[Update 4/19: listen to the interview here]

On Thursday at CIIS, I’ll interview physicist and novelist Alan Lightman, author of the just published Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (2018). As of this writing, Lightman’s book is #1 in Metaphysics on Amazon.com.* 


Lightman begins his reflections in a cave in Font-de-Gaume, France, famous for its adornment of ochre and charcoal painted animal forms left behind by its long deceased Paleolithic inhabitants. Lightman’s cave visit inspires musings about how these primal people may have imagined the meaning of their existence. It is as though our species has always been inspired by two great mysteries (though each age further refines its understanding of them): by the unconscious depths within our psyches and by the ever-expanding edges of the evolving cosmos. We are lured deep into dark labyrinthine caves to paint Living Forms on fire-lit walls, and we are drawn skyward toward ancestral light in an attempt to calculate the spiraling of stars. Creation and discovery, art and science. Homo sapiens seems caught in a “necessary tension” between the two. With one foot aloft in a spiritual world of eternal Absolutes and the other firmly planted in a perpetually perishing material world, we stumble along through history.

Toward what? 

Lightman doesn’t pretend to have any answers, but his ruminations functioned to heighten my sense of the importance of the questions. Is there any meaning in it all? Or is it just material? Even if it is all just material, isn’t it still beautiful, anyway? Depending on our personal proclivities, the existential tension produced by such questions can either release us into enchantment with mysterious paradox or entrap us in the frustration of irresolvable contradiction. Our nature is not a unified essence. We are tripartite: artists striving to enjoy and express nature’s beauty, scientists trying to explain its necessary truths, and priests longing to embrace and be embraced by its goodness. Expression, explanation, embrace. Beauty, truth, goodness. Art, science, religion. How are these human ideals connected? Must one or the other of them dominate, or is some integral harmonization possible? Can our search for hard scientific truth be made to cohere with our longing for meaning and our love of beauty? 

Lightman moves from curiosity concerning the spirituality of the ancients to recounting his own mystical experience. One night, while he was piloting a small boat on the way to his cabin on Pole Island, he was struck by the desire to turn off the lights and cut the engine of his vessel. He laid down on the deck to gaze up at the stars in silent contemplation. It wasn’t long before the boat, his body, and any sense of separation from nature dissolved. He began to feel like he was “falling into infinity.” A spiritual sensation of cosmic kinship with the stars overtook him. 

Unlike many theists, whose faith in a personal God originates in such experiences of overpowering transcendent unity, Lightman did not draw religious conclusions from his celestial vision. He remains committed to a purely scientific view of the world, a view he has held since his childhood experiments with petri dishes and pendulums. He references Freud’s reductive view of such “oceanic feelings,” accepting that his experience of the infinite may be nothing more than an infantile desire to crawl back into his mother’s womb. Despite this possible interpretation, his personal experience of being swallowed whole by the sky has allowed him to at least understand the power and allure of religious belief.

“The materiality of the world is a fact, but facts don’t explain the experience.”

Lightman admits that even science is founded on a kind of faith, a faith in what he calls “the Central Doctrine of Science,” that all physical events are governed by universal and necessary laws, or mathematical patterns, that hold everywhere in observable time and space. Because of this scientific faith, he can imagine no “miracles,” or seemingly unexplainable supernatural events. Any such event, while perhaps surprising at first, should be treated as nothing more than an opportunity to refine and expand the laws of physics.

He contrasts the theological certainty of Augustine with the geometrical certainty of Euclid. In Lightman’s view, Augustine’s certainty, rather than a product of divine revelation, is nothing more than fervently held personal opinion. Science, on the other hand, is empirically validated and mathematically proven. 

“Theoretical physics is a temple built of mathematics and logic and aesthetics.”

Lightman contrasts the process of scientific discovery with that of artistic creation. Whereas the artist’s creativity, even if rooted in some sort of transcendent experience, remains purely subjective or internal, transcendent moments of discovery in science are both inner and outer, at once subjective and objective. Scientific inspiration has a “vital connection to the physical world,” and thus operates as a kind of “double discovery”: the inner mental world aligns with and thus reveals to consciousness the mathematical truth of the outer material world.

Lightman recounts the history of modern science and the way its discoveries decentered and humbled the human being. After Copernicus, Kepler, Bruno, Galileo, and Newton, it became more difficult for humans to imagine themselves as the uniquely special creation of a personal God. We now know (as Bruno was among the first to speculate) that there are countless other planets that are potentially habitable. Life, even intelligent life, may be pervasive in the universe. We are hardly special.

Lightman views death not as an on/off switch, but as a gradual process of disassembly of the atomic assemblage that, for a time, constitutes who and what we are. Consciousness, he wagers, is just an illusion, a word we use to describe the “mental sensation” of electrochemical flows of neurons in the brain. He claims to be “content with the illusion of life,” with the idea that he is but a “self-referencing machine.” Strangely, however, he is a machine with feelings. Even if illusory, our “mental sensations” remain undeniable. Lightman reframes Descartes’ argument for the reality of the soul: instead of “I think, therefore I am,” it becomes “I feel, therefore I am.” He accepts that, since he cannot escape the feeling of being alive, of life’s joys and sorrows, it hardly matters whether he is actually a soulless machine or not. He may as well find ways to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Despite the illusory nature of consciousness, the neural sham of selfhood, Lightman thinks morality can still be grounded on this simple hedonistic principle.

Lightman ponders the source of our universe’s apparent “fine tuning,” the fact that, were any of the fundamental physical constants even the slightest fraction different from their observed values, life and consciousness could never have emerged. The multiverse theory is offered as one possible explanation, that is, that our universe is just one of infinitely many universes to have randomly emerged from the quantum vacuum, and we just happen to be in one of the rare worlds where the constants aligned just right so as to produce creatures capable of reflecting on this fact. But since it is impossible to test whether or not other universes exist, and because the theory offers a pseudo-explanation rooted in pure chance rather than causal necessity, Lightman is unsure whether it can really be considered scientific. In the end, when physical science reaches the question of the origin of the universe, of why there is something rather than nothing, Lightman admits that philosophy and religion still have a role to play.

While I have some problems with his view of humanity’s place in the universe, I appreciate Lightman’s acknowledgement that philosophy, and even religion, still have a place in human life (at least so long as they avoid making false claims about the physical world). This is far better than some popularizers of science, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, and Richard Dawkins, who tend to dismiss philosophy and ridicule religion.

I would like to ask Lightman whether he thinks we could ever finally define the meaning of “physical” without doing metaphysics. Physicists can bracket many of philosophy’s more nebulous questions to pursue their precisely defined experimental measurements and build their mathematical models, but at the end of the day, their theoretical definitions inevitably fade off into metaphysics around the edges. I have a few philosophical objections to some of what Lightman seems to take to be incontestably scientific claims. He sometimes wanders into metaphysics without explicitly realizing it, particularly when he discusses consciousness and the mind/body problem. 

Lightman emphasizes the mere materiality of everything we experience: our personal identity is nothing but neurochemistry; the enchanting beauty of an island-enveloping fog is really just minuscule droplets of water adrift in the wind; the magical bioluminescent shimmering of the ocean is just little bugs in the water, etc. “It’s all material.”

He grants that “the human body is the most amazing and baffling phenomenon of the material world,” but still, he reminds us, it is all just molecules and chemicals, just atoms out for a swerve in the void.

Nearly a century ago, just as the relativistic and quantum revolutions in science were beginning to sink in, another mathematical physicist-turned-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead offered an alternative reading of the scientific evidence:

“It is the accepted doctrine in physical science that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound axiom; but it is double-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body” (PR 119).

“We think of ourselves as so intimately entwined in bodily life that a man is a complex unity–body and mind. But the body is part of the external world, continuous with it. In fact, it is just as much part of nature as anything else there–a river, or a mountain, or a cloud. Also, if we are fussily exact, we cannot define where a body begins and where external nature ends” (MT 21).

“The human body provides our closest experience of the interplay of actualities in nature…Analogous notions of activity, and forms of transition, apply to human experience and to the human body. Thus bodily activities and forms of experience can be construed in terms of each other. Also the body is part of nature. Thus we finally construe the world in terms of the type of activities disclosed in our intimate experience” (MT 115).

I am in agreement with Lightman that Descartes’ mind/body dualism is unacceptable. Somehow, the mental activities disclosed in our personal experience must be intimately connected with the physiological activities of our body. Like Lightman, I reject vitalistic interpretations of living organisms, where some extra spirit or vital force is thought to inhabit and organize the material body. Physical activity is the same, whether it takes place inside or outside the skin of a living organism. It’s all matter. But “just” matter? “Mere” matter? “Nothing but” matter? Why must we take such a deflationary view of materiality when, as the evidence of our own intimate experience makes clear, matter is capable in some of its forms of nothing less than conscious reflection and intelligent deliberation? What is to prevent us, like Whitehead, of generalizing from our own experience so as to recognize that all matter is to some extent experience-imbued?  

Even if we were to accept Lightman’s deflationary view of matter as just dead stuff, and of our consciousness as a linguistically produced illusion, we are still left having to explain how mere molecules could give rise to the illusion of consciousness. Whether the mind has real causal influence, or is merely an epiphenomenal hallucination, how is it that neurons generate mental sensations at all? Feelings arise as self-evident, with their own phenomenological warrant, regardless of any materialist conjectures regarding their real underlying causes. Even if they were ultimately “illusory,” reducible to some purely material level of reality, we still feel them. The “illusion” at least appears, and is thus real enough to require explanation. But I’ve yet to come across a scientific theory of how extensional lumps of matter could produce even the illusion of emotions and mental intentions. Rather than trying to solve this “hard problem,”  what is to prevent us from accepting Whitehead’s converse deduction, that our bodily experience grants us insight into the intrinsic nature of matter, a nature that the overly abstract Cartesian view of its extrinsic nature totally misses? What if matter is itself somehow intrinsically mindful or sentient, and gradually increases its experiential intensity as more complex organic forms evolve? Such a view would in no way contradict the known scientific evidence. It just offers an alternative metaphysical interpretation of what we already know about the physical world, an interpretation that allows us to avoid the absurdity of having to deny the reality of our own most intimate experience of being alive. Instead of the reductive nihilism of eliminative materialism, why not the re-enchantment of evolutionary panpsychism?

Such an alternative interpretation is strengthened by revisiting the origin story of modern science. The early modern founders of the scientific worldview were not as soberly positivistic as they are often made to seem. Copernicus’ acceptance of the heliocentric theory was motivated not by its improved predictive power (Ptolemy’s model remained more accurate until Kepler’s and Newton’s later adjustments), but by his spiritual commitment to Neo-Platonism.  Similarly, Kepler perceived not just mathematical harmony in the heavenly orbits, but their archetypal music. His astronomical science was practiced right alongside his astrological divination. Galileo, too, was a practicing astrologer. His book Starry Messenger includes a dedication to Cosimo de’ Medici that details the prominent placement of Jupiter in his natal chart.Giordano Bruno was a panpsychist magician (not to mention a political radical). Newton was an alchemist. Sure, we could dismiss their strange mystical proclivities by saying they were all transitional figures, not yet fully modern. But we could also acknowledge that an enchanted cosmology need not preclude scientific investigation. Indeed, in the case of these early founders, it seems to have motivated it!

For these early scientists, the lawful mathematical order of the universe was highly suggestive of its intelligent construction by God. From Whitehead’s perspective, there is a direct line of descent from the medieval theological doctrine of an omniscient and omnipotent God concerned with and in charge of every detail of the created world to the modern scientific faith in the lawful ordering of nature (“faith in the possibility of science is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology” [SMW 13]).

Lightman’s compromise between science and religion has it that the former concerns objective truths about the physical world, while the latter concerns subjective or personal truths about the spiritual world. The truths pursued by each need not compete since they exist in entirely distinct domains. While this position, similar to Stephen J. Gould’s notion of non-overlapping magisteria, is far superior to the aggressive atheism proffered by the likes of Dawkins and Sam Harris, I prefer to seek a more integral solution that situates human spirituality within the same evolving cosmos known to science. Rather than two worlds, one physical and the other spiritual, I inherit Schelling’s view:

“Nature is visible Spirit; Spirit is invisible Nature.”

This is not to say that the claims made by religious believers ought to be treated as epistemologically equivalent to the claims of natural scientists, especially when it is a question of experimentally testable hypotheses. If the claims of a religion are in conflict with those of a widely accepted scientific fact or theory, it is religious dogma that must bend. Whitehead again:

“Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science. Its principles may be eternal, but the expression of those principles requires continual development” (SMW 234).

That said, modern materialistic cosmology must find a way to make room for human meaning and consciousness. Our meaning-making must of course be informed by modern scientific discoveries, but it cannot be explained away as entirely illusory. [I unpack Whitehead’s attempt to make room in Physics of the World-Soul (2016)].

At least on our planet, cosmic evolution has produced conscious human beings. All the evidence suggests that something similar may be happening on countless other planets. Life and consciousness may be just as pervasive as atoms and stars. To my mind, this fact is not evidence against the existence of a meaningful cosmos or even of a personal God. It could also be interpreted as evidence for an immanent evolutionary aim toward personalization**,  and for a far less provincial, truly infinite divinity.

Even in such an enchanted cosmos, our species may be doomed to go extinct. We may be no more than a passing evolutionary phase, as Lightman suggests, destined to be replaced by “Homo techno” in a few generations. But letting go of our anthropocentrism need not leave us with a sense of purposelessness. Even if our species goes extinct, other intelligences surely populate this universe. And even if death is the end of our individual egos, in a panpsychist cosmos, sentience never fully evaporates.

*Interestingly, #2 is Sarte’s Being & Nothingness and #3 is Robert Lanza’s Beyond Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness, & the Illusion of Death–two radically different philosophical orientations on ultimate reality. 

**As William James suggested, we can view nature as composed “of personal lives (which may be of any grade of complication, and superhuman or infrahuman as well as human), variously cognitive of each other…, genuinely evolving and changing by effort and trial, and by their interaction and cumulative achievements making up the world” (Collected Essays and Reviews, 443-444).

[This is part 2 of my response to Bernardo Kastrup; part 1 is here].

Kastrup is confused by what I said in my original response to him regarding the room that ontological pluralism leaves for both the extraordinary experience of unity and the ordinary experience of plurality.

Ontological pluralism seems more true to experience (both common every day experience AND mystical experience), since it doesn’t deny the possibility of unity, it only denies that things are necessarily unified.

My claim here is pretty straightforward: everyday experience is multifaceted, while mystical experience is unitive. I’m not denying the testimony of mystics as to the unity of reality. Ontological pluralism grants the possibility of such unity. It just also incorporates the obvious fact of commonsense experience, as well. Mystical experiences are extraordinary precisely because they don’t happen all the time. So rather than ignore the plurality of the everyday experiences we spend almost every waking and dreaming moment of our lives in, I want to acknowledge that they, too, have ontological significance.

I’ll quote William James from the essay I mentioned in my original post, A Pluralistic Universe (available online in its entirety). As I said then, I think his arguments against monistic idealism are pretty convincing. They convinced me of the merits of pluralism, at least:

The sum of it all is that the absolute is not forced on our belief by logic, that it involves features of irrationality peculiar to itself, and that a thinker to whom it does not come as an ‘immediate certainty’…is in no way bound to treat it as anything but an emotionally rather sublime hypothesis. As such, it might, with all its defects, be, on account of its peace-conferring power and its formal grandeur, more rational than anything else in the field. But meanwhile the strung-along unfinished world in time is its rival:reality MAY exist in distributive form, in the shape not of an all but of a set of eaches, just as it seems to—this is the anti-absolutist hypothesis. Prima facie there is this in favor of the eaches, that they are at any rate real enough to have made themselves at least appear to every one, whereas the absolute has as yet appeared immediately to only a few mystics, and indeed to them very ambiguously. The advocates of the absolute assure us that any distributive form of being is infected and undermined by self-contradiction. If we are unable to assimilate their arguments, and we have been unable, the only course we can take, it seems to me, is to let the absolute bury the absolute, and to seek reality in more promising directions, even among the details of the finite and the immediately given. (lecture 3)

The cosmic unity intimated by mystics may indeed be the case. All the ontological pluralist argues is that this unity is not necessarily the case, that is, is not the end of the story metaphysically speaking. If we say it is the end of the story, we negate everyday experience, explaining it away as mere appearance. This, to my mind, is the worst kind of reductionism, in that it denies what is most obvious to our experience in favor of some hidden truth accessible only to a special few.

In light of the elitism implied by monistic idealism, a final word on the relationship between politics and metaphysics is in order. Kastrup worries that I conflate two entirely different categories when I say that a monistic ontology carries with it the risk of a totalitarian politics. “Does anyone seriously think that our (political) views and preferences bear any relevance to what nature is?” Kastrup asks. “Personally,” he continues, “I am interested in what is true, not what I’d prefer to be true.” I’d reverse his statement and point out that the way a society comes to terms with what reality is undoubtedly influences they way they compose a common world together (the composition of a common world is my definition of politics). I am not suggesting some sort of relativism wherein reality is decided by an opinion poll. But can anyone really deny the way metaphysical beliefs (consciously stated or not) correspond to the shape a society takes?

I unpack my thoughts on the relationship between politics and ontology in the videos below:

A few days ago, I decided to re-read Schelling’s Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom (1809). It’s a reasonably short text of about 75 pages, so I’ve read it 3 or 4 times in the past year. The text’s key conceptual innovations regarding the essence of freedom (which Schelling defines as the scission between good and evil) are as difficult to understand this time as they were when I first read it. Reading Heidegger’s treatment of it a few months ago was helpful (HERE), but perhaps also somewhat misleading given my preference for Iain Grant’s reading, which emphasizes the priority of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie (HERE). Schelling’s obscurity regarding human freedom does not seem to be just an accident of his presentation. Rather, obscurity is constitutive of his topic. Indeed, you might say Schelling’s task in this text is the impossible one of bringing darkness itself to light.

“All birth is birth from darkness into light; the seed kernel must be sunk into the earth and die in darkness so that the more beautiful shape of light may lift it and unfold itself in the radiance of the sun” (29).
I will continue to read this text again and again in search of its deeper, occult meanings, but it has already had a major impact on my conscious worldview. One of the reasons I feel so compelled to reach to the very bottom of Schelling’s inquiry into good and evil is that his text as much as any other has helped me come to philosophical terms with the single most powerful spiritual experience I’ve ever had. It happened when I visited Jerusalem back in 2005 during a “birthright trip” organized by the Hillel Foundation at my university (UCF in Orlando, Fl): an all expenses paid 16-day adventure across the entire country of Israel. At the end of it, they offered all the college aged American Jews in my group Israeli citizenship right then and there. They even offered to pay for our wedding if we met our sweetheart on the trip! That is, if only we were also willing to be conscripted by the Israeli Defense Force. I was 19 years old at the time, immersed in (and inflated by) the California Buddhism of Alan Watts, the depth psychology of Carl Jung, and the anarchist politics of Chomsky and Zinn. I was living in suburban Orlando, a city almost entirely surrounded by the scariest aspects of post-war America: theme parks like Disney World and Universal Studios on one side of town, defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman on the other. In between there were endless subdivisions of prefab houses with identical SUVs in their driveways all linked together by shopping center parking lots. Which is just to say that Israel felt like a dangerously mystical desert island that I might escape to, thereby saving myself from the nihilistic void at the core of suburban life. My desire for a spiritual home (a god, a people, and a land to call my own, and to belong to) made living in Israel very appealing to my meaning-seeking survival instincts. I thought of finding a kibbutz, though it seems they aren’t what they used to be. In part it was the geopolitical situation, and the Israeli state’s role in that situation (something I separate from the Jewish religious tradition: prophets are not politicians), that kept me from accepting citizenship there. Mostly though it was my spiritually formative experience at Yad Vashem, the Jewish Holocaust memorial on the outskirts of Jerusalem, that made taking sides in any nationalist war impossible for me.

The trigger for the experience was the children’s memorial. I descended by stairway into a dark space, within which I first encountered a dozen or so photographs of children who had been killed in camps, followed by a wall of candles fitted with mirrors that reflected each flame’s image hundreds of times as it receded into the infinite darkness. The name and place of birth of murdered child after murdered child was read over a speaker.

As I climbed the stairs at the other end of the long, dark hall, my mind was racing, desperately questioning “How? How is such evil possible?! How could human beings do this to one another??!!” My initial question was not “why?” mind you, it was “how?” I wanted to know the metaphysical conditions of evil; that is, I wanted to know the nature of the structural flaw in creation that clearly must exist in order for something so heinous to be permitted to take place. It wasn’t long before I realized there was no answer to my question. I saw that my sailing off into the abstractions of theory was only a thinly veiled attempt to avoid and repress the swelling emotional turmoil that had been stirred up within me as a result of being confronted with the systematic murder of 1.5 million children. My question changed to “why?“—a question of immanent meaning rather than metaphysical possibility. I quickly found myself shamanically merging with the soul of a Nazi guard at Auschwitz, experiencing his wavering degrees of self-justification and self-doubt, realizing that he was just as human as me, just as capable of love and friendship, of deceit and jealousy, just as flawed and complex… “But this can’t be!,” I thought. “Nazis must be evil, how else could they murder so many children, how else could they send so many tiny faces to their deaths?
As I left the memorial and returned again to the sunlight, I found that I could not help but sob, not only because of my feelings of overwhelming remorse for so many murdered children, but because I couldn’t find a suitable scapegoat to hold accountable for such evil. I inhabited as many Nazi souls as I could manage, searching for someone who might take responsibility for the Holocaust. I found no one. Only other fragile human souls like me, most of whom were already dead. Tears welled up in my eyes. Why? why did humanity do this?… Or, was it God’s fault?
Just then I caught the gaze of another person and was immediately torn out of my inward struggle with theodicy. I took in the living faces all around me. That each could be so externally unique and yet also hide something so universal just beneath the surface—that each could be so individual and yet also so God-like (see p. 47)—overwhelmed me even more than the photographs of the murdered children had.
I became somewhat embarrassed when I remembered I was still crying, so I turned away from my fellow humans and looked down at the grass below my feet. I couldn’t help but notice the individuality of each separate blade. I noticed each blade’s infinite difference from the one next to it. I realized how much beauty was being destroyed every time I took a step. I was overwhelmed again. The unending originality of reality swallowed me in that moment. I like to think that it was then and there that I first became responsible for myself, for my freedom, for my goodness and for my wretchedness. I saw immediately (perhaps through a kind of intellectual intuition) that evil is in all of us, that it is a necessary by-product of our creative freedom as individuals. Without the possibility of evil, there would be no opportunity for love, for the free decision to love. Schelling writes that “whoever has neither the material nor the force in himself to do evil is also not fit for good” (64). The creative struggle between individuals and communities, between me and we, is the engine of evolution. It’s as true for humans as it is for any other living being. But for the human, the creature who “stands on the threshold” between good and evil, the stakes of the struggle are infinitely higher. “It would be desirable ” writes Schelling, summarizing Franz Baader, “that the corruption in man were only to go as far as his becoming animal; unfortunately, however, man can stand only below or above animals” (40).
Life itself, as Schelling understands it, depends upon struggle and opposition. “Where there is no struggle, there is no life” (63). Without continual crisis to disrupt the very ground of our existence, all creative activity would cease, all the whirling worlds would slow and sink into the silent ocean of indifference (a dark night, yes, but without cows of any definite shade).
“The whole of nature tells us that it in no way exists by virtue of a merely geometrical necessity; in it there is not simply pure reason but personality and spirit…God himself is not a system, but rather a life” (59-62).
Kant was right after all about the singular blade of grass (see sec. 75 of his Critique of Judgment). Its life exceeds finite understanding. How much more so the life of God. For Schelling, the divine life reveals itself in the evolution of the universe, both through its cosmic phase (the primordial struggle between gravity and light) and its anthropic phase (the spiritual battle between good and evil). “The birth of spirit is the realm of history as the birth of light is the realm of nature” (44). Our humanity depends for its existence on the abyssal depths of nature, the same groundlessness that first called even God into consciousness. But unlike God, the human being “never gains control over his condition, since it is only lent to him” (62).

Here’s a video of me describing my experience at Yad Vashem:
Integral philosopher and poet William Irwin Thompson has posted a response on his blog: THOUGHTS ON EVIL, June 11, 2013

The following is an essay written for a weekend course taught by philosopher Jacob Needleman on Meister Eckhart the 26th and 27th of February 2011.


Meister Eckhart, Philosophy, and the Soul

By Matthew Segall

And there shall be for thee all soft delight

That shadowy thought can win,

A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,

To let the warm Love in!

Ode to Psyche by John Keats

When Love said that word, my soul mellted and flowed away. Where he comes in, I must go out!

-Meister Eckhart summarizing the Song of Solomon (5:2-7)

“When thought races ahead of Being,” writes philosopher Jacob Needleman, “a civilization is racing toward destruction” (WIG, p. 19). It takes a genuine philosopher to voice such a prescient insight, a being rare among mortals who for better or worse has awakened to his or her participation in the ancient current of world-historical becoming. Practicing philosophy requires more than contemplation, and more than learning. It is also an art: that of thinking (noiesis) and speaking (poeisis) the truth of Being.

To philosophize, one must first have tasted the stillness of eternity abiding within the soul, a treasure hidden deep beneath the ephemeral garments of space and time. The philosopher has felt the breath of God upon her ears and, upon hearing its wisdom, is overcome with love and possessed by the duty to convey its meaning to others. Nevertheless, despite all brushes with divinity, the philosopher remains adrift in an inherited stream of collective unconsciousness, a mortal destined to die like any other.

Philosophers are responsible for shaping the further course of earth evolution by informing and reminding Human Being of Divine and Cosmic Being. The life of the philosopher, at least traditionally, has been guided by the love of wisdom, even unto death. Unfortunately, these days universities employ more scholars of philosophy than philosophers. But no matter: wisdom always finds a way to be heard.

The short essay to follow will record my philosophical participation in what John Keats called “soul-making.” This, according to Keats, is the lost-sight-of purpose of the world, the reason for the body’s trials in time and sufferings in space. Spirit needs a home, but cannot dwell in matter alone. It is the poetic soul who prepares its abode. Both a sincere love for the True, the Beautiful, and the Good, and the sermons of the medieval sage Meister Eckhart, will guide me along the textual path to follow.

The crisis of our civilization is bigger than politics or ecology, more deep-seated than a new policy initiative or technological invention could hope to overcome. Any sufficiently sensitive soul must already have confronted the existential void at the heart of our techno-industrial civilization’s demented cosmology. As a sensitive soul and an aspiring philosopher, I’m compelled to pursue solutions to our collective situation not by offering new ideas or forms of thought, but by provoking new modes of consciousness.

Before I can begin to think and feel with Eckhart, a few distinctions must be drawn: 1) that between ideas about reality and real wisdom, and 2) that between the mind and the soul.

1) The mind is interested in the active manipulation and production of worldly things and ideas, while 2) the soul is called to the timeless task of becoming inwardly silent—without thinking or acting or entertaining any idea (ME, p. 96).  This silence, according to Eckhart, is not an end in itself, but is done in preparation for the birth of the Word of God within us, which is but another name for wisdom. In short, the mind thinks about reality, employing a multitude of ideas to mediate its encounter, while the soul patiently labors to beget the Real within itself.

The philosopher Owen Barfield once echoed Needleman’s warning for our civilization: “We are no longer capable of thinking deeply, because we think too quickly” (WA, p. 67). What is needed is a participatory and heart-centered, rather than an alienated and skeptical way of engaging the unknown depths of Being. The philosopher cannot hold the mystery of life at theoretical distance, but must approach questions concerning the essence of existence with the quality of gentle intimacy that Keats called “Negative Capability”: dwelling in uncertainty without rushing to cover over its ambiguities. Contemplation of God is the soul’s source of meaning, and while definite answers about the Ultimate may remain forever elusive, it is the act of asking—of opening oneself to the procreativity of Godthat may produce the desired transformation.

“Since the soul itself does not know, it wonders” says Eckhart, “and, wondering, it seeks, for the soul knows very well that something is afoot, even though it does not know how or what” (ME, p. 100).

Though it cannot see what it seeks, since vision always reaches out beyond it to external things, the soul retains “the power to hear the eternal word within” (ME, p. 108). The eye is the organ of the searching mind, while the ear is the agent of the loving heart.

Perhaps Eckhart’s most important teaching concerns the difference between the passivity of the ear and the activity of the eye. Though the soul is largely ignorant of what it nonetheless is intrinsically compelled to seek, such “divine unconsciousness” pacifies the soul of its pretensions, quieting all its faculties so that I may “discover the birth of God’s Son” within myself (ME, p. 107-108). The human soul’s passivity “is the chief of [its] actions,” while God “should both be active and passive in order that he may know and love himself in the soul, and the soul may know as he knows and love as he loves” (.ibid). Though “no one has ever seen God” (John 1:18), the ears of an open-hearted soul make room for God’s Word to transform all the agents of the soul, so that “the eye with which God sees me” becomes “the same with which I see God” (Sermon IV). Creature and creator here unite in “one sight, one knowledge, and one life.”

Eckhart was deemed a heretic by a Franciscan-led inquisition, mostly because of the near identity he believed could come to exist between the human soul and God. As we have seen, he taught a path of inner stillness, so that, with the restless activity of the desiring soul quieted, God might speak his silent Word to a receptive heart. The utterance of this Word within our soul is a divine and eternal birth, “which occurred at one point in time, and which occurs everyday in the innermost recess of the soul—a recess to which there is no avenue of approach” (ME, p. 109).

There is no avenue of approach–no point of access, in other words—even to our own innermost nature. Eckhart’s doctrine of the soul is difficult—nay, impossible!to grasp. We cannot gain access to the Word who is perpetually being born within us, because we are Him already in eternity. The difference between will and grace, between works and salvation, is here resolved. There is nothing to be done about Christ, because there is no time to do it. The Spirit is present when I am it, and absent when I’m not. Heaven requires no work, but nor is it bestowed by grace from beyond. Every human being already takes part in the immortal life as a being existing by virtue of Being, if only he might remember.

Socrates once said that philosophy is learning to die. Eckhart’s way of soul-making is to overcome death with love: “Death separates the soul from the body but love separates everything from the soul. It cannot endure anything anywhere that is not God or God’s” (ME, p. 124). Eckhart points us to the core of our soul, where God takes on the burdens and beauties of human nature so long as we are able to die to our personal selves for the love of others, whether foreign or familiar (ME, p. 126). Death is crucifixion upon the axes of space and time, but heaven is touched by neither: “The course of heaven is outside time—and yet time comes from its movements” (ME, p. 131).

What sort of teaching is it that demands we “be dead to everything” (ME, p. 132) to participate in divinity? Eckhart is not interested in knowledge about God generated by ideas in the mind; he seeks the wisdom of God granted only through transformation of soul. Curiosity concerning the creaturely things of time and space leads in many interesting directions, but it cannot lead to the Love and Wisdom of God, since to these there is no approach or access. An inward rebirth is necessary before the “secret spring” of the soul can give birth to Christ, the Word of God (ME, p. 127). This change is produced by the death of the ego to all things of this world, so as to love them each with disinterested equality. God is in all things, but the body-bound mind does not see the Spirit dwelling in the world because it cannot hear the voice of the Son amidst the noise of its many desires (ME, p. 131).

This teaching is harder than hell, but God sends messengers to aid us along the impossible path. Angels are the ideas of God, and born in our mind they bear the message of his coming. Part of their divine message is the identity of being and knowing, which for thousands of years has been the founding principle of the philosophical pursuit. But, as Eckhart reminds us, God’s being is transcendent, and so cannot be known by any mental faculty. The soul that, with the help of angelic persuasion, has discovered a likeness to God in the primal purity of its core, “where everything that can be named is sloughed off,” comes to the only knowledge of the divine that is possible: that by way of identification (ME, p. 142).

Eckhart reminds us of the teaching of the Scriptures, which points to three factors preventing a person from knowing anything about God: time, materiality, and multiplicity (ME, p. 151). Of course, learning to remember our likeness to God may still take time, as when fire tries to burn wood, the wood must be progressively warmed to the point of smoking and crackling before giving up entirely to the fire, since the two are at first so dissimilar (ME, p. 152). The materiality of language, both spoken and written, may also be an aid along the way to inner transformation. Just as the Word took on flesh to commune with humanity more intimately, thoughts must be uttered and recorded in the idiom of the day so as to convey the way of God to a soul whose agents are initially turned toward the world. The Word must first meet humankind in the world if it wishes to lead us toward heaven.

The soul is more a potential than a given perfection. Its magic must be made, its sacred soil cultivated by good will and faith in the beauty of truth before its divine destiny can flower. “Soul-making” is nothing less than the task of birthing God on earth, one individual at a time. Eckhart’s insights are an invaluable source of guidance for those on the path of transformation. He is a true metaphysician, offering healing prescriptions for those seeking that which lies beyond. And yet, he also points us to what is already at hand: “God is nearer to me than I am to myself” (ME, p. 129).


1) Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation translated by Raymond B. Blakney (1941)

2) What Is God by Jacob Needleman (2009)

3) Worlds Apart by Owen Barfield (2010)

Science (empirical observation coupled with logical deduction), as a way of thinking, has undoubtedly made more out of mankind than any other mode of thought in his historical arsenal. In both the material and mental spheres, man has used the knowledge and technology that he has gained from science to make many great practical advances. He has accumulated a wealth of useful ideas and inventions since the beginning of the Scientific Revolution. However, science, and all the progress which accompanied it, has yet to provide a satisfying answer to any of reality’s most fundamental mysteries, one of which being the nature of consciousness. While allowing man to logically breakdown and then symbolically map the world so as to better understand it, the scientific approach provides little insight into the nature of the mind that gives rise to those symbols in the first place. This scientific oversight of the primacy of consciousness has affected many fields of study, including philosophy. Philosopher-mystic Alan Watts laments the results of this influence: “This is the current movement in philosophy: logical analysis says you mustn’t think about existence, it’s a meaningless concept. Therefore philosophy has become the discussion of trivia. No good philosopher lays awake nights worrying about the destiny of man and the nature of God and all that sort of thing. A philosopher today is a practical fellow who comes to the university with a briefcase at 9 and leaves at 5. He does philosophy during the day—which is discussing whether certain sentences have meaning and if so what” (Watts LHG). Watts adds that “he would come to work in a white coat if he thought he could get away with it,” mocking the typical academic philosopher’s desire to be considered scientific. Author Aldous Huxley had a similar view: “In a world where education is predominantly verbal, highly educated people find it all but impossible to pay serious attention to anything but words and notions. There is always money for, there are always doctorates in, the learned foolery of research into what, for scholars, is the all-important problem: Who influenced whom to say what when? Even in this age of technology the verbal humanities are honored. The non-verbal humanities, the arts of being directly aware of the given facts of our existence, are almost completely ignored” (Huxley 76). In other words, because the characteristic philosopher deals only in logical abstractions (usually the same abstractions that are the basis of the metaphysics of the scientific method), he deals only with a third person view of reality. He finds this approach comfortable, though, because it is the view of the objective scientist safely cut off from the field of reality going on outside his mind, from the “given facts of [his] existence.” This detached perspective helps to maintain the illusion that some progress toward understanding ultimate truth is being made, as if truth were out there in the world and the scientist/philosopher need only to observe and record it. Of course, it may never have been the goal of science to provide us with such truth, but its undeniable usefulness seems to have distracted the greater part of humanity from that pursuit altogether. Put simply, the modern philosopher has lost his sense of wonder and become hypnotized by the easily acquired half-truths of science. He may still marvel at the outside world, but he has been made ignorant of the inside world, that of his own mind, and of consciousness, that indescribable sense of being which arises when the outside and inside unite and interact. Alan Watts agrees: “Consciousness is the background to all that we know” (Watts LHG). If we don’t first look deeply into our own direct perception, how can we derive any knowledge from a world we know only through its filters?

In light of this shortcoming of science, Phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty described the necessity of reevaluating the worth of a purely scientific view of reality: “The whole universe of science is built upon the world as directly experienced, and if we want to subject science itself to a rigorous scrutiny, and arrive at a precise assessment of its meaning and scope, we must begin by reawakening the basic experience of the world, of which science is the second-order expression”(Merleau-Ponty). So the basic metaphysical assumption made by science—that the subject/object distinction between the mind and the body, or between man and his world, is fundamental to reality itself—is being called into question. Before one can reliably describe the outside world, one must understand the nature of his direct experience in that world. Understanding this direct experience by relating it to the state of unity consciousness (typically referred to as mystical awareness) by bridging the gap between science and religion and incorporating the insights such integration provides into a coherent phenomenological theory of embodiment will be the objective of the remainder of this essay.

To begin drawing parallels between what Merleau-Ponty means by “direct experience” and what a mystic means by “unity consciousness,” I offer the following comparison. Here is Merleau-Ponty’s description of the origin of experience: “[It is] the mysterious tissue or matrix that underlies and gives rise to both the perceiver and the perceived as interdependent aspects of its spontaneous activity,” and further, “that primordial being which is not yet the subject-being nor the object-being and which in every respect baffles reflection. From this primordial being to us, there is no derivation, nor any break; it has neither the tight construction of the mechanism nor the transparency of a whole which precedes its parts” (Merleau-Ponty viii). Now, here is philsopher-mystic Ken Wilber describing the nature of Spirit, that which is apprehended during unity consciousness: “In its immanent aspect, Spirit is the Condition of all conditions, the Being of all beings, the Nature of all natures. As such, it neither evolves nor involves, grows or develops, ascends or descends. It is the simple suchness or isness—the perfect isness—of all that is, of each and every thing in manifestation. There is no contacting immanent Spirit, no way to reach It, no way to commune with It, for there is nothing It is not. Being completely and totally present at every single point of space and time, It is fully and completely present here and now, and thus we can no more attain immanent Spirit than we could, say, attain our feet” (Wilber xvi). Merleau-Ponty speaks of a state of being that has “not yet” spontaneously divided into a subject and an object. That is, this state has not developed into time and space; it exists in its undivided state. It is space-time itself, or, as Wilber termed it, Spirit. We see then that in these two descriptions of the creative force of the universe, two seemingly disparate thinkers have realized one and the same truth, that at the root of consciousness lay a direct experience of reality which transcends all categories and dualities. Wilber’s Spirit is Merleau-Ponty’s “direct experience” of reality mystically renamed.

To illustrate why any attempt to conceptualize this direct experience “baffles reflection,” a detailed account of the limits of language must be undertaken.

Ludwig Wittgenstein once asserted that because the goals of philosophy are not lofty but illusory, its problems are not difficult but nonsensical. What exactly he meant by this is of greater importance to humankind’s pursuit of truth than perhaps any other philosophical aphorism in its history. This is so precisely because the statement casts such a shadow on all types of philosophical knowledge regardless of the conclusions they may appear to draw.

The mind/body problem, then, when viewed in light of Wittgenstein’s doubts about philosophy’s goals, must be evaluated in a fundamentally new way. The majority of the popular philosophies thus far conceived by past great thinkers have failed to produce a convincing theory because they’ve failed to properly bring to the surface the language-based barriers standing in their way. Even Merleau-Ponty’s description of direct experience, as near as it comes to dissolving these barriers, remains creatively tied down by the grammatical structure of its language. He is forced to describe a state without a subject-object duality through the medium of a language which only makes sense when subjects can act or be acted upon by objects. So to understand what Marleau-Ponty means when he says your direct experience “gives rise to both the perceiver and the perceived as interdependent aspects of its spontaneous activity,” you have to take a step beyond the mere words and actually feel it for yourself.

The thus far insoluble problem of other minds provides a great example of what happens when words get in the way of reality as we directly experience it. Every proposed solution to the dilemma remains frustrating unverifiable. Behaviorists claim that only what can be outwardly observed need be considered real, thereby negating the necessity of mind altogether. This seems quite silly, though; such an assertion seems contradictory being that the theory itself requires a mind for its manifestation and subsequent application. To prove, though, that other minds exist would require that a solution be spelt out here on the page, that some logically coherent intellectual argument be voiced so that you might read it and somehow understand that it were true. But Wittgenstein would say that such an answer was impossible, as proving that other minds exist cannot be accomplished using any conventional linguistic means but rather that the question itself ought to be unasked before anything might be settled. It is impossible to know that other minds exist because knowing implies that you can provide logical reasons in support of your knowledge, and reasons can only be expressed using language, which at its roots remains a fundamentally contradictory medium of expression. Surely, though, it is quite possible to feel that other minds exist, to feel without words or reasons the truth inherent to your direct perception of the human condition of another. As Wittgenstein put it, “[See the] consciousness in another’s face. Look into someone else’s face, and see the consciousness in it, and a particular shade of consciousness. You see on it, in it, joy, indifference, interest, excitement, torpor, and so on. [It’s] the light in other people’s faces” (Wittgenstein 225). Intuitively, then, the problem of other minds is no problem at all, but a farce—an unnecessary intellectual abstraction of a reality that is easily grasped by anyone willing to admit that proof is the burden of language and not the burden of reality as we experience it. In reality, the proof is in the pudding: taste it and you’ll understand. There is no reason another person ought to have a mind, there is only the truth that they do, a truth arrived at through a purely intuitive and non-rationalized experience of reality.

Of course, this conclusion is not final, as it is contingent on the definition one assigns to such an abstract word as “mind.” Here is a sample of John Locke’s view concerning the nature of mind as self: “[It is] impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive” (Locke 335). It is indeed impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive, but notice the necessity of the premise “for any one.” This one is the “mind,” the “I,” the individual person, the illusory place holder given to each human entity by the grammatical structure inherent to his way of describing reality. So it is true then, at least “true enough” in Wittgenstein’s words, that one cannot perceive without knowing he perceives, as it is said “I perceive” such that the perceiving is in fact performed by me and therefore separate from me. But am “I” a real entity, a real perceiving substance, or merely a product of the functional conventions of language (i.e. Wittgenstein’s suggestion that the meaning of a word is derived from its use)? As Huang Po, a Zen Buddhist master, once remarked to a student, “Let me remind you, the perceived cannot perceive” (Blofeld 26). If I am aware of my own perception of myself, which is the real me: my perception or my perception of my perception, or my perception of my perception of my perception, and so on? This infinite regress appears to be unavoidable, however it arises only because of the dualistic nature of language, because an “I” must “have” perceptions instead of there just being perception alone. (Of course, the illusion of separate mental existence is an undeniable experience for all those who are members of a language-crazed society, so in this sense and this sense only, it is, again, “true enough” that other minds exist even when the ego or mind is, from the ultimate perspective, not an individual’s truest identity.)

This “perception alone” is the only real quality that can be assigned to consciousness. It is synonymous with Marleau-Ponty’s “direct experience” and Wilber’s apprehension of Spirit. We all intuitively feel this perception at the deepest level of our experience all the time. It reveals what there is. It is our total current experience, our body’s complete awareness of our environment as it exists in its entirety before the names and descriptions the ego superimposes upon it become our only way of thinking about it or describing it to others. This total bodily awareness with the environment also dissolves the illusory barrier between the two so that our current experience becomes an identity with the universe in its entirety, organism and environment as one. This is a step Marleau-Ponty may or may not have been willing to take, although it seems to follow naturally from the conclusions drawn by his philosophy. If the mind is embodied, then it is no great step to realize that the organism is also embodied by its environment. This hierarchical relationship between the mind and the body, and between the body and its environment, forms the center piece of Wilber’s theory of the spectrum of consciousness.

Wilber’s spectrum of consciousness is a formalization of what is known to mystics as the Great Chain of Being. While there are many forms of this chain, each of which being divided into its own special categories with their own original names and designations, the basic core of the concept remains the same in all cases. Wilber explains: “Consciousness is not, properly speaking, a spectrum—but it is useful, for purposes of communication and investigation, to treat it as one. We are creating, in other words, a model, in the scientific sense of the word… [This model incorporates] the revelations of psychoanalysis, Yogacara Buddhism, Jungian analysis, Vedanta Hinduism, Gestalt therapy, Vajrayana, and Psychosynthesis, among others” (Wilber 6). The rationale behind creating such a detailed account of consciousness was best summed up by Psychologist William James: “Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, while all about it parted from it by the flimsiest of screens there lay potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded” (Wilber 3).

Wilber’s spectrum begins at the level of Mind. This is the level at which consciousness embraces the whole of the universe and becomes aware of, as Huxley once put it, “everything that is happening everywhere in the universe” (Huxley 24). It is as if during one’s “normal waking consciousness” this “Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system, [and] what comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet” (Huxley 23). So then it is only the filters of our nervous system—the brain’s special ability to concentrate on specific stimuli while ignoring other less practically valuable stimuli—that prevents the average person from realizing their real identity with the universe as a whole.

Before we can progress to the next level of consciousness, it must be made clear exactly how each level comes to appear separated from the other. It is important to remember, first of all, that the level of Mind is both the source which creates and the substance which makes up all other levels on the spectrum. If the other levels of the spectrum are waves traveling through the ocean, Mind is the water itself. Like its namesake, Spirit, Mind is all that there is. The other levels are then said to arise as illusory boundaries are spontaneously erected which separate the universe from itself. That is not to say, however, that these boundaries are useless and destructive; quite the contrary. They provide the supporting structure of evolution, or as Wilber refers to it, the process of spirit returning to Spirit, as well as the basis for each individual consciousness’ development through life. In other words, the spectrum of consciousness develops both ontogenically and phylogenically. The first boundary, created one level above Mind, gives rise to what Wilber terms the Existential level of consciousness. At this level, the totality of the universe as a whole is divided into an organism and its surrounding environment. This is the level at which the consciousness of lower order animals appears to operate. Their daily concerns are usually finding food, avoiding death, and reproducing. The next level is the Ego level, and it is here that things begin to get more complicated. At this level, the mind begins to separate itself from the total organism and the mind/body duality is born. This step is the direct result of the development of language and the subsequent ability of the organism to form abstract concepts, including the concept of self. Without language, the realization of such a separation between the mind and the body would be impossible. The organism would have no way to bypass its present experience of momentary, embodied existence in favor of the symbolic abstractions derived from memory that create the sense of a continuous individual being separate from its decaying body. It is also clear that time plays a large role in the maturity of this level, as developing an understanding of time first requires the ability to record past and predict future events which are nowhere to be found in the directly experienced present. It must be pointed out that human beings are, as of yet, the only species on Earth to have developed the biological apparatus necessary for this level of consciousness. The final boundary is the level of the Shadow. On this level, the ego itself becomes fragmented and divided into a persona and a shadow, or a conscious mind and an unconscious mind. The persona includes all the thoughts and feelings an individual is not ashamed to identify with, while the shadow refers to anything forbidden or taboo that the conscious mind finds unacceptable or is incapable of expressing. No further division of consciousness is deemed possible, so it is at the Shadow level that the spectrum ends, or rather, that it collapses in upon itself. Here is a diagram of the spectrum:

(Wilber 131)

One can see that at each level on the spectrum, a larger part of the universe is divided from itself and that, as a result, a self/other distinction is created. At the existential level, the skin of the organism separates it from the environment it inhabits. At the Ego level, the mental abstractions of the mind separate it from the organism. And finally, at the Shadow level, the meta-mental abstractions of the formally unified ego divide it from itself.

Assuming this spectrum is accurate, which is no great assumption considering the many experiential reports gathered from mystics and other explorers of consciousness throughout human history that are in perfect agreement with its fundamental structure, then what can it tell us about the nature of the mind/body problem? It would appear to suggest that the basic theory of embodiment, that the mind and body need to be somehow reunited, is a step in the right direction. But to stop short at the barrier of the skin is to make the same mistake Descartes made when he thought himself out of his body. As Wilber’s spectrum makes evident, the separation of an organism from its environment is only an apparent separation. There can be abstract distinction between organism and environment but there can be no real division. “From this primordial being to us, there is no derivation, nor any break,” as Merleau-Ponty reminds us. A biologist would agree, “[claiming] that a man’s self—his ‘real’ being—is the entire organism-environment field, for the simple reason that [he (the biologist)] can find no independent self apart from an environment” (Wilber 13). This identification of the self with the organism-environment field is the dissolution of all barriers to consciousness and the realization of the level of Mind. All filters are turned off and consciousness of the All is allowed to flow freely through itself.

All this talk of mysticism and states of unity consciousness has probably made the dedicated scientist or logic-bound philosopher queasy. This adverse reaction to incorporating the wisdom of the various contemplative religions into the academic research on the nature of consciousness should be no great surprise at all. Scholar Alan Wallace tells us why: “Especially since the Scientific Revolution, the Western mind has sought to know what is out there, in the objective world, while ignoring discoveries of what is in here, in the subjective world… We have commonly regarded the history of discovery as being principally a Western pursuit; and religion is commonly presented as a principal foe of discovery… Such ethnocentric biases concerning the history of discovery must be abandoned if we are ever to learn from the insights of the world’s contemplative traditions” (Wallace 179). This bias has many philosophers working tirelessly to produce a workable science of consciousness unaware that one may already exist. Mystic Ananda Coomaraswamy explains: “It would be unscientific to say that [unity consciousness is] impossible, unless one has made experiment in accordance with the prescribed and perfectly intelligible disciplines… That [mystical awareness is possible] cannot be demonstrated in the classroom, where only quantitative tangibles are dealt with. At the same time, it would be unscientific to deny a presupposition for which an experimental proof is possible. In the present case there is a Way [i.e., an experiment] prescribed for those who will consent to follow it” (Coomaraswamy 69). So it becomes clear that it is not the scientific desire for experimental results that hinders progress in this area, but rather science’s refusal to fully acknowledge the primacy of direct subjective experience. If this rejection of first person experience can be overcome, what better body of wisdom is there to draw from concerning the nature of direct experience than the world’s contemplative religions? What is needed then is not a denial of either science or religion, but integration—a science of religion.

In his book The Fiction of a Thinkable World, Michael Steinberg uses the insights provided by the theory of embodiment to remind us that “We are not thinking beings at all, but bodies that think, and without the body, thinking wanders into irrelevance” (Steinberg 23). The philosopher who agrees with Steinberg’s statement is also just such a thinking body, and it would seem that often times he forgets this, allowing his thinking to wonder beyond his body and into abstractions that turn out to be quite irrelevant. Most of these irrelevant abstractions rest on his sense of being an individual self, the same sense that leads the scientist to deny direct experience in favor of a third person, subject/object duality, as to objectify the world one must first assume that they are separate from that world. But Steinberg again reminds us that these separations are not real but merely apparent: “The life of the body is part of an intricate weave of relations in which all things ceaselessly change each other. Its transformative interactions make no distinction between inner and outer or human and animal. There is no boundary within which we can point to a “me” apart from anything else. It is only when we isolate those parts of the process which we experience as conscious discourse that we look to ourselves like conscious beings” (Steinberg 24). This “conscious discourse” is language, and, as was pointed out earlier, language is what fools the mind into feeling separate by erecting boundaries within itself. Mind, or Spirit, or “direct experience” can only know itself if it hides from itself, if it creates duality and draws a line between inside and outside. Steinberg again: “…the human subject is not an isolated percipient. Each of us is instead a unique node in a network of interactions, and there is nothing other than that network. You cannot cut off a fragment and say, this is mine; nor can you leave the rest and say that it is not” (Steinberg 25). The subjective realization that there is “nothing other than that [objective] network” is the attainment of unity consciousness. This level of awareness is its own truth, but no amount of second-hand vetting will ever convince the skeptical scientist that this is so. The scientist must, as Coomaraswamy says, “consent to follow [the Way],” which is nothing more than the experimental procedure laid out for him by the various mystical traditions the world over.

In closing then, the implications of the current neurological research and philosophical discussion pointing academia toward the union of mind and body into one embodied being cannot be understood to there full extent until the scientific perspective becomes humble enough to turn the microscope inward upon itself. Only then, after examining the metaphysical assumptions lying behind its worldview, can science begin to appreciate reality in the only way we ever actually come into contact with it; that is, through direct experience. When this most basic level of experience is acknowledged, the theory of embodied consciousness is necessarily extended beyond just the layer of skin that marks the boundary between my body and my world. Consciousness becomes embodied, instead, by the universe in its entirety. One may ask at this point, “But what does that mean? What does this add to the current debate? How can we incorporate this idea into further research on the topic?” It means only itself, as the universe can point to nothing but itself, and the realization of this, when practically applied, can tell us only that all forms of scientific knowledge are relative. That is, while they may be quite useful, they can never be truthful, at least not ultimately so.

“Tao is beyond words and beyond understanding. Words may be used to speak of it, but they cannot contain it. Tao existed before words and names, before heaven and earth, before the ten thousand things. It is the unlimited father and mother of all limited things. Therefore, to see beyond boundaries to the subtle heart of things, dispense with names, with concepts, with expectations and ambitions and differences. Tao and its many manifestations arise from the same source: subtle wonder within mysterious darkness. This is the beginning of all understanding” (Lao Tzu 1).


1.Blofeld, John, trans. 1958. The Zen Teaching of Huang Po. New York: Grove Press.

2.Huxley, Aldous. 1956. The Doors of Perception. New York, New York: Harper & Brothers.

3.Locke, John. 1975. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London: Clarendon Press.

4.Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1962. Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

5.Pech, G. N.D. http://www.collegedominicain.com/profs/gcsepregi/congres/pdf/pech.pdf. Accessed: Oct. 10, 2005.

6.Steinberg, Michael. 2005. The Fiction of a Thinkable World. New York: Monthly Review Press.

7.Tzu, L. Trans. by Walker, B. B. 1995. Tao Te Ching. New York

8.Wallace, Alan B. 2000. The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press.

9.Watts, Alan. 1965. Learning the Human Game (live lecture). Electronic University Publishing.

10.Wilber, K. 1998. The Marriage of Sense and Soul. New York, New York: Random House.

11.Wilber, K. 1977. The Spectrum of Consciousness. Wheaton, Illinois: The Theosophical Publishing House.

12.Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1976. Zettel. Berkeley: University of California Press.

It has been suggested that all modern philosophy begins with doubt (JC, p. 80). When one philosophizes, they agree to take nothing for granted, and even to question themselves backward into a corner if need be. Cornering oneself in such a way becomes the goal of philosophical inquiry, as once trapped by one’s own thoughts, the answer is deemed found, as the dialectic of doubt has seemingly lead one in reverse to the very base and background of all being (i.e., that which cannot be doubted). One merely needs to turn around and take note of the boundary, as here it must be that all being begins. But such a method-so perfectly calibrated to avoid all missteps and mistakes, so expertly designed to provide unquestionably objective knowledge of the world-can tell us nothing at all of the subtleties of life. Doubt leads us down a path that can end only with an indifferent truth: a truth of abstraction and rational argument divorced from the concrete and personal truth of bodily life. With doubt as our guide, the life of the body, the most tangible form of human existence, begins to resemble, in Hegel’s words, “a hole in being” (PP, p. 249). Explaining away the individual human life in such a way leaves one with a dead and dissected slab of meat, its life sucked out and absorbed by the universal truths discovered by way of methodical doubt. All its mystery has been swept up into the philosopher’s ink well and then neatly ordered and explained in writing upon the page for all to see and understand.
The method of this essay, in contrast, will not be philosophic; which is to say, it will not begin and end with doubt. Our topic is the essence of religion, that last remaining mode of expression where the simple mystery of individual existence finds its primordial importance even amidst the cluttered minds of modern men and women. We must ask the reader to suspend their doubting tendencies and to leave the religious question open so as not to approach it merely academically. Only then can it become a “genuine living option,” in James’ words (TET, p. 349).
This essay will be written in the manner of a gesture, rather than a discursive argument. Its meaning is intended to be taken “just so,” as though it were cueing something already obvious to the reader that has merely been forgotten. One can of course disagree with it, but know that in so doing one has turned down only an invitation, not a rational argument. The author is standing on the far edge of a precipice. The abyss between he and the reader is deep and darkness prevents them both from even guessing at the distance to the bottom. The author writes, not in an attempt to prove why leaping across makes sense, but to “flail his arms” so as to convince the reader to follow him across without knowing exactly why, as the reason only becomes clear after the invitation has been accepted and the leap has been taken.
Defining Religion
What is religion? As it is a question of essence, we can be sure it will not reveal itself easily. If we begin with etymology we discover that the word derives from the Latin, religare, “to bind.” This leads us only to a new question: What is it in religion that is bound together? After some thought, we may venture that religion binds what is human with what is divine. But by what method could such a connection be forged? It is the opinion of this humble author that such a connection becomes possible only as the result of an unmediated mystical experience. The essence of religion, then, may be described as “that” which is apprehended in a first-hand experience of the sacred.[1]
We may be tempted at this point to conclude that an unmediated mystical state of union with the divine provides an answer to the more functional question, Why do we need religion?, as though such an experience lead to an easier, more enjoyable and fulfilled life. However, posing such a question pulls the veil back over what we have just revealed to be essential to religion. As Keiji Nishitani has said, asking about the utility of religion “…obscures the way to its own answer from the very start. It blocks our becoming a question to ourselves” (E, p. 341). This becoming a question to ourselves is the crucial step toward experiencing the sacred. The person who first asks What for? does not realize that any answer already assumes the answer to For who? has been provided. The primary question for the religious person is always “Why do I exist?” The answer is never final or unambiguous because it is not the question itself that is of most import. Rather, it is the act of asking it-and asking it passionately-that brings us to the religious experience, to union with God, our truest identity.
Such a definition of religion strikes traditional theist as blasphemous because it does not respect the ultimate separation between creator and creation. For the atheist, it is merely more self-suggested nonsense created by the imagination to give meaning to a world that cares not the least about human beings. To the scientist, all such claims of unity with the sacred are first met with skepticism and finally dismissed when the burden of empirical proof appears lacking. The philosopher, the champion of logic and rationality, recoils at the assertions of mystics because they appear to him to be emotional pleas appealing only to the passions while often mocking the intellect. The politician sees in such mysticism a cowardly retreat from the reality of evil and an impractical distain for the day-to-day lives of average people. Lost in all this criticism of religious experience is the actual individual, the one who is born and who dies-the one who can never be quite sure of their own whence or whither. Our exposition will focus on this individual and on his/her solitary confrontation with and assimilation of the unknown and unconscious, with his/her experience of the sacred. We will, along the way, answer the critics (the theologian, the atheist, the scientist, the philosopher, the politician) using what might best be termed depth psychology. Our perspective will be one centered on the psyche, the whole human-body, mind and soul. We do so at the behest of Carl Jung, who reminds us that, “…all immediate experience, all that I experience, is psychic” (MMSS, p. 190-191). Our goal is to describe, as clearly as possible, what it means to be an individual asking the most central of religious questions: Who am I?
The Psyche
To begin, let us first clear up the ontology of experience as it relates to the term “psyche.” One may at first feel justified assuming that experience is what a psyche has, as though the psyche were the subjective self and experience were the objective world it encountered. This confusion is to be avoided. Such a dualism between mind and matter succeeds only in providing us with a conceptual distinction between appearance and reality. When it is of crucial importance that we understand the difference between what we think and what we know, as when we design and build skyscrapers or rocket ships, then distinguishing between my own mind and the matter at hand is quite an intelligent device. But when our task is to bring to light the nature of the psyche, we must remember that it “…does not trouble itself about our categories of reality, and it would therefore be the better part of wisdom for us to say: everything that acts is actual” (MMSS, p. 73). Viewing the human being as a psychic being amounts to no more than the admission that everything we experience, whether it arises out of mental or physical activity, is actual-it can and does matter for the individual. We could also put it as Kierkegaard has: “Immediate sensation and cognition cannot deceive” (PF, p. 82). To be clear, we must admit that many an illusion may appear to the psyche, but such illusions are “real” and cannot deceive because their immediate occurrence has a direct effect on the meaning of one’s personal life.
When seen as a psyche, the human being appears to suffer from an irreconcilably divided nature. On the one hand, we exist as finite beings born to a specific family in a specific place at a specific time. As a result we suffer all the characteristic flaws of carnal reality, ignorance and death chief among them. Most of us remain stuck in this kind of worldly existence and never take seriously intimations of anything more. On the other hand, those of us who don’t ignore such intimations and who are drawn toward a deeper understanding of our own identity may gain an inkling of the soul that remains unborn in eternity as an infinite being with direct access to a truth that transcends all finite categories. If we agree that nature can make no mistakes (if it did, who would be the judge?), how could we be anything but perfectly spontaneous and wonderful manifestations of the eternal becomingness of creation? How could a separation between creature and creation ever arise?
Wait a minute… one may say. I agree about my limits, but I have never been privy to eternity or transcendence, or to the becomingness of creation, and I’ve yet to see proof of any soul, what on earth are you talking about? Herein lays the essential difficulty of referring to any “mystical experience” to begin with. It seems to follow that there are some who have seen the light and some who have not. We might then assume that the experience must be wedged inside time between when one has not yet experienced it and when one has already experienced it. The apparent requirement that something eternal occur also within time gives rise to a paradox, and we draw our ego nearer to its own limit as we attempt to approach an understanding of it. “This,” Kierkegaard says, “is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think” (PF, p. 37).
The Coincidence of Opposites
The one who claims never to have experienced eternity is caught in a profane world of passionless thoughts about thoughts, of self-reflection ad infinitum. The events of each passing moment become yet another chance to reinterpret some provisional understanding of what it means (or doesn’t mean) to be alive, though even calling it “meaning” seems to cheapen the word by leaving it always vulnerable to reinterpretation or negation. It is of no surprise then that this kind of person would report having had no knowledge of anything but his or her own every day life. But to concede that such a person’s entire being lacked some understanding of the mystical, of the presence of the infinite, would be to overvalue what the ego has reported and ignore what the unconscious has left unsaid. Because a human being is composed of both conscious and unconscious elements, we cannot always believe what consciousness appears to say, as it only represents the surface of the total substance of the psyche. Hegel, for instance, wants to see the individual as a “hole in being” because he acknowledges only the conscious half of the psyche, as any good philosopher is forced to do.[2] Only an individual with an empty hole for a mind could accurately gather up the objective truths of the universal without distorting them with his/her particularity. Our psychic perspective, however, sees the individual not as a hole, but “a hollow,[3] a fold, which has been made and which can be unmade” (PP, p. 250). Just as all light, to be noticed, must cast a shadow, all consciousness must exist in contradiction. The plain and ordinary life of the one who claims ignorance of the divine is no denial of the sacred at all, but a clear example of its necessity. A person may be conscious only of their finite ordinariness, but they understand themselves as such only in relation to the germ of heaven ruminating in them unconsciously (in the fold, so to speak).
This coincidentia oppositorum is a trick of the intellect, useful only “…if we are willing to contradict ourselves…” (MMSS, p.189). When we come upon something that eludes our conceptual grasp, we must resort to dividing it into its antithetical halves in order to make any sense of it at all. In the end, though, “the conflict of the material and the spiritual aspects of life only shows that the psyche is an incomprehensible something” (MMSS, p. 189). But rather then allow ourselves to merge with this unknown, this “incomprehensible something,” we cultivate the willingness to contradict ourselves, to be “a relation that [refuses to, or is unable to] relate itself to itself” (SUD, p. 13). We increase the crease of the fold in our being in an attempt to transcend ourselves objectively, from the outside in. This is the impetus that begins the process of becoming an individual. As human beings we are given the cultural task of self-definition, though we never succeed in achieving it once and for all. As Dante has said, “The desire for perfection [to be fully oneself] is that desire which always makes every pleasure appear incomplete, for there is no joy or pleasure so great in this life that it can quench the thirst in our soul” (GD, p. 45). We are told in the face of all life’s possibilities, not to mention the inevitability of our own death, that we must solve a problem that cannot be solved (this forces the experience of paradox upon us, whether we’re ready for it or not). We must become a free individual even while it is plainly obvious that our existence is wholly contingent on what is other than ourselves (our historical situation, future possibilities, etc.). “This style of man,” says Alan Watts, “must therefore see himself as the ghastly and tragic accident of sensitive and intelligent tissue caught up in the cosmic toils like a mouse in a cotton gin” (BT, p. 6).
And what do you propose we ought to do about it? As individuals, it appears at first as though we were trapped in a perilous situation. But before we resign ourselves to tragedy, let us attempt to ponder a solution by answering the critics.
The Critics
To the theologian, we respond that God cannot be made fully conscious, i.e. there can be no rational proofs of God’s existence. To think of God as another kind of being that might be understood as we understand a car or a house is to forget that God is not a single entity in space-time, but Being itself. Any attempt to describe God remains hopelessly flawed, as Being seems forever to jump ahead of the understanding, not because of its own motion,[4] but due to the understanding’s standing within the becomingness of time. If we assume for a moment that the theologian is Christian, we ask why the religion of Jesus became a religion about Jesus. That is, why must the story of Christ refer only to the single historical incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth and not to everyman whose paradoxical experience may lead them to the same transformation and rebirth? Why must the example of Jesus be worshipped rather than followed? I am not suggesting that the literal Biblical story be reenacted by moderns; just that such doctrinal restrictions leave Christians without an experiential connection to God because the savior appears to be a separate being with no significant relation to them. The market effect of this brand of Christianity has been to raise a society of moral lemmings in need of the educational support of an elite class of priests. In the case of reformed Christianity, church services have been reduced to “the centuries-old echo” of the “chatter among men about this thing” (PF, p. 71) the savior. Christianity has lost an essential component by not doctrinally offering an experiential connection with God before death. “Perhaps a particular philosopher had doubted for all just as Christ suffered for all, and is one now only supposed to believe it and not doubt for oneself?” (JC, p. 154).
To the atheist, we can say only that one need not deny something that does not exist. If it does not exist, why even bring it up? Nietzsche declared, “God is dead” (E, p. 67), but this in no way implies God’s non-existence. On the contrary, the psychic fact of God’s death has had an untold effect on the spiritual life of modern humanity. As we have already shown, anything that acts is actual. It matters not how we decide to divide experience into illusion and reality, as such distinctions occur after the pre-conceptual psychic facts have already had their influence on us. If the atheist must declare that he/she does not believe, the faithful can only respond by asking: What is it that you do not believe in? For the faithful themselves, mere words such as “God” or “Spirit” do not contain the mysteriousness of their own commitment. One has faith, not in an idea or a word, but in a non-idea, in an unknown. Surely then, to disbelieve, one must either, a) set up a straw man in place of true religion, thereby rejecting only an idol, or, b) be unable to let go of their own supposed knowledge of the truth.[5] It seems then that the faithful do not know what they believe and the unfaithful do not know what they disbelieve, the only difference between them being that the faithful admit their ignorance while the unfaithful wallow in pride.
To the scientist, we first applaud their open-mindedness. We next direct them to the intimate study of any one of a number of non-dual contemplative traditions, whether it be Vedanta Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, Zen Buddhism, or even Christianity.[6] Each tradition provides a unique path or method of dialogue with the eternal that is designed to convince the seeker that they are the unity they are searching for. Each path amounts to an experiment; if the scientist consents to follow the way, they may experience something remarkable.
This remarkable encounter with the infinite may require that the scientist reevaluate their philosophical assumptions. This leads us to the philosopher, whose criticism it seems we must accept. Bertrand Russell put it thus: “I believe that, when the mystics contrast ‘reality’ with ‘appearance,’ the word ‘reality’ has not a logical, but an emotional, significance: it means what is, in some sense, important” (RS). We agree that it is important, but we find it of greater importance to explore exactly why the scientist’s philosophical assumptions may lead to a biased interpretation of said mystical experience. If it were true that the distinction between the sacred and the profane is an “emotional” one, then the scientist’s observational techniques would negate a priori the results of any contemplative experiment. The scientific method demands reason and reservation; it cannot run roughshod over the facts because it wishes to express an agreeable sentiment. But reason itself does not require that we employ a specific metaphysical interpretation to our direct experience. The scientist may remain lucid even while allowing their own subjectivity to become an aspect of utmost importance to their investigation. Much like the training required for traditional experimental scientific work, the mental training required before a scientist of experience were capable of such psychic gymnastics would be extensive. Indeed, we might even be forced to suppose that only those who are already naturally inclined to seek out so profound an understanding of themselves could fill such roles adequately. This is a complete makeover of our historical image of the scientist, that given him by Sir Francis Bacon as he who conquers and subjugates nature to his own will. Bacon’s science is the science of masculinity; it is sterile, penetrating, efficient, and manipulative.[7] The science we are attempting to articulate above is a feminine science; it is vital, expressive, and can observe without interference. Instead of accepting as evidence only what is sensed externally, it is open to what is intuited inwardly. The philosopher’s claim that emotion is essential to the mystical experience does not necessarily prevent scientific observation. On the contrary, as long as the scientist acknowledges their own subjectivity while retaining the discriminative abilities of their intellect, value can become a verifiable aspect of existence and a science of revelation becomes possible. This new science, though, is not a science whose truths are easily communicable. The study of higher states of consciousness is open only to individual scientists and its results may have little relevance for others who haven’t yet done the necessary experiments.
It is for exactly this reason that the politician is suspicious of the value mystics attribute to their “higher, holier purposes.” It is not because such values are too emotional, but because they are irrelevant to the lives of most people. The mystic contemplates God, delving into the unconscious realms of the psyche in search of the archetypal structures that hold the key to immortality and authentic existence, while millions of average people starve or are killed because of public inaction and negligence. Action, it would seem, is what matters for the politician. He demands real world results, changes that are seen and that have a verifiable effect on the lives of average citizens. More than anything else, though, the politician, the man of the world, demands that we confront and destroy evil. He says of the mystics that they ignore all the terrible and unjust aspects of the world, that they pretend everything reduces to unity and love when it takes only eyes to see that it does not. The mystic can only respond by questioning the politician’s understanding of evil. While the politician relates to evil heroically as though it were an outside force with its own autonomous will and motives, the mystic sees it as a psychic manifestation of everything the self cannot accept about its own nature. It is true, the mystic will agree, that evil may appear to be unrelated to good, but this is because those who define themselves as good do so only because they have repressed their evil side. This repressed evil is projected by the unconscious onto anyone who opposes the will of what has consciously been deemed good. This psychic mechanism of repression and projection is the individual’s only recourse after they have identified themselves with goodness. The good is not good unless it battles evil; it must have an enemy. “Therefore,” says St. Paul, “I discover the principle that in my willing to do the good, the evil is with me” (Romans, 7:21). This coincidence of opposites is the only universal law of the understanding. In all our thought, whether abstract or concrete, it is never transgressed.
The Court of God
Even God has a dark side, but Christian theologians often point to the historical incarnation of Christ as God’s way of absolving evil and redeeming His[8] creation from darkness and sin. God is therefore said to remain pure, as only His Son is given the task of doing battle with the devil. We might think of God as the judge presiding over Jesus as the defendant arguing against Satan as prosecutor. We are the one on trial, the individual facing the judgment of God. This situation creates in us a feeling of intense self-reflection. After deeper contemplation, we may become aware that this is a trial as much about the nature of God as it is about our own. God has set up the courtroom and allowed the forces of good and evil their equal say. He would only do so because He has not yet decided upon the matter for Himself. As likenesses created in the image of God, our fate is also His fate. God is preparing only His own judgment-and is not this ability to judge oneself from God’s perspective what our own consciousness really amounts to? We speak candidly of our normal, everyday selves as “conscious,” but could it be that in so doing we are giving our profane selves too much credit? Self-reflection may be a better term for the action of the secular self, as it suggests something more akin to self-manipulation or self-control. As self-reflective beings, we observe parts of ourselves (such as our memories or knowledge) and employ them to solve specific problems. We function in the world as a self-reflecting ego by being aware of one thing at a time, by making compromises and weighing disparate options. Through all this, though, we never become aware of our own unconscious. Only a fully aware and conscious being can understand itself completely. But it does not look back upon a part of itself in order to change it so that it might function more efficiently. It looks back only to behold itself as itself, with no thought of utility or effecting change. It does so because what it sees is the perfection of imperfection. It recognizes all at once that existence is beautiful beyond comprehension precisely because it often seems so ugly. Do not be fooled by these apparent contradictions; the religious state of mind becomes sheer nonsense when the logical methods of philosophy are applied to it. An unmediated mystical state cannot occur until the knot of the concept-bound mind, obsessed with language and pulled tight by doubt, has been released into the pure and immediate openness of faith.
Who am I?
We might say, then, that the mystical experience occurs when God beholds itself as “I,” the formerly separate, sinful individual. This mystical state of consciousness is human-remembering-divinity or a rebinding of the finite with the infinite. “It is precisely a failure to remember,” says Ananda Coomaraswamy, “that drags down from the heights of the soul that which has walked with God and had some vision of the truths, but cannot retain it” (EIC, p. 77).
The suffering individual may now be cast in a new light. Rather than a helpless cog thrown into an uncaring world alongside other beings utterly alien to ourselves, we become God in disguise playing at being a part of His own created world. In all our seeming anguish, we are never anything but our own victims. The “I” who suffers is an illusion brought about by a God that wishes to forget Himself. For what else could an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God of love possibly want to do but suffer the exact fate of those He has created? The infinite implies all that is finite, as to be truly infinite means also to exist finitely, even if it is just for a time.
What, then, is the solution to the dilemma of the suffering individual? It is precisely to ask that most fundamental of religious questions: “Who am I?” I have asked the question repeatedly, one may say, and it has not yet brought me to God, only deeper into confusion and sin. We are reminded at this point that “the question is asked by one who in his ignorance does not even know what provided the occasion for his asking in this way” (PF, p. 9). The question may be re-posited, then, as: How are we to arrive at the dissolution of the dilemma of the suffering individual? In other words, how are we to come to realize that the occasion of the question itself created the problem? As William Blake has said, “The fool who persists in his folly will become wise” (MHH). Precisely by attempting the impossibility of coming to ourselves, of waking up once and for all, we realize that we “…cannot by any means do it [but] that IS it. That is the mighty self-abandonment that gives birth to the stars” (BT, 229). “That” is what the mystics know through unknowing, that “thou art that.”

Works Cited

1) Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. New York: Oxford University Press. 1975.
2) Cahn, Steven M. Ten Essential Texts in the Philosophy of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005.
3) Chaudhuri, Haridas. Evolution of Integral Consciousness. Wheaton, Ill.: Quest. 1977.
4) Harding, Sandra. Whose Science? Whose knowledge?: Thinking From Woman’s Lives. New York: Cornell University Press. 1991.
5) Kierkegaard, Soren. Trans. Hong, Howard V. and Hong, Edna H. The Sickness Unto Death. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1983.
6) Kierkegaard, Soren. Trans. Hong, Howard V. and Hong, Edna H. Philosophical Fragments and Johannes Climacus. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1985.
7) Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Trans. Smith, Colin. Phenomenology of Perception. New York: Routledge. 1962.
8) Roheim, Geza. Gates of the Dream. New York: International University Press. 1953.
9) Russell, Bertrand. Religion and Science. New York: Oxford University Press. 1961.
10) Solomon, Robert C. Existentialism. 2nd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005.
11) Watts, Alan. Beyond Theology: The Art of Godmanship. New York: The World Publishing Co. 1967.
[1] The sacred is the holy. The holy is that which is whole, rather than fractured or partial.
[2] (At least any good modern philosopher). To have knowledge of absolutes, one must first absolutize knowledge. Such an absolution amounts to declaring everything to be conscious.
[3] Hollow is not synonymous with hole in this context because it refers to the middle space between something surrounding, rather than the purer emptiness suggested by Hegel’s “hole in being.” A hollow has an inside and an outside, while a hole implies only vacancy.
[4] Being is eternal and infinite. As eternity, it has no time within which to move. As infinity, it has no space through which to travel. Therefore, it is motionless.
[5] The atheist typically asserts that there is no truth, failing to notice their own contradiction.
[6] The list could go on indefinitely, the only qualification being that the tradition is non-dual. That is, the final and supreme truth for the tradition must be both all encompassing and completely ineffable. This assures that they lead to no specific finite dogmas, but remain fixed on the infinite and unknowable.
[7] Bacon: “For you have but to hound nature in her wanderings, and you will be able when you like to lead and drive her afterwards to the same place again. Neither ought a man to make scruple of entering and penetrating into those holes and corners when the inquisition of truth is his whole object” (WSWK, p. 43).
[8] The masculine personal pronoun used in this context is not at all necessary and might be better replaced with the androgynous “Thou.” However, the grammatical context makes this awkward, and so for aesthetic reasons I refer to God as “He.” Using “It” would further confuse the reader, turning God into an object when the author intends for Him to be confronted as a subject, or rather the subject.