Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Where Is the Pearl of Great Price?

Do not you believe that there is in us a depth so profound as to be hidden even to the one in whom it is?
– Saint Augustine

In talking about deeper levels of consciousness, metaphors can be helpful. So let’s talk about the “lake of the mind.” It is a deep lake, but we are familiar only with the surface. We know how to swim effortlessly on the surface; modern life is quite good at teaching us all kinds of ingenious strokes for this. It even supplies us with flotation devices that keep us bouncing pleasurably on the surface of life forever.

Yet over time we become aware of how much distress is involved in the struggle merely to stay afloat. For some reason, peace of mind simply doesn’t seem attainable; the mind keeps stirring up a never-ending succession of waves.

Life on the shimmering surface of consciousness, we may someday be forced to admit, isn’t everything it’s supposed to be. We come to the uncomfortable realization that there is simply no guarantee of security anywhere as long as we’re living on the surface of life. At some point, every sensitive person is ready to dive – deep into consciousness in meditation. He or she wants to find out whether something more reliable lies below. Often it is the spiritual teacher who gives us the courage to dive. We ask ourselves, “If he has done it, why can’t I?”
--Eknath Easwaran

I think I'm a fairly "sensitive" person in the way Easwaran means it. For it has long seemed to me that there's more to life than the way most of us live it--working a lot to play a little for superficial pleasure for a few decades before plummeting into the great unknown. Of course, there IS more to life than that for most of us. We know and revel in the deeper joys of loving and serving our families and friends and doing our jobs and hobbies well as expressions of our interests, talents, and virtues.

Yet it has long seemed to me that there may be more to life than even this for those fortunate few who are blessed with the ability and desire to find it. I'm not sure what to make of the fact that not only have I not found it, but I have also never even set a firm course for it. In a previous post, I explored this theme in some detail. I'd like to expand on it a little here.

Easwaran talks of how a spiritual teacher can help us to summon the faith and courage to dive into the foreboding depths of consciousness to discover the joyous Truth and security that awaits us there. But I think I'm far less afraid of drowning in those depths than I am of failing to learn how to reach and navigate them no matter how much time and effort I might channel into trying.

I took swimming lessons when I was a boy and struggled afterwards to practice and master what I was taught, but I never really learned to swim. I still flail and flounder my way through the water, and it is all I can do to stay afloat for even one lap of a modest sized pool without succumbing to breathless exhaustion. What if I spend countless hours following the instructions of some spiritual teacher--who may be a charlatan or the genuine article but, nevertheless, a poor match for me--and I end up no wiser or happier than I am now, and I've spent all that time flailing and floundering in the spiritual pool when I could have been on dry land reading, writing, or working at something else of definite benefit to myself and others?

Or what if I discover, instead, after all that precious time and exhaustive effort, that there are really no priceless treasures or anything else at the bottom of the pool of consciousness except the same cold water that's on the surface and hard concrete?

Yet it's interesting to speculate on what treasures my efforts might lead me to, and if my speculations seem plausible and inviting enough, I might find the motivation to make the requisite effort to actualize them. Some would say that if you wait for a compelling vision of paradise before you set out for it, you may never even take the first step much less reach your destination. Instead, you must simply choose a path, set out upon it, and keep walking until you get where you want to go or die trying. But I'm the kind of person who finds it difficult if not impossible to choose such an arduous path unless he's sufficiently convinced that it leads to where he wants to go and that where he wants to go is not a fanciful myth but a real place worth reaching.

I've never found Easwaran's path and destination as compelling as I might because it seems to focus too much on the world within and too little on the world without. That is, he talks about closing the eyes, diving into the depths of consciousness, and finding "the pearl of great price" there rather than in the trees and clouds, in the artifacts of human hands, or even in human beings themselves except to the extent that they embody or reflect some interior "essence" whose nature is ultimately not material but the immateriality of divine consciousness. I just can't square this with my sense that there is no ultimate separation betweeen inside and outside, consciousness and materiality, and, thus, no ultimate difference in quality or importance between them. In other words, it seems to me that I should be able to know "God" just as readily by walking--with eyes and ears fully open--through a forest or bustling big city as I can by detaching myself from the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of the world and plumbing the most remote recesses of my mind.

As I drove home from school the other day, I listened to Ken Wilber talk with Tami Simon about states of consciousness including "causal" and "non-dual" consciousness. He explained that spiritual practice is the progressive disidentification of one's Self with any phenomena or objects of consciousness until one identifies only with the formless field of objectless awareness that is the ground and "Witness" of all phenomena. And then, he explained, after one identifies only with consciousness without an object--the state of consciousness in ordinary deep, dreamless sleep or in an extraordinary meditative state--one can then concretely realize the non-dual state of identifying with the Witness AND all phenomena arising within it.

This made some kind of sense to me and seemed to be a way or the beginning of a way to conceptually reconcile inside with outside, consciousness with universe, except that it still seems to make consciousness prior and primary to materiality. That is, Wilber seems to be saying that the Witness of pure, formless consciousness somehow gives rise to or creates the "material world" and is our "original face" that existed before the universe flashed and banged into existence. I just can't square this with my sense that consciousness arises from a matter-energy substratum of sufficient organizational complexity and that there could have been and was no Witness before there was a universe. Of course, this would seem to make matter prior and primary to consciousness and to, therefore, make me guilty of the opposite sin of Easwaran's and Wilber's and contradict my own notion that materiality and consciousness are identical or, at least. coequal.

What to do? I don't know. I've repeatedly tried following Wilber's "pointing out instructions" to realizing non-dual "Big Mind" or Self. I haven't gotten very far with them. I've just re-begun reading Roger Walsh's Essential Spirituality with the aim of diligently employing all "7 central practices to awaken heart and mind." Maybe through this or some other means I will transcend less than compelling concepts and find the true "the pearl of great price" wherever it resides.

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