Seeing things the way they really are, Part 1: The whole universe depends on you
I do my best to stretch you in these posts. I’m trying to describe life and the human condition in a way that might be new and different for you, hopefully expanding your perspective. Unfortunately, people use much of what they read or hear to reinforce what they already believe, cherry-picking the parts that confirm what they already think and ignoring or misunderstanding the parts that don’t fit their current view.
Some of what I share isn’t easy to express, or get, using the written word. I try to write in a way that might in some small way help you have an experience of what I’m talking about, or lead you to do something on your own that helps you have the experience. This isn’t always possible, though.
What I write about almost always comes from my personal experience. A full understanding requires a similar experience, in the same way that a full understanding of Mexico comes from having been there. Just hearing about it might be informative, but incomplete. Since I’m talking about some rather rare and esoteric experiences, with no foolproof recipe for making sure you have the experience (much less fully embody it) writing in a way that gives you the experience is difficult. In that case, the value comes in at least having some context for understanding the experience if you ever do have it.
Sometimes merely knowing about something is almost useless. If I tell you about my experience of emptiness you end up wondering what the hell I’m talking about because no written or verbal description can adequately describe it, any more than you could adequately describing to a child what it’s like to have sex (not that you should do that), or describing to a child what it’s like to be an adult.
Whether the experience is profound or mundane, you have to experience it for yourself in order to really know about it. Understanding this, for most people, is an entirely new way to look at life. Almost all people decide what is true and real based on what someone else tells them or on something they read. Though you’re reading something I’ve written, I don’t want you to use it as a source of information that you just swallow whole, but rather as an impetus to find out for yourself by sitting with it, and by trying on the perspective I suggest.
Though ultimately inadequate, an intellectual understanding does have some value. It can help you avoid confusion, it can help you to know what something is NOT, and it can help you better understand your own experience of what I’m sharing, if and when you do have one.
If you do come to experience a perspective I describe, the preview I’ve given you might help you recognize what is happening and save you some confusion. If you’ve already experienced some of these insights, this discussion will hopefully create additional clarity. Genpo Roshi has certainly helped me clarify a whole constellation of experiences and insights I’d had before I met him, helping me to understand and embody them much more deeply because of his help.
Each person has a view of the universe and how they (and other people) fit into it. I began this blog with a series of posts describing how these perspectives, these ways of understanding what it means to be a human being and how to deal with the human condition, develop–in other words, change as needed. Human development is, in fact, the evolution of increasingly sophisticated and more inclusive perspectives about what it means to be a human being, why we’re here, how to navigate through life, what it all means, why we suffer and die, and so forth.
I strongly suggest that you read (or review) these early posts, as they contain some very powerful information that will help you better understand your life. The main point, though, is that your perspective regarding who you are and what it means to be human develops. For some it doesn’t develop very far; for others this development continues throughout life.
Why doesn’t development continue for everyone? Because we stick with our current view or perspective as long as it provides a workable explanation for the concerns and questions I listed above. Only when the old perspective no longer helps us successfully navigate our life are we pushed to develop a new and broader perspective.
The perspective I’ve been describing in recent posts is my attempt to describe the point of view of someone who is awake and aware, what some people call enlightened. I’m doing this in my words, based on my understanding (and limited by the fact that some of this is, really, impossible to fully impart in words).
I’m not saying that what I’m describing is an ultimate perspective, or that it’s better than some other perspective, including yours. Just in the last two and a half years since I’ve known Genpo Roshi I’ve had at least five or six major shifts in awareness. Each time I experience such a shift, I realize that my previous perspective was incredibly limited. Based on that, I’d be willing to bet that my current perspective is also limited and that, in fact, it always will be no matter how much more it expands.
Human beings tend to assume that their current perspective is accurate, that it’s THE perspective. I’ve come to see that every perspective I’ve ever had, and very likely all those I will have, are true in some sense, but also partial. Genpo Roshi is fond of saying that whatever your current perspective, that’s where you’re stuck.
Though some human beings do experience an incredibly expanded perspective, part of being human is to be limited, and part of seeing things the way they really are is to acknowledge that this is true.
Finally, you’ve probably noticed that a lot of what I share includes ideas common to Buddhism. I’m not, however, trying to show you yet another dogma, another set of ideas, that you might choose from amongst other dogmas. And, I’m certainly not trying to get you to be a Buddhist. I’m describing my own experiential understanding, limited though it may be, and I’m using terms from Buddhism because I’ve found that the great Buddhist patriarchs brilliantly described the experience I’ve had and the perspective I’ve arrived at (so far) as accurately as such things can be described.
So, with that already-too-lengthy introduction, I’d like to begin a review of several key insights about the human condition, several of which I’ve talked about in other posts but bear repeating.
First, then, let’s look at the idea of what Buddhists call the mutual interdependence of all things. One aspect of this is what a lot of people call “oneness.” This is the observation, the feeling–or, you might say, the perspective (since not everyone sees the world this way as they look around)–that everything is connected to everything else, and everything depends upon everything else.
From this perspective everything is clearly seen as one big multi-dimensional happening. Separate things and events are seen as useful ideas about reality, but with a clarity that these ideas are not reality itself. Reality, from this perspective, is one infinitely huge thing-event. Though it’s often useful to conceptually slice reality into mental “things” and mental “events,” all supposedly separate things, exist in relation to all other things, and all supposedly separate events flow out of previous events and into future events. Nothing really has any separate or individual essence. What look like separate things and events are really just ever-changing waves that make up the ocean we call the universe.
This means that no “thing” has any independent nature. It also means that you can’t describe any part of the universe without also describing its environment. In Buddhism this view is sometimes called the doctrine (or theory) of emptiness. It is also sometimes referred to as the law of cause and effect. Here’s what the Dalai Lama said about this subject in his book, The Universe in a Single Atom:
One of the most important philosophical insights in Buddhism comes from what is known as the theory of emptiness. At its heart is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own experience in it, and the way things actually are.
In our day-to-day experience, we tend to relate to the world and to ourselves as if these entities possessed self-enclosed, definable, discrete and enduring reality. For instance, if we examine our own conception of selfhood, we will find that we tend to believe in the presence of an essential core to our being, which characterizes our individuality and identity as a discrete ego, independent of the physical and mental elements that constitute our existence.
The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error but also the basis for attachment, clinging and the development of our numerous prejudices. According to the theory of emptiness, any belief in an objective reality grounded in the assumption of intrinsic, independent existence is simply untenable. All things and events, whether ‘material’, mental or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To intrinsically possess such independent existence would imply that all things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with or exert influence on any other phenomena.
But we know that there is cause and effect–turn a key in a car, the starter motor turns the engine over, spark plugs ignite and fuel begins to burn… Yet in a universe of self-contained, inherently existing things, these events could never occur!
So, effectively, the notion of intrinsic existence is incompatible with causation; this is because causation implies contingency and dependence, while anything that inherently existed would be immutable and self-enclosed. In the theory of emptiness, everything is argued as merely being composed of dependently related events; of continuously interacting phenomena with no fixed, immutable essence, which are themselves in dynamic and constantly changing relations. Thus, things and events are ’empty’ in that they can never possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality or absolute ‘being’ that affords independence.
Before we dive into this a little more, I want to remind you once again that I’m not suggesting this as another theory for you to adopt because it sounds good, or because someone you see as an authority has said it. Look around and confirm for yourself that everything does indeed exist in relation to everything else, that anything that happens to any part of the whole happens as a result of this relationship, and that the whole is, in fact, totally dependent on everything that is part of it.
Don’t just believe me about this–look around and confirm it for yourself. Though you might see in a flash that what I’m saying is true, you might need to investigate for months, or even years, before you see it fully. In fact, your ability to fully see how everything is related to everything else will continue to expand and probably never be complete.
This idea that nothing has an independent nature, and must exist in relation to everything else, is a very profound insight. When you really get into it, you see some very interesting implications.
First, if nothing has any independent nature, can there be a separate “you” who acts independently of the rest of the universe (other that, as with other “things”, as an idea)? It seems to most people that they are separate from the rest of the universe, and that they make decisions about what to think or do from some independent part of themselves–that they decide and act from within, independent of what goes on outside of themselves. It seems to such people that what they think or do is an independent choice.
This doctrine of emptiness, or the mutual interdependence of all things, however, implies that any decision, any action, any thought, is a response to the environment, rather than an independent choice.
Look at it this way. Living things are in many ways response mechanisms. Even the lowest viruses have ways of perceiving their environment and responding to it. They perceive food and move toward it, or perceive a lack a food and set out to find it. Higher forms of life develop more sophisticated ways of perceiving the environment, including ways to learn. Nerve ganglia remember certain stimuli and the consequences of those stimuli, and develop the ability to remember an effective response. The more sophisticated the learning mechanism and its ability to store what is learned, the wider the repertoire of responses.
In human beings, for instance, the repertoire of responses becomes huge and the ways of evaluating which response might be best become quite complex. All of these responses, however, are still just that–responses to the environment, whether spontaneously built into the organism or remembered. Because there are so many possible responses, it can seem as if we are independently choosing, but these choices are still reponses to the environment (while, at the same time, it is responding to us), just as with the simple virus.
Any way you slice it, every part of the whole is inextricably connected to, dependent upon, and responding to the rest of the whole. None of the supposedly agentic decisions are made independent from, or outside of, this connection to the whole.
I can’t resist telling you about one of Alan Watts’ quite witty descriptions of what a human being is and what it’s all about. Human beings, Watts once said, are really just tubes. Food goes in one end of the tube, and waste comes out the other end. So the tube develops different ways of finding food and getting it into the top end of the tube, which allows the tube to have enough energy to look for more food so it can continue to put it in the top end and allow waste to come out the other end. Eventually the tubes develop these nerve ganglia that help it become even better at finding food and putting it into the top end so the waste can come out the bottom end.
As the tube becomes more efficient at finding food to put in one end so waste can come out the other end (and so it has the energy to find more food to put in the top end to keep the process going), it ends up with a certan amount of free time, so it creates various ways to keep from being bored–hence literature, music, the Beverly Hillbillies, American Idol, Monster Truck shows, and other profound and significant human endeavors.
All this food going through the tube, unfortunately, wears it out after a while, so the tubes also develop a way of making other tubes, so that when the tube wears out there are other tubes who can keep up this business of putting food in one end and letting waste come out the other.
When I heard this I had to admit that he had a point, and that he had boiled down human existence to a very basic (and actually pretty funny) truth.
But back to our regularly scheduled program. What this discussion–of emptiness (of any independent nature or essence) and mutual interdependence of all things–really means is that whether or not it feels this way to you, you, as a separate entity, don’t exist. Yes, there is an organism (which is not exactly the same as what people think of as “me”, and isn’t any more separate from the whole than anything else). And, that organism chooses many of its behaviors, but all of this choosing, and which choices are available, flow directly from the immediate interactions the organism has with the rest of the whole, plus (in some cases) what it has learned from past interactions. None of its actions or choices happen in isolation.
In fact, you could turn this idea that you depend on the entire universe on its head and say that the entire universe also depends on YOU. Even before you were born, the universe depended on the fact that you would someday be here, and after you’re gone it will depend on the fact that you were here. In my own case, this is a universe that does something called Bill Harris, in the same way an apple tree produces apples, and the existence of Bill Harris (or you) can’t be separated from the whole going on of it all.
I’ve been talking off and on over many posts about the experience of emptiness, or what some call the transcendent, and a few people have posted lately saying that they’ve had such experiences, while using Holosync, while doing Big Mind with Genpo Roshi, or in some other way. In this experience, you FEEL, or experience, how everything goes together. It is obvious that everything goes together and is dependent upon everything else. So let’s look more closely at this sort of experience, and why is might happen (or not happen).
First, if everything goes together in the way I’ve described, why do most people tend to see the universe as a collection of separate things and events? In fact, seeing the world as a collection of separate things and events is so common that those who talk about emptiness, the transcendent, oneness, or whatever you want to call it, are seen as a bit nutty.
The common explanation for the experience of separateness is that the mind, by its nature, divides everything into separate things and events. This is in line with what I said earlier: these divisions are conceptual. They are mentally generated and are not intrinsic to the world. As Alan Watts used to say, a thing is a “think,” a unit of thought, as much of reality as you decide to get your mind around in any particular moment.
When we’re very small we learn the names of things and events, which gives us the impression that things and events are something concrete instead of merely conceptual (in addition to learning that a thing and it’s name are synonymous–that the “map” is the same as what it represents). This leaves us with an underlying premise that a separation exists between one thing (or event) and another in reality, not just in the mind.
Once we learn to see the world in terms of separate things and events, we learn to divide them into two categories: those that are desirable and those that are undesirable. Then the fight (what I’ve referred to as The Game of Black and White) begins. Most people spend their entire life trying to get what they (with the help of parents and society) think is desirable, and to avoid what they think is undesirable.
This fight, which happens both internally and externally, can’t happen unless we mistakenly believe in the reality of separate things and events, and unless we believe that these supposedly separate items really are in opposition. There is a deep secret (shhh!) about all things that seem to be in opposition: they are really one indivisible and interdependent unit. The two warring sides actually go together. Neither side of the conflict can exist without the other. And, ultimately, the division itself happens only in your head.
I’ve often written about the problems created by focusing on (in other words, making internal representations of) what you don’t want. To the degree that you do this, you feel bad and you unconsciously arrange to attract or create more of it. The whole process of focusing on what you don’t want–trying to avoid one side of a supposed polarity– is rooted in the underlying premise that separate things and events are real rather than merely conceptual. Focusing on what you don’t want (along with clinging to what you do want) causes most human suffering.
The mutual interdependence of all things is also another way to refer to the process of cause and effect, or karma, but that’s a topic we’ll tackle in another post.
As I said in the beginning of this post, learning about how everything is dependent upon everything else has limited value. The real ah-ha comes not from intellectual understanding, but from really seeing and experiencing it for yourself.
This is, then, something for you to sit with in meditation and be mindful of as you go through your day. Look around and notice how you are connected to everything–in fact, that every living thing, every object, and every event is connected to and flows out of (and into) its environment. Keep noticing this and reminding yourself of this basic premise and eventually it will become obvious. Your goal is to embody this truth, so that it is with you all the time.
Next time we’ll look at another aspect of “seeing things the way they really are”.
Before I let you go, though, I want to remind you of a few upcoming events:
1) September 19-20, New York: Genpo Roshi and I will be leading another of our 2-day workshops. These events really are life-changing. I can’t emphasize enough the benefit of spending two days with us. For more information, see www.centerpointe.com/bigmind.
2) September 30-October 3, Calgary, Canada: I will be speaking with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, billionaire Richard Branson, Nobel Peace Prize-winner F.W. deKlerk, and several other world thought-leaders, business experts, and charitable activists. Many are calling this the Event of the Decade. For more information to to www.engagetoday2009.com.
3) October 24-25, Houston, Texas: Genpo Roshi and I will be leading another 2-day workshop. Again, a rare opportunity to spend time with a true Zen master, and me. For details, and to register, go to www.centerpointe.com/bigmind/houston.
I would love to see you at one–or all three–of these events.
(click the player above to listen to this post)
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