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Spiritual Evolution and The Perennial Philosophy

Eventually all of us have to contend with the question, “Does God exist?” and if we answer in the affirmative we then have to ask ourselves, “What is the Nature of God.”

Let me confess at the very beginning of this essay that I believe that God exists, or at least my interpretation of a metaphysical underpinning to the Universe. But I must warn you that my concept of God is probably very discordant with the views of the traditionally religious. In fact I am reluctant to use the word “God” because of some of the associated connotations.

I am not shy to tell you that I resonate with the notion that God, or the Divine or whatever, is “The Ground of All Being.” If you accept this, as I do, then history becomes not a chronicle of individual or national feats, but as we shall see, a development of human consciousness. And God is not some father figure living in the sky but something much more fundamental. We invest a lot in our prehistory trying to make some sense of God. But I suspect we are looking in the wrong places.

The traditional concept of God comes principally from the traditions of Judaism, Christianity and then Islam. Other religions have some other concepts of God, but the religions named have developed the more or less classical notion of God mentioned and dominate in terms of numbers of adherents. (And there were so-called pagan religions that preceded these who had similar notions.) I suppose that when most people had subsistence economies based on a tribe, then it was natural to take as an analogy for a supreme being the tribal chieftains that dominated everyday life. These so-called “religions of the Book” portray a petitionary God that must be flattered and obeyed in the hope that He will grant us access to eternal life, just as people might have had to behave to gain some concession or other from the tribal chieftain. This approach draws a picture of God as an ontological Other, set apart from us just as Jehovah, Yahweh or whatever is portrayed in the scriptures of the various peoples of the Book. (It is worth recording that various mystics from these traditions had a different concept of what the Supreme Being might be, but they were the exception rather than the rule.)

Whereas in the religions listed above the deity visited Himself occasionally on us at his whim, the Ground of Being is ever present in all of us, or perhaps more correctly we are ever present in it. The Perennial Philosophy, which I have sometimes referred to in my blogs points to the fact that we All are One and in that sense we are also part of the Ground of Being and therefore also eternal and infinite. This ever present Wholeness, as it appears in men and women, we call Atman (after the Hindus), or Buddha Nature (after Buddhists) or Tao, or Spirit or Consciousness. But when we experience this sense of Oneness our sense of separation is dissolved. According to the Perennial Philosophy then, one’s essential self (or Atman or whatever) is not everlasting and death-defying but timeless and transcendent.

Leibniz coined the term Perennial Philosophy. It forms the esoteric core of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism and Christian mysticism.

The Perennial Philosophy has been embraced by many thinkers including such notables as Einstein, Spinoza, Jung, William James and Plato. Apart from Einstein it seems to have been embraced by other scientists such as Schrodinger, Eddington, David Bohm and Sir James Jeans.

Einstein said,

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us ‘Universe’; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few people nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison.”

I was drawn to a comment purportedly made by Carl Sagan. He allegedly said, “Biology is more like history than it is like physics.”

And this is very true. Biology reflects the march of evolution, tracing the progress of life from single-cell organisms, to amoeba, invertebrates, vertebrates, apes, hominids through to humankind. And somehow, triggered late in this history, was the awakening of consciousness. In the evolutionary process each stage includes what went before, but also transcends it. Thus a human being still has a tailbone even though it doesn’t have a tail; we have remnants of gills even though we no longer need to take oxygen from the oceans; – and so on.

Importantly, we are not only evolving as physical beings, we are also evolving as spiritual beings. We must remember how late in the evolutionary process humankind was able to access consciousness in any way similar to how we experience it today. Some writers suggest it only appeared in the last ten thousand years. Julian Jaynes, in his rather clumsily titled book, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” controversially speculated that until late in the second millennium B.C. men had no consciousness but were automatically obeying the “voices of gods”. He maintained it was not until then that the corpus calossum was sufficiently developed to allow integrated functioning of the two hemispheres of the brain. Prior to that thoughts emanating from the right side of the brain were interpreted as coming from outside the mind and therefore must be messages from the gods.
Even if we accept consciousness became available to humans at the earlier suggested time, it is still a very, very, recent evolutionary occurrence. We could not have a spiritual life without consciousness. Bearing this in mind our spirituality is very poorly developed. We are literally babies when it comes to spirituality. It seems logical then that our spirituality will progress and develop as our consciousness develops as part of the evolutionary process. (Or perhaps as I suspect is more likely, as we evolve we access more of Consciousness. Unlike determinists like Daniel Dennett I don’t believe the brain “manufactures” consciousness.) And just like any other human characteristic, whilst we collectively are progressing along an evolutionary trajectory, there are some outliers. You might instance such people as Plato, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Jesus and other such philosophers and mystics as examples.
But as I alluded to above, the perennial philosophy would suggest that this struggle to develop consciousness is an illusion. It concludes that there is only one Consciousness, that we have always been part of and our spiritual journey is the awakening of that realisation.

Nobel Laureate Biologist, George Wald, wrote,

“A few years ago it occurred to me that mind, rather than being a very late development in the evolution of living things, restricted to organisms with the most complex nervous systems – all of which I had believed to be true – that mind instead has been there always, and that this universe is life-breeding because the pervasive presence of mind had guided it to be so. That thought, so offended my scientific possibilities as to embarrass me. It took only a few weeks however to realize that I was in excellent company. That line of thought is not only deeply embedded in millennia-old Eastern philosophies, but it has been expressed plainly by a number of great and very recent physicists [Eddington, Schrodinger, Pauli among others].”

Ken Wilber puts it this way:

“There are only two general stances you can have in relation to the Divine Ground: since all things are one with Ground, you can either be aware of that oneness or you can be unaware of that oneness. That is you can be conscious or unconscious of your union with the Divine Ground: those are the only two choices you have.”

So there you have it. I can believe in the Ground of Being; I can believe in Consciousness; I can believe that at our spiritual depth you and I share in this Divine Essence and that our separation, as Einstein commented, is an illusion. Our path back to unity is the Hero’s Journey; the story of the prodigal son, the fading of Atman into Brahman.
And this Ground of Being is Absolute Subjectivity so that it can never be objectified or conceptualised. As the Zen Master Shibyama has contended, “ …[it] is free from the limitations of space and time; it is not subject to life and death; it goes beyond subject and object, and though it lives in an individual it is not restricted to the individual.”
I have mentioned many times how I love parables and metaphors. Let me finish with such a story.
There is a Hindu myth that in the beginning all men were as gods. However men abused their elevated status and the gods decided to take away the essence of godliness as punishment. “Where will we hide it?” they asked one another. “It will need to be hidden in a place where they can not retrieve it,” responded one, “So they can not again abuse it.” “We will hide it atop the highest mountain,” suggested another. Brahman, the god of all the gods shook his head. “One day mankind will learn how to climb even the highest mountain, so that will not do.” “Then we will bury it deep in the earth,” another god responded. “No,” said Brahman. “In the fullness of time man will learn how to mine the very depths of the earth.” After a pause another suggested, “Perhaps we can sink it to the bottom of the deepest sea.” But again Brahman shook his head. “Sooner or later man will conquer even the ocean deeps.” “Then what are we to do?” they mused. “There is only one thing to do,” responded Brahman. “We will hide the god essence deep within Man himself. He will never think to look there.” And this, of course, is what they did.
We must look deep within ourselves, to uncover that essence that is common to all humanity and connects us directly with the divine. The prime obstacle to this of course is the egoic self which preserves itself by engaging in the delusion of separation and differentiation.

As Wei Wu Wei, succinctly put it:

“Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9 per cent
Of everything you think,
And of everything you do,
Is for yourself —
And there isn’t one.”

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  1. 3 Comment(s)

  2.   By Phil Harker on Jul 10, 2011 | Reply

    Well, I must say I always enjoy your blogs Ted, but this one is particularly enjoyable and succinct – and the final quote is a precise explanation of the central cause of depression, it’s core fallacy, and a pointer to the solution implicit in the body and central theme of your blog.

  3.   By Greg Brown on Jul 12, 2011 | Reply

    I recently read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. By his reckoning you, Einstein and I are all atheists Ted. The classical view of God is an “eternal being” that has human characteristics, is most often male and as a rule created all things and continues to this day to bring reward and punishment to we mortals. Actually by most accounts he is a pretty nasty piece of work. I think some executives have modelled themselves on him 

    Dawkins also coins the phrase “the God of gaps”. In other words we use God to explain what we don’t understand. Going back a few hundred years that was an awful lot but through science we now have less gaps and the traditional God model is on the ropes. Sadly those who have a strong faith (belief in what they know is not true) seem to be fighting back by trying to limit science and education in particular. It seems there is a war between knowledge and faith these days.

    Dawkins on the other hand suggests that Buddhism and similar philosophies are more a way of life than a religion. It certainly seems we have a need for something that is bigger than this physical form.

  4.   By Marylouise on Jul 18, 2011 | Reply

    That addresses several of my cncoerns actually.

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