Spirituality and the Sanctification of the World
Earth's crammed with Heaven,
And every common bush afire with God
--Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "Aurora Leigh"
When someone asks me who they are or what God is, I smile inside and whisper
to the Light: "There you go again pretending."
Western religion can, at times, devalue the multiplicities of the world of phenomena. It is so focused on God that it forgets the world, and it criticizes those who love it as "pagan," as too entranced by the world of appearances, or "humanist," which has become a bad word again among some of our right-wing political brothers and sisters. Ironically, much "New Age" spirituality seems to follow a similar pattern, inventing a new asceticism in which the delights of the world are placed beyond the pale of the latest nutritional, energetic, or otherwise neo-puritanical spiritual fad. In this way, spirituality replicates religion's postponement of value, a deferral which collapses into denial.
My objective here is to sketch out a philosophical (even theological) underpinning for a re-valuing of the sensual world from the perspective of nonduality. I do this, in part, because I like the world and its pleasures, and no doubt I seek to justify my preferences with philosophy. But in part, I think I am convinced that God is dancing right now, and not to take Her up on it is a little bit offensive.
I begin from what many people consider the apex of the spiritual path: the direct, experiential knowledge -- not because of dogma and not (solely) because of peak experience but because of careful and direct observation -- that the familiar construction we know so intimately as "me" is an illusion, a trick of a well-operating brain. In this lies moksha, liberation; bittul ha-yesh, annihilation of the self and what seems to be. If you have not had this experience, please take a long retreat, or work with plant medicines, and have it again and again until you know that it is true.
Of course, this view flies in the face of our most basic understandings. By the age of two, all functional human beings have figured out the difference between inside and outside, between self and world. It is the first essential stage in human development -- and most of us spend the great majority of our lives there. Our lives are comprised of dualities, binaries, and boundaries. Yet a "next step" is possible: unitive consciousness which returns to the predifferentiation of infancy. At first, it only occurs at certain peak moments-lovemaking, abject terror, encounters with the numinous. But gradually, it is possible to be in unitary consciousness more and more of the time.
This sense of oneness is what many people call "enlightenment." It is the state of no-mind, in which one knows oneself to be Nothing, and being Nothing, one with everything. Rarely do any of us inhabit its space for more than a fraction of our lives -- and yet it is a reservoir of wisdom and compassion, comfort and joy. In my experience, it is worth the effort to reach it.
Yet even this is but an intermediate phase. That "all is one" is exactly half of the picture. After all, if everything is really one, does that not also include the experience of two? The third stage, then, is to "transcend and include" (Ken Wilber's phrase) both the dual and the nondual, to return to the experience of duality while maintaining the consciousness of unity. This is what David Loy calls the "nonduality of duality and nonduality." It is what the Zen masters mean when they say "in the beginning, mountains are mountains. During zazen, mountains are not mountains. Afterward, mountains are once again mountains." That is to say: in the initial dualistic consciousness, mountains are experienced as mountains. In unitive consciousness, the mountains disappear as separate entities and are only motes on the sunbeam of consciousness. In nondual consciousness, the mountains are both: both everything and nothing, both existent and nonexistent. The distinction between ultimate and relative is, itself, relative.
Let me draw here on nondual Judaism, which I know fairly well. In theistic terms, this is God as both/and, both ultimate and relative, wherein the distinction between ultimate and relative is, itself, relative. In Hasidic language, it is known as dirah b'tachtonim, the dwelling of God "below;" hit'asqut im hahutzah be-ofen shel hitlabshut, "engagement with the external in the manner of garbing;" or even hitlabshut mohin de-gadlut be-mohin de-katnut, "the garbing of the expansive consciousness in the diminished consciousness." Confusion is enlightenment! The very mind you have, right now, is enlightened mind -- God doing the dance of you.
As Rabbi Shlomo of Lutsk says in his introduction to the Maggid Dvarav L'Yaakov, a key Hasidic text:
First of all it is important to know that the whole earth is full of his glory and there is no place empty of him, and that he is in all the worlds, etc. This idea can be sensed in everything, for the life-force of the creator is everywhere.
In other words, God is not in heaven -- God is right here. The world as it appears is God's erotic play (Kabbalah), Indra's Web (Hinduism), Kali's dance (Hinduism again), the amorous hide-and-seek game of Beloved and Beloved (Sufism). Identity is not to be privileged over difference; multiplicity is as much a dance of the Divine as unity. Experientially, seeing that "the life-force of the creator is everywhere" enables a simultaneous embrace and annihilation, a re-appreciation and re-valuing of precisely those energies which monotheism sought earlier to displace.
In a way, this view is similar to how Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism emphasize that "nothing of samsara is different from nirvana, nothing of nirvana is different from samsara . . . There is not the slightest difference between the two." This is not simply paradox. It is to understand that existence and non-existence are two ways of seeing the same reality. To hold both of these perspectives, nirvana and samsara, absolute and relative, in a dialectical relationship, is the goal of hitkallelut, the incorporation of all things in the infinite essence, and hashva'ah, total equality or equanimity of view. One of the Kabbalistic symbols of hitkallelut is that of the circle (iggul) and line (yosher). The circle knows no boundary, no distinction, no polarity, no duality. The line is that which divides, into left and right, light and dark, true and false, sacred and profane, ultimate and relative. The circle has no history, no time; it is the sacred eternity of the liminal. The line is all linearity, direction, history-but also ethics, memory, and self. Most of us live most of our lives in linear time, and so the necessary work is to enter the realm of the timeless, the eternal now, the sacred circle. But true hitkallelut is the circle and the line combined. Nonduality is the union of union and duality.
Thus nonduality brings back the everyday sensuality of surfaces, touches, smells; the feel of fabric, rough or smooth, the contact of finger with tabletop, or with flesh. Of warmth and of cold. Of the dancing of light against fiberglass, of the surfaces of cars in the winter sun. And, too, of the play of manifestation in our own human conditions: the sadnesses and joys of human experience, loving, losing, surrendering.
But from a nondual perspective, this world, in its particular phenomena, embodied, emotioned, and ever new in its complexity, Is. Thus the nondual is at home with sucking the marrow out of life, with drinking from the well of life's blessings while cultivating a gratitude so rich it can ache, with the sensual, the pagan, the atheistic, and the orgiastic. It is with Henry Miller, himself both a sensualist and, in his later years, a nondualist who helped found Esalen in California. It is with William Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the union of rational and sensual, ordered and chaotic. It is with Oscar Wilde, who reveled in surface and deplored piety and "substance." It is with Zen iconoclasts like Ikkyu and Leonard Cohen, both of whom embrace both enlightenment and sensuality. It is with the stage manager in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, who rejects both the ephemeral distractions of the living and the fatalism of the dead, insisting on a productive tension between the two perspectives. And it is with the sculptor, the painter, the artist, and the poet, who find mystery not in the abstract but the concrete. This is nonduality: a re-embrace of the world as ripples on the pond-ripples only, perhaps, but ripples, beautiful, reflecting light.
As with eros, so too with ethics. Sometimes the Light is awful; it denies, oppresses, despoils. The Light is also in darkness, and it is easy to call it evil. If we take seriously the meaningfulness of this world, we must own its injustices and horrors, not only the delights of touch and taste. Consider the Buddha's first noble truth-that suffering exists-not as a pre-emptiness notion, but as a post-emptiness one. Yes, nothing is real. But to the extent anything is real, suffering exists-and our work begins there. Just as there is action without an agent, enlightenment without one who gets enlightened, there is suffering even if there is "no one" to suffer. As in Buber's turn to dialogical philosophy, to multiplicity and relation, which came after years of monism and mysticism, there is the understanding that we are all one; but in our manifestation, we are two, we are many, we are responsible. Bittul b'mitziut: both nothing and everything, and in "everything," differentiation.
In erasing the notion of essential difference, nonduality transcends; it denies the mythic God, effaces the world, sees everything as a dream of the mind. But in erasing all difference, it returns to all of these and more. The masks of God are seen anew, and the play of emptiness dancing is celebrated with joy, clarity, and responsibility. Not for the nondualist the life-denying, eros-repressing hierarchies and authoritarian systems which claim that the sacred is only accessible by a single means-usually one mediated by authority. Eros is everywhere, and nowhere, and each moment is an opportunity for the uniting of immanent and transcendent, the goddess and the god, and in that uniting, a transcendence even of the notion of transcendence. To call the entirety of existence a cosmic dance is an invitation, not a negation: Come and Dance with Me.
Image courtesy of NASA Goddard Photo and VideoTweet