Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Reflecting Dimensions

Imagery and Religion

When asked if he believed in God a famous scientist once answered, “No, what I believe in is much bigger than that. “ Religion depends on imagery. Many of the people who are rejecting the historic religions find the imagery no longer works for them. The image of an all-knowing father in the sky isn’t comprehensive enough for the scale of the world we know. Even understanding it as imagery, a way of conceptualizing something beyond our understanding, it puts the focus on who is in charge, which may benefit authority figures, but not our spiritual understanding. The archetype of the father is all about obedience and punishment. After centuries of people who were in charge and not necessarily wise and fair leaders, the image is tainted. Anyone with power or who insists they are led by a higher power can be harsh and brutal stamping out the sins of others and the world is divided into the obedient good and disobedient bad. The image creates fear and disconnection.
Many are searching for better images to represent a spiritual cosmic order, images that will harmonize with a modern understanding. Immersed in patterns too elegant for chance, and visions of wonderment anywhere you look close enough, it doesn’t make sense to call it all lifeless mechanism just because the old imagery isn’t working. The sense of being part of a larger pattern, connected to the universe, inspires love instead of fear. Grateful to be opened out of our isolation, we can reach for new ways of visualizing cosmic relationships. Finding more ways to contemplate what’s beyond understanding acknowledges the mystery, doesn’t try to solve it.
The Net of Indra is a wonderful image from Buddhism for the cosmic order visualized as an infinite net of jewels, each reflecting the whole and every part. If everything reflects everything else, then when one thing moves it moves everywhere simultaneously. This offers an interesting way of looking at a larger consciousness that is aware of us. It could be isomorphic with the concept of non-locality in quantum physics that points to correlated particles remaining correlated even with separation of great distances. If one particle changes orientation so does the other. No transmission is necessary since it happens at the same time, much like our reflection in the mirror moves when we do.
Every jewel in the net reflects everything else. This image also connects to Karl Pribram’s description of the mind as like a hologram, where the whole image is in every part of the holographic plate. Our memories and experienced reality are distributed throughout. And maybe our personal experiences are distributed throughout a larger consciousness. We offer the only information available about our space/time location. Each different position in the net is a unique reflection, a personal view of the whole like a different camera angle on the scene.
The structure of our mind reflects the structure of the larger mind of which we’re a part. This image helps us envision how the universal consciousness is aware of each and all. It establishes us as integral to the structure, everything we do having an effect on every part of the web. When someone is closer in the net we reflect more of each other on a larger part of our adjacent surfaces, and the relationship itself becomes part of the picture throughout. The sense that at some level we are all one is easier to see and understand with this image of ourselves as jewels on the net containing within us all that is, ourselves contained in every part. Thinking about ourselves as connected in this way can transform the way we act toward each other. As part of an organic whole, to not help another person in need would seem as irrational as an immune cell sensing a problem and not acting in response. To recognize our actions as far-reaching and contained in the content of the whole may tune our sense of responsibility to one another.
Looking for images that connect us is searching for more encompassing meanings, and is a spiritual act in itself. Not clinging to any one image allows us to flow and respond to different aspects of a spiritual reality as they apply to the human experience we’re having while continuing to search and learn. Let’s begin to share new images for a deeper idea of what is to be human and how we fit into the universe.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


Telling Stories

Alan Watts often said that what people are looking for in Eastern spiritual practice was a transformation in how they see themselves and in their feeling about who they are. He and Krishnamurti as well as some of today’s neuroscientists see our use of language creating a filter that interferes with personal evolution.
The use of language binds us to time. It takes time to express a thought, time to read a book, time to think through an argument on an issue. Our sense of our self is a story in time with a sequence of ‘before’s and ‘after’s . We believe we have a beginning at birth and an ending at death and we narrate much of the time in between.
Description puts passing events into a culture-based code. Judgments arising from cultural norms attach themselves to the narration. The usefulness of the code, enabling us to remember and to plan, seduces us into accepting it as reality. The story includes felt grievances and worries, which torment us with remorse and disappointment. Many live most of their lives in the descriptions. When our story dominates, the living present, recedes into the background. At its most controlling, the narration takes the place of reality and we treat our concepts as unchangeable absolutes that twist relations with immediate experience. When we feel oppressed by time we need to remember that the oppression is a concept in our mind. It is part of the story we tell and locks us more deeply into our description of what’s happening than in the actual moment we could be living. Self-consciousness builds with attachment to our ideal protagonist as we measure ourselves against it.
Involvement in actual experience doesn’t require a self. This is why books like “The Power of Now” are popular, because whatever is going on in the story, focus on the immediate experience has duration, an extended moment, released from time and self-consciousness. We feel relief to be freed from the cage of identity we’ve created. Animals, having no means to narrate, live in the now. The present is timeless whenever we’re in it. This is the view of mystical religions of all kinds; incarnation of the divine is in the full attention to existence free of conditioned concepts. Moksha, liberation from the socially defined view of the world, getting away from what the community says one should think and feel, must be found for oneself. It can’t be codified because it is a direct encounter with the world.
Our story is a type of self-conditioning. It includes the values of the group in which we were raised, our sense of other people’s expectations of us, and our feelings about them, where we think we’re heading, and where we’ve been. It locks us in time. Thinking about our story stimulates the emotions, even intensifying them with the judgments we’ve made on the events remembered. Pains of the past are re-experienced, desires for the future re-ignited. Yet it’s not that easy to let go. We may not realize that one reason we stay in the story is because we’re attached to it. Like a work of art, it is our own creation, so a certain amount of pride in accomplishment might be operating below the surface. We think of it as who we are and would rather not give it up, even if it makes us suffer. A program on Radio Lab referred to the story AS the self. Without the verbal narrating, the ego-self disappears.
But conscious awareness does not. Neuroscientist, Jill Bolte Taylor notes that narration is a left hemisphere phenomenon. When she had a stroke and the left hemisphere stopped functioning she gained access to a consciousness not contained by the story, absolutely in the here and now, and her whole sense of an individual self disappeared. She said her awareness felt bigger than her personal brain could hold.
Without the filter of the story, images and sensations flood in, and life is richer than we realize. Cultivating our visual sense is one way of loosening the hold of the autobiographical fiction we tell about ourselves. Words break things into objects and symbols, whereas images show information in terms of processes and relationships- many variables interwoven. The more that’s included the better the picture. We understand where we are in the scene and the relationships entwined with our presence. It’s a conscious cognition that apprehends meaningful connections. Investigation fills out and broadens the picture. Making decisions based on a having a bigger picture is wiser than simply having the facts and opinions. As recent research has shown, we make better decisions by intuition than by thinking and analyzing facts. In one of my favorite metaphors for intuition, John Pfeiffer (“The Human Brain”, 1955) wrote, “Intuition is like the behavior of a compass needle which, immersed in a vast and intricate magnetic field of unknown origin, simply points. “ Intuition is the guidance of visual consciousness. Your eyes tell you where to go. Look more deeply into where they linger and let the story fall away.