Whadda Ya Know?

"For most of us it is very difficult to be constantly aware of the limitations and of the relativity of conceptual knowledge. Because our representation of reality is so much easier to grasp than reality itself, we tend to confuse the two and to take our concepts and symbols for reality."

Fritjof Capra in The Tao of Physics

What do you know for sure? Philosophers and mystics have explored these questions for millennia. Plato described our perception of reality as like shadows we see on a cave wall. We mistake the shadows for reality.

Chuang Tsu described awakening from a dream that he was a butterfly dreaming it was a man, and not being able to know for sure who was dreaming whom.

Descartes thought that the only thing he could know for sure was that he existed, because he thought he did. He summed it up with the catchy phrase: "I think, therefore I am."

George Berkeley tried to explain existence with the not quite as catchy phrase, "To be is to be perceived." He held that matter cannot be conceived to exist as independent of the mind.

In the 20th Century, physicists have taken a shot at defining the limits of our ability to know the material world. The name of the "Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle" gives us a pretty good idea where they are going with this.

From whichever direction we approach these questions, we must conclude that things are not quite what they seem. As Albert Einstein said, "Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one."

For many of us, this is confusing and unsettling, because our senses tell us what the world is like, and our senses are relatively consistent. For some of us, this level of uncertainty is anxiety provoking. Some reject the uncertainty by embracing the concrete views of a higher authority. They become "true believers," giving up reason to a teacher or doctrinal system that tells a "truth" that can be believed without screwing up the brain with complex thought.

We would propose, on the other hand, that hidden within the uncertainty is the thrill of a spiritual life. Nobody cares to do a puzzle that is too easy. Nobody learns to fly because they enjoy ground school, or skydives because they like walking around with a parachute on (Okay, there might be a few of you out there who do). When we decide to live a good and full life, when we care about truth and beauty, the mysteries of life deepen and enrich us.

Faced with the uncertainty of an essentially unknowable reality we have several choices. One is to ignore the issue and deal with the apparent reality of our senses or of someone else's definition of reality. Another is to become unhinged from the collective reality that we all share and exist in a psychotic world of our own making. Or we can look deeply within our own heart and mind, gradually stripping away what is not essential to find the true essence.

When we look deeply into the darkness of our own unknowing we open ourselves to that change of state that has been described as satori, enlightenment, or unity with God. Through our realization of the illusion of separateness we find the unity of all existence. In the unity with all that is we find love. Once touched by the reality of unbounded love, nothing is the same.

Here is what we suggest:

Use your mind. Read. Talk to people. Listen to wise people. Learn what there is to be learned about the way the world works, the way the mind works, and the nature of the human spirit. If your spiritual path asks you to ignore reason, think again. Truth is not bounded by rational thought, but it is not devoid of reason either.

Learn to release yourself from the grip of your thinking mind and go within yourself to seek the truth that is beyond ideas. Meditate in a simple form that can transport you beyond words and feelings to deeper knowing. Practice. Practice.

Open your heart. Judge the truth of your path by the quality of love in your heart. As you seek truth you will know you are faced in the right direction when your capacity for compassion is expanding, when your experience of loving-kindness becomes ever more inclusive.

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© 2001 Tom Barrett