There is a Hindu myth that in the beginning all men were as gods. However men abused their elevated status and the gods decided to take away the essence of godliness as punishment. “Where will we hide it?” they asked one another. “It will need to be hidden in a place where they cannot retrieve it,” responded one, “So they cannot again abuse it.” “We will hide it atop the highest mountain,” suggested another. Brahman, the god of all the gods shook his head. “One day mankind will learn how to climb even the highest mountain, so that will not do.” “Then we will bury it deep in the earth,” another god responded. “No,” said Brahman. “In the fullness of time Man will learn how to mine the very depths of the earth.” After a pause another suggested, “Perhaps we can sink it to the bottom of the deepest sea.” But again Brahman shook his head. “Sooner or later Man will conquer even the ocean deeps.” “Then what are we to do?” they mused. “There is only one thing to do,” responded Brahman. “We will hide the god essence deep within Man himself. He will never think to look there.” And this, of course, is what they did.
Such a belief – that God is somehow embedded in Man – is ubiquitous within the spiritual traditions of the world. It is part of what Aldous Huxley termed The Perennial Philosophy (and which was the title of a book he wrote by the same name).
Forgetting the Spirit within human beings results in contradictory aspirations reflecting one of the manifestations of duality – their will to assert their individuality conflicts with their desire to belong. And both tendencies bring inherent problems.
Those who seek to emphasise their individuality and specialness develop conflated egos that hinder their ability to relate to others. The Vedantic sages understood this millennia ago. They differentiated between the true Self and the false self. The Self was a manifestation of Atman who the sages understood to be in turn a manifestation in each of us of Brahman. The false self was an artificial creation of the individual who was not aware of his/her connection to the unity of humankind that was provided through Brahman. This is essentially the theme of the Hindu parable above.
On the other hand because we do not have the understanding of our collective connection to Brahman our desire to belong is circumscribed. We seek the comfort of association with limited collections of our fellows – our family, our tribe, our nation, those of our religious beliefs, those who supported the same football team!
This in turn creates the “us versus them” dichotomy. As Michael Ignatieff wrote, “The more strongly you feel the bonds of belonging to your own group, the more hostile, the more violent will your feelings be towards outsiders. You can’t have this intensity of belonging without violence because belonging of this intensity moulds the individual conscience. If a nation gives people a reason to sacrifice themselves, it also gives a reason to kill.”
Our egos naturally dispose us to want to highlight our uniqueness, specialness and separateness. As a result it is often hard to see our similarities. It takes someone with a breadth of understanding of spirituality, and with little ego to defend to see our commonality.
Alan Watts was such a person and he wrote:
“Thus we are hardly aware of the extreme peculiarity of our own position, and find it difficult to recognise the plain fact there has otherwise been a single philosophical consensus of universal extent. It has been held by men and women who report the same insights and teach the same essential doctrine whether living today or six thousand years ago, whether from New Mexico in the Far West or from Japan in the Far East.”
Or indeed as Ken Wilber wrote:
‘This is really quite remarkable. I think, fundamentally, it’s a testament to the universal nature of these truths, to the universal experience of collective humanity that has everywhere agreed to certain profound truths about the human condition and about its access to the Divine. That’s one way to describe the philosophia perennis.”
There have been many common elements agreed across these various wisdom traditions and included in the Perennial Philosophy. But underlying everything else are the two principal beliefs that:
- Spirit exists, God exists, a Supreme Reality exists (Brahman, Dharmakaya, Kether, Tao, Allah, Shiva, Yahweh, Aton etc. “They call Him many who is really One”)
- Spirit is found within.
Let us now look more carefully at this second point. The stunning message that the mystics have propagated over the millennia is that at the very core of your being, you are God!
The principal teachings of the Vedantic philosophy are recorded in the Upanishads. Scholars believe these were compiled around 800BC. One of the most famous versions of this conclusion (that Spirit is embedded in Man) is found in the Chandogya Upanishad. Here it is written:
“In this very being of yours, you do not perceive the True; but there in fact it is. In that which is the subtle essence of your own being, all that exists has its Self. An invisible and subtle essence is the Spirit of the whole universe. That is the True, that is the Self, and thou, thou art That.”
In Sanskrit it is rendered “Tat tvam asi”(Thou art That).
How is it then that we as individuals find it so difficult to appreciate this fact?
Ken Wilber provides this answer:
“I cannot perceive my own true identity or my union with Spirit, because my awareness is clouded and obstructed by a certain activity that I am now engaged in. And that activity, although known by many different names, is simply the activity of contracting and focussing on my individual self or personal ego. My awareness is not open, relaxed, and God-centred, it is closed, contracted, and self-centred. And precisely because I am identified with the self-contraction to the exclusion of everything else, I can’t find or discover my prior identity, my true identity with the All.”
As I have explained in previous essays it comes back to the choice between “Love” and “Fear”. The separate self is loveless and fearful (also grasping, desiring, avoiding etc). It is necessarily that way because it identifies with a mortal body, and a resultant ego that must highlight its specialness to counter its fear, which results in manifest defensive behaviour. In Buddhism and Hinduism this equates with samsara which closely relates to the Christian concept of Hell!
The Sufi Abi ‘l-Khayr reputedly said, “There is no Hell but selfhood, no Paradise but selflessness”.
How then are we to sideline the ego, the (small “s”) self in order to engage the Spirit within. Unfortunately it is impossible to do it directly. We have to engage in a version of the “via negativa” by recognising what it is not!
One version of this mode of enquiry is attributed to the Indian sage Ramana Maharshi. It is in fact self-enquiry striving to answer the question “Who am I?”
An example of this protocol of self-enquiry goes something like this (again drawing on the work of Ken Wilber):
I have a body, but I am not my body. I can see and feel my body and what can be seen and felt is not the true Seer. My body may be tired or excited, sick or healthy, heavy or light, anxious or calm, but that has nothing to do with my inward I, the Witness. I have a body, but I am not my body.
I have desires but I am not my desires. I can know my desires and what can be known is not the true Knower. Desires come and go floating through my awareness, but they do not affect my inward I, the Witness. I have desires but I am not desires.
I have emotions, but I am not my emotions. I can feel and sense my emotions, and what can be felt and sensed is not the true Feeler. Emotions pass through me, but they do not affect my inward I, the Witness. I have emotions but I am not emotions.
I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts. I can see and know my thoughts, and what can be known by me is not the true Knower. Thoughts come to me and thoughts leave me, but they do not affect my inward I, the Witness. I have thoughts but I am not my thoughts.
Therefore we must affirm that I am what remains – the pure centre of awareness, the unmoved Witness of all these thoughts, emotions, feelings, and sensations.
And it is at this level I and God are One. It is at this level that I am also as One with all other conscious beings. Here there is no ego, no separateness, only Love.
St Clement said, “He who knows himself knows God.” When I know myself as the Witness then that statement is undoubtedly true. And this then is the message of the sages and the Saints throughout the ages, be they Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Taoist or whatever. When I understand my true essence is reflected in the Witness, and at that level I am One with God and all the conscious inhabitants of the Universe then I am liberated from ego and united with All in Love.