“THE GREATEST OF ALL THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF 20TH-CENTURY SCIENCE has been the discovery of human ignorance.” Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell. “OUR IGNORANCE, OF COURSE, HAS ALWAYS BEEN WITH US, AND ALWAYS WILL BE. What is new is our awareness of it, our awakening to its fathomless dimensions, and it is this, more than anything else, that marks the coming of age of our species.” Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

My Awakening to the Obvious

When I was nineteen, I was blessed with a wonderful mystical vision: I experienced the light of God. That is, I experienced what Tibetan Buddhists call Osel (or “Primordial Clear Light”), and Hindu yogis describe as Sahasradala Padma (“Thousand-Petal Lotus of Light”). Chinese Taoists call it Ming (“Transcendent Luminosity”). Sioux Indians name it Wakan Tonka (“Great Spirit”). Muslims refer to it as Noor (“Divine Resplendence”). It is also Kavod (“Eternal Flame”) that shines at the altar of Judaism; the same radiance of which Jesus said, “If your eye is single, your whole body will be filled with light.”

The word light is not used here as a figure of speech (symbolizing a brighter, sunnier, higher aspect of ourselves and the cosmos). All these names and images refer to actual light: self-luminous, all-pervading energy. It is the living force—radiant consciousness­­—ablaze with bliss. Communion with this holy light, absorption in it is unspeakably pleasurable. Yet in my case, the event of drowning in the ocean of brightness left a great disturbance in its wake that took decades to resolve.

Let me tell you my story.

In 1972 I was a sophomore at Boston University, a teen-age son of 20th-century America, who listened to Led Zeppelin cranked up loud enough to vibrate my teeth. I was not exactly preparing body and mind for a direct encounter with the divine. My Jewish religious training had consisted of attending Sabbath services and Sunday school as a boy, which felt like sitting for several hours a week in front of an unplugged radio. Until the age of about nine, I had believed in and prayed to the Judeo-Christian Deity, but by the time I was ten or so, I began to aggressively disbelieve in an anthropomorphic Father-God. Natural science and science fiction became far more inspiring, meaningful and beautiful to me than conventional religious dogma. At age eleven, I had quit attending the synagogue.

Even so, there was a mystical streak in me that I had noticed from my earliest memories. It showed itself as a keenly felt sense of the mystery of the natural world and human life. This feeling of wonder or awe would sometimes rise in me as a bodily thrill until I had to laugh or shout.

As a college freshman I took a world religions course because I intuited something fundamental to the religious urge in people, something prior to arguing over the different notions of God, something primitive, below the abstract verbal mind that has created all the historical schisms of exoteric beliefs. I wanted to find this most basic truth at the root of all faiths. I longed to be like a lover—a naked beginner in the embrace of Living Nature. I personally wanted to know “It”—the real God—for I somehow understood “It” to be the depth and ground of my own heart. Thus, I sought contact with my deepest heart, from which I was seemingly in exile.

The next year, as a sophomore, I took an excellent class on Eastern philosophy. We read the Heart Sutra of Buddha and essays on Zen by D.T. Suzuki; Psychotherapy East and West, by Alan Watts and Modern Man in Search of a Soul, by Carl Jung; the principal Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita of the Hindus; the Tao Teh Ching of Lao Tzu; the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I began to have grand insights into my own condition, though I understood only a fraction of what I read.

Then some classmates invited me to their apartment for a dinner discussion of the profound teachings we were studying. Steve had been a Theravada Buddhist monk in Thailand for two years, meditating seventeen hours a day; John was an avid student of yoga and Vedanta; and Sean had deserted the French Army and walked through India for three years, meeting holy persons. In contrast, I had neither meditated, nor done yoga, nor spent time in the company of anyone who was especially wise and free.

After dinner, riding the crest of the moment, everyone but Sean took LSD together. It was my sixth psychedelic trip. We took turns reading aloud from the Old Testament’s Genesis and from Be Here Now, a primer on Hindu mysticism. After a while, Steve read to us from The Psychedelic Experience, a “trip manual” by Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner, based on the Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation (also called Tibetan Book of the Dead).

Early on in the six-hour LSD high, I began to feel the same deep awe that I’d enjoyed as a boy, only stronger now than ever. The emotion seemed to expand and fill body, mind and room as a tangible presence: a sphere of invincible energy and happiness. I was sitting on a ratty carpet on the living room floor of a cheap apartment in Cambridge, immersed in a force field of great joy. I looked at Steve with drunken love and said, “The Holy Spirit is upon us.”

But I began to notice an apparent limit to the spirit, like a knot or cramp within the otherwise boundless force and presence. It gradually became obvious that the knot was “me”—or everything I held onto as “myself”. I saw that the whole melodrama of “me” (as a separated or independent and limited identity) was based on this unconscious habit of withholding (contracting, recoiling from whole and infinite being). “Me” was only a construct, not ultimately real (not a real entity or identity), but merely an act (like a fictional stage character) within Free and Total Being. And mistakenly (ridiculously!), the sense of identity had been bound to this mere role, this temporary personality, this psycho-physical ego (as if Life and Consciousness were an isolated self that is born to change and die). Such phony (separate) identity was the cause of all fear—the refusal to love and shine completely; the resistance to change and death, and thus, to all of life and relationship.

Within Consciousness, the dream of “me” was suddenly released. In that instant, came the deep heart of understanding: The totality of conscious being is the real and living “Person”, the all-inclusive Identity of everyone and everything. As the sages have put it, “There is only God.”

I fell onto my back in tears with the overwhelming relief of this realization of transcendental (unlimited) life. I surrendered utterly to my felt-intuition of the Great One. Rapidly, a marvelous change occurred. Layers of subtler self-holding fell away and I melted into the heart of God. I did not just watch this self-transcendence occur, as if from the bleachers. Ego-“I” dissolved in the all-effacing light of Existence-Consciousness-Bliss.

To the extent the experience can be described, it was something like this: In the first few seconds of self-surrender, a glorious golden light filled mind and body and all of space. Mind (or attention) was captured by the light and drawn inward and upward toward an infinite locus above. Outer awareness disappeared as attention, body and world were resolved into the unity of the light-source—like an iris blossom refolding and returning to its bud. Just at the brink of ego-death there was an instant of fear, but I knew there was no turning back, no stopping this expansion beyond all limit. And I knew that whatever this sacrifice led to, it simply was Reality.

Therefore, I silently prayed, “Have mercy on me,” and in the next instant the light became so supremely attractive it absorbed the fear along with everything else into its dazzling singularity. As the last bit of self-hold evaporated, the golden light increased to “white,” or rather, it became perfectly clear, pure, unqualified, original. There was no more expansion, no more ascent; indeed there was no more “up” or “down,” “in” or “out,” but all of existence was radically equal and whole—the same absolutely bright fullness (or emptiness).

I was conscious as limitless radiant being, identical with the Self or Source of the universe. I don’t know how long I remained consumed in that domain of ecstasy, but it was utterly familiar, not new or shocking. It was Home, eternally. That Which IS (or the One I AM).

Of course, I came down. With a splat!

Crashed, as they say; and back again from the ego-centered point of view of a white, middle-class American kid who had grasped only a fraction of what he had read from the Oriental mystics, the experience of the light was not only incomprehensible, it was terrifying. By the following afternoon, I felt so upset, I was pale and shaky. After all, what was so attractive about the dissolution of ego, the death of “me”? I had developed a painful case of psychic indigestion.

At first I tried to resist the revelation of the light, the divine intrusion on my independent, private life. I wanted to say, “Go away, I’m not ready for this. I just want to be me. I want to stay me.”

Lost and scared, I compulsively tried to secure the threatened ego, reinforce its boundaries and make it solid, immune to change. It didn’t work. There is no way to go on as an isolated self once you’ve tumbled into the heart of infinite life, even if only for a timeless instant. (As the Muslim poet Kabir said, “I saw that for thirty seconds, and it has made me a devotee all my life.”)


I did.

I began to study the teachings of the Eastern and Western mystics in earnest. (It is noteworthy that all of them warn not to delve into mystical experience without proper preparation and a guide who knows the territory.)

It took time, more than a decade, but gradually my anxiety and confusion waned and was replaced by a growing understanding. Along the way I discovered scores of historical sources in which ego-loss in the radiant, transcendental being is described. Classical yoga provides a Sanskrit term for the experience: nirvikalpa samadhi. [1]Many teachers quickened my awakening; not the least among them my wife and our two sons.

This does not mean I fitted the revelation of the divine to my everyday life—like pocketing a shiny new coin and then continuing on my private way. No. The divine is senior to self and world and will not be owned. Therefore, I did the reverse: I submitted my life to the divine; I became a devotee of God. Not the Almighty Absent Parent who never speaks through the dead radio, but the same wonderful, living Source and starry Process that a naturalist can love with awe.

Also, I began to meditate. I practiced a simple technique of focusing on the in and out of my breath while sitting quietly. After fifteen years of this simple practice, I experienced a “return” to the light. While deeply in tune with the breath, my attention spontaneously became focused in the mid-brain, between and behind the eyes. Thus my “eye” became “single.” My whole body was filled with light, as Jesus promised. I sat in a swoon and received the golden light into all my parts. At the time, I wrote an essay proclaiming: “Holy light is not a metaphor. Dazzlingly alive is the eternal spirit.”

But I was still afraid.

I was afraid of madness—the utter sacrifice of self and all limit. No knowing. No controlling. No “me.” I was afraid of drowning in infinity.

Six years later, in February 1993, a turning point arrived. I stood on my balcony in a contemplative mood, feeling into life, and I recalled a line a friend had told me years before about “meeting God halfway.” That notion now seemed absurd, as I saw that God Is Here, already all the way present. Nothing is hidden or withheld. I said aloud a motto that summed this up: “The gift is always given.” It was a beautiful, religious sense of being lived and loved and breathed by God.

Suddenly, a tremendous Force pressed down from above my head, through my brain and nervous system, with such mighty light and bliss that I fell to my knees and was pinned, overwhelmed bodily by the tangible brightness, as one might be overwhelmed by a terribly powerful orgasm. I gasped and sobbed from the potency of the joy. The God-pleasure—the saturating fullness and Touch of the light—became so intense I felt my bones might crack.

When I stood up, I had changed physically.

And my meditations changed. For several years, I’d been aware of powerful, “electrical” surges in my nervous system during meditation. I had focused on the breath and ignored these stirrings of the kundalini.[2] But now my meditation sessions became sheer energy work-outs. Even so simple a practice as following the breath now felt like contrived self-effort. My method of meditation had been rendered obsolete. Instead, I would sit and the kundalini would flame through my head and eyes and spine and toss me around like a mad dancer. I laughed and cried. I growled. I shouted. I made spontaneous chant-like intonations. I saw archetypal visions.[3]

It was painful and blissful—indescribable. I was suffering, but unable to budge a finger; afraid, but unable to make a single response. I was being meditated.

I became constantly aware of the tension around my heart, the tension of “me”—of holding on to myself. The presence of spirit had become a great current and my misery was my resistance to it. But I was reluctant to sacrifice “my life” completely.

Eight months later, in October 1993, I had grown so exhausted with the effort of preventing my own death, that I lay down on my bed and said, Okay, I give up. Take me insanity, or take me God, or take me whatever you are, mighty river. Sweep me to my destiny.

Abruptly, I began to lose “face.” Panic came on strong. I cramped up in a ball like a fetus. I became an electric buzzing cloud and then everything dissolved and I entered the light and bliss and freedom of ego-death; beyond the golden light into the clear light of void. No self. No thing. No bounds. The rapture only lasted a few seconds, but it was enough to see that all was okay. I had allowed death to occur, and it was not annihilation. It was only the loss of an imaginary limit—a phony identity.

The next day, I spontaneously entered nirvikalpa samadhi again, while soaking in the bathtub. The episode lasted several minutes and was completely free of fear from the beginning. The bright pleasure simply increased until the separate “I”-sense was overwhelmed in light.

From October on, each time I sat to meditate, I entered the shining void (at times remaining in samadhi for an hour or more). It is like entering deep sleep while remaining wide awake. It is luminous clarity: dreamless awakeness—pure consciousness without content other than its own uncreated bliss.

After a couple months of this, I dreamed one dawn in January 1994 that I was on a stage before an audience. A coffin was displayed on a stand and I was lying in it, facedown and naked. An emcee was on stage, and it was clear that I was to perform a Houdini-like escape act: I was supposed to free myself and emerge from the coffin.

I began to chuckle. What was the big deal? I was already free. The coffin lid was open, and I had no chains or shackles on me in the first place. I simply stood up.

Next, I was holding beautiful blue pearls in my hand, and the emcee told me to string them together as fast as I could. I started slipping the blue pearls onto a string, as a timer with TV-game show music ticked in the background. The emcee shouted, “Hurry, get as many beads on the string as you can!” For a few seconds I rapidly strung pearls, but then I stopped and looked across at the emcee. Why do I need to do this? I thought. This is your game, not mine. I gazed at the audience and all eyes were upon me. I smiled at the people as I stepped off the stage and began handing out the blue pearls, one to each person.

Then I woke up. It was a sunny winter morning in Tallahassee, Florida. I went downstairs and sat to meditate . . . and . . .

There was nowhere to go.

I strolled outdoors into the woods around my home. I saw no dilemma at all, within or without. No thing to seek. No experience to shed. No limit. I was not a something that could travel to someplace. I could not go deeper or higher through any means.

I burst out laughing from down in my belly. THIS IS IT. What a punch line! I thought the moment of satori would never end. But by the afternoon, when I went to pick up my sons from elementary school, I realized that satori, too, is only a state. It comes and goes. Nothing lasts.

And guess what? I don’t care in the least. I am not dismayed when ego appears, or when it disappears. I am no longer at war with ego or void. They are twin aspects of consciousness itself. I don’t take sides at all.

Reality is not samadhi, the extinguishing of all forms. Reality is not even satori, the natural mode of egolessness. Reality is no special state at all; no special condition. Reality is the IS of all possible states, their origin and unqualified basis, perfectly open and unbounded; pure capacity. Fundamentally, nothing has changed or ever will, and what I’ve come to understand was already only so: Just this.

From a certain perspective it can seem a big deal: I’ve grokked my own essence, and it is reality (or Buddha-nature). Or, as the Persian poet, Omar Khayam, put it: “I am myself, Heaven and Hell.”

But on the other hand, Buddha-nature and a buck will buy me a buck’s worth of groceries. No big deal. No special status. Nothing special at all.

These days, I sometimes meditate for pleasure and refreshment, like drinking a delicious tea. And I occasionally enter spontaneous mystic states during meditation. Even so, not any of it is necessary; and none of it is greater than simple happiness. Samadhi or no samadhi, satori or no satori, ego or no ego—there is no limit, already. No dilemma.

Nothing is more than wonderful. This moment is wonderful. Nothing is more than whole. This moment is complete. THIS is as God as it gets.

Truth (or joy) is not exclusive, not hidden, not vague or abstract, not elsewhere, not different than the stream of life. Birth and change and death are aspects of a single process, the only event: the activity of (or within) Reality. Nothing exists but Bright Mystery, which forever flows as all the possibilities of life in all the worlds. As Lao Tzu put it: “The Way that can be deviated from is not the Great Way.”

It is not that I am now at every moment floating along in a mood of blissful clarity, or that my neuroses have utterly evaporated. “After enlightenment,” I still at times feel frustrated, angry, and so forth. I also feel saddened by the intense sufferings of our human world family. But I do not resist any of it. Whether pleasure or pain is arising, I understand the empty and inherently free nature of the stream of endless changes, and I see there is no escape, nowhere else to go. I can only be whole (without alternative), abiding as the Heart.[4]

It took twenty-two years of spiritual searching from the moment I first encountered the “clear light mind” to finally accept the wholeness that I am, the same totality that is true of everyone.

Friend, hear what I say: The Divine you seek is your own identity, before all ego-dilemma. Therefore, be already at ease. Relax into your own life-process. Trust in happiness, luminous and clear. Reality is Wholly Spirit, the Light that, while transcending every personality, also shines as all our life stories. In the midst of experience we are fundamentally free, beyond words and beyond worlds.

[1] Translation: sam (“total”) adhi (“total absorption”) nir (“without”) vikalpa (“mental formations”). It describes the trance state of complete absorption in consciousness itself, without the appearance of any sensory or mental object.

[2] Kundalini and Kundalini Shakti are Sanskrit terms for the primordial life-force or universal energy as it functions in the human body-mind. The closest Western term would be Holy Spirit. The arousal and release of this latent power in the course of meditation or devotional prayer, etc., is what Western mystics call “spiritual baptism.”

[3] An oft-recurring vision was of the hexangular “Star of David” of Judaism, which is also a common symbol in Hindu and Buddhist Tantra. The upward- and downward-pointing interpenetrating triangles, formed of brilliant light, stood in space before my inner eye, with my seated form (in lotus-posture) fitting inside the mandala star. I understood bodily that this archetype expresses the harmonized fullness of the ascending and descending currents of the life-force (kundalini shakti).
[4] Following the tradition of Indian sages of non-dual wisdom (Advaita), I often use the term “Heart” (Hridayam) to refer to unqualified consciousness or uncreated (inherent) intelligence.

Merry Christmas!

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all Sentient Beings!

If you hear the song I sing,
You must understand
You hold the key to love and fear
All in your trembling hand
Just one key unlocks them both
It's there at your command
C'mon people now,
Smile on your brother
Ev'rybody get together
Try and love one another right now
Right now
Right now!

Get Together (The Youngbloods)

Monday, December 2, 2013

Blessing of the Animals

I want to be blessed like the animals.
Not by a priest; not from anywhere beyond the sky.
But blessed right here, by the earth.
And the rain.
Fragrance of earth just after the rain.

I want to be blessed like the animals.
Not blessed at my crown; animals don’t wear hats.
Bless me at the belly.
Bless me where I breathe.
Feed me an apple.

Women, love me the way you love animals.
Dog lovers, cat lovers, horse lovers!
Unleash me and let me romp.
Stroke my fur till I purr.
Post with your thighs.

An animal wrote this, so don’t judge.
I’m not evil and I’m not good.
I’m hairy.
I think by sense of smell.

I want to be blessed like the animals.

I Am This

I am this

Unique body

Just exactly this much

I never pretend to know what it is

But I know what it is not

It is not a fleshy cage for a ghost

No one haunts it from within

“Within” is not even special

Just exactly this entire body I am

Including all the stars

On all the seashores of all the worlds

And the way bodies everywhere touch

If only with words

And the way each body

Says goodbye

Not from “within”

But from toes to crown

I Did Not Devise the Way

I did not devise the Way
of trading bodies.
I did not invent orgasm.
I did not formulate sunrise.
The puffer fish was not my idea.
I never could have imagined maggots
or dreamed up cancer.
Who ordered the butterfly?
Stars and giraffes also are given.
The Higgs Boson—I don’t even know what it is.
My hands: equally mysterious.
Death is as sudden and surprising as birth.
I don’t blame any god.
I am the whole secret saying this,
using language I inherited.
I can smell you on me.
Astonishing, the nose!
I am not a knower.
I am a lover.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Absolute Signal of Being

The Mystery is not inert or lifeless. The Mystery is Bright. Felt at the heart, Mystery makes the heart and the head and the whole body shine.

When the Mystery is strongly intuited and felt, this radiance—the dynamic force of the Heart—begins to move in the body. A spontaneous release of power flows through subtle channels of the multi-dimensional bodily vehicle. The current is heard (as harmonic sound), seen (as radiant light) and felt (as blissful force) as it ascends and descends in a living circuit throughout the body-mind.

Mystery, when fully felt (to the final degree of ego-dissolution) outshines the limits of all that is “known about” or can ever be “known about.” Our natural condition is free from all that is merely known, conceived, perceived or converted into words, numbers, images or meanings. Such outshining of limits (and all phony identities) is initiation into ultimate openness.

Until such initiation, the Mystery remains an idea, a symbol, an abstract mental object, a thing apart (and sought after). After initiation, all the myriad qualities of experience cannot mask the Absolute Signal of Being. Thus, the awakened one intuits and lives unqualified life, presently, even in the ordinary forms of the world. 

We are always, already free.

Just as the eyes cannot see themselves except by reflection, Consciousness (Original Mind) cannot be aware of itself, except through the reflection of manifestation. All worlds and beings display Original Mind, like a constellation of dewdrops reflecting the bright moon. But only a fool mistakes the dewdrops for the moon itself!

Original Mind is not an object (not even a Supreme Object) and can never be located (unlike a thing, such as a hidden diamond, which can be sought until found). Hear this! Abandon seeking after Reality (as it were a thing, within or without) once and for all!

Instead, drop the burden of self-concern and self-centered strategies. Come to heart-rest in the still depth of perfect wonder (naked of all knowing), and Original Mind stands out, clear and bright and timeless. This primary, clear bliss is what Zen calls “your face before your parents were born.” Or, as Jesus put it, “Before Abraham was, I Am.”

Simply Shine

All that we have anciently called “God” and presumed to know as “Divine” invariably falls within human experience of things and energies, physical and subtle, that appear and disappear. Therefore, what we have since prehistory been labeling “God” is not absolutely different or distinct from the whole dimension of “being human.”

What “God” is cannot ever be known. Yet the Bright Mystery is freedom and freedom can be lived now. In other words, what is God can only be realized—or understood, presumed and lived.

We must take responsibility for our “God” ideas and for everything that we have traditionally projected outside ourselves. We must apprehend and acknowledge the fullness of the human being, in order to be fully human, which is unfathomable and divine.

Realization of Real God necessarily involves the sacrifice of all experiences and things and ideas we identify as “God.” Therefore, our true spiritual responsibility is to be reconciled with Wonder—or the inherent freedom from all forms of knowledge—and so stand already liberated (already not displaced from whatever is God or Reality). Such heartfelt and whole-bodily Wonder is the simple and profound and eternally reliable link with actual God. It is to simply be God (Real Life) through perfect alliance and non-recoil from Infinity. It is to rest in the Unavoidable. It is to flow with the inevitable changes of birth and death, without fear and without any ultimate knowing.

To live this happiness is the holy message, the essence of spiritual instruction. Such joy, fully lived—now and now and now—is the truest prayer and the primary means to serve all beings.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Great and Wonderful Truth

A great and wonderful truth shines at the heart of every living being. It has been called by many names: Original Mind, Naked Mind, Unborn Mind, Buddha-Nature and the Open Secret. Indeed, many more names refer to it, and yet this radiant secret is beyond all labels and conventional knowledge.

Conventional knowing (i.e., information and symbol processing, storage and retrieval) is a critical life function that serves the body-mind in everyday affairs. However, conventional knowledge (verbal, mathematical, visual, and all forms of conceptual, discursive, denotative knowing) does not penetrate to, or pertain at absolute depth, at origin, at infinity.

Conventional knowledge accumulates over time, like adding books to bookshelves or storing data in memory files. But teraflops upon teraflops of information can never add up to the Open Secret, which is no summation at all, but is the Original Completeness—the Prior and Only One—from whom every moment and everything emerges as spontaneous flow.

The body-mind and world arise together in seamless wholeness. All experience (the continuum of space-time-energy-matter) is the spontaneous interplay (communication or conversation) of energy/information among the diverse parts of totality.

Totality (Cosmos) is a self-organizing system. In other words Cosmos, like the human body, is an organism. And, as with the human body, all parts (all appearances) within Cosmos are mutually dependent (co-arising). This is the great paradoxical process: Absolute Singularity endlessly becoming multiple, complex, and seemingly individuated—while remaining Absolutely Singular, Unique and Only!

Yes, a great and wonderful truth shines at the heart of every living being: That great and wonderful truth is the Immutable Mystery of your very self. 

The Message

No matter who might read these words, even in the most far-flung future, the truth will remain for the reader: YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT YOU ARE.

You honestly do not know.

The very existence of you and everything and everyone else that appears is, and will always remain, a perfect mystery.

You do not know what you are, bodily. (What IS the “body”?)

You do not know what you are, emotionally. (What IS a “feeling”?)

You do not know what you are, mentally. (What IS a “thought”?)

You do not know what you are, spiritually. (What IS a “soul”?)

Perhaps you may assert that everything is a form of energy. But then you must answer, what IS “energy”?  Or you may declare that everything is simply God. Then, what IS “God”?

Although you might describe energy as light, radiance, force, intensity, “the ability to perform work,” and so forth, you do not (and cannot) know what energy is, in itself.  And although you might conceptualize God in myriad ways, you are not presently knowing (and you are not about to grasp) what God is.

In all honesty, in the bareness of our human condition, we simply do not know.

Have you heard and considered this immutable fact or truth?

We are not knowers! Our essential situation is irreducible mystery.

The mystery is never dimmed or lessened by all the knowledge in the all the worlds.

All of our knowing (information processing and storage) could be labeled “conventional knowledge” or “knowing about.” We are able to know and to talk about things: to name and define and describe countless forms and functions and beings, to observe their interactions and learn how to make use of them. Such conventional knowing is natural and indispensable.

We have reproduced the terrible power of stars and peeked at the intricate jewelry of our genes. We have manufactured artificial hearts and someday we will manufacture artificial minds. Yet never are we able to find out or to bring to a close the naked mystery of ourselves—or any form or function or being.

Considered more fully, it is not simply the mystery of being human that awes us; it is the total mystery of being. Where is a place? When is a time? What is awareness? The irreducible mystery of existence (or consciousness) itself is the fundamental Fact or Truth that confounds the mind and astounds the heart.

What is a hummingbird?

What is a blue whale? 

Truthfully, no one knows—including the hummingbird and the blue whale!

There is no such one as a knower. Ultimate (Absolute) knowing is not a possible condition within reality.

Science is the human system of observing, naming, defining and describing forms and functions and beings, and working with this information (and the technologies it leads to) in countless ways.

Religion is the human response to eternal mystery.

The Mystery of being human is the beginning, middle and end of all sciences. If we call the Mystery “Nature” or “Life” or “the Universe,” we must confess that the subject is too vast for any possible accumulation of scientific knowledge. Nevertheless, the scientific method is an extremely helpful and practical human endeavor within our adventure in and of Perfect Mystery.

The Mystery of being human is the beginning, middle and end of all religions. If we call the Mystery, “God,” we must honestly confess: God is too vast for any possible religion. Nevertheless, inspired religion, like fine art, may beautifully express (while never capturing) the Mystery. Whether native religions of rivers and mountains; theistic religions of goddesses and gods (or of One True God); or formless religions of emptiness, light, space, freedom and peace---all these forms (or formlessness), functions and deities (or The Deity), are preceded, understood, embraced and surpassed by the apprehension of mere and absolute mystery.

Deeply and consistently abiding in our essential unknowing opens awareness in spontaneous surrender, and grants ever-greater intuitions of vast reality. It is a process of undermining every false (limited) identity, until the inherently free being dawns, luminous and clear. At last, one’s own self is realized as not truly “other” than the totality of living systems that arise within perfect mystery.

You cannot, at last, find yourself apart from the essential mystery. What you encounter in your search, more and more profoundly, is only the same magnificence, awesome wonder and freedom from where you began.

You cannot know yourself or own yourself or even “become” yourself. You can only be yourself—always, already abiding in mystery.

The traditional metaphor of a “journey” to self-realization does not imply that one’s identity ever becomes “known” in the way that sense data and abstract information is registered and stored. Our real identity can never become an externalized object of knowledge, in the sense that we might perceive a red cranberry on a mound of fresh white snow. Our real identity can never become an internalized object of knowledge, in the sense that we might conceive a prancing black unicorn in a pasture of silver grass. Such external and internal objects of perception and conception are always limited forms; but our real identity is never circumscribed.

Our identity IS the mystery. The mystery IS who (or what) we are. It is we, ourselves, who are eternally unknowable. We can never be located as separate “things” (objects) within the wonder and naked brightness of the mystery.

Profound consideration of the PRESENT luminous mystery awakens the heart to its transcendental condition, beyond all beliefs and images and symbols of God. Rather than grasping, one submits as the relaxed body-mind into the wholeness of simply being.  

Self-realization is, therefore, not a matter of knowledge (information) discovered or amassed, but a matter of wholly being; it is to be surrendered in mystery, alive at infinity, while completely present in whatever form we appear NOW.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

New Book: Awakening to the Obvious

I've published a new book that compiles my essays on non-duality, including several that first appeared on this blog. "Awakening to the Obvious" is available both as an e-book and a paperback.

From the introduction: 

In January, 1994, after a contemplative practice of more than two decades, I awoke to the transcendent heart. That fact, plus a couple bucks, entitles me to a (small) cup of Starbuck’s coffee. I’ve waited nearly 20 years to publish these essays about my experience of awakening—in order to give the stink of enlightenment time to wear off.
My penname, Adyashakti, is Sanskrit for “Primordial Energy.” I’m a former national magazine editor, and an award-winning author of several novels, one of them published in 10 languages. I’m married (for more than a quarter century), with two grown sons, a grizzled old greyhound, and a nearly paid-off mortgage. I spent my late teens, twenties and thirties studying the world’s religions, with particular focus on the mystics of each faith; throughout my thirties I was a journalist, in my forties I wrote science fiction; in my fifties I spent seven years teaching world religions at the university level. I’m 61 as I write this book.
I am not a guru or spiritual master, nor any kind of “purified” or “perfected” human being. (Just ask my wife or kids. Or dog.) I am not living in a special state of grace, nor undergoing unusual experiences, nor do I possess super-normal abilities. Indeed, without wearing glasses, I would not even be able to clearly see these words as I type.
In short, nothing about me as a personality could be called extraordinary. Yet this does not detract from the matter at hand: I do understand my original nature, as described in Buddhist and other mystical teachings of the past twenty-five centuries. I have seen beyond the limits of conventional identity, into the open nature (free capacity) of consciousness itself.
Therefore, it is clear to me that enlightenment (or the enjoyment of reality) is not opposed to the flow of ordinary life and change and death; not at odds with car payments, health insurance premiums, and the lifestyle of a modern Western householder.

This book offers no special doctrine the reader can adhere to. “The Great Way has no back,” said the Chinese sage Lao Tzu. “Thus, it cannot be followed.” However, this book may help you to reconcile with the inherent mystery of life as it is, and thus be one with (no longer at odds with) the Great Way.
Like the taste of fresh, clear water, “enlightenment” is subtle to describe. Yet it is here for the tasting, and even the most carefully chosen words become obsolete as soon as you take the first sip.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Twelve Tenets of Holons

Twelve Tenets of Holons

Ken Wilber’s concept of “holons,” an idea he credits to Arthur Koestler, could rightly be called the key building block of his evolutionary model of the Kosmos. Wilber defines holons as wholes that are parts of other wholes, indefinitely. Each whole is simultaneously a part, a whole/part: a holon. Therefore, the Kosmos “is not composed of wholes nor does it have any parts.”
Such holonic composition is the case with atoms, cells, symbols, cultures—the totality of phenomena. The elements of life can be understood neither as things nor processes, neither as wholes nor parts, but only as simultaneous whole/parts. Therefore, Wilber regards both the conventional “atomistic” and “wholistic” conceptions of reality as mistaken. “There is nothing that isn’t a holon, upwardly and downwardly, forever.” Wilber’s cosmology is a complex elaboration of the principles by which a nested holarchy (i.e., hierarchy of holons) has created and developed the Kosmos through great stages of matter, life, mind and spirit.
At first glance it may seem that holons—sub-atomic particles, atoms, molecules, etc.—while not things can factually be described as processes. Wilber responds to this, “To say that holons are processes instead of things is in some ways true, but misses the essential point that processes themselves exist only within other processes. There are no things or processes, only holons.” He expands upon this idea:

Before an atom is an atom, it is a holon. Before a cell is a cell, it is a holon. Before an idea is an idea, it is a holon. All of them are wholes that exist in other wholes, and thus they are all whole/parts, or holons, first and foremost (long before any particular characteristics are sorted out by us).
Likewise, reality might indeed be composed of processes and not things, but all processes are only processes within other processes—that is, they are first and foremost holons. Trying to decide whether the fundamental units of reality are things or processes is utterly beside the point, because either way they are all holons, and centering on one or the other misses the central issue. Clearly some things exist, and some processes exist, but they are each and all holons.

In other words, Wilber views holons as the overarching or primary definition or description of the basic units of the Kosmos. It is not that there are no such things as quarks (things) or photosynthesis (processes), but he believes all things and processes are viewed more accurately and completely as whole/parts—holons. This holonic world view becomes crucial (not mere semantics) when one seeks to find common “laws” or “patterns” or “habits” among diverse domains of existence, such as the objective realms of the material universe, science and society, and the subjective realms of psychology, spirituality and culture—which is precisely what Wilber has attempted, and to a very impressive degree, accomplished.

To say that the universe is composed primarily of quarks is already to privilege a particular domain. Likewise, at the other end of the spectrum, to say that the universe is composed primarily of our symbols, since they are all we really know—that, too, is to privilege a particular domain. But to say that the universe is composed of holons neither privileges a domain nor implies special fundamentalness for any level. Literature, for example, is not composed of subatomic particles; but both literature and subatomic particles are composed of holons.

Let’s examine an outline of twelve tenets of holons that introduce their nature and function.
Having defined a useful new way of viewing the building blocks of Kosmos, Wilber attempts to discern what all holons have in common. He introduces his list of 12 tenets of holons by cautioning that there is nothing special about the number twelve; indeed he admits some of the tenets might not hold up, and others can be added.[1] (I add my own caveat: Wilber introduces these tenets in a 46-page chapter of his magnum opus Sex, Ecology and Spirituality, and then enlarges upon the ideas for the remaining 700 pages of the book. Here, I must skim the surface of the tenets. Therefore, any apparent gaps and shortcomings should be construed as necessitated by my own brevity and not by Wilber’s lack of thoroughness.

1. The first tenet has been stated: Reality is not composed of things or processes, but of holons. “Thus holons within holons within holons means that the world is without foundation in either wholes or parts (and as for any sort of ‘absolute reality’ in the spiritual sense, we will see that it is neither a whole nor part, neither one nor many, but pure groundless Emptiness, or radically nondual Spirit).” He later adds, “There is a system, but the system is sliding. It is unendingly, dizzifyingly holarchic.”

            2. Holons display four fundamental capacities: self-preservation, self-adaptation, self-transcendence, and self-dissolution.
a.                 All holons display some tendency to preserve their own individuality or autonomy. Even a hydrogen atom tends to maintain its identity over time. A living cell displays a more advanced capacity for pattern-preservation, and a human ego even more capacity. “In short, holons are defined, not by the stuff of which they are made (there is no stuff), nor by the context in which they live (though they are inseparable from that), but by the relatively autonomous and coherent pattern they display, and the capacity to preserve that pattern is one characteristic of a holon.”

b.                 In its capacity as a part of a larger whole, every holon must adapt or accommodate itself to other holons. Even electrons register and react to other electrons in their orbital shell. “As a whole, it remains itself; as a part, it must fit in… We can just as well think of these two opposed tendencies as a holon’s agency and communion. Its agency—its self-asserting, self-preserving, assimilating tendencies—expresses its wholeness, its relative autonomy; whereas its communion—its participatory, bonding, joining tendencies—expresses its partness, its relationship to something larger.” Later in the book, Wilber explores how an imbalance of either of these tendencies in any system becomes pathology. In Arthur Koestler’s words: “Biological holons are self-regulating open systems which display both the autonomous properties of wholes and the dependent properties of parts. This dichotomy is present on every level of every type of hierarchic organization, and is referred to as the Janus Effect or Janus principle.”

c.                 Different wholes come together to form new and dissimilar wholes. For example, two hydrogen atoms join with an oxygen atom to form a molecule of water. This is self-transcendence, not just assimilation or adaptation, but a transformation that results in something novel and emergent. “This introduces a vertical dimension… In self-transcendence, agency and communion do not just interact; rather, new forms of agency and communion emerge through symmetry breaks, through the introduction of new and creative twists in the evolutionary stream.” This generates the sudden leaps and apparent discontinuities often observed in evolution of any kind.

d.                 Holons that are built up can also break down. This is self-dissolution. When holons disintegrate, they do so along the vertical sequence in which they were assembled (emerged). These four forces—agency, communion, self-transcendence and dissolution—are in constant dynamic tension, whether one is referring to atoms and cells, or teen-agers and parents, or individuals and societies, etc.

3.  Holons emerge. First quarks, then atoms, molecules, amino acids, proteins, organelles, cells, and so on, right up to lecturers and students, the ecosystem and beyond. The properties of emergent holons cannot be deduced from their subholons, nor can any holon be reduced to its components. (A human being is more than a collection of organ systems.)

4.  Holons emerge holarchically. That is, hierarchically, as a series of increasing whole/parts. “Organisms contain cells, but not vice versa; cells contain molecules, but not vice versa; molecules contain atoms, but not vice versa. And it is that not vice versa, at each stage, that constitutes unavoidable asymmetry and hierarchy (holarchy).”

5.  Each emergent holon transcends but includes its predecessors. While adding its own new form and qualities, it preserves the previous holons themselves, but negates their isolatedness. “All of the lower is in the higher, but not all of the higher is in the lower. For example, hydrogen atoms are in a water molecule, but the water molecule is not in the atoms.” Therefore, at a given level of the holarchy, a particular system is internal to the systems above it and external to the systems below it. This concept later plays strongly into Wilber’s apologia for the ego structure remaining after enlightenment.

6. The lower sets the possibilities of the higher; the higher sets the probabilities of the lower. Even though a newly emergent level transcends the lower level, it does not violate the laws of the lower level. “My body follows the laws of gravity; my mind follows other laws, such as those of symbolic communication and linguistic syntax; but if my body falls off a cliff, my mind goes with it… Nothing in the laws governing physical particles can predict the emergence of a wristwatch, but nothing in the wristwatch violates the laws of physics.”

7. The number of levels which a hierarchy comprises determines whether it is “shallow” or “deep”; and the number of holons on any given level we shall call  its “span.” Atoms, for example, have a shallow depth (they are composed of only a few lower levels, including electrons and protons), but a vast span, filling the universe. Then molecules appeared, at a greater depth (composed of atoms), but with less span (there are a zillion times fewer molecules than atoms in the universe).

8. Each successive level of evolution produces greater depth and less span. “The greater the depth of a holon, the more precarious its existence, since its existence depends also on the existence of a whole series of other holons internal to it.” But the pay-off is that the greater the depth of a holon, the greater its degree of consciousness. Indeed, evolution is properly viewed as a spectrum of consciousness. “One can perhaps begin to see that a spiritual dimension is built into the very fabric, the very depth, of the Kosmos.”

9. Destroy any type of holon and you will destroy all of the holons above it and none of the holons below it. Destroying all molecules would wipe out all cells, but the atoms and subatomic particles would survive intact. Therefore, the less depth of a holon, the more fundamental it is to the Kosmos, because so many higher orders depend on it. On the other hand, the greater a holon’s depth, the more significant it is. A human being is not very fundamental; we could all evaporate tomorrow and most other species would breathe a collective sigh of relief. But as high-level organisms (greater depth) we embrace, embody, reflect and signify more of Kosmos than a kudzu vine because we are comprised of countless more holons.

10. Holarchies coevolve. Holons do not emerge (evolve) alone, because there are no loner holons, but only fields within fields within fields. Gregory Bateson called this principle co-evolution. This means that the unit of evolution is not an isolated holon, but the whole ecosystem. Wilber puts it thus: “All agency is always agency-in-communion.”
“As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: worlds without end, Amen, Amen.”

11. The micro is in relational exchange with the macro at all levels of its depth. Each holon preserves itself through relational exchanges with holons at the same depth in its environment. Wilber gives the example of a human being, who for reasons of simplification, can be said to consist of just the levels of matter, life and mind. The physical body depends on physical laws and on food production and consumption, and on sexual reproduction, which depend upon labor organized in an economy for basic material exchanges riding on a local and even global network of social and ecosystems. These exchanges occur at the level (depth) of the physiosphere and biosphere. Human beings also reproduce themselves mentally through exchanges at the level of culture and within symbolic environments, which Wilber calls the noosphere. For short, he dubs this tenet, “same-level relational exchange.”

12. Evolution has directionality. Holons evolve in the direction of:

a)    Increasing complexity. This is simultaneously a new simplicity, because the emergent whole, as a new single system is simpler than its many components.

b)   Increasing differentiation/integration. Wilber explains this by quoting Alfred Whitehead: “The many [differentiation] become one [integration] and are increased by one [the new holon].”

c) Increasing organization/structure. Evolution moves to ever-more complex systems and ever-higher levels of organization.
d) Increasing relative autonomy. Higher-order holons become better able to adapt and survive in the midst of environmental changes (physical, social, cultural). We humans made it through the Ice Ages; wooly mammoths died out when the weather grew too warm. “By the time we reach the noosphere, in humans, relative autonomy is of such a high degree that it can produce not just differentiation from the environment, which is necessary, but dissociation  from the environment, which is disastrous—an expression of pathological agency that, among many other things, lands it squarely in ecological hell.” Autonomy is always only relative because there are no independent wholes, only whole/parts. You may be a pacifist, but when the president gets our nation into war, we are then all included in that war whether you like it or not. “Thus, autonomy, like all aspects of a holon, is sliding.

e) Increasing Telos. “An acorn’s code (its DNA) has oak written all over it,” Wilber says. Indeed, the entire universe has a wonderful goal—embedded in its “code”—unfolding through eons of evolution. If this sounds like the evolutionary theologies of Paul Tillich, Teilhard de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo, it is because Wilber has been influenced by their writings (especially Aurobindo’s The Life Divine). “A final Omega Point? That would imply a final Whole, and there is no such holon anywhere in existence,” Wilber writes. “But perhaps we can interpret it differently. Who knows, perhaps Telos, perhaps Eros, moves the entire Kosmos, and ‘God’ may indeed be an all-embracing chaotic Attractor, acting, as Whitehead said, throughout the world by gentle persuasion toward love.”

[1] Contrast this attitude with the stance of the Kashmiri Shaivites, Kabbalists, et al. who take their numbers as absolutes. “No, not twenty-five tattvas, you bloody fool! Thirty-six!” Wilber addresses this attachment to numerical exactitude: “The number of levels in any holon has an element of arbitrariness to it, simply because there is no upper or lower limit to a manifest hierarchy and therefore no absolute referent.”