In my own life, I have experienced recurrent changes in how my eyes viewed my world: in 1968, after a fire expelled me from my apartment, I moved in with my girlfriend and returned to school to pursue an interest in literature; in 1975, I fled from Montreal and the frustrated worker-bee I had become there, to spend the next years working as a laborer on ranches, farms, and an open pit copper mine. In 1983, when my father died and my first marriage was discovered one morning floating belly up, I began a new job and discovered that Eastern spiritual traditions spoke to me in a way that my Protestant upbringing never had. Then around 1991 a nexus of changes opened doorways through which I am still walking: after my mother died, I remarried and became a father, I attended a six month spiritual program at the Nyingma Institute, and as a direct result co-founded a non-profit that works with people with ALS and MS.
A quarter century later, my eyes (the way I look at the opportunities of life) increasingly look to the future as the doorway that leads to both the known and the unknown. In place of projections of what I already know, in which knowledge is a frozen artifact of the already happened, I now am sometimes surprised by unexpected glimpses of an ocean of possibilities.
It’s hard to imagine a world without religion. And having met a number of impressive individuals who credit their strength to their religious faith, I am sure that the world would be poorer without the spiritual teachings that empower those individuals to live in the light they discover through those teachings.
The religions of the world offer narratives that sometimes go as follows: we are fallen souls lost in a maze of worldly concerns, who require the intervention of someone closer to the divine to provide a path to a future in which we will be rewarded with salvation or enlightenment.
My own sense is that when it comes to discovering a spiritual garment to pull over my slumping shoulders, against the cold winds of empty materialism, everything can be questioned. Without such open inquiry, I will be wearing someone else’s garment and walking in their world. As with all forms of knowledge, it can be a life-saver to be able to borrow someone else’s more evolved understanding, but their perspective will not deliver us from our own dark nights of the “soul”.
It remains a mystery to me, and therefore open to further inquiry, why eastern spiritual teachings do not speak about a soul in search of God. Perhaps it’s because the opportunistic “ego” finds it so easy to claim that it understands and then offers to be the one in charge of this journey towards enlightenment.
Time, Space, and Knowledge
Rushing along like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, always too late to jump aboard the bullet train of opportunity, we have blinded ourselves to the greater time that enables and animates all appearance. Addicted to things, we no longer see the space that makes room for them. And in our obsession with copyrights, data and technology, we have covered over, with the volcanic ash of lifeless artifacts, a deeper knowledge that is our birthright.
The good news is that knowledge, time, and space all live in the same neighborhood and are linked inexorably in a single wholeness. So if we catch a glimpse of one, we are bound to be close to the others.
Without space there could be no planetary realms orbiting one another, and no place for movement of any kind to enter or depart. Without time, there could be no change, no abiding, no dynamic oscillation, no thought or feeling, and no lifetimes running their course. Without knowledge, how could a single cell, conceived in time and space, have known how to unfurl into the body that is in this very moment carrying us along?
But how can we relate to such ubiquitous companions of our days as anything other than the environment in which we live? It’s like asking a fish to describe the water in which it spends its entire life. No wonder we keep searching for metaphors. But perhaps we can borrow a leaf from the ancients who discerned four elements as the essence of their intimate and coherent understanding of the wholeness of life.
Earth, air, water, and fire (like space, time, and knowledge) belong to all of us and none of us. Gaia dispenses these elements of life, and like all who walk and swim upon her, she herself cannot survive in the absence of a healthy balance among them.
Alas, the four basic elements of earth, air, water, and fire are all vulnerable to the human weakness for possessing and hoarding. Instead of clean rivers and streams, and sparkling rain washing the dust off our upturned faces, we have water delivered in plastic bottles and sold back to us, as if it had been created by human ingenuity. Instead of animals and humans roaming free across the land, we have ghettoes, refugee camps, and feed lots where disease and depression rule. Every inch of Gaia’s shining body is ‘owned’ by someone. Fire and air have so far eluded the reach of the opportunists (the ‘owners’ and the ‘hoarders’), but a profound lack of respect for the balance of life is robbing Gaia of her ability to absorb UV rays (the fires of the Sun) or to purify the air on which all living beings depend.
Fire, water and air can each be harnessed in ways that do not limit or destroy them. Electricity is generated by allowing fire, air or water to pass through on their way around the planet. Solar panels absorb the sunlight striking Earth’s surface, hydro turbines turn with the downward rush of rivers and the oscillating back and forth of tides (which in turn harness the energy imparted by the orbiting of Earth’s Moon) and nothing but their kinetic energy is borrowed.
But to fully witness the dance of earth, the fourth element, we need to be looking from outside the sphere in which we pass our daily lives. The Earth we know, which provides the stable center around which her three more volatile cousins cavort, is herself engaged in the whirling dance of the cosmos.
Recycling a me for a thou
The Old Testament phrase—“A tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye, a life for a life”–is sometimes used to justify temper tantrums, which—when successful—are almost always acts of dominance wreaked by the powerful over the weaker. Peter Ouspensky in “A New Model of the Universe” offered a more interesting interpretation of this phrase. He points out that it describes three stages of human evolution. First (a tooth for a tooth), with no effort on our part, our baby teeth are pushed aside by a second set of teeth which, with proper care, we can carry with us into adulthood. Second (an eye for an eye), with some life experience and help from family, friends and education, we can develop a new perspective in which our old, childish and self-centered ‘eye’ is replaced with one that sees the importance of the concerns and needs of others. Third (and this seems the central message of the New Testament), we are enjoined to abandon our old life and to embark upon a new life (a life for a life).
These last two stages of human evolution are precisely what are needed on Earth right now, if we are to survive as a species. What was previously recommended as a desirable shift in individual perspective, in order for us to make use of this human lifetime and possibly move beyond it, has become a dire necessity for the planet itself.
The ‘eye’ which sees only our own opportunities to amass and materially progress must evolve into an ‘eye’” able to see the advantage of cooperation and of generosity toward others. Anyone who has sat with a child whose fever won’t break, or shares part of their income with others who are down on their luck, has had some practice exchanging an eye for an eye. It is through such a shift in perspective that we can exchange our egocentric way of looking at life for one which understands that “we’re all in this together” and “we can’t take it with us”.
As our relationship with a larger world, in which we share our brief lifetimes with others, begins to shift and we glimpse that all our pain and loneliness is rooted in preoccupation with our own needs, then it becomes possible to understand what the third stage of evolution, exchanging a life for life, might mean. The New Testament explores this question in depth, and Mahayana Buddhism also goes very deeply into it (for instance in the phrase: “Wisdom and Compassion are like the two wings of a bird”).
The gospels point out how humanity must learn to care for all of life (above all: for the least among us), if we are to survive for more than this fleeting moment in time. By noticing others in need, and treating their needs as if they were our own, it becomes possible to engage with a deeper knowledge in a wider sweep of time and space. Moving out beyond the narrow orbits of self-interest, it becomes possible to view this present lifetime as a window through which we can glimpse and begin to prepare for graduation into a greater life.
Less spectacular than the promise of a second coming, but more profoundly relevant, is our freedom to evolve spiritually in this very life. Humanity doesn’t need an intervention from outside. Enough of us just need to exchange our old eyes for new ones.
I believe that Peter Ouspensky’s interpretation holds water (and fire and air and earth). He interprets a passage in the Old Testament as heralding the teachings of the New Testament and corrects a misunderstanding common to many religious institutions about the nature of time. Behold the glad tidings: We do not need to wait for salvation. After all, what would be the value of being saved by some greater being, if we have not learned to take advantage of the opportunities which we have already been given? Of what value is an upgrade from a dreary single room to a luxurious suite for someone who has ceased to notice their present surroundings?
But what can one person do?
What can we do as individuals that would be more than a grain of sand in the sand storm of global forces that are sweeping away sanity and simple human goodness in our world? Living in a time of hopelessness, carried along by forces that seem too formidable for any one individual to affect in the least, perhaps we can take some comfort in the first of Ouspensky’s three phases of evolution: some things are bound to change if we just keep showing up.
From what starting point can we strive for significant global change? Trying to find a foothold for ourselves and our families in a world that seems increasingly not to care about anyone but the rich, powerful and famous, desperation reigns in many hearts and minds across our planet. Under these conditions, it would mean something to have a starting point that takes our individual lives into account.
Such a point of access is found by many in the promise that eternal life is possible for anyone who follows certain teachings: that there is a deeper knowledge, which in another time and space will open its gates to us.
Can we trust this promise? There seems a danger in holding too tightly to the vision of a kinder, gentler future beyond this broken world, if it causes us to undervalue the opportunities that exist for us right now: opportunities that may be the essence of why we are embodied here and now.
If we are to appreciate the opportunities we enjoy in this lifetime, it seems that we need to believe that our own actions can have a positive effect. We have been dealt a hand and if we just wait until the end of the game to be judged worthy to enter another, better realm, then why are we here now? If we are not fully engaged in this world and do not consider it worthy of our care, then how will we be able to respond to a finer world if we find ourselves in improved circumstances? We may not even recognize the transition, if we have neglected the part of us able to care and pay attention.
Unless our path through the regions of time and space that we currently traverse leads to a deeper knowledge of what it means to be alive, then it seems unlikely we will even notice if a positive change occurs. But by acknowledging the difficulties of our lives, we can learn to understand the forces which shape both our world and ourselves. And if we are lucky, we may discover, along the way, sources of wisdom that will help us to recognize what has lasting value and what does not in the whirling lightshow of our days.
Like the new set of teeth that replace our baby teeth, life is always presenting something new, and as we adapt we may be able to question the value of old habits and conditioned behavior patterns which, while they may have been appropriate at earlier stages of our lives, now mostly cause us pain. Some of these habits will be more difficult to slough off than a set of obsolete baby teeth, but the process is similar. We will be miserable until we allow ourselves to be pushed back into the flowing stream of life, unencumbered by reflexive gestures of who we used to be.
However, when Christ urges us to exchange a life for life, he seems to be describing a more fundamental transformation than anything that we can count on happening in the ordinary shifts of perspective that come along with meeting life’s challenges.
How can we improve the basic quality of awareness that is operating in our lives? One approach, explored in the Buddhist Mahayana tradition, is by practicing generosity. We can ‘give away’ our possessions, ‘give up’ our attitudes, and ‘give in’ to a deeper understanding. And we can question our behavior and the motivations behind it. If we do try to practice ‘generosity’ (as we practice tolerance, patience and courage) we can look more closely. Are we acting out of a giving, compassionate heart or are we following the strategy of a tradition that defines and proscribes acts of ‘generosity’? If we are inclined to explore such questions, then Christ’s admonition about prayer (that we should do it quietly in our own closet) is good advice in respect to our fledgling acts of ‘generosity’. Anonymous acts of generosity are safer, because we are less likely to confuse the desire to help with the desire to be praised.
We will always have a spectrum of motivations, among them (perhaps well-hidden and lacking confidence): empathetic movements of our hearts. The fact that we will also find, if we look honestly within ourselves, less generous motivations, needn’t overly dismay us. The important thing is to recognize that we are practicing a skill that can save the world, and that we would not be in the position to even be doing this practice if not for the generosity we have ourselves received.
As with Ouspensky’s three stages of moral evolution: it would be convenient to believe that we have already exchanged a life for a life through our espousal of a belief system that tells us that we have (or that another has taken care of it). But this would be a loss, not only for the world, which needs us to be a protector and a grown-up child of Gaia, but for ourselves, because it is through our adaptations (to grief, loss, and love) that we step onto a bridge to another life.
The world’s spiritual traditions have much to say about generosity and about graduating to a greater life. And such spiritual narratives offer us a cloak we can pull around us in the cold evenings of our faltering world. But until this cloak feels like a ‘second skin’, nurtured by a heart beating within, we may just be dressing up in our ancestors’ garments.
Ending with an Open Question.
Can we influence the world in which we live?
First we need to care for our own sanity and encourage our capacity to hope. Such hope is an invitation sent out by the future, not a shopping list composed by the past.
When we live among projections of the already known, our knowledge will be confined to repetitions of what has already happened. Unless we periodically exchange “an eye for an eye” (like we change the oil in our cars), we will ourselves become the memory of who we once were, spectators at the edges of the flow of time.
But we are capable of penetrating our crust of conditioning, which everyone seems to discover when they try to change. We can develop the quality of awareness operating in our lives, and break out of the egg that once nourished and protected us.
Like a snake shedding last year’s skin, is it possible to move beyond the limitations of our flat-earth versions of time, of space and of knowledge? Time is far more than the linear and sequential wire on which our opportunities to be alive are confined to a single present moment. Space is far more than an inert nothingness which cannot ever be of interest in itself for the simple reason that there is nothing to be interested in. And knowledge is not merely a hard-won exception in a lifeless and meaningless universe.
Can we learn to open to a greater time in which we recognize that our aliveness right now is conferred by the infinite possibilities of an unbounded future? Can we open to a greater space–not merely an abstract emptiness which steps aside for things–and appreciate the very quality of openness which allows everything to arise and come into being? Can we draw upon a greater knowledge, in place of the recirculated currency of past experience, and welcome the unlimited and undisclosed possibilities of the yet to be? In the vast ocean of an unknown future, when we turn our attention in that direction, we can discover the aliveness of time and the openness of space—like a blue sky eternally unstained by the passing clouds of sequential, linear time, by the clutter of our crowded lives, and by the mechanical understandings through which we try to make sense of it all.
Then the seemingly insurmountable problems that face our world may appear in a new light. No longer seen as a realm of hungry demons set on devouring the fruit of everyone’s labors or as powerful forces arrayed against the soul of humanity, we will recognized the irrelevance of all that does not serve our present aliveness. And then we may remember who we are and take our first steps into a new world.