We used to chant this ancient Hindu chant in our small contemplative circle in Snowmass, Colorado back in the early 1990s, during the “Advaita” phase of our work. I hadn’t thought of it for years, but it suddenly popped back into my mind this morning as the following exchange with a student suddenly flowed out of me, from where I do not know. I think I may actually have just encapsulated in about 800 words everything I really wanted to say in my next book, currently (and a little too Sisyphus-fully) on the drawing boards. Anyway, for what it’s worth…
I have very much appreciated your teachings and approach to the spiritual life. I’m writing because I’ve been increasingly bothered for the last several months with the doubt that there is an actual spiritual, supernatural realm beyond our human experience. I truly believe we human beings have deep spiritual
experience, even a mystical sense of union with God. But how can we know that this experience is connected to anything real beyond the perceptions of our brains? I just have this nagging doubt that once our brains die, everything goes dark. It makes less and less sense to me how we could retain, or regain, consciousness and personhood after death as the doctrine of the resurrection promises.
These questions have become an obstacle to my prayer. I feel like I need to know (or have better-understood intellectual reasons for wagering) that there is an objectively real spiritual realm beyond earth and the human brain, in order to pray with motivation and hope.
Could you let me know how you know? Or the reasons you come back to for trusting in the reality of a spiritual realm that transcends the experiences (however profound) of our bodies and minds?
And my response…
Thank you for sharing with me this profound and delicate transition point in your own journey. Both the clarity and the honesty with which you reveal your struggle suggest you’re really standing at the edge of a major paradigm shift. I’d almost be inclined to say the one that ushers you through the gate into the authentic nondual.
It’s clear that your old cosmology of God — and the prayers emerging from it — is crumbling before your eyes, and that’s good. But what replaces it?
One way to go, certainly, is to simply replace your previous theological/metaphysical castle with a new one, generated by the same mechanisms of the brain, only this time more spacious. The whole metaphysical postulation of a supernatural or “imaginal” realm speaks directly to that strategy.
Throughout the spiritual ages, across all the sacred traditions, there has been a cloud of witnesses who can validate that personhood beyond the physical realm does indeed exist. I have had the perhaps questionable privilege of being able to travel in this realm a bit over these past twenty years on the eagle’s wings of my spiritual teacher Rafe. So I know that there is indeed water in this well, and that the well does indeed water the earth and materially help it through the recurring drought times and deserts of the human spirit. Yet I know also that even this well ultimately proves to be a construction. Just as everything in this all-too-perishable realm ultimately reveals itself to be.
But this doesn’t mean it’s false — only impermanent, as the Buddhists would say. In his recent book Waking, Dreaming, Being, philosopher Evan Thompson has a brilliant one-liner: “All illusions are constructions, but not all constructions are illusions.” The impermanent, intermediate, and ultimately mirage-like nature of the surrounding imaginal/supernatural world is indeed a construction. But so is the cosmos itself (and the word “cosmos” in Greek means “ornament”): a beautiful construction through which the otherwise inaccessible white light of the divine heart becomes manifest. We all participate in that illusion, each to our own degree, to our own level of clarity and toughmindedness. And good is done here — as well as some degree of harm. In the words of the old Koranic maxim, God speaks and says, “I was a hidden treasure and I longed to be known, so I created the worlds, visible and invisible”. All of us, in our temporarily separated individual conscious viewing platforms are pixels participating in that grand construction, the revelation of the divine heart. It is all fiction. And it is all real.
But another way of moving through this impasse — and the way I think you’re actually intuiting here — is not to build another cosmic Prospero’s castle using the same old mental methodology, but to question the nature of the mind itself in its seemingly unbreakable addiction to mentally constructed meaning. What would it mean to live “bare”, without that whole mental castle?
A scary threshold, to be sure. Few reach it, and the few who do generally get scared shitless and go running back as quickly as possible to the world of constructed meaning. But it is possible to stand there and to stand well. Beyond the cloud of constructed meaning, there is such a thing as direct perception. And you can get there if you wish — if you can stand it.
As Thomas Merton observed shortly before the close of his life in his own devastating moment of final clairvoyance (which I can almost but not quite quote from memory): “I was jerked out of my habitual, half-tied way of looking at things…having seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything — without refutation, without establishing some other argument.” The constructive principle drops out, and what remains is simply bare seeing.
And it’s just here that one discovers the remarkable, elusive secret: that meaning and explanation are not the same thing. Explanation is of the mind. Meaning is of the heart, a felt-sense of belongingness that needs neither justification nor further action. It is simply its own fullness. Prayer does not reach it, for it is the source of prayer, the source of everything.
Rest assured that consciousness does not go dark when your individual pixel of it departs from its individual body container. The only thing that goes dark — that is to say, if you decide to forego a side trip through the imaginal or boddhisattva bardos and proceed direct to the heart of the infinite — is your individual relationship to consciousness. Consciousness is the stuff of the universe, undivided and whole. It will never go dark. It will simply enfold “you”, and the exile will be over…
I’m not sure this helps, but hopefully it at least affirms that you’re standing on sacred ground, and that cynicism is not the only option. The other is to deepen the wonder.