When I was a child my parents had a painting that fascinated me. It depicted a dinner table with countless guests on either side that tapered to a point and disappeared into infinity. My parents were Roman Catholic at the time and I believe it was a metaphorical image of heaven. I remember asking, “How far does it go?” and being told, “Forever.” Which is all well and good until you actually do the math, and divide by zero, and try with the whole of your being to understand the idea of “forever.” If you do it right, this sort of thing can produce the visceral sensation of wonder—a certain flutter in the body.
This is a glimpse of truly abstract awareness, an awareness unbounded by particularity. We glimpse it after the fact, just as the effort to comprehend infinity cashes out into the palpable feeling of curiosity, mystery, and awe. What was that?
Years later I was driving home from college one afternoon and for whatever reason contemplating what it might be like to awaken from a field of absolutely nothing. First I tried to imagine nothing at all, which is a supreme challenge itself. No time. No space. And then a speck of awareness emerges from this nothing and realizes, I am. It’s another case where words cannot really convey the profundity. But if you spend time in contemplation on this, I think it is possible to experience that little heart-flutter of wonder that comes with the realization, I am real.
Imagine now this mote of awareness realizes it is all that is or will ever be. It is not isolated, or alone, or in one place and not another, because that would be to suggest there is something outside of it. And there’s not. This awareness is it, the beginning and the end, the content of everything. It is the whole. It has no needs, no lacks, no deficiencies. There is nothing, in fact, it could do to change the nature of what it is, a truth both astonishing and good. It is unassailable, unchanging, unaffected. It is nothing and everything. Just being—albeit with ever-deepening layers of self-discovery, for there’s quite a bit packed into everything and nothing.
These thought experiments are not intended to be decisive in any way. The primordial state of being is not one any of us can wholly grasp, parse intellectually, or come remotely close to experiencing in its fullness. But we are “of this” Source. We are extensions of the only existence there is. The pure potential of being, a reality that can never change or be changed or threatened, is the identity we ultimately partake of and share.
Next, imagine this pure field of existence one day becoming more of itself by giving and receiving itself. There are so many things that cannot be explained in mechanistic terms that I won’t try. But suppose the pure field of being discovered it could “recreate the experience” of discovering itself by becoming more of itself. This is not to be taken literally as these ideas can only be spoken of in a sort of mythical form, but we might imagine the primordial state of being could, for instance, have a child. This child would be a new sort of fullness within the whole. The primordial state of being is the child, of course. But also, the child is new, a new mind in perfect union with the whole and yet capable of its own thoughts, experiences, etc. There is paradox here that cannot be explained. There is relationship without division. This child is not the whole, but it is not separate from it either.
Each and every such “child” exists in perfect union with the whole of being. If you ask it who it is, it will reply that it is the primordial state of being, of course, for what else is there to be? There is nothing, for instance, this child keeps secret from the whole, nothing it knows or partakes of the whole does not, nothing held apart, and though there is a uniqueness to this child’s being, a “here” to another child’s “there,” these exist in a way of absolutely undiminished mutual knowing. And the whole experiences all of it simultaneously.
Something like this is the nature of reality, I believe. There is nothing yet for us to call “physical” and nothing with a particular “form.” Just a given and received mutuality of being that regenerates and expands the basic and utterly joyful moment of self-discovery: the moment when we discover the wild truth that existence exists, and we’re it.
So when I say consciousness is fundamental, I mean that some infinitely realized form of being holds every aspect of existence in and as itself. This purely abstract beingness extends perpetually into every aspect of existence and receives unto itself every aspect of existence in return. It is not susceptible to change, to threat, to cessation, to fatigue, or to any limit. And when I say that the starting point of our thought system is either reality or image, it is reality if the living presence of the one primordial state of being is felt and known to us as the beginning and end of who we are.
Turning now to the possibility of image, we have to look at the container of experience in which we find ourselves—this world and these bodies—and consider how it may have come to be. The basic change that took place somehow, somewhere along the way, was the movement of being into form. The Buddha, in his brilliance, elected not to speak of these things, largely because of how easily we become bogged down in digressions and mechanisms and hypothetical vehicles of experience when, really, none of this will ease our suffering. But I wish to continue with the story for one simple reason: the story may inspire an appreciation for what is possible. Things can be different than they are, in truly good and beneficent ways.
A few things are obvious about this movement into form. The first is that something went wrong. It helps to be honest about this. A lot of things going on are not so great and haven’t been for quite some time. It’s helpful to know that what causes us suffering is reversible, though, and also, that the reason suffering persists in the meanwhile is, paradoxically, a form of our protection, and one that will disappear the instant it is no longer required to protect us. (It’s hard to fathom that in a benign universe certain conditions conducive to our suffering might be allowed to subsist, as a form of protection, but this is so and will be the next post in the series I think.)
There’s a lot to unpack there and I probably got ahead of myself, but I want to explain “what happened” in two ways I believe are equally valid. The first is that moving from a formless, timeless, free-flowing primordial state of being into a concretized, constructed format of experience with rules and limitations was overwhelming. Imagine a virtual reality scenario where this effortless, never-before-threatened awareness achieves full immersion into a reality in which suddenly it seems there is the possibility of loss. If this awareness forgets to breathe it dies. If it scrapes its leg and gets an infection, it dies. Others die. It’s all-consuming to just stay warm, gather food, learn to communicate, wash, rest, etc., etc. This is an over-simplification, but the point is that somewhere along the way the virtual reality became so predominate the original reality was forgotten. It was dimmed. A shift occurred from identification with the primordial state of being to identification, by each “one” of us, with a particular biological form. And this changed everything.
We can consider this transformation through another lens: our choice to experience what it would be like to be “on our own.” Imagine you have Aladdin’s lamp, and you have the power to have any wish imaginable granted, and you said, “This primordial state of being is all I’ve known; I wonder what it would be like to be separate from it!?” And poof! The wish is granted. (The experience is given but not the reality of it). From our current vantage, we have near-zero concept of the power of our creative decision-making at the time of this choice, or of the intensity of the consequences. To go from a perfect and unassailable fluidity of being to a realm in which the unlimited communication with all existence that we’ve always and only ever known is just GONE, is a blow. It hurts. It’s very difficult to comprehend this sort of loss–just as hard as it is to see the perfection of this response to the request.
Let me circle back to something profoundly important: the experience of being separate was granted, but this did not change the nature of reality. It couldn’t because the heart of reality, the primordial state of being, is simply unchangeable. There is nothing that can arise outside of it, and nothing that can stand apart from it. So there is only one way to experience what is not real: it must be imagined.
Whether we consider it an innocent sensory overload that led to this, or a profoundly powerful (and innocent) choice that was instantly granted—both of which I think are right in a sense—we lost communication with the primordial state of being and found ourselves in an unprecedented situation: the virtual reality was all that appeared to exist. We were able to experience life apart, even if we could never truly be apart. But also . . . we inadvertently wandered into a room without an exit.
To be separate is to have no power but one’s own. You take Humpy-Dumpty and shatter him, and which piece is the one that gets to say, “Nah, let’s go back”? There isn’t one. The power of the original choice came from unity, and is not present in a mind that believes in the experience of separation. The choice to experience separateness comes with the consequence that the very power that made such a choice possible must be unavailable. If it was available, we wouldn’t be experiencing separateness! So it’s the original catch-22. To have an image at the root of one’s thought system is to believe in the experience one is having of what it’s like to be separate from the primordial state of reality.
The way out is to choose anew, of course, but this requires releasing our beliefs in the world we have made: this virtual reality we are experiencing. You see, this world is the product of our choice, and we’ve always believed in what we’ve made. We never had reason to do otherwise because prior to this experiment with form all that we felt or offered or gave was the timeless content of the primordial state of being. It was all there was. There were no perpetually changing forms, no dance of maya. The profound difficulty we face is that we must concede the world we’ve made isn’t the one we truly want, and that a return to awareness of our union with the primordial state of being offers all that has been lost.
But it’s a harrowing choice because from the near side it looks like the choice to be nothing. It looks like giving up the only life we know. That’s not what it is, however, and when I talk next time about the protections that have been extended to us, I’ll touch also on the transformation of form. Because what’s before us is not the choice to go back or not, but the choice to experience form in a new way—no longer as the vehicle of our choice for separation, but as the means of creating new avenues for the expression of the one reality we have always been and forever will be.