“Spirituality is the willingness to fall flat on your face.” Adyashanti
Huston Smith, in his book on the universality of religious teaching, ‘Forgotten Truth, ” points out that human societies have always recognized two levels of reality; the human realm where the day to day world unfolds with constant change and surprises, and a vaster, more mysterious realm of absolute truth “that is rooted in the unchanging depths of the universe”. Religious historian Mircea Eliade’s famous book “The Sacred and the Profane” explores the multiplicity of ways in which human beings and societies have tried to come to terms with these two orders of reality. Spirituality has come to mean the traditions and teachings that provide society with a guide to the origins, structure and functioning of the cosmos and rules of behavior to help the human remain aligned with this cosmological order.
Human society has truly needed this guidance. There has been human suffering from the time of Adam and Eve. The capacity for abuse and violence towards ourselves, our family members, other humans, other life forms, and the planet is seen in every culture across time and space.
The earliest forms of spirituality were feminine where all forms are divine. The gods were thought to inhabit the sky, the rocks, the trees, the animals. There were a multiplicity of gods and goddesses to be invoked, supplicated, worshiped. Then several thousand years ago, masculine form of religious expression arose. Transcendence, the urge to move out of the world of form into the formless, took precedence over the feminine imminence, often repressing the world of forms as a degraded or inferior state. “God is not to be found in the world of forms”. The very first of the Ten /Commandments says “I am the Lord, thy God! Thou shalt not have strange gods before me.”This perspective will be seen in some of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the early forms of Vedanta and Buddhism as well as Judaism and Islam.
These great religions clarified and codified spirituality and their traditions and teachings dominate the modern perspective. But in addition to providing a written history some of the early pioneers developed a methodology of enquiry into the possibility of personal transformation. This opened up a whole new world. Out of their enquiries came refined understanding on how the human could break out of the cycle of being hurt and hurting others. They showed that it is humanly possible to be in the world with love, compassion and wisdom.
As Buddhism evolved, the Boddhisattva tradition appeared, bringing compasionate engagement in the world after stabilizing the transcendent. Adi Shankara in India revitalized Advaita Vedanta, non-dual Vedanta, where the world of forms is celebrated as expressions of Ishvara, the manifest aspect of Brahman, the absolute. Yoga arose in India as a path of awakening to this possibility of liberating ourselves from our destructive behavioral patterns and realizing the boundless capacity for wisdom, compassion and creativity which is our true nature as human beings.
In modern times, the development of science has radically changed the exploration of the cosmological order. Modern technologies such as air travel, publishing and the internet have allowed the whole planet to have access to the most refined spiritual teachings and as we move into the 21st century, we are experiencing an unprecedented spiritual renaissance rippling through the earth community.
We might call what is emerging an Integral Spirituality. The urge for transcendence, to realize the unbounded, limitless Absolute, is balanced with the urge for imminence, to give birth to forms, to create, sustain and dissolve an infinite number divine possibilities within tie and space. Combining masculine and feminine energies, transcendence and imminence, the Absolute and the relative, is an expression of wholeness, of interconnectedness. Thich Nhat Hahn calls this interbeing. Fully mature humans inhabit both realms, understanding each perspective, knowing intimately the dynamic realtionship between them and the ultimate underlying unity of wholeness. They embody the clarity of transcendence known as wisdom as well as the empathetic depth of imminence known as compassion. They are not just waking up, but also waking down!
This level of understanding is still rare state in the human realm, but the numbers of those awakening are growing steadily. Theologians and philosophers still get entangled in the concepts and language. There is still fear, control and confusion in the ranks of the religious, with competing belief systems and ideologies claiming absolute truth. For most the Absolute transcendent is still conceptual. “God is in heaven, and I am here on earth. Maybe, someday, I’ll get to heaven.” It is extremely common to confuse the relative and the absolute. “God is out there somewhere”. It takes patience, contemplation and discrimination, as well as a good teacher, clear teachings and a community, to help sort through the confusion.
The Great Wisdom traditions of the world have always tried to cut through the confusion and as quickly and clearly as possible point to this Integral Truth. In India the Vedic tradition gave rise to Vedanta, Buddhism and Yoga.
Adi Shankara’s brilliant expositions on the relationships between the Absolute and Relative which serve as the foundation of modern Vedanta are relevant today and can help us as we work our way through Patanjali. Advaita literally means ‘not two’ and refers to the fact that it is universal to see two realities, to separate the world we perceive, the world of time, space and continuous change, the world described by science, from the Spiritual, whether we call it the Divine, the Unchanging Absolute, The Ground of Being or God. What we see versus what we do not see. Creation is separate from the Creator. Philosopher and religious historian Mircea Eliade’s famous book “The Sacred and the Profane” explores this in depth. The Samkhya School of Indian Philosophy retains a dualistic perspective, because it works for beginners. However, say the non-dualists, these two realities are actually ‘not two’, but different orders of reality of a single unified whole. Lets use a wedding ring as a limited but useful metaphor of how this might work.
Imagine a gold wedding band. It has weight, a specific shape and color. If we ask the question ‘is the ring real?’, ‘does it exist?’, the obvious answer is yes. A non-dualist would probe more deeply. What happens if I were to melt the ring down, leaving an amorphous blob of gold metal? Where did the ring go? The gold is real, the real was real, but now the ring has disappeared. The ring is a dependent reality, subject to change. The gold remains the same. From the melted gold I could make a coin, an earring, an amulet. The forms are subject to change, but gold remains gold and continues to reveal itself no matter what form arises. The ring is never separate from gold, not other than gold, but exists at a different order of reality. It is dependent upon other conditions. The gold is independent of the form it appears as. Whether as ring or bangle or coin, the gold remains unchanged. Only the form changes.
The non-dual vision sees all of creation, from atomic particles to living beings to stars and galaxies, as dependent reality, subject to continous change and simultaneously reflecting the infinite absolute. The absolute is like the gold, the unchanging substrate underlying all forms throughout all of space and time, including space and time, and simultaneously present, shining forth through all forms, to one whose spiritual eye is open. Science and the world of forms it describes emerge as tangible expressions of Divine Creativity. Theology often stumbles through this philosophical minefield in trying to explain the nature of creation and the creator, but the yogis, Buddhists and Vedantins, each in their own way are very clear about this.
See a flower. Any flower. It has a stem, possibly leaves, petals. It may be a certain color, have a specific scent. It emerges from a seed, forms a bud, and unfolds its petals to reveal its full beauty. But then it fades, falls to the earth and eventually rots, returning its components back to the soil. It is transient, changing. And yet, if I look deeply at the flower, and see the whole cycle of birth and death, I see the radiant expression of transcendent intelligence, of divinity. The flower is spiritually transparent. A flower is easy, but this is true for any form, any manifestation of creation we choose. With a spiritual ‘eye’ we see wholeness everywhere, we see divinity in all forms, in all of creation. If our spiritual eye is closed we see inert matter. This is the curse of the modern world.
If we examine our own personal perception of the world, we will similarly find two realities, but frame them slightly differently. The two realities of my world, consciously or unconsciously, are me and everything else. And usually included in ‘everything else’ is the Divine, God, or however we conceive of the spiritual realms. This is our biological inheritance. My immune system has this as its foundation. I am enclosed by my skin, everything else is not me. In fact what is not me can be very threatening to my existence. Fear and anxiety easily arise from a sense of ‘not me’, of a threatening ‘other’.
When we study interpersonal neurobiology we will see how this sense of ‘self and other’ actually evolves through time, and organically, begins in-utero. Healthy parenting nurtures a vulnerable infant into a mature and self-sufficient adult. Through this process, I regognize others who are actually nurturing to me, who are intimately intertwined into my being. My self sense extends beyond my skin to include many relationships. From this perspective, spiritual maturity arrives when we are in a healthy realtionship with all of creation and there is no other, no threat to ‘I’. In fact, the ‘I am’ recognizes itself as wholeness, as both the absolute and the relative, as self and other simultaneously.
Thus we arrive at the key spiritual question, What is this ‘I’ sense we all have? Who, or possibly, what am I? By the time we are old enough and ready to ask these questions, we most likely have an ‘I sense’ based upon thoughts, beliefs, emotions and previous experiences. However, if we observe closely, we will see that these are all transient forms, aspects of prakriti, the dependent reality. And If we relax into the depths of observing we realize that what is arising, the ideas and thoughts and sensations and emotional energies, arise out of and dissolve back into an infinite spaciousness. What is this infinite spaciousness? It is the timeless Absolute, the ‘Ground of Being, and the Truth of “I”. Patanjali begins his treatise on yoga here, in the first four sutras of the Samadhi Pada. The rest of the sutras discuss either practice (science of yoga) or philosophy.