as we think they should, our judgments can flip from positive to negative, and the love vanish as quickly as it came.
The love of which the mystics speak is a very different form of love. It is an unconditional love, a love that does not depend on another’s attributes or actions. It is not based on our wants, needs, hopes, fears, or any other manifestation of the ego’s thought system. Unconditional love is the love that springs forth when the mind has fallen silent, and for once we are free from fear, evaluation and judgment.
Like the peace we seek, this unconditional love is always there at our core. It is not something we have to create; it is part of our inner essence. Pure consciousness-consciousness not conditioned by the needs and concerns of an individual self-is pure love. I, in my true essence, am love.
Final Installment. The Meeting of Science and Spirit. Scientific and spiritual worldviews are converging, leading towards a much-needed spiritual renaissance.