I’d like to say a few words on something I feel is one of the most important insights of both ancient and modern philosophy, an insight which may hold the key to our seemingly insoluble difficulties in the modern world.
But first, I must set the scene.
We here in the West in 2017 are faced with an alarmingly wide array of problems, or seeming problems, with which we must deal, and in what appears to be a shorter and more urgent time frame than ever before.
We turn on the television and see daily reports of mass sectarian violence in the Middle East, spurred on by the abject militarism of the United States and its more cavalier allies. We see man-made and natural disasters, the spillage of tonnes of contaminated water. Our politicians are quite obviously lying through their teeth, and the vultures in the mainstream media are helping them along as much as they can without losing face.
So all this seems rather grim.
One might ask, why us? Why are we experiencing all of this turmoil, this brutality, this violence?
It is my opinion that the root cause of much of the frustrated and destructive activity in the world today comes down to our having of an idea of ourselves which simply does not fit the actuality of our lived experiences, an idea which is based out of our social, cultural and religious/scientific conditioning that has become so basic to our everyday lives that we scarcely seem to notice that it is just that; an idea.
What can we genuinely say about our own existences that isn’t merely symbolic or representational? If I say to you, “Here I am, I am Aishwariya Ramachandran”, I have simply given you a line of text, a series of mouth noises, which we have agreed upon to have certain static meanings. These meanings, we may think of as signposts; they point to an aspect of the world that we think of as separate or isolated from the whole.
Then, by a process of synthesis, we bring these symbols together according to grammatical rules, and we extrude out the other end what we know of as meaning.
It is clear that this process does not have a direct correlation to the facts of our sensory experience. It is an abstracting process, a way of simplifying the complexity of vast natural systems of energies and forces into something which can be understood more or less in a short time frame.
So when we go to say something about ourselves, imagine the amount of time it would take us to describe the workings of our circulatory system, or the way in which neurons modulate electrical impulses in the arabesque of the brain. We would be sitting around for an eternity laying out one symbol after the other, and by the time we had reached the complete description of the system under examination, it is likely that the forces of evolution will have rendered the system into something entirely unsuitable to the definition provided.
Our analytical, step-by-step modes of thinking are simply too cumbersome to make sense of a world that is by its very nature in flux, in change, in motion. And it is these very modes of thinking upon which we base our conception of ourselves, these ideas about ourselves which come to form our image, our ego.
And is it any wonder that we are finding ourselves neck deep in shit with an attitude like this? We are using the wrong tool for the job.
We might ask, well where does this attitude come from?
Insofar as I can tell, we can trace the origins of these ideas back through history to the major Abrahamic faiths. In contrast to the religions of the equator and the Far East, the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, all conceived of the cosmos as split into two parts; the heavenly and the divine, and the earthly and mundane. God is seen here as the creator spirit outside the world, and Man as his creation, made from the “stuff” of the world and put here on thin ice indeed.
We see here also the trope or meme of the “chosen people”, a social group set apart by their status as the one people whom God decided were his best work, an idea which lends itself to separateness through exclusion, insularity and violence against the infidel or the heretic.
These ideas have worked their way into most areas of the world and in the modern day much of the infrastructure of our legal ideas, our ethics and our ideas about the structure and nature of existence itself are derived at least in part from this basic myth of separateness.
We see a recurrence of the idea in modern times, as scientific naturalism began to distance itself from the church. What scientists realized at this point was that we didn’t need the idea of God in order to make accurate observations and predictions; in fact, it turned out that having this idea of a God behind the world didn’t add anything usable to their work at all. And so we got rid of the hypothesis of God and along with it, strangely, any and all ideas which suggested that the cosmos itself was intelligent. I believe that the split between theism and science at the time was so emotionally charged that science began to define itself as necessarily the opposite of Christian thinking, and so it became strongly unfashionable to say that because there are human beings here displaying intelligent behavior, it stands to reason that what they grew out of is intelligent or at least has the latent potential for intelligence.
But regardless of this association with religiosity, the idea nonetheless still compels us.
And I believe it is because it hints at something we have forgotten about ourselves and each other, something which the strong aesthetic of Christian and scientific separateness has screened out of our awareness.
What did we forget?
It seems to me that what we have left out of our conscious minds is the feeling, the sensation, of our mutual interconnection with this universe in its entirety, past, present and future.
We forgot that the same energy that dwells inside our hearts, that channels the peculiar twists and turns of our nervous systems, is the same energy that shapes the cosmos itself, that orbits the moon, that grows the trees, and that this energy is compassionate, intelligent and loving.
In our haste to make the world in the image of a Christian legal system, we became calloused, and insensitive to the subtle mind of the universe that requires no commandments, no pushing, no external influence, to accomplish the largest things.
In the Hindu myths, we call this Brahman, the Self, that innermost aspect of who you are that shares fundamental identity, which is identical with, the universe.
In the Tao Te Ching, ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu speaks of it: The Tao which can be spoken is not the true Tao. The Tao is that from which nothing can deviate.
Beyond words and concepts, images and ideas, what is the Tao?
It is this simple silence, this unforced stillness, that can bring us into awareness of that innermost “I”. Our trouble is that we seek it at the far corners of the world, in the ecstasies of high dose psychedelic trips, through discipline and hard-boiled meditative practice, when really, it is always right here and right now, around us at every moment.
And it is nothing special. Have a look at this tree. Here it stands, bark, trunk, leaves and all; it has not announced itself, it merely exists there in its suchness. Ah, so. It’s leaves will eventually dry and take to the skies, fall to the earth and spur on a colony of fungus, who in turn will turn themselves inside out for the chance to be eaten by a larger organism.
There is the cosmos in its suchness. It is life eating life, self implying other, flows of energy and stillness, vibration and silence. It is you. You are it.
It is not only that the “outside” world is all one, so to speak. It is that what we speak of as the “inside” and the “outside” are really just points of view, places where we look from or to, contained in the totality of being which is without hard and fast borders.
When we come to this, and really feel it in our bodies and our hearts and our bones, it becomes obvious that we cannot simply stand outside of this cosmos as act upon it as isolated observers, as agents free of the drama. We are inextricably wound up in this big old game, and the fate of the mountain stream is also the fate of our social institutions and economies.
So what do we do about it? What do we do to address all those big problems we mentioned before, the horrors of overpopulation, the brutality of “development loans”, the overarching specter of moneyed businessmen and the 62 or so individuals who own half the world’s wealth?
Well, who is it that is supposed to address these issues? If we start from the position of believing in our separateness, in our isolated character structures as something as real and tangible as the morning dew, then it is my contention that we will only cause trouble and make a mess. And it seems obvious to me so far that this has overwhelmingly been the case.
All of our efforts to remedy the problems of separateness; the violence, the bigotry, the hatred of the other, have come out of our own sense of separateness, and of course they have made great initial progress but in the long run only created more problems of us and them, I and thou, you and me.
So when a person realizes that his method is the cause of his problems, he abandons the method.
And it seems to me that the time has come for us to abandon the method, not in every case across the board, but in every case where it does not produce a situation of increased coherence, harmony and unity amongst human beings.
Now how do we do that? Well, who is the we that is to do it?
If we truly see that there is no static self from which we can enact change upon the world, then the only course of action left to us is to stop. And I feel that we must stop, as human beings, if only for a moment, and listen to that deep hum of being emanating from the center of our chests.
We need not rationally plan out every decision we make, and we find that more often than not, when we do, our past rational efforts only frustrate our future acting selves in the moment itself. We can, all of us, come to feel a basic trust towards our own state of being here in the world, a quality of listening and awareness of both the internal and external states that does not rely on symbols, concepts and ideas.
And of course, as Lao Tzu points out, this state is “The Tao from which nothing can deviate”, and as Alan Watts deftly puts it, “Nirvana is wherever you are now, as long as you don’t object to it”
Or make of it an object, for that matter. What I am proposing is a radical movement towards the incorporation of no-mind, of feeling-perceiving, into our capacity for action and decision making in the real world; a recognition of the overwhelming futility of rational-analytic modes of thinking when it comes to dealing with problems that require quick and decisive action and a willingness to play with an experience new states of consciousness.
More simply, I am echoing the calls of Watts, Lao Tzu, the poet Rumi and countless others across time; that we willingly go out of our thinking minds to come to our senses, to our basic felt experiences of the world.
In that, I feel, is our liberation.