Imagine a world of wholeness, where everything is part of everything else; not just connected, but actually contained in everything else. A world where objects and creatures, all that exist, share a common ground of being, whose components are not separate, distinct and apart from each other, but are an infinite number of facets of a single jewel.
From a theological perspective, this imaginary world is incarnated spirit, a unitary entity whose combinations of elements form a collective family, a true creating spirit.
From a naturalistic perspective, that creative substrata is undefined energy that underlies all existence and becomes bonded into particles that form the basis for ever larger structures, the perceived "reality" of that world.
The terms "bonded energy" and "creating spirit" are two ways of understanding the same phenomena because, regardless of how you get there, you are there. And which terms the inhabitants of that imaginary world use to describe it may be more a matter of preference than any particular truth.
On that imaginary planet, philosophers and writers like Aristotle and Ayn Rand on our own world, could also proclaim that "A is A," that an object is what it is, but only once and only in reference to the totality, where "A" stands for everything seen and unseen as a single unit. Within that totality, everything else is a subset of "A," so "B is A," "C is A," etc. Everything is part of the one, of the whole. Only totality truly exists.
On that imaginary planet, the very context of existence is different. There is no context of multiplicity, as nothing exists outside of its relation to everything else and, more importantly, nothing exists outside of its containment in everything else. An abstractly-aware, language-using creature on that planet would perceive and understand not only each apparently individual object, but also the creating and sustaining reality behind each object, as the new context for interacting with the world. There is a foreground of objects against a background of spirit or energy from which it emerges and to which it returns.
By now, you have probably recognized that I'm saying our own planet Earth is the supposedly imaginary world to which I've been referring, and that our understanding of it as the sum of individual objects is an illusion. Instead, we are part of not just a single entity but, in its own way, a single organism, a flower if you will. This is the new context for understanding who and what we are, and will form a base line for comparison, and our guide for actions going forward.
Now, how can that be, you may well ask, when seemingly everything around us proclaims our unique individuality as separate creatures who could not possibly be part of anything else? It certainly looks that way, so let's go down the checklist of things that practically conspire to keep us apart from our heritage of wholeness.
First, the languages we use to understand the world and our place in it are composed of subjects and objects that divide the world into individual things, with verbs showing activity between them: I am I; you are you; we eat carrots. This kind of formal structure helps us make sense of the world by shaping how we understand it. Language forms discrete units. This is our current context and it has been this way since language was developed. We live in language, and within language, A is A, B is B, and everything falls into place. It's nearly impossible to conceive of a different world without using words in a completely different way so that we stretch ourselves into new places.
Second, our senses, hard-wired into our bodies, reinforce the idea that each of us is separate and apart from everything else. I taste, I smell, I touch, I hear and I see all those other things that are not me. Indeed, the growth of consciousness in infants can perhaps be traced to a growing differentiation between "me" and "not me," or everything else. A kaleidoscope of sensory experiences eventually coalesces into a psychic division between self and other that will be reinforced by the gradual acquisition of language.
Third, there is the cultural tradition, at least in modern American society, that we are endowed with basic, fundamental rights whose purpose is to provide the freedom needed to enhance ourselves as separate individuals responsible for our own well being. The rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness refer to an individual mandate to nurture our separate existences. This is society giving each of us the freedom to determine what is best for our own personal growth, rather like being a tree responsible for deciding which soil, fertilizers, rainfall and environmental conditions will permit growth to its fullest potential. Applying such rights to the members of an ant colony or bee hive makes no sense as it is only through collective effort in those situations that each individual thrives and survives by contributing to the well being of the group.
I suggest that language, sensory information and our cultural traditions form a kind of conspiracy in which the world as we know it prevents us from knowing the world as it is.
So how can we break through this counterfeit world to gain a new perspective and context? How can I convince you that what I'm saying is true? Actually, I can't.
There are no logical theorems or mathematical formulae that I can use. I can't even ask you to take it on faith. All of those use words and symbols that operate on a high cognitive level while what I'm talking about functions at a deeper, more basic level than language or thought. Indeed, I'm talking about the basic ground of existence, the dark sea we come from, and I don't think we can directly experience it. It may be something we can only perceive on a level below sensory awareness, and where I feel closest to it is in nature.
I have to be away from people and human interaction because they are distractions that pull me away from what I need to do, which is to listen, and not to my own kind
but to nature itself. I need to pose one simple question: Is this all there is? Meaning, is what I'm experiencing, here in nature, all there is to life? And if the answer that comes is, Yes, this is all there is; then that's fine. And I include in this answer any traditional religion, philosophy or spirituality that divides the world instead of uniting it.
But, if I'm surrounded by nature and sense something else, something behind what I'm experiencing, a hint of unity behind all these apparently discrete and separate forms of life and existence, then at that moment I'm becoming aware that things are not what they appear to be. That's when the veil of illusion is drawn back, and I stand at the edge of a river that will take me to new and unexplored places, and the very context of my life has changed. It has changed because I am no longer talking, but listening. We only hear ourselves when we speak, and that's no way to learn because we want to find something we don't already know.
And what could that possibly be? Not simply that everything is connected: that's the easy part but that everything is contained in everything else, that we are part of a wholeness, a totality, and we only exist and function as part of that wholeness. We're more like ants and bees than we may want to believe. Indeed, not only our awareness, but the fundamental context of our lives has changed and we will never be the same. This is when we become more than we think we are, no longer a single, independent, autonomous creature, but now we function more as a cell in the body, a part of a single organism. This is our new identity, that we are part of all we perceive, and even more than that, we are truly part of everything. Extend your idea of self to the horizon and beyond, and practice, on a conceptual level, with with your new, expanded self. Welcome to the next phase of your life, an age of heightened awareness.
That's the big picture. Now let's see how this new context of being part of something bigger than yourself operates on a daily basis as you go about your life because it will affect you personally and socially.
Personally, it means that you are more than you appear to be. A short hymn we sing here at the Hermitage in central Pennsylvania says, "Expand, extend, unite," and it encourages us to practice a new type of inclusion so that whether you're in nature or the middle of a crowded city, everything you experience is part of who you are. This can be very unnerving because it requires us to recognize many new aspects of ourselves that, frankly, will be very distasteful and hard to accept, especially as we recognize poverty, ugliness, violence, brutality - aspects of daily life that we usually like to push far away from us - and now I'm asking that we recognize them as unavoidable parts of ourselves. Yet this is more than an intellectual exercise because we are discovering and uncovering basic truths about who we really are.
Our Harmonist hymnal has another short hymn that simply says, "Perceive, connect, unite," three verbs that tell us to be aware as we perceive what is around us, then to consciously connect ourselves to them as part of us, and then to bring them into our newly expanded awareness of who and what we are. This is a good exercise to do at night in the country when we see stars far away from us, and we know that there are galaxies even farther away, and even multiple universes as well, all of which we are a part. This provides an expanded context for self-hood far beyond the limits of our physical bodies and we realize that the ground of our being is an infinite sea of possibility.
Perhaps even language itself will change and adapt to this new awareness. We may always need nouns and verbs, subjects and objects, to help us function in practical ways, but language can also be used to reflect our new awareness. For example, instead of saying, "I think," it would be more accurate to replace that with the phrase, "This aspect of the holy spirit thinks," or "This part of the divine energy thinks." Such formulations more accurately reflect the reality of our new, expanded context of the self, with a small "s," within the Self, with a capital "S." And while it certainly sounds awkward now, and may even be uncomfortable to say, as though calling attention to one's enlightenment, still, this aspect of the creative spirit thinks it could become easier to use with practice and familiarity.
One exercise to give an idea of what that means is to imaginatively project yourself into the perceptions of those around us. This can be particularly interesting when done with non-human creatures like dogs and cats. For example, I imagine what it's like to see me through my dog's eyes when we're together. He's low to the ground, so he has a far different perspective on the world, and on me, than I do. Imagine seeing the world through the eyes of a hawk or a lizard. How can it feel to fly with wings? Or to swim as a fish? To slither as a snake? Or to be a fly? These are just samples of our expanded selves and while, yes, we are using imagination to project ourselves into other creatures, it remains a good exercise to bring us to a new understanding of who and what we are.
Another exercise to show our containment in the world is to reverse how we conceive of the act of breathing. When we are breathing in, imagine instead that the world is breathing out, and as you breathe out, imagine the world as breathing in. This shows how we are part of a larger, single, living organism.
Meditation can also play a role by helping to center ourselves in the new context of an expanded self. It can be as simple as a few minutes each morning, seated comfortably on a chair or on the floor, so we can concentrate on breathing in and out, in and out, as the breath is the basis for the spirit. Concentrating on one word like "spir-it," with the first syllable for breathing in and the second syllable for breathing out, puts us in touch with one of the most elemental of all bodily acts. Eventually, and with enough repetition, the meditative word becomes a kind of ground base, like breathing itself, that underlies daily activity and provides context and perspective by keeping us centered in the spirit. Of course, there are limitations, as even long-practiced meditation can be quickly overruled and short-circuited by strong emotion but, in hind sight, these are passing events that swiftly come and go, while the breathing, and its implications, remain.
In both public and private spheres, there are behaviors that can guide the implementation of our new awareness and context. There are broad behaviors we can call behaviors of value, and more specific behaviors we can call behaviors of interaction.
Our new sense of context provides a new set of values, including unity, enlightenment, harmony and healing or, to make them into verbs of action: to unite, to enlighten, to harmonize and to heal. These behaviors help us cross the gulf between self and Self as they show what can be done with our new perception, and they act as guiding beacons.
To unite actively means to see the world as a unit, as a whole.
To enlighten means to cast a light upon every aspect, every incarnation of the world and its parts, and to recognize that each is part of us as much as we are part of everything.
To harmonize means to actively work in harmony with these parts, these aspects, of ourselves, to meld them into a unit, to work together and not against each other because, with our new understanding, we would then simply be working against ourselves.
To heal means to actively nurture those behaviors and acts that bring us together, to tend the wounds we've caused in ourselves, to others and to the planet itself, typically through our ego that separates us from totality and that lead us into actions that, ultimately, benefit neither the self nor the Self.
These values put us in new relationships with ourselves and others, human and non-human, around us. These are behaviors of interaction that come from recognizing that we are not just a single family but, actually, a single being. And every aspect of that being deserves to be treated as we need to treat ourselves: with kindness, patience, humility and respect. These four behaviors form the hallmark of living in harmony with the spirit and its many facets.
Yet, let's face it, we're not going to always act from these nice-sounding behaviors. After all, we're still contained in this physical body that tells us that we are separate creatures who can be emotional, jealous, angry, violent; when we are simply human with all the failings that entails, and it's those times when we need to practice another behavior, the act of forgiveness for ourselves and others. It is only through forgiveness that we emerge from the quicksand of self-pity and self-loathing, which are illusionary traps in which we can stay enmeshed and which keep us from moving on. So yes, to forgive ourselves for being weak and foolish and all too human, because we will go there less and less in our new awareness of context, of knowing who we really are, but we may never completely sever our human ties with that dark recess within ourselves. But neither do we need to let it cripple us and prevent us from going beyond it.
Now we come to some of the most important questions of a new life in the context of spirit: What, precisely, do we do with our lives now? How do we make a living? How do we spend our days?'
To answer those questions, a helpful image is to look at the earth as a flower. To grow properly and to its fullest potential, a flower needs good soil, sufficient water and sunlight, clean air and appropriate nutrients. If the world is a flower, a garden, then we are its gardeners. We can use our new conscious awareness to guide our lives appropriately by asking the major questions of our lives: how can we serve the planet and spirit now that we know they, and we, are one?
A place to start is with the maxim "Think globally, act locally." Look at things in terms of societal structures. Take the nuclear family: is separating into individual family units the best way to organize people? Maybe in some situations, but probably not all. Look at the issue in terms of transportation, housing, consumption. There is such redundancy in having individual family units, each with its own stuff to meet its own needs. But those needs are shared by all of humanity. Multiply one self-contained unit by millions of units across the globe and then one realizes how the wheel is being reinvented time after time after time. Is this the best and most efficient use of resources? It helps to recognize when the answer may be "Yes," and when the answer may be "No." There is a lot of duplication and how much of it is needless waste? We at least need to ask the question. Can families, especially in densely-populated urban areas, do more to share? And can nuclear families reconfigure themselves, at least in some situations? We can work together to make voluntary social change now that we realize we are one in the spirit. And because the spirit speaks equally through each of us, we need to respect individual decisions even if we don't always understand or agree with them. Personally, I feel a calling to live as a hermit in the country, and while I don't feel a need to have a lot of things around me, I do like having a vehicle at hand when I need to go somewhere, as well as electricity, hot and cold running water, sanitary facilities, internet access, and other things that enable me to lead a creative and satisfying life. The trick is to balance my needs with those of other humans, all of whom are equally incarnated spirit.
Along with societal organization, we need to deal with the very real and personal issue of how to serve the planet and how to heal the planet, which comes down to the very nature and idea of work, along with how the economy is organized and how it operates.
In such a world, the question becomes "How can I give back?" not "What can I take?"
And what a change that is! When we live in a world of totality, because we are all parts of the whole, competition only sets self against self, part against part, and that makes no sense. It's like the heart competing against the liver competing against the lungs. Only by working in harmony together can the organism function in a healthy state. We need cooperation, not competition. Asking how I, or this part of the spirit, can serve the whole is the major question of our existence. It's not that having things is unimportant, not at all, as the right things give a quality of life where we can even ask that question, as opposed to a daily scramble for life's barest necessities. As a species we've been there, done that, and now it's time to move on.
Every human on the planet deserves to have reasonable shelter, reasonable clothing, reasonable food, as well as reasonable health care and a reasonable education. But providing these necessities will become, more and more, the province of robots and artificial intelligence. Robots and AI will become the producers to meet humanity's basic needs, and that's fine. Let them produce everything because that raises the standard of living by making everything cheaper, so everyone across the planet can have a basic and humane bottom line for what makes a modern, civilized life.
This will also free humanity to serve the planet and through that service we will also be able to make a living because the great and liberating aspect of a free market economy is that it values whatever we, as its users and beneficiaries, value. We no longer have to produce because now we will be freed from producing and free to accomplish. We don't have to make things to make a living, now we can do things. Our values will change, so our goals will change; indeed, we will become goal centered, goal oriented and not product oriented. That is how we can serve the planet while making a living: by accomplishing, and getting paid to accomplish, specific goals. Let robots make widgets; we have more important things to do that don't, by choice, involve robots or even AI at all. Let's place our vast skills and planning abilities towards helping the planet, towards eliminating poverty, towards eliminating homelessness, malnutrition and ignorance. Let's cooperate on education, cleaning up the planet, caring for nature and its creatures; let's enhance the world as a place of beauty, inspiration and innovation. These are appropriate goals for humanity and, because they are valuable to us, we will invest time, labor and money in specific projects and not in seeing how many widgets we can produce in a day. And if one wonders who will buy all the widgets the robots make, I say let the robots buy them!
Let's move beyond consumerism to communalism. Let's work together to make the world a better place, and get paid for doing it! The planet is our shared communal home, our communal legacy, and each of us, to the full extent of our capabilities, can serve it in whatever capacity we can.
Those who nurture, those who heal, in so many ways, are the new role models for the life well lived. We don't need masters of the universe when we need servants of the world.
By working together, we can make the planet grow into the beautiful and bountiful garden it is capable of becoming. By working together, we can help the earth reach its potential, and that is a life worth living.
This change is what happens when our priorities change, when our assumptions change, when the philosophic axioms on which we have built human culture and society change. What an exciting time in which to live!
So I encourage you to go into nature, wherever you find it, and ask yourself, "Is this all there is?" If you listen carefully, and the answer is "Yes," then you will follow a particular path. But if the answer is "No," or "Maybe not," then you'll follow another path and you will never be the same, because you'll know yourself as part of everything, and everything as part of you, and all of us as part of each other. What an amazing journey!