What and who are we, and whither would we go, and why, really?
I start to answer these questions, not by copying what others say, or by mouthing what others expect me to say as a minister, but by honestly saying what I think I know.
As you know, I entered ministry via a route through embalming. At 18 I looked closely into death. It awakened a wonder at the structure of our bodies and an appreciation for our precious, limited life. Too often, religion goes past the body to an afterlife or an instead-of-life and doesn’t honor the wonderful fact of our having life at all. From stuff, gravity, and light, we are assembled. We didn’t do it; it does us.
But it ends. Let me bring us some reminders from David Shields’ new book, The Thing about Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead: By age 20 our strength and coordination have peaked, as has our flexibility; our IQ and brain size have maxed out by age 25; by 30 we’ve reached our tallest stance and densest bone mass; by 40 our grip is declining.
It’s not all bad news, though. At 45 our vocabulary is three times what it was at 20. And fortunately, if you live to be 90, you’re unlikely to get cancer; your tissues have grown too tough.
Cicero claimed old age starts at 46; he died at 53. Mozart died at 35, Byron at 36, and van Gogh at 37. Victor Hugo said, “Forty is the old age of youth. Fifty is the youth of old age.” Orwell said, “At 50, everyone has the face he [or she] deserves.”
So, though we are granted time in wonderful bodies, they wear out and we die. We’re all going to die. That’s part of my message here today. The other part is . . . well, you’ll have to listen (or read).
The most frequent answers to this situation, and the most vexing questions to my materialist philosophical perspective, come from the religions – western and eastern. The west postulates an afterlife. We use our time here to determine how we will spend eternity in heaven, hell, or in between. The east offers an instead-of-life, a Self prior to and independent of these corporeal bodies, which, if known and merged with during our embodied life, takes us out of the apparent limits of material reality and the deaths we must all encounter.
Though I doubt both perspectives as fanciful imagination and wishful thinking unsupported by our predominate experience, I’ll grant the few reasons for claiming such possibilities.
When Tony Cicoria was struck by lightening at age 42 he watched from above as someone resuscitated his body. It was a realm of peace, and apparently, detachment from his body, for he viewed it from on high. His whole life raced before him, and though he had no emotions about it, he did have a state of pure thought, of ecstasy. Then, suddenly, he was back in his body. In his case he went on later to develop an uncanny fascination with music, and he went on to give up his career and family to devote all his time to being a concert pianist. Various physical explanations have been offered.
But such out-of-the-body experiences abound. I myself had one at age 8. With a broken arm, and under ether in a hospital, I heard it being set as I hovered near the ceiling. (The only other direct experience of not being limited to my body – the occasional sense that I can feel when others are thinking of me (especially if there is emotional content connected) and synchronicities (meaningful and uncanny coincidences) make me wonder about mechanisms for such information.)
My Dad shared with me his fascination with mystical experiences and showed me the book by Maurice Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness, in which he recounts various experiences of prominent people who either went out of their bodies or underwent some profound encounter with a spiritual reality as to totally devote the rest of their lives to its lessons or lure. They often call this encounter God. Carl Jung believed religious experiences that seem to come from outside and knock your life into profound change are mysterious but real.
If we can fly out of our bodies, then maybe we can fly off when the body dies. The old Chinese text The Secret of the Golden Flower claims we can cultivate a swirling light body within our physical body during our lifetime, using meditation, which grants us the ability to escape death. Christianity was largely based on the promise of not dying, or at least being resurrected after we do. (I won’t comment here on the shadow side of this depicted in the “Night of the Living Dead” movies.)
Muslims count on a paradise stacked with virgins. Mormons look to eternity with their family. Shamans are supposed to be able to contact spirits in other places and/or departed ancestors. Voodoo practitioners, in a sort of spiritual counterpart to the mob’s protection racket, can be hired to either inflict evil spirits on others or ward them off. The Tibetans claim to know about various spiritual benefactors or demons. The Hindus say we are a Self that incarnates in a series of bodies until we realize our real nature. The Catholic Church says we have guardian angels watching over us and that the saints are for sure in heaven.
Are all of these perspectives true? If not all, then which? How would we know? Who are the experts? Lots of people claim to know, or feel like they know, or believe someone else who claims to know via revealed scriptures or their advanced state. Having been close to many dying people, I’ve asked a few to come visit me after they’re dead; so far, none have. Maybe I’m not advanced or sensitive enough to perceive them, or maybe they’re not allowed to contact the living. Or, maybe they’re not even there.
The Dali Lama says not seeing a thing is not the same as seeing it to not exist. This is similar to Donald Rumsfield’s quoting of Cicero, “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” My not knowing whether I or you have an eternal soul doesn’t prove that you don’t. And a hundred experts from a hundred traditions claiming we do (though oddly, in a myriad of forms) doesn’t prove we do. What are we to do? No matter the hype or hope, we all die. Even Lazarus died, eventually.
Before I share one such perspective that intrigues me, let me first alert you to a conclusion I use based on my limited perspective, my admitted ignorance: No matter what, if anything, comes after death, I’m sure we live prior to death. I’m interested in “life this side of death” and “religion this side of God.” No matter what ultimately might be true, I’m interested in what is “at least” true. Who and how we are matters to these, at least. Even if we don’t have a discrete ongoing soul, life and culture live beyond us. For a while, we have our time within the larger on-going-ness of life and culture. We have all this at least to live in, to learn about, and to love. Pining for more seems greedy. Is not this life in this universe enough?
But, skeptical unease not withstanding, it is also at least true that while in these bodies in this life we have a persistent intuition that this is not all there is. We sense a presence as dear as it is invisible and as visible as it is dear. What we see of this amazing universe may not be all there is. Something divine may run it all and still ride in our hearts. In our hymnals we have a reading taken from the Chandogya Upanishad:
You could have golden treasure buried beneath your feet, and walk over it again and again, yet never find it because you don’t realize it is there. Just so, all beings live every moment in the city of the Divine, but never find the Divine because it is hidden by the well of illusion.
So, admitting I may be in the well of illusion, let me responsibly report some intriguing possibilities that take us beyond our bodies and deaths.
Meher Baba is typical of the gurus and avatars that assuredly bring us such a message. He claims he realized his divinity at age 18 and decided it was so real he would never speak of it or anything else again, instead using the stronger reality of his God-realized presence to awaken people. He gave up all talking and writing at that time and never spoke another word. He died in his sixties.
Though he did not speak, he would point to the letters around a chalk board, and later, use hand gestures which his disciples would interpret. Using this time-consuming method he nonetheless “wrote” many books and touched the lives of multi-thousands. In a matter of a fact and un-boastful way, he claimed to be The Avatar, more advanced and rare than an awakened master, rarer even than a savior like Jesus.
He “said” of his not speaking, “I have not come to teach, but to awaken.” He claimed asking to know God by words and thoughts was like trying to see with your ears. The mind has its functions, but only the soul can know God. I’ll quote some selections from his apparently-authoritative and ironically-titled book God Speaks.
Reality can never be understood; it is to be realized . . . Therefore, the GOAL is to realize the Reality and attain the “I am God” state in human form.
God cannot be explained, He cannot be argued about, He cannot be theorized, nor can He be discussed and understood. God can only be lived.
To understand Maya [the force that keeps us spiritually blind] is to understand the universe… Intellect in particular plays into the hands of Maya, for the intellect is not capable of that consciousness which realizes that God is Truth. Truth can only be known after one transcends the cosmic illusion which appears as real owing to Maya.
“Maya, the principle of ignorance, can only be transcended when the spiritual aspirant is able to realize that Maya is God’s shadow and as such is nothing. The enigma of Maya solves itself only after Self-realization.”
“…everything pertaining to the spiritual seems paradoxical – God, whom we do not see, we say is real; and the world, which we do see, we say is unreal.
“We must lose ourselves in order to find ourselves; thus loss itself is gain. We must die to self to live in God; thus death means life. .. We must become naked of selfhood by serving nothing, so as to be absorbed in the infinity of God; thus nothing means Everything.”
Existence is, whereas life appears to be.
Existence is God, whereas life is illusion.
Existence is eternal, whereas life is perishable.
Existence is freedom, whereas life is a binding.
In this vein, let me share also a teaching of The Blind Saint of Vrindivan, who I visited in India with my friend and guru, Dr. Vasavada, in the early ‘70’s. This is from his little book, “Saddhana – Spotlights by a Saint.”
Dissociation from the mind is also a radical means of purification of the mind. To dissociate from the mind is to become its beholder as if something outside our self. This means, instead of removing the various impurities of the mind one by one, starving the mind of its very food derived from our association with it.
Here are some of his maxims.
Right use of the present is the root of progress.
Renunciation of wrong action spontaneously leads to right action.
Returning good for evil destroys the evil.
All power is a trust of the weak.
Acquired wealth is a trust of the poor.
Forget your virtues and other’s vices.
All fear is grounded in body consciousness.
Inherent in one’s own reform is the reform of all.
The humanist in me grants there is a time to go beyond thinking, grants wisdom to these teachings, and has curiosity about those who sense God within and so discount these bodies and this world, but it also rouses up anger at their using this world as a mere stepping stone to some other, or an irrelevant illusion masking a more important reality.
While in India, I gazed into the eyes of the last remaining Asian lions; they’re being driven to extinction by cattle ranching. I also saw hideous poverty, especially in the cities, and even in the countryside I saw rivers that bubbled with poisonous effluent. The twin realities of environmental degradation and human suffering run rampant in both the west and the east, and their religions don’t seem to care or help.
I had gone to India dismayed at the western religions for treating earth and life as a mere stage set for a divine test. Nor did our religions object much to napalming the Vietnamese for vague reasons. The gift, grandeur, and beauty of life get reduced to the realm of dominion in the west and to mere maya in the east.
I also ran in Shree Bhagwan Rajneesh in India. (I’ve told you how sick I was and how riled up I got towards him; though this was an actual encounter, I have since come to admire his bold teachings.) He sat in white robes sporting a big Rolex on his wrist and big diamonds on his hands and went on about how we are not the body and this world is not real – that it is all only illusion, Maya. Meanwhile, near there a thousand souls lived in the urban squalor of tin and cardboard huts with no toilets. They suffered like I was suffering. It seemed dismissive and offensive to blithely brush off the hard reality of this world while sitting in opulence and adoration. I wanted to punch him just to see if he would identify with his detached soul or incarnated body.
Though I reacted to the notion of Maya, I grant some psychological wisdom in the understanding. This milder form of Maya is seen in the Buddhist teaching: One can fear a coiled snake only to discover it is only a coiled rope. We take our ideas as so real, when they’re often just coiled rope. We get so overwhelmed by our ideas sometimes. But at the end of our life, in those instants when we see all our life flash before us, which ideas then matter? Does our fear of coiled snakes run our lives when there is so much else to see in the room, in our lives?
The coiled snakes of desire or aversion, of obsession and compulsion, of thinking we know our selves when we don’t – can run our entire lives and ruin this lovely world. In my life, the angels of synchronicity and the inner call to overcome the snake-delusions of church and market have me seeing the mere rope that all their lies (and mine) have been. Religious teachings, marketing claims, lifestyle lures, political promises, our own habitual thoughts – all these can be the maya that captivates and misdirects our soul.
“What profit it if one gains the entire world and loses one’s soul?” This is not so much get to heaven by believing in the far-fetched notions of zealots (early and current) so much as whether we learn to be our soul while we are alive. “Break the chains of ignorance while you are alive,” Hafiz (or Kabir) advised, “Do you think ghosts will do it for you when you are dead?” Realization will never be found in the future; it will only come, if ever, in the Now. Worrying about a future afterlife distances us from the eternity we can access by our silent, complete immersion in our everpresent Now. When we are in our presence, in our now, we are touching an eternity that is always new. Practice that.
In this vein, I would take the combined wisdom of Meher Baba, the Blind Saint, Emerson, Krishnamurti, Deepac Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, Gay Hendricks, and me to suggest this:
Have gratitude for what is, but learn to be detached enough from it to allow fuller understandings and more creative options to emerge. Question what others teach and you think you know. Heed and honor the feelings of your decisions.
Develop and deliver the fruits of your own nature to the world; be a co-creator along with creation as best as only you know. Have intensions for the future, but put your attention in your now. Go lightly and easily. Have faith that a life well lived is not only its own reward, it is rewarded, for both are karma.
This, at least, we have: We have this world this side of any other. We have life this side of death. We have our selves this side of conformity. We have love this side of fear. We have the Now this side of time. We have, as Emerson reminded us, the religious this side of the religious ideas. Do we live freely and fully in what we have?
Not only do I find it hard to believe that this astonishing vast universe, made up of everything from sub-atomic quanta coming into and out of existence on the micro level to the swirl of galaxy clusters on the macro, with us knowing it in the middle, is nothing but an elaborate illusion, I find it insulting and irresponsible. Why pine for afterlives and other realms when we haven’t known, honored, and served this one? Why seek the Creator by wasting Creation?
Perhaps there is a meeting on a middle ground. There is no false dichotomy. We can love this world as part of a larger reality. Our earth is just a mere speck seen from the vast reaches of the larger universe, but it is our speck, our large, lovely home, spinning reliably for us to live on, and learn from, and love.
The rainbow was to be the mark of the covenant, a sign of our constant relation to something beyond us. And as rainbows split the singular white light we usually see into the seven lovely colors of a much wider electro-magnetic spectrum, just so, our place in space and time leads us to far vaster realities. Our reality is the doorway to Reality. Who and how we are here determines not only what is likely to befall us here, it is our relation to the beyond.
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass
Grants Pass, Oregon
© March 2, 2008