What are some of the common factors between religious beliefs, modern literature and thought, mythology and existence itself? Let’s talk fundamentals.
Perhaps the most obvious motif common to most religious and philosophical traditions is the black/white, on/off binary flop. The symbol of the Tao is a good visual metaphor. All opposites mutually arise, all phenomena mutually depends on all other phenomena. Other examples of this mutuality include: sound/silence, light/dark, self/other.
Positive and negative charge in physics is vaguely similar in this respect, as is the dualism of matter and anti-matter, energy and dark energy. The flux of space and solid, of form and emptiness, is yet another visual reference for the complimentary of existence/being. Notice, if you will, the empty space between objects in your surroundings, and if you can, see it in its depth, as an active phenomenon with qualities and characteristics of its own.
Moving up to the level of biology, we see this principle reflected in one of the fundamental divisions of life at the beginning of the evolutionary chain, of single celled organisms becoming multi-cellular, and asexually reproducing through self-parturition, that is, through splitting or dividing the individual and in so doing creating a pair.
This in many ways mirrors the Hindu creation myth of the One, Brahman, becoming the many through self-forgetting, dismemberment. In the Christian myths, Yahweh is singular, transcendent of time and space. He creates out of himself multiplicity, the variety of form and existent creatures and forces, the One becoming the many again.
It could be that God, the One, is a term for the ultimate and total merging of all phenomena, a situation of such heat and activity that all definition and distinction is lost into an incomprehensible singularity. Then, for reasons unknown, the state begins to cool, the one splits into heavier elements and then so and on down the line until complex life once more arises.
It is perhaps not completely ridiculous to imagine that intelligent, complex biology is a transitional stage from a relatively simple state of organisation to a situation of dense and hyper connected complexity and information flow. Perhaps the development of technology is the pivot point on which humanity or other sapient creatures can swing themselves up the evolutionary ladder towards the Godhead.
Indeed, Teilhard de Chardin and Terence McKenna both share this notion of an Omega Point, a concrescence of all thing-events at the end of time, a strange attractor which is pulling into its singularity all phenomena, and shaping them into ever more self-similar forms as it goes. The question to ask here, would this state be distinguishable from a God? Is ultimate interconnection, total merging, what we mean by the divine?
In the Bible, we see mythological allegory to this state of perfect concrescence: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col 1:17)
The gender of God varies from culture to culture, with many prehistoric cultures worshiping the feminine aspect. Our current lot of major mono-theism’s however, worship the masculine. Perhaps the reason why can be traced to the sexual act. The female, Yin, representing space, emptiness, fertility and welcoming; is entered by the male, Yang, who represents vitality, form, the seed, and conquering; and from this coincidence, this union of opposites, another universe is made.
The feminine is seen here as the void, the nothing space, representing the unfertilized pre-universe, devoid of form or protruding phenomena. The masculine is the germinating seed, the pushing in to this void of an energetic presence which is, in collusion with the nothingness, the source of phenomena.
This gender personification of God really comes down more to a matter of identification: those who feel themselves as more masculine or have a culture which demands masculine traits will craft their Gods in the image of the most powerful and respected men of the time, in the case of Yahweh this was the Babylonian kings of the time, absolute monarchs who ruled with iron law. In the case of the Tao, it is often personified as female, to signify the yielding quality of femininity and link it to holy, religious life:
“Know the male Hold to the female; Become the world’s stream. By being the world’s stream”
By “hold[ing] to the female”, Lao Tzu is suggesting we surrender to the world’s stream, becoming the waves rather than being buffeted by them. Lao Tzu goes on to define something we may ascribe to the pre-universal void into which the generative energy behind phenomena comes:
“The valley spirit never dies-it is called ‘the mysterious female; The gate of the mysterious female is called “the root of heaven and earth.”
“There was something featureless yet complete, born before heaven and earth; Silent-amorphous-it stood alone and unchanging. We may regard it as the mother of heaven and earth.”
An important point of distinction between the religions and philosophies of the West and those of Asia is the principle of mutual interdependence or pratityasamutpada in the Sanskrit. Whereas the Western, monotheistic mind sees good and evil, light and dark in an eternal conflict with one another, the Eastern mind often recognizes the subtle and esoteric meaning of this duality: that the north and south poles of a magnet are connected by the middle; that there is a tacit conspiracy between opposites to seem as different as possible, but that these seeming opposites are really just poles of the same unitary phenomena, the one energy manifesting in myriad ways.
In this way, we can come to see all dualism as signposts pointing us to an implicit unity that lies at the heart of all being, which is our fundamental and deepest identity as existent creatures in the universe, the real meaning of “I, myself.”
In fiction we can see this dichotomy in the role games between hero and villain, protagonist and antagonist. The Hindus once again have a sophisticated mythology surrounding the role of drama in reality that we can use to make some sense of the dramatic tension in our own relationships and meetings with others. Maya, which is the root Sanskrit word meaning illusion, measurement, drama, play and magic, is a likely source of the words meter, mother and matter. It is worth noting the humor in the fact that matter, our word for that which is most solid and substantial to us, has come down to us from a root phrase that means that which is ephemeral, diaphanous, like smoke or a hallucination.
Maya, in the Hindu myths, can be seen as a pointing to the dramatic element of life, the dualism’s just discussed of friend and foe, ally and enemy. When we read stories, what we seem to want is intrigue, mystery, difficulty, surprise, and obstacles to overcome. Without some form of challenge or foil to our hero, they simply cannot be heroic, and no story can take place. In similar fashion, the only way we can reach our own heroic expression is through the drama of life, in which we are beset constantly by experiences that challenge us to move out of conditioned behavior and into responsive connection to our present reality. This drama, as Ram Dass notes, may be here in order to burn out our reactivity and attachment, a tough curriculum but nonetheless an incredibly effective one.
We may also, in the spirt of humor, see our predicament as a universal safety valve to prevent boredom. It is likely that life without challenge would be hollow and unfulfilling, and so we may come to mythologies our enemies, those who irritate us and make us furious, and our deep depressions and misfortunes, as the tricks of a cosmic guru whose plan is to wake us up out of rigid forms of behavior and into the joyous dance of self-awareness.
It seems then that there must be a fly in the ointment so to speak, lest life would not be worth the effort.
When we turn our attention to culture and society, we often find ourselves asking, what is the force behind these big changes that occur, behind mass movements, wars, construction and so on? What drives the forwards movement of humanity into ever stranger dances and games?
We have been discussing the nature of the divine, of the One, the Godhead, and I think now is a good time to introduce Aldous Huxley’s metaphor for the conscious mind. Huxley believed that the brain was in some sense a reducing valve, like a tap. During ordinary waking states, the tap is turned almost all the way off, allowing a trickle of external phenomena through. This is theorized to be a survival mechanism, ensuring that the organism does not go into a state of sensory overload trying to process the billions of signals registering on the nervous system every second, and miss important aspects of the gestalt, say for example a predator or a water source. During psychedelic intoxication and deep states of meditation however, the tap is turned on, the reducing valve opens up, and the range of sensory input available to the conscious mind becomes significantly broader. This broad spectrum Huxley called “mind-at-large”, and I think we would not be straying too far from his original meaning to use the term interchangeably with the Godhead.
This mind-at-large, the big human being, humanity as such, is the driving force behind the world of homo sapiens. And it resembles in structure and content our own minds. We see in the external world made manifest all the possibilities of human consciousness, from the highest joys to the lowest violence. Culture and civilization is the human mind writ-large, the Self in play, exploring the space of possibility and expression. One of the most forceful and beautiful expressions of this is in the midsection of “Howl”, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s most well known piece:
“Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovah’s! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities! Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen!
Moloch whose name is the Mind!”
We are but notes of a melody that in time far outreaches the boundaries of our awareness. Only temporarily and with rarity do we become conscious of this great song, the unfolding music of cosmic form, of creation and dissolution, the on/off fascination.
In discussing all of this, it is my intention to outline the general shape and form of the divine, not that such an endeavor is truly possible. My foremost suggestion is that the individual who finds him or herself intrigued by the subject matter engage in self-directed conscious attempts to deflate the personal ego and the restless mind and to come into contact with this mystery on a deeply personal and experiential level.
If there is interest, I may list some of the methods by which one can bring about such states of awareness, and some tricks to avoid the ever-present specter of madness that lurks around the topic of metaphysics.
Finally, look to the heart and forget all else, when consciousness rests here the world is too full to talk about, problems die graceful deaths, and real compassion makes its presence known.