By Adam J. Pearson
Photo: The Hubble Deep Field as photographed by the Hubble telescope. Every blip of light is an entire galaxy, each containing millions upon millions of stars and planets like our own, a true testament to the humbling vastness of the universe. Our own sun is only one of 500 thousand million in our own Milky Way galaxy alone.
People who spend a great deal of time in the community of modern Neo-Advaita, a nondual spiritual movement, often end up speaking in the same tired platitudes. This can be kind of funny and kind of strange, because even if you erase their names, they sound exactly the same. “Only Awareness Is,” they tell us. “The universe is simply an illusion; it is not real. Only Awareness is Real. I am That. Your biography is just a story. All stories are just thoughts. All thoughts are without value or truth. Simply Rest in silent Being.”
These people are not foolish; they are well-meaning and sincerely want to discover what they consider to be the truth. They are usually very sweet and caring people and their zeal for nonduality is totally understandable; there is value in the teaching that invites us to inquire deeply and directly into what we fundamentally are ‘here’ and ‘now.’ And every physical and biological science I have ever studied points to the truth of interconnectedness at all levels. However, all useful tools can also be dangerous and the awareness teachings are no different. The very same teaching that can liberate us from one prison of the mind can lock us into another. ‘Awareness’ can be the key that unlocks one jail cell only to fasten us in another: itself taken as a fixed absolute.
After people encounter this teaching and look for themselves, they risk getting caught in it as a kind of unquestionable capital ‘T’ Truth. They tend to repeat the same comfortable statements–like ‘I am Awareness and its nature is Love”– and empty tautologies like “Presence is Being.” They cease talking about anything but awareness, the awareness that made them feel so free and fulfilled and liberated from the shadows that had hounded them for so long. Of course, the shadows are still there, but the comforts of abiding as awareness and ignoring everything else are so enticing that they ignore them. This, too, is a very sincere, very well-meaning, an honest mistake. It is totally understandable.
This tendency can be very appealing and feel very natural when we are swept up in it. I understand this because I have been there. I was very caught up in the essentializing of ‘awareness’ as an absolute for two years. I was trapped in, not only a particular way of thinking, but a particular way of experiencing. If there hadn’t been an intuitive nudge that made me feel like something just wasn’t right, that something was off about this way of seeing, I would probably still be stuck in the prison that I took to be absolute freedom. The spirituality of ‘Abiding in Awareness’ became a new form of escapism for me, as it does for so many, no better than the trick’s prostitutes or the junkie’s needles.
Today, I had a brief conversation with a man from the neo-Advaita community and the things he said very much exemplify the dangers of getting caught in the very teachings we look to for freedom. He told me that “whatever arises does so in the Presence that is you. The presence is not diminished nor augmented no matter what arises in it. You are the Presence… Once you realize that, you will no longer be affected by whatever arises…Like the empty glass is not affected by what it gets filled with, whether it is filled with milk or orange juice or water.”
“What is Presence?” I asked him.
“That which reads these words,” he answered. “Consciousness, Being, Love, Joy, which is Now.”
“Modern physics has revealed that there can never be a single absolute ‘Presence’ that covers the whole universe, nor an absolute ‘Now,” I replied. “Your ‘present’ depends on the speed at which you are moving. Experiments have actually shown that clocks on fast-moving jets move slower than clocks on the ground. The closer something gets to the speed of light, the more time dilation it experiences. The ‘now’ for a person on the jet and the ‘now’ for a person on the ground are different; they don’t link up. The two ‘nows’ are not simultaneous. Eckhart Tolle says ‘be present in the Now.” But there’s no such thing as a “Now.” There are as many ‘nows’ as there are observers in relative motion.
Consciousness has no substance, so we cannot call it Presence; there is nothing in it that could be present. In fact, it is more like an awake ‘absence’ than a presence. And to say the whole physical universe can be reduced to consciousness is the height of arrogance without evidence. Awareness is part of the grandeur of the universe, but not its final word.
Moreover, to say ‘Presence’ is Being begs the question ‘what is Being?’ And if we answer ‘Presence’ again, we haven’t said anything at all. We’re simply dancing around in tautalogical circles. We’re not communicating, not expressing truths about the way things are.
To say ‘Presence’ is Love sounds all cute and fuzzy, but it simply doesn’t work; the whole universe can’t be reduced to a human emotion grounded in neurochemical processes in the body and brain. And if we don’t really mean this deep feeling of love, then why use the word love at all?
To call it Joy is also not very helpful. To say ‘Presence’ is ‘Joy’ is very pleasant-sounding, but fails to account for the universality of suffering that the Buddha pointed out. Moreover, it is a strange language game indeed that applies the name for a human emotion to the fundamental nature of mountains and asteroids.
All of these comfortable words break down when we look at them closely. The pointers crumble beneath the shining moon to which they point.”
Photo: An empty glass. Are we simply an ’empty glass’ of awareness that contains the universe as a flickering ‘arising’?
“Yes, I am much more than a mere empty glass. It is easy to see how people conclude that they are fundamentally awareness and that everything depends on awareness. People draw this conclusion from the observation that whenever we have looked we have happened to be aware. Awareness has happened to be there. From this observation, we conclude that awareness is eternally present. But this is quite the stretch! Of course awareness is there when we look; if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be able to look. All we can conclude from these little inquiries is that, at the moment of looking, awareness was there. This is a wonderful realization in itself, but it tells us nothing about the permanence or impermanence of awareness. Try looking when your physical body is dead and decaying in a grave. That’s the real test.
No, the fundamental basis of reality is far greater than an empty screen of awareness on which all is projected or an empty glass that is simply filled with everything. It is a strange world in which particles exist in quantum superpositions (sums) of all possible states until they are measured and are found in a definite location. It is a strange world of uncertainty, in which the more accurately you know one thing, like the position of an electron, the less precisely you can know something else about it, like its speed. It is a dynamic world of interactions between twelve particles of matter and four fundamental forces of electromagnetism, gravity, and strong and weak nuclear forces. Einstein showed that matter and energy are equivalent. We suspect that on the fundamental level, all matter may be some condensed form of energy. But what energy ultimately is, as the great physicist and discoverer of quantum electrodynamics Richard Feynman once said, we simply don’t know. To call it ‘Presence’ does not help us in this task. It is simply another word in the pile.
Photo: The small, meaningful moments we share are the fabric out of which our lives are woven.
“Adam, what I am talking about is not Presence in time/space,” he responded. “It is the Presence of deep sleep. But this cannot be debated intellectually and you cannot get a ‘feel or a sense’ of Presence (outside of time and space) via intellectual analysis.”
“Do you honestly feel you are only that ‘aware nothing’ that is there in deep sleep?,” I asked. “You seem to be so much more than that. What about the amazing human being that loves your family and has friends and laughs and cares and feels for the suffering of others? What about the person who has favourite movies and dances to music and wonders at the majesty of the universe and is awed by the beauty of a sunrise? What about the amazingly vast universe of which that amazing person is simply a tiny part? What about the billions of galaxies that contain billions upon billions of stars, black holes, planets, quasars, and all manner of cosmic wonders? Do we gain anything other than an emotional high from reducing all of those wonderful and amazing physical realities to some empty, impotent consciousness?
I once thought so. I once seemed to see this so directly, so clearly, so intuitively, so obviously. But I no longer do. The great universe has humbled my arrogant spirituality. The universe is much more than simply an ‘arising in awareness.’ From my limited human perspective, it looks more like a dynamic, fractallic, relative dance of matter and energy taking countless forms, annihilating others, and continuously evolving, always surpassing itself. And in this vast dance, we human beings, with our glorious consciousness and reason, are simply tiny ants on a tiny planet in a tiny region of its cosmic backwaters. Like little ants, we scurry across the dancefloor of the universe’s cosmic waltz.
The vastness of reality is far greater than we can comprehend, far greater than our nondual platitudes allow it to be, far greater than a mere projection on an empty screen. And what it ultimately is, what our own being and the being of all things really is, surpasses both our most profound thoughts and our subtlest, and even our most spiritual language.”
Photo: The Hubble Ultra Deep Field. This image represents the furthest into the depths of the universe that human beings have ever looked. This single image depicts thousands upon thousands of galaxies, each containing millions of millions of stars with millions of millions of planets. There are over 100 billion galaxies in the universe.