28 March 2018 — Media Lens
And then there was light.
But there must already have been space.
God would be hard-pressed to reach the light switch without space.
The light switch would be hard-pressed to exist.
In reality, only two possible impossibilities are conceivable among the many known unknowns:
– the universe flashed into existence from nothing, without a cause – impossible
- the universe has always existed, eternally, without a beginning – impossible.
The fact that both seem to be ‘nonsense’ suggests that our ‘common sense’ view must itself be nonsense.
The Problem Of Arriving
Apparent conflict between reason and reality is all around us. Consider Zeno’s ‘Dichotomy’, which concerns the difficulty of walking to the end of a path:
‘…before Homer could reach the end of the path, he must reach half of the distance to it’.
Seems reasonable enough: he first has to travel half the total distance. And then:
‘Before reaching the last half, he must complete the next quarter of the distance.’
So he has to travel half the remaining distance again. And:
‘Reaching the next quarter, he must then cover the next eighth of the distance, then the next sixteenth, and so on. There are thus an infinite number of steps that must first be accomplished before he could reach the end of the path.’
By this logic, it seems impossible for anyone to actually arrive. Indeed, it seems impossible for any two objects to actually meet – drop a stone and it can never reach the ground. How are we to make sense of this?
The Indian mystic, Osho, appeared to resolve the paradox when he noted that the earth and the sky, for example, can indeed never meet ‘because they are not two, they can’t meet because they are one. The earth is just a materialization of the space of the sky; it is a wave in the ocean of the sky. How can they meet? For meeting, at least two are needed. And they are not two’.
The earth and the sky, indeed any two supposedly separate objects are not, in fact, two, so they cannot meet; they can only appear to meet. Does that mean, as generations of hippies have declared, that everything is ‘one’?
Absolutely not. To state ‘one’ instantly implies the existence of ‘two’ – the ‘one’ is posited as distinct, separate, identifiably apart from… something, some context: ‘two’. ‘One’ can exist only in relation to ‘two’. Not just the word ‘one’, but language itself fails us. Osho paraphrased Hindu master Shankara:
‘At the most, I can say not two, but I cannot say positively one. I can say what the reality is not: it is not two. I cannot say what it is, because meaning, words, all become useless.’
Everything, then, is part of this mysterious ‘not two’, which can be described only in terms of what it is not.
To describe it as ‘one’ is to falsely strip away the mystery of a universe that is ‘not two’, as if it were a straightforward object of the kind we see around us. We think the cosmos, that which is ‘not two’, is just a very large object or thing – like an apple – hanging in… well what? We cannot say that an apple-like universe is hanging in something, because that something is also the universe.
The mystery is deepened further when we reflect that this phenomenon that is ‘not two’ exists in something called ‘the present’, which we imagine as a thin sliver of time sandwiched between the past and the future. But past and future do not exist, they appear only as ideas in the mind. There is change, but it is always this moment, here, now. It has never been ‘then’ in the past and it will never be ‘then’ in the future. It is always now. The present moment does not trundle from past to future; it simply is.
To return to our original problem: how can we explain that things nevertheless do appear to meet in this existence that is ‘not two’? If two things cannot meet because they are not in fact two, what happens when an asteroid strikes the earth? Do they not meet? We might ask in response:
When we dream that an asteroid strikes the earth, do we witness the meeting of two separate objects?
When we see the moon in a bucket of water, do we witness two separate objects meeting in the water?
Of course, in both cases, there are no separate objects meeting: they are manifestations of the same dream and reflected image.
And this leads us to the assertion made endlessly by mystics through the ages: that this ‘everything’ that is ‘not two’, that is endlessly changing but always ‘now’, is a dreamlike phenomenon: ‘a mirage’, as Buddha said.
Like a dream, that which is ‘not two’ is not the concrete reality we normally imagine it to be when we contemplate the universe. And like a dream, it is also not completely unreal. A dream does exist, we cannot say it has no existence. It is, in a sense, real – it does appear to the mind of the dreamer.
Another question comes to mind? Is it possible for a dream to err? Do events happen in a dreamlike phenomenon that ‘should not happen’, that are ‘wrong’?
It seems inconceivable. No twists and turns of dream logic, no matter how ‘crazy’ – suddenly flying rather than walking upstairs – are ‘wrong’. Everything is ‘right’ in a dream. We cannot declare anything ‘wrong’ or ‘mistaken’, or ‘inappropriate’, or ‘not as it should be’. Everything that happens in a dream is perfectly in accordance with the nature of dreaming.
This recalls the moment in the film ‘American Beauty’ where young Ricky Fitts is watching his video of a plastic bag dancing, swaying and swirling in the wind. Fitts finds some deeper significance, something sublime, in the movement of the bag. As with dreams, we can ask: Is there anything ‘wrong’ in the way the bag moves in the wind? Does it, could it ever, make a mistake?
It can’t, of course: every move is perfect, exactly as it should be. It is not possible for the bag to move in a ‘wrong’ way.
Is It Human To Err?
And this leads to a curious thought: if the plastic bag dancing in the breeze is necessarily ‘right’, what about other aspects of this dreamlike, cosmic, ‘not two’ phenomenon? Is it possible for some aspects to be inevitably ‘perfect’ and for others to be flawed? If dancing bags cannot err, what about spiralling galaxies? What about planetary systems?
What about human nature and human actions in all their apparently spectacular ‘wrongness’: are they separate from this cosmic dance? Are we not included in that which is ‘not two’? Are we outside the flawless dream that contains the perfectly dancing bag? The idea that we are outside seems absurd. In fact, it sounds like a version of supernatural belief: if everything else, perhaps even animals, are incapable of ‘wrong’, then ‘fallen’ man must be somehow outside this natural order, this universe.
Is there any evidence to support the contention that human beings are also part of some universal perfection? Ordinarily, of course, almost the reverse seems to be the case: our minds find fault with just about everything.
The German mystic Eckhart Tolle has noted that the mind will happily comment on a sunset: ‘How beautiful!’ But that’s about it. The mind has little more to say, it has no interest in ‘harping on’ about the loveliness of a sunset. But when it comes to criticising, finding fault, the mind can continue for hours, days, even years, repeating the same complaint to itself and limitless other people, on and on.
It is the nature of the human mind to chew endlessly and noisily on ‘faults’. The mind is a kind of fault-finding device; it is not a credible source for evaluating the merits of the cosmos.
The evidence for a hidden perfection even in human life comes when we step out of this complaining, dreaming mind; when we escape from our mental chatter to the reality that is here and now.
For thousands of years, human beings have discovered, often quite by accident, that when they direct attention away from thinking about the world to actually experiencing the world, something remarkable happens.
They find, for example, that when they focus even on their feelings, or on the humble act of breathing, a curious, subtle delight arises – as if from nowhere, for no reason. Their minds can be erupting with the mother of all irritations, but when they focus away from thought, bliss arises. And this happens whenever we direct attention away from thinking to being. And in fact, all of us are unwittingly drifting in and out of these meditative experiences all the time: when we notice the wind murmuring in the leaves, watch motes of dust rise and fall on escalators of sunlight, hear our dog breathing as she sleeps, feel deeply the sadness in our hearts, or observe someone else’s suffering.
When we take a break from our babbling mind to pay careful attention to the movement of a toothbrush whirring around our teeth, or a sponge moving around our body in the shower, we come away unaccountably calmer, happier, more positive. Whenever we remove attention from our fault-finding mind – when we simply become aware of that which is here, now, in the present – delicate, blissful vapours arise in our heart. And with them, a completely unexpected feeling of benevolence and kindliness towards others.
Crucially, at this point, aspects of life ordinarily deemed ‘good’ continue, of course, to be viewed as good. But aspects of life ordinarily deemed ‘bad’ may also be perceived as unproblematic, even delightful. Meditators are astonished to find that a normally irritating noise – a passing lorry, or a barking dog – can sound like a heavenly choir.
Not unreasonably, the sceptical mind – the great critic – erupts with a thousand ‘real world’ scenarios making a ‘complete nonsense’ of this ‘twaddle’, this ‘bollocks’ (or worse). But does it succeed?
We are told that, before his torture and crucifixion, the enlightened Sufi mystic al-Hillaj Mansoor spent nine years in jail, experiencing his confinement as untold bliss. He went to his death laughing. Indeed, even as Mansoor was being dismembered on the gallows, he experienced ecstasy. As his limbs were being cut off, one by one, an astonished onlooker asked:
‘Mansoor, why are you laughing? You are being murdered.’
‘You cannot murder me. I am the whole.’
Many assumed, of course, that Mansoor was deranged; perhaps the reader agrees. His joyful death seems as impossible as his claim to be ‘the whole’, as the idea that the universe arose from nothing, as the idea that it has always existed.
But anyone experiencing how painful emotions can transform under observation freed from thought has perhaps felt a tiny particle of Mansoor’s bliss, his recognition of a perfection – infinitely vast and deep – beneath superficial judgements of right and wrong.
The bag dances perfectly in the wind: nothing discordant, nothing wrong.
And enlightened awareness, liberated from the fault-finding mind, swoons in perfect harmony with life: everything delightful, loving all.
As Emerson wrote:
‘All loss, all pain is particular: the universe remains to the heart unhurt.’
David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org
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