When I was a member of Radha Soami Satsang Beas, an India-based religious organization, for quite a few years I gave frequent talks to the RSSB faithful.
One of my favorite topics was ultimate reality. I loved those two words. Putting ultimate before the familiar reality produced a wonderful feeling of transcendent potential wisdom in me.
Not that I really knew what ultimate reality was. It was an aspiration, a goal to be pursued through daily meditation and the other aspects of the RSSB teachings.
Now, I hardly ever think about ultimate reality. Except when it comes up in a book or magazine. Like a story about physicist Carol Rovelli in the October 15 issue of New Scientist, "Do objects exist?"
...So I ask Rovelli whether we will live to see a full description of reality's core. He takes a dim view of the question.
"I don't think that it makes sense to think there is an ultimate reality," he says. "A forest seen from a distance is just a velvety green, but then you go closer, and you see the trees. They're real. Then you see the trunk is real, and you see the atoms in the trunks are real."
"Reality is the ensemble of all these things: they're all real, it's just about understanding things better and better and better. We should get out of this mindset that ultimate reality is matter or language or God or mind or spirit."
Takes the pressure off of finding the tip-top branch of reality's tree. You can examine any branch, any twig, any leaf, and if that examination is conducted in the correct way, you're coming closer to knowing reality.
Last year I wrote about Rovelli's book, Helgoland, where he lays out his persuasive thesis that reality isn't comprised of things but of relations. Here's an excerpt from my "Each of us isn't a thing, but a web of connections."
Rovelli writes that the central thesis of Nagarjuna is there is nothing that exists in itself independently from something else. Thus Buddhism fits in nicely with the relational approach to quantum physics.
Buddhism evolved in part as a reaction to Hinduism, which assumes the existence of soul, Atman, that is an aspect of God, Brahman. Buddhism denies that anything is eternal or unchanging, including ourselves, or our self.
So from the most minute subatomic particle to the grandest expanse of galaxies, with us humans occupying a middle ground, size-wise, relations are what reality is all about, not things.
We're alive because of our relationships with air, water, food, sunlight, other people, bacteria, cells, neurons, and everything else that makes it possible for us to be born, live, and yes, die.
The good news is, from the relational view of Rovelli's take on quantum physics and Buddhism, we never exist as a separate and distinct entity, so when we die, it is the relations that cease to exist. In a very real sense, each of us has never existed as the "I" we generally take ourselves to be.
The bad news is, there's nothing that can live on after the relations which sustain life are broken. But this is just reality speaking, and I don't see reality as dealing in good news and bad news. It simply is what it is.
This fits with what I read this morning in a chapter in neuroscientist Patrick House's book, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness. The chapter is creatively titled, "The North African Rhino of Charismatic Megaquale."
(Quale, the singular of qualia, means a quality or property as perceived or experienced by a person.)
House starts off by talking about how those interested in animal conservation have a bias toward "charismatic megafauna" -- animals that are large, blunt, and beautiful. The blue whale, North African rhinoceros, and so on. Algae, viruses, beetles, and ants, he says, get short shrift.
This is akin to how I used to look upon "ultimate reality." I envisioned a megatruth at the top of the heap of lesser truths, a Truth so massive it made all those little truths appear insignificant, mere trifles. But this is a linear, dualistic, simplistic way of looking upon reality.
House then writes a paragraph where he argues a counter-perspective when it comes to consciousness.
So, too, do many theories about how a brain works focus on what could be called "charismatic megaquale" -- that is, those experiences that feel big and vibrant and can charm us into thinking that there is something it is like to be something: what it is like to be a bat, what it is like to be a North African rhino, what it is like to try to remember how many windows were on your childhood home, what it is like to remember looking through your eyes right now, and what it is like to experience large, generous emotions like fear, attraction, happiness, and sadness, which seem to take over the subjective world in one large brushstroke, coloring all its objects.
But so much more is happening to a brain in the process of acting on itself. Populating consciousness are more species of noncharismatic minor quale, which are often ignored and undetected, than any other kind. What is the point of theories of consciousness if they cannot just as easily explain the minor quale of human emotion as the megaquale?
Yes, agreed. This fits with how I've come to view mindfulness, as described in a recent post. One of my points was:
The small things in life are just as important as the big things. One of my adages is I am a child of the present moment, who finds delight in small things.
So I've discarded the notion of ultimate reality from my life's to-do list. Plain reality is plenty good enough for me.