Most of us want to believe in something greater than ourself. That's a worthy ambition. Problem is, religious believers head off in a misguided direction when they imagine that the something greater lies in a vertical direction.
Meaning, they fantasize that a heaven awaits above; or that higher supernatural regions of reality exist; or that their consciousness needs to be elevated beyond worldly concerns.
What these devotees of verticality fail to understand is this: the world right here and right now possesses all the majesty, mystery, and meaning that anyone could desire.
It just takes eyes to see, which, sadly, all too often religious believers lack -- because their attention is focused on mental concepts of a imagined vertical realm rather than the reality of what the world offers.
So what I'm encouraging people to do is extend their vision horizontally. Try to understand the marvelous nature of this world, all that extends in every direction from our own body/mind.
Nature. Animals. Humans. Galaxies. Plants. Minerals. Science. Art. Culture. A limitless expanse that is partially known, yet mostly remains a mystery.
Not because it can't be known. Because it takes time and effort to unravel the mysteries of the cosmos, including the small portion we call Earth.
It's a big mistake to think that scientists have a narrow, mechanistic perception of reality.
Sure, some do, but they're by far the exception. The prevailing view of modern science is strongly moving toward a systems approach that emphasizes complex interrelationships, not simple bits and pieces of matter/energy.
Jeremy Lent speaks of this in his book, "The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe." In the Introduction he says:
The Web of Meaning takes up where The Patterning Instinct [his previous book] left off, by laying out a framework for a worldview that could foster humanity's long-term flourishing on a healthy planet. It is a worldview of integration: one that identifies the unifying principles that flow through all things, while celebrating the differences that lead to the richness of our lived experience.
It's a worldview that links together scientific findings in recent decades from such diverse fields as evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience and complexity theory, showing how they affirm profound insights from the world's great wisdom traditions, such as Buddhism, Taoism, and traditional knowledge from Indigenous peoples around the world.
This integrated worldview breaks down many of the barriers that tend to separate different forms of knowledge and activity in modern society.
We're accustomed to thinking of science as existing in a different domain from spirituality. We generally view the intellect as distinct from emotion; the mind as separate from the body; humans as separate from nature; and spiritual insight as separate from political engagement.
In the integrated worldview laid out here, each one of these domains is intricately connected with the others in an extended web of meaning.
A complex web of meaning. But "complex" doesn't necessarily mean confusing, disturbing, undesirable. Complexity just is the way the world is.
Yes, we humans like to imagine that the world is made of discrete entities. There is me, and there is you. Two things. I am me, you are you. Pretty damn simple.
When I'm with my wife I'm a different person than when I'm by myself. Or with someone else. Every relationship is just that: a relation between two or more entities, in this case, people. That relationship is more than the sum of the parts of the entities.
It is a process, give and take, a flowing dance that can't be understood by freezing motion into a static "me" and "you." In every relationship between two living beings, there is an astounding degree of mystery, of unpredictableness, of creativity.
We have no idea who our self is. Not really. Almost certainly the reason is that the self doesn't exist. At least not in the way most of us conceive of it.
We imagine an unchanging core at the center of our being. Consciousness. Soul. Ego. Self.
Whatever name it goes by, there's no evidence of it, even though it seems entirely real. So does a mirage, until we drive close to the shimmering pool of water in the middle of a road and realize that it only exists as ephemeral waves given off by a hot road.
(When I was a child my mother lived in El Paso and drove to New Mexico regularly, so I became familiar with this sort of mirage.)
We have a lot of difficulty grasping that there's no enduring self -- just relationships between our body/mind and the world.
Zen masters are fond of asking their students to point to that supposed self, to their imagined Buddha-nature, to the "I" lurking in their cranium.
When all that pointing is shown to be illusory, they advise looking instead to eating a bowl of rice, or to sweeping the floor, or to carrying a pail of water. We find ourselves by losing ourselves in the greater world.
Jeremy Lent says in his book:
Along with other Buddhist schools, Zen recognizes that, of all the cognitive patterns blocking a deep realization of reality, the most insidious is the belief that "I" am an objective and fixed entity, rather than a mere abstraction. Philosopher Alan Watts illustrates this by comparing the "I" to the illusory circle of light created by a whirling torch or the flight path made by a bird in the sky.
It doesn't objectively exist, but we create the abstraction by weaving together a pattern of past and future.
The word for this Buddhist insight, anatman, which literally means 'no atman', is often confusingly translated as 'no-self', but it would be more accurate to translate it as 'no-fixed-I'.
The meaning of the ancient Indian word atman correlates closely with the Greco-Christian idea of a fixed eternal soul that is freed from the body at death. When the Buddha renounced this core Vedic belief with the principle of anatman, it would have been as revolutionary as an early Christian claiming that the soul didn't exist.