By Adam J. Pearson
In his classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, American psychologist William James writes about the central experience at the heart of the world’s mystical traditions in these words:
In mystic states, we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed. In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, in Whitmanism, we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think, and which bring it about that the mystical classics have, as been said, neither birthday not native land (p. 14).
A mystic is not content to accept spiritual teachings on blind faith or to wait for an afterlife in order to get a direct taste of the ultimate reality. Instead, the mystic boldly proclaims that we can experience the truth for ourselves here and now, in this life. Through meditation and contemplation, mystics train their minds to realize their Oneness with the ultimate reality.
This mystical experience produces a radical shift in perspective. As a result of this ‘mystic state,’ the mystic powerfully experiences the Oneness of the entire universe in a raw and unmediated way. This direct experience produces a whole new way of looking at the world that can be called ‘the absolute perspective,’ for it is the frame of reference of the ‘absolute’ or the nondual reality that is at the core of all of the diversity we seem to see. In many ways, the absolute perspective is strikingly different from the relative perspective, which is the conventional view of the world to which most of us our accustomed.
In this article, I would like to generally define these two distinct perspectives–the absolute and the relative–and lay out the main features of their points of view. I do not claim to speak here as a spokesperson for all of the mystics in the world’s many mystical traditions, which certainly vary in the details of their experiences and in the words they use to describe them. I would, however, like to describe the absolute and relative perspectives as I’ve experienced them as well as the strange experience of seeing through both perspectives simultaneously.
The Relative Perspective
The relative perspective is the ordinary, common-sense frame of reference from which most of the world operates. From this point of view, we see a universe that appears to be filled with many separate objects and people. This universe is governed by the laws of physics, chemistry, and the other sciences. In the relative perspective, we see ourselves as separately-existing individuals with our own unique ideas, stories, desires, feelings, motivations, actions, and dreams. We feel distinct from other people and sometimes in competition with them. We develop relationships such as family connections, friendships, and romantic relationships. We see ourselves as being born, living for a while, and dying when our life comes to an end.
From the relative viewpoint, we seem to live biographies of joy, suffering, guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, and the alternating frustration and fulfilment of desire. We take individual events, objects, and people to have their own independent existence and see ourselves as relatively insignificant and isolated parts of a world far vaster than us. We seem to inhabit an amazing universe replete with billions of years of history, countless planets, stars, galaxies, and galaxy clusters. Events play out on the stage of history before our eyes, and on the vast scale of those events, we feel relatively small and powerless. Our own brief life seems like a fleeting flash in the vast inferno of time. In short, the relative perspective involves the experience of seeing multiplicity, constant change, distinctness, and a world of objects, people, and events.
The Absolute Perspective
In the mystical experience, a totally new viewpoint opens up to the mystic. From the absolute perspective, there is only Oneness. Distinctions between subject and object dissolve. All seeming separations and disconnections are seen to be not real, but only illusions of perception. From this perspective, nothing ever happened. No one was ever born, lived, or died. No universe of separation came into being. Time itself never existed, nor did space. No offences were ever committed to justify guilt and blame. There were never any separate threats to justify fear. No attacks have ever happened, for there is no one to attack and nothing to attack.
In the absolute perspective, there is no lack because there is nothing separate to have what one thing does not have. There is no sense of incompleteness for this same reason. There is no imperfection for there is nothing that can be flawed in contrast to another thing. We experience our Self as seamlessly One, unchanging, eternal, perfect, and absolutely free from boundaries and limitations. We feel a sense of all-inclusiveness without the slightest rejection or judgment, a state that is sometimes described as Love, but a Love without distinctions between lover and beloved. A tremendous sense of peace reigns because nothing separate arises to disrupt it. In the absolute perspective, there is only the One and we are That.
Waking Up From the Dream
At first, the mystic tends to experience the absolute perspective as a kind of temporary flash. As this initial flash subsides, the mystic feels as if he or she has awoken from an ancient dream of separation. The relative perspective seems to hold less ‘definitive’ truth because a totally radical new perspective has been revealed and this perspective casts it in a different light.
How does the relative world look from the absolute perspective? The world of apparently distinct forms takes on a kind of lighter, dream-like quality and feels less real than surreal. The experience is quite like what transpires for Neo in the movie The Matrix after he awakens from the illusion of a computer-programmed virtual reality to find that nothing he thought he had lived in his life had ever happened. This is a shocking experience and it takes him time to internalize the effects of his new perspective.
Like Neo, the mystic comes to look at the apparent world of separate appearances in a totally different way. The experience is somewhat like how we look at and think about fictional worlds. For example, consider the world of the animated superhero, Superman. Within the fictional universe of Superman, it is possible to make statements that are true within that world. For instance, we can say that “Clark Kent is the alter-ego of Superman” and that “Superman is really Kal-El, an alien from the planet Krypton” or that “While Superman is on Earth, he feels weak and his powers are impaired in the presence of kryptonite.” All of these statements can be seen as true within the fictional world of Superman. At the same time, we know that, from our perspective thinking about this fictional world, none of these statements are true. There never was a Superman, a Lex Luthor, or a planet Krypton. Nothing in the fictional world of Superman ever happened.
This way of seeing the world of Superman is similar to how the mystic comes to see the relative world after having a direct experience of the absolute. We find ourselves able to think about statements like “this is my mother,” or “force is the product of mass times acceleration,” or “I live in this house,” and we see that these statements make sense and are true within the context of the relative world. At the same time, we are simultaneously aware of the absolute perspective, and know that nothing ever happened, there is really no one here, and space-time itself is a grand illusion. There’s nothing here but the One. Thus, it is as if we come to see on two levels simultaneously: both the relative and the absolute.
The Superposition of Absolute and Relative Perspectives
This brings us to the mystic’s strange new mode of perception. The mystic began with only an awareness of the relative world. Then, relatively speaking, he or she experienced the absolute reality directly and acquired the absolute perspective, which revealed nothing but Oneness to be real. However, this perfect experience of the absolute seemed to come to an end and the mystic found himself or herself perceiving the relative world of people, objects, places, and events once again. However, all of these familiar forms now looked totally transformed because they were illuminated by the perspective of the absolute.
You may wonder, after having directly experienced the ultimate reality of the One, why would the mystic want to continue to attend to the truths of the relative world? The answer is that so long as the mystic perceives the relative body and world to be present, he or she must continue to appear to survive, and thus must continue to live life, as usual, in the relative world.
In practice, this means recognizing useful distinctions, like the difference between a delicious steak and a stinky shoe, for instance, or working with the conventions of time. The mystic knows that there is really no world, no body, and no time, and yet, as long as she continues to see a world, she must act as if time exists so that she can operate within the world and not be late for work. However, and here is the crucial point, the fact that the mystic still plays with the rules and appearances of the relative world does not mean that the absolute perspective has been forgotten.
At first, the mystic may temporarily forget about the absolute perspective and come to buy into the illusions of the relative world until he or she remembers the viewpoint of the absolute once again. However, gradually, the absolute perspective begins to establish itself not in place of the relative perspective, but on top of it. As the realizations obtained in the experience of the absolute begin to stabilize, the absolute perspective comes to be superposed over the relative perspective, so that both perspectives are simultaneously seen. This is a very strange and fascinating experience.
What is Superposition?
What do I mean by superposition? Superposition can simply be described as the state in which one thing is placed on top of another, like a blanket over a bed, a layer of sand over a layer of rock, or a wave overlapping another. In quantum mechanics, however, the word superposition acquired a more technical meaning.
in the quantum world superposition can mean something different entirely. At the quantum scale, particles can also be thought of as waves. Particles can exist in different states, for example they can be in different positions, have different energies or be moving at different speeds. But because quantum mechanics is weird, instead of thinking about a particle being in one state or changing between a variety of states, particles are thought of as existing across all the possible states at the same time. It’s a bit like lots of waves overlapping each other. This situation is known as a superposition of states. If you’re thinking in terms of particles, it means a particle can be in two places at once. This doesn’t make intuitive sense but it’s one of the weird realities of quantum physics.
How does Superposition Apply to the Mystic View of the World?
Superposition is a beautiful metaphor for the mystic’s view of the world once the absolute perspective ceases to be a fleeting flash and becomes stabilized. The absolute perspective becomes superposed or layered over the relative perspective. What does this look like concretely? Here are a few examples:
- You look at your watch and note that here in Montreal, it is now 12:00. (relative perspective).
Simultaneously, you are aware that there is no time, and that the past, present and future all do not exist
- You look in the mirror and see a man combing his hair (relative perspective)
Simultaneously, you are aware that there is no man, there are no objects, nothing has ever happened and all that you seem to see is really only the One (absolute perspective).
- You are out one day when you run into a man who once betrayed you, this gives rise, at first, to feelings of anger from the memory of what he did to you (relative perspective).
Simultaneously, you are aware that this man never existed separately from you, that the betrayal never happened in the ultimate sense, and that you and he appear to be separate but are really none other than the One, because there is nothing else. Seeing this, you find yourself feeling forgiveness, not for what the man did, but for what he didn’t do. Spontaneously, he is released from guilt, you are released from your grudge, and you feel a tremendous sense of relief and peace (absolute perspective).
This latter example is a crucial one, because it illustrates a beautiful point: the absolute perspective begins to inform the relative perspective. You find yourself feeling much less judgment for ‘other people’ and for ‘yourself’ because you know that whatever offence and guilt you seem to see does not actually exist and that the One can never be wronged. You see that everyone you seem to see is none other than yourself; there’s only One of you here. A sense of peace begins to become your default state. If a disruption of your peace arises, the absolute perspective shows you that it is not real and that your true nature (as the One) cannot be disturbed, so the disturbance gets forgiven and released.
Of course, and especially at first when the absolute perspective has not stabilized, the mind sometimes gets tempted to fall back into judgment and the illusion of seeing separation as real, but gradually, the absolute perspective begins to reprogram the mind so that forgiveness, letting go, and love instead of attack thoughts gradually become stable habits. Disturbances may seem to arise, but they get gently seen through and released. The three causes of suffering that the Buddha identified–clinging, pushing away, and the illusion of separateness–are gradually seen through and forgiven. The ego’s ordinary roller coaster ride of emotions soon settles into a comfortably joyous and loving equanimity.
Boundary Setting and the Absolute Perspective
You may wonder, does this tendency to forgive and release grievances make the mystic into a doormat? Some people do fall into this error; however, it is easily avoided by maintaining the practice of setting healthy boundaries in the relative world. Suppose a business partner betrays you by stealing money from your shared bank account (relative perspective). Naturally, this is not a practice that it is helpful to tolerate from a partner, and you may decide to no longer to do business with this individual. Simultaneously, however, the absolute perspective shows you that the act of betrayal never happened and there were never two of you to wrong and be wronged. Thus, you are able to forgive and not hold a grudge against your former partner even though you decide to no longer do business with them.
In this way, it is possible to honour the absolute perspective while still setting and maintaining the healthy boundaries that are necessary to have healthy and harmonious relationships in the relative world. And this remains so, even though you are simultaneously aware that the boundaries and the world in which they seem necessary are only appearances and that the reality of your Oneness has no boundaries.
The superposition of the absolute and relative perspectives, once stabilized, is a powerful fusion of points of view. It enables the mystic to navigate the world of daily life without falling for its illusions. In this way, an awareness of Oneness is able to remain constant even as the mystic seems to go about the business of daily life and live in the world. The absolute perspective fosters a mindset of compassion, peace, love, and forgiveness and a general sense of joyful, loving, and peaceful equanimity. The relative world ceases to be seen as a profound source of threat, fear, anger, resentment, shame, or any of the other emotions that are founded on the illusion of separation. This is because the absolute perspective reveals the separation on which the emotions are based to be illusory; the One that you know yourself to be is seen as wholly empty of all separations and not at risk of being threatened in the world of form.
The more one allows the absolute perspective to layer over or superpose itself over the relative perspective, the less of a pull these separation-based emotions seem to exert over the mind. In this way, you seem to live your life in the relative world as normal and yet you are simultaneously aware that you were never born and there is no world. Strangely enough, when the absolute perspective is fully superposed over the relative, the simultaneous seeing of these perspectives does not produce a sense of confusion or cognitive dissonance. On the contrary, there is a sense of tremendous clarity. This is because it remains clear that from the absolute perspective, the forms of the relative world do not exist at all; the One has no opposite, thus it is not in competition with the world of seemingly separate forms because, from its perspective, there is no world and never was. Thus, we are able to seemingly live as ordinary, loving, compassionate, and peaceful people in the world even while we are aware that there are no people and there is no world. This is the paradoxical reality of the mystic view of the world.
Note: At this point, I’d like to point out a beautiful paradox. Technically speaking, from the absolute perspective, there is no such thing as a distinction between absolute and relative. Truly speaking, there are no ‘perspectives’ in the absolute at all, because differences in perspective suggests distinctions that aren’t there in Oneness in any final sense. The One is seamless. However, I find it helpful to make this distinction between the relative perspective and the absolute perspective because it is helpful as an explanatory tool to describe the experiential shifts that happen from the mystic’s point of view. Strictly speaking, all distinctions belong to the relative world and are, from the perspective of the ultimate, illusory. Only the One is and we are That.