The End of WillSpirit?

IMG_0278Don’t be alarmed. Although my body will be undergoing major surgery in less than a week, this post’s title does not reflect a morbid fear. I’m confident the outcome will be successful, and I look forward to freedom from the chronic, deep, and exhausting ache in my belly that has plagued me for three years.

No, the “end” that might be approaching is a transition. This is entry number 499 since WillSpirit started five years ago. With just one more contribution, I’ll have uploaded exactly 500 pieces, or close to 2,000 pages of text. Admittedly, a couple dozen entries were poems, not essays. Also, fourteen were removed from public access when I decided they were too personal (which, given my usual abandon in disclosure, should tell you something about their content), and a few are still in reserve as ‘drafts’ because by the time of completion they no longer seemed relevant. But since I could make up the shortfall with fifty or more commentaries posted on other sites, it’s easy to conclude I’ve done enough blogging. Not only that, but blogs no longer serve as community builders the way they once did, due to the rise of more sophisticated social media. A few sentences on Facebook generate broader and quicker social cohesion than lengthy essays on a blog.

More to the point, when I write what’s on my mind these days, the text focuses on arcane topics that don’t engage readers the way my visceral descriptions of emotional life once did. My mood swings are milder and they bother me less, so I don’t feel compelled to explore them. The philosophical writing is fun, but since others aren’t too interested, and since I’ve worked out all the major questions that intrigued me, there doesn’t seem much purpose in continuing. I now feel possessed of a reasonably clear vision of both the cosmos and our human place within it. Sure, I could keep penciling in details, but the big picture is sketched and satisfying. It seems, therefore, time for something new.

That might mean going back and reworking some of the better WillSpirit essays and then either reposting them, or collecting them into a manuscript, or both. (An assistant would make this a lot easier–know anyone who might be interested?) It could mean finally writing one of the many books I’ve contemplated. Or perhaps I’ll do more teaching locally; through my yoga work, I’m beginning to see some possibilities in that direction. Regardless of what comes next, blogging feels complete for now.

As I prepare to go into the hospital, and before I put WillSpirit to bed, perhaps it makes sense to summarize the vision of reality this site has helped me develop. Obviously, the full picture is too large to fit in one post, but what follows is the rough outline, drawn from my education in the sciences, what I’ve learned from spiritual traditions, and direct mystical experience. If you, like most visitors,  tire of my speculations, you might want to skip the text between the horizontal rules and proceed to the conclusion.

We are embedded in a sea of space and time. The processes that currently surround us evolved out of a much smaller, denser, and more homogeneous system that underwent some sort of explosive event nearly 14 billion years ago. What preceded this ‘Big Bang,’ if anything, is uncertain. Since the onset of expansion, causes and conditions have flowed forward seamlessly, with much elaboration of complexity. The most intricately structured matter we know of resides in human nervous system.

The motive energy behind cosmic evolution goes by many names. Although the words used lead to intense disagreement, it is interesting to remember that most mature philosophies identify a fundamental quality undergirding the multifaceted reality we know today. For instance, physicists recognize that ‘energy’ manifests as all the light, matter, and motion in the universe and that it influences the space-time matrix in surprising ways.

While the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition offers superficial modes that appeal to the masses with the notion of an all-too-human deity, its more mystical strains (such as Kabalism, Sufism, and contemplative Christianity) point to a deeply embedded essence in the cosmos that manifests in and as all that we see. This source principle animates creation but does not share our human weaknesses of judgment, vengeance, etc. There are obvious parallels between the physical view and the mystical one; though different in their implications, they’re similar in form.

Eastern philosophies, such as Vedanta and Taoism, map even more smoothly onto the physical view. Yes, there is God-language in Vedanta that would alarm material atheists, but if you look beyond that, you find a picture of reality that is quite similar to the one theoretical and experimental physics have painted: an initial and underlying unity of composition diversifying into a multitude of ever-changing forms.

The controversy that separates  material and spiritual perspectives comes down to this: does the cosmos as a whole accommodate its own internal, living experience? Or is the system mechanical at its core, with sentience available only to humans and other recently evolved lifeforms?

Science has postulated (not proven) the latter position; the tremendous descriptive success of the empirical method provides the mechanical view authority but not verification. Spiritual traditions are equally confident of cosmic sentience and cite the messages of introspective journeys: prophetic visions, meditative insights, and so on. Thus the question is really this: do purely interior mystical and/or meditative states tell us anything valid about the exterior world? Or are they simply wishes that appear as perceptions?

We can’t be sure, but I believe the evidence allows us to cautiously trust the insights of transcendent awareness. First, (based on personal experience as well as written reports) resonant states generally share some combination of the following features: a felt sense of universal love, an understanding that the cosmos is unfolding in the way it must, and a realization that the innumerable diverse forms are united at the most profound level. This uniformity of spiritual experience is a kind of repeatability, the hallmark of valid research. Second, we can recall that mathematical structures  developed by purely interior means guide physicists to profound insights about exterior reality; so there is a well-established precedent in the occident for believing the mind can be used a sort of sense organ. (In the East there are many other precedents, and even in the West the Greeks and others believed it possible to discover Truth using thought alone, though empiricism later challenged that position.) If the mind is capable of directly perceiving important features of reality, as mathematics suggests, we can–with a little creative license–categorize skilled meditation as empirical (sense-based) investigation and trust its conclusions. Third, the insights that resonant awareness offers are consistent with what we know about nature on the quantum and relativistic planes. That introspective efforts in past millennia led sages to inferences that sound remarkably like modern high-energy and cosmological physics suggests, to me and many others, that we should take meditative exploration seriously. (This was not merely inevitable; the Newtonian model–which still influences Western thought in subtle ways–postulated a universe with static gross features and comprised of distinct and unrelated elements rather than one with a life cycle and diversifying from a unitive quality.)

If we accept interior work as valid and line it up with scientific findings, we understand the cosmos and human consciousness through a lens shared by many seekers from different traditions: the so-called Non-Dual perspective. This outlook informs us that despite our neurotic sense of isolation, we are united in a deep way. When this knowing penetrates deeply and is experienced in a visceral, non-verbal fashion, we approach what has been referred to as direct realization, or awakening.

To draw an analogy, we can liken ourselves to cells in a great organism. Through semi-permeable boundaries, we interact continuously with all the other cells (i.e., other processes and life forms). We  congress most intensively with those processes nearby but depend indirectly on all. Only when taken as a collective do we form a whole. Our personal trajectory affects the trajectory of this whole, and vice verse. We are continuous with and inseparable from a grand, living universe. If we believe this on the basis of science and reason, we understand the truth. If we feel it in our marrow, we realize the Truth.

In my opinion (other non-dualists see things differently), there isn’t a world of awareness that manufactures a world of matter as a sort of dream. Nor (as materialists believe) is there a world of matter that generates awareness as a byproduct. Rather, the two are united and interdependent from the very start.

I summed this up in a series last autumn by suggesting: “the universe is mind.” If you read the post prior to this one, you’ll recall that in describing our mental life, I used this definition for the word mind: “[something] that takes sensation, drive, and emotion as input and generates perceptions and responses as output.” That’s the word in the human sense. In the cosmic sense I would revise the phrasing: “[something] that takes all preceding processes and conditions as input and generates subsequent processes and conditions as output.”

Such a definition is superfluous if the universe is not aware, as material atheists have taken as axiomatic. Past leads to future–so what? But if there is sentience at the core of reality, as mystical states suggest, then this process of transformation takes on a potent significance: the universe may be participating in its own evolution. It may even be shaping itself on the fly.

There would be a number of important implications if the cosmos operates with a core of sentience, but the one that most interests me is that a participatory universe is an invested one. The flow of events matters to it. This doesn’t necessarily imply any universal standards, values, or preferences, (although these might evolve with time, if only as a consequence of orderly unfoldment) but it does mean there is a witnessed quality to all this flow.

The possibility of the universe shaping itself is also significant, but there’s an important caveat: to suggest the cosmos might respond dynamically to influence its own development is very different from saying it is designed. Referring again to the prior essay, deliberative planning would require intellect. Drawing from my own mystical experiences as well as a synthesis of much scientific and philosophical material, I believe that internal model building followed by external implementation (the intellect’s mode of operation) does not occur in the universe as a whole, but only in those portions of it with sufficient complexity to accommodate a symbolic representation of reality. Such pre-planning is available to brains, and perhaps someday it will be found in highly advanced computers, but there is no indication that the cosmos as a whole has a conceptual workspace. In other words, the universe is mind, but not intellect.

SIDEBAR: If there exist units of consciousness that can move through time and space independent of material bodies, this would give the appearance, at times, of planning. Such autonomous entities would equate to the gods, angels, spirits, etc., that people have seen or imagined through the ages. Even if such disembodied (and disputed) agents exist, however, this would still be different from saying the entire cosmos  plans evolution in advance. Instead, it would be akin to recognizing that humans construct visions of future unfoldment and then attempt to implement them, but that we operate within a cosmos that is evolving moment-by-moment in a contingent way.

(I can’t resist the temptation to put a sidebar within this sidebar in order to discuss the possibility of consciousness that isn’t anchored in a body. Since so many cultures and traditions believe in spirits and the like, I think we need to consider how they might occur, without necessarily concluding that they do. Disembodied agents are almost always described as involved in the affairs of organic beings–usually human but sometimes animal. My suspicion is that if they possess independence and aren’t purely the products of the mind of the person who encounters them, they may nevertheless depend on the mental resources of  nervous systems. Otherwise there would be little reason to expect them to be so tied to human enterprise. I can imagine these entities running like software in brain hardware alongside single minds and/or the minds of a group in a shared and/or distributed way. The only other alternative–besides dismissing spirits altogether–is to conclude that complex conscious behavior can occur without any material substrate, which I consider very unlikely for reasons that would require more text than this speculative topic deserves.)

As another possibility besides the influence of disembodied agents, if future features of the cosmos could feed back and influence past ones we might also see something that looked like planning, but in this case it would actually be a kind of recursion. That future might affect past isn’t completely excluded by physical models, but at present we have no evidence for such looping.

The point is, there are ways in which the cosmos could appear to plan that might explain the occasional sense we have that events are occurring that were ‘designed’ to promote growth, wellbeing, or collective action.

Personally, I suspect most evolution happens as a sort of intuitive process, whereby events align in an organic and contingent way without responding to any anterior intent (whether through disembodied spirits or future recursion), and that it’s only our own human bias that leads us to infer premeditation. At its core, the universe seems to function like an ecosphere: the whole undergoing structural changes as circumstances affect individual processes, moment-by-moment.

(I realize no one bothering to read my writing is likely to need the following explanation, but I include it for completeness: There are a number of reasons to suspect that the cosmos as a whole is unplanned, even if disembodied agents or recursion occasionally intervene. The most obvious problem is that the universe displays no evidence of prior intent. Biological life, for all its splendor, presents us with countless adaptations that can only be understood as having evolved from prior forms that served completely different purposes. The result is often so inefficient and ad hoc as to make advance engineering seem very unlikely. For example,  the human lumbar spine is vulnerable to failure in large part because it holds up an entire half of the body that quadrupeds support with their forelimbs.  Since our spine appears very similar to that of four-legged mammals, and since it is poorly suited to our upright gait, we can readily envision step-by-step evolution from earlier mammalian forms, but not so-called intelligent design.)

Those of us who love this remarkable experience we call “living” may feel convinced the cosmos is heart as well as mind. As indicated above, the resonant mental state reveals universal love, holistic rightness, and cosmic unity as the base features of reality. While all paths to transcendence offer glimpses of all three, unity is the hallmark of meditative disciplines, while the sense of love shines out most clearly in traditions that emphasize worship.

Which brings up the point that although the non-dual way of seeing things is quite healing, it is only part of a bigger picture. It often lacks the affectionate, radiant quality revealed when one doesn’t simply detach in meditation but plunges into Reality with abandon (read Sufi mystical poetry if you desire a good sense of this). Such loving arises most reliably when we admit our individual vulnerability and surrender to the greater Whole. This liberating act imposes at least some duality on our worldview: there is a person who surrenders to something larger.

It seems important to honor our personal nature as much as the unified quality it builds upon. We are, after all, partially independent beings, and our agency has value, too. We can operate as free-living organisms while remaining aware of our deeper unity. At times we enjoy the theater, even as we know that actors who seem to be competing with one another form a loving team behind the scenes. This is not error; it’s appreciation.

Particulate nature is present, and so is holism; not one or the other, but both. I describe this as a kind of wave-particle duality: reality can appear either continuous or discrete. At times one view fits experience better than the other. But as circumstances change, so must the description, if we are to be skillful actors in the world. Of course, regardless of which picture we emphasize at a given moment, as we mature we learn to treat everything around us as we should wish to be treated ourselves.

While in all times and places, the universe hums on, at once witnessing and invested in its own production.

So where does all this leave me, after five years of groping toward a global appreciation of life in  hundreds of essays on WillSpirit? Do these insights make any difference?

Oh yes. When I started, I defined myself as the psychiatric casualty of a traumatic upbringing. I felt isolated and afraid. It seemed the world was bearing on down on me, and I feared myself incapable of holding up under the pressure of fate.

Now, all is transformed, at least a good part of the time. Sure, my current condition is the result of past causes, including my childhood. But I no longer believe historical events ruined me. Rather, they shaped me into an interesting feature of this vast, evolving whole. I don’t feel alone, because by simply slowing down and drawing within, I sense my roots extending downward and connecting with the ground of all Creation. And I am not afraid, because what happens to this single cell of the Great Body doesn’t strike me as terribly important. All cells develop and then disappear. Every one of us feels joy and pain. What difference could the details make in any ultimate sense? Finally, I no longer feel fate bearing down on me. Rather, it is the tide upon which all rises and falls.

If all these cool insights fail to calm me in times of high stress, I can settle into my heart and feel a warmth flowing inward and outward around that sweet, throbbing organ that keeps the blood, and life, flowing. This I believe to be the Great Adoration that pervades the entire flow of Creation.

Granted, much of this could be in error. But who can say what’s “true” with any finality? Won’t there always be someone arguing a different opinion? Why not choose the world view that most heals?

With such insights, when I can remain centered in them, I am freed of my prior narrow concerns. I feel interwoven with other people and all other life forms. Indeed, I feel kinship with the most distant galaxies I can imagine, while all that I perceive reverberates with love.

WillSpirit has been one of the supports that helped me reach this latest plateau which, let’s be clear, is a place generations of spiritually motivated people have found as a step on the path. I am grateful to this blog and to the small but nurturing readership that has embraced me over the years. But I believe it is time for me to begin a new climb, and possibly a more public one. So just one more post, and then we’ll see…

In the meantime, of course, I’ll be undergoing an abdominal surgical procedure. On Friday I was helped by a very wise yoga therapist. She pointed out that my vascular problem lies in the region of my solar plexus, the site of much ‘gut instinct.’ The arterial compression that is to be corrected results from an inward heaviness that presses down and stops the flow. If we wanted to think symbolically, we could suspect the aberration developed because in the past I felt so much pressure to find my way in the world (including during this blog’s pitched battle to work out a coherent worldview). I staggered from one idea to the next burdened with anxious concerns. It seemed neither safe nor possible to relax into the organic flow that draws everything forth. Perhaps this surgery will restore my gut to its full potency. With a nice, healthy vascular supply, maybe my instincts–grounded as they are in the Great Whole–will lead me to blossom without such straining, rooted ever more deeply in the cosmic mind and heart.


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