Planes of Existence
A quote I like from Emerson is, “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” The German idealists, the British Romantics, and the Transcendentalists wrote in reaction against what they perceived as a creeping trend towards over-mechanisation, and the commodification of time, people, and resources, the world over, in nature, and in everyday life. And yet if we compare the pace of life as we perceive it now, to those 19th Century writers, well, there is no comparison; it’s a different world. Nature, as Emerson says, has her pace, her rhythms, and we, only the cold exactitude of a hand ticking down, as has been said, towards that final curtain. And yet ‘time’, ‘commodified time’, well, it’s not really real is it? It’s a construct. Most of our dealings in this world are to do with navigating fabricated social constructs. It’s a mirage we’re all conditioned to take seriously, it’s a convention. The word ‘convention’, comes from the Latin word ‘convenire’, meaning to come together, to agree, which in theory is good. Coming together and agreeing on things should be a good thing, but really does it not amount to the tyranny of the majority? And in the case of ‘time’, an invisible majority at that.
If time for you is real, then you take it seriously, and you’re driven by time. Time is money. Right? There’s an anxiety around time, I think. The one appointment in the day: “I hope I don’t miss it, I must be on time.” It somehow drains an inordinate amount of energy, it hangs in the day, paralysing thought, and holding everything else to ransom. And that’s me being very down on time, on commodified time, on the clock face, with its twelve acute angles, purporting to express reality. And despite my being negatively disposed towards such social conventions, I reluctantly acknowledge it does have its value. It would be very difficult to gather together on Sunday mornings here in Ipswich without such conventions. But it’s important I think to remember that at this surface level, time, location and language, etc., these are all conventions, not to be taken too seriously, which sit within a great void. Within the totality.
Ever since I read about the impersonal Brahman over-god of Hinduism, that’s become my default way of thinking about this: that impersonal, ungraspable totality, which it’s not possible to perceive or describe, but we can imagine the things that populate it, the forms and images, almost like god is dreaming, and all this is the stuff of god’s dreams. And so, we shouldn’t think of this as being ‘ultimately real’. I’m not sure that there such thing as ‘ultimately real’. Or, grasping for other metaphors, it’s like there are different planes of reality, a multitude, and here at the surface our commodified, delineated reality with its ticking clocks and endless words has a flimsy quality to it, but pulpits, carved wood, and timber, and stones piled one on another, that seems a bit more real. The material world is a less flimsy plane of reality, right? And it does kind of seem more real, but illusory, ultimately, I think. Seeing the material world as the base of reality expresses something more of our own limitations, I would suggest. Our own inability to perceive. But in more awakened conscious states, we can see the blurring edges. When our minds are still, and our imaginations are alive. Across all this, this continuum of planes, sits us. We are no one thing of course, but there does seem to be, to me at least, some more essential parts of who we are that reach down beneath a single plane, to another, and maybe no further, but maybe further still, and some other aspects that just float evanescently across the superficial plane of things. And we often conflate the two. Herein, lies the cause for almost all misunderstanding. People talking at cross purposes, from different planes, right across each other. Both speaking truth, and yet utterly contradicting one another.
I can give a concrete example of this, because there’s been one in the news very recently - the story about the actor Liam Neeson, if any of you caught it? Liam Neeson was doing some press for an upcoming movie of his, and I think vengeance is a key theme of that movie. And so he was asked, as an actor, how he is able to tap into some of those strong vengeful emotions. And then he told a story which has got him into a lot of trouble. He said that when he was much younger, in his late teens, he learned that a female friend of his had been raped, and that the attack happened to have been perpetrated by a black man, which sent him into a one-week rage in which he stalked the streets hoping to get himself into an altercation with a black man, so that he could – as he perceived it - right the cosmic scales. Until he snapped out of it, and felt a great sense of horror and shame for ever thinking in that way. And the response to this in the media has been mostly outrage, and a call to boycott his movies, and to sideline him from the movie industry etc etc.
And so, I think this story is interesting, because out of it has surfaced a lot of contradictory truths. I can’t parse out all of this and do it all justice, as it’s too complicated, and my perception of truth is obviously situated too, and thus limited. But, in brief: on one hand, we can see that this is a pretty straightforward expression of racism, and in particular racism directed towards black people, which within the American context has its own particular historical resonance of course, which means it carries more baggage than other expressions of racism. Harking back to that bloody history of random acts of violence, lynchings, and persecution… If one felt outrage towards Liam Neeson that would surely be more than legitimate. How can he speak so naively? Did he not think he would trigger all that collective memory and pain, is it not grossly insensitive of him? Particularly if you take into consideration where and when this is being said; this is not a ‘Let me talk about my upbringing’ Liam Neeson interview – this story is trotted out as part of his promoting of a film. And then, on the other hand, on a different plane if you like, this is a powerful admission.
It points to a reality (historic and contemporary) that many in the west find themselves growing up in particular cultural contexts, in which there is systemic racism, against Mexicans, Muslims, Polish people, black people, or wherever we happen to be talking, and within that culture, an unconscious absorbing of those racist attitudes, until the individual has a moment – if they have a moment - in which they have a raising of consciousness, and they catch themselves, and they course correct. There’s a problem with denying that narrative as a reality. There’s a problem with denying that we all harbour unconscious biases: racism, sexism, classism - perhaps ignoring that has its own dire set of consequences. Society, at the moment, seems to be really struggling with the idea of redemption narratives in general, the possibility that somebody can do something wrong in their past, and then, course correct, and move forward.
As an aside: cyber identity, the histories we’re leaving behind on the internet, our online fingerprints - this is already a big problem. I cannot imagine what it’s going to be like in another decade. Take me for example, I joined Facebook in 2007, and so I have a cyber history of me reaching back just over a decade, some record of everything I said and thought, online, out there on some database. I don’t think there’s anything that sensational in my conservative Christian past though. So, I’m not very worried. But imagine the next generation, who literally from day one with their uploaded baby picture, have an online cyber backlog of information, which over the next decade is likely to become increasingly accessible. I’m not making a luddite point here, I’m not saying I think this should be avoided, I don’t think it can be avoided, it's just the reality. Stories in the media about people’s sordid pasts, or sordid past opinions, or whatever, that’s only going to become more prevalent, and my guess would be that society will re- embrace the redemption narrative, to some degree at least, because it has to. There’s no alternative that I can see. The numbers are going to become just too numerous. We’re going to have to wake back up to a more realistic picture of what human beings are like.
Anyway, I digress. Going back to Liam Neeson – you can frame his whole story then as a redemption narrative. A man ashamed and horrified at what his cultural conditioning had enmeshed within him, but he caught himself. And therefore, is this not the kind of arc we would want to exemplify, and have repeated? So, as I said, I’m obviously speaking from a situated, privileged, vantage. But it does seem to me that both perspectives from different planes, both seem true, despite being completely at odds. Perspectives held by varying people operating within different modalities, across a multitude of planes within a great void, which is the impersonal Brahman. All is illusory, even hell as experienced on earth. Though it's often impossible to see the illusory nature of hell of course, that’s what makes it so hellish. I chose the parable of a talent for this reason, the slave with the one talent acts in a particular way because of how he perceives things, and the master punishes the slave because he perceived things differently. The master is the one with the authority, so because things are not implemented as he sees fit, he has the power to punish. To cause all that weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Traditionally, this parable has been read as the master character representing the Judaic-Christian God, and so however the truth might appear to the slave, he can only be either in complete accord with God (as the first two slaves are), or wrong. There’s no alternative, because God determines what is right and wrong. He sets the cosmic ought. This parable seems horribly injust. The one who receives the least achieves the least, and is subsequently punished for achieving nothing, a failure which is then apparently explained in this saying, ‘all those who have, more will be given, and those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away’. This sentiment seems completely at odds with Kingdom Ethics as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. And perhaps it's because we’re reading it wrong.
If we flip the parable, and see the master as not representing God, but rather standing for worldly authority, whether pharisaic authority, or Roman authority, or even cooperate authority, within any of those systems there is never a fair base line. There are those who are given a head start, are favoured, like the first slave, who as a result achieve a great deal, and those who from the off set are given a raw deal, very little to work with, which makes them negatively disposed towards said system, and thus, inevitable failure follows. And when we see that, when we see people suffering, through no real fault of their own, suffering as a result of the poor circumstances foisted upon them, we are moved to compassion, and feel a sense of injustice, hoping we (or society at large) can reach out in love to the suffering other. The saying then, “to all those who have, more will be given, and those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” – this just follows the wisdom tradition precedent of stating the reality of things. The Kingdom of God then, is located not in the actions or circumstances of any of the characters in the story, rather it is located in our emotive response to the story.
The world is illusory. The world is just operating as the world does; we see these reactive forces sparking away across the superficial plane of things. There are these constructs, these conventions being played out, an endless masquerade, expectations, mechanisation, the commodification of time, people, and resources. And salvation lies in gaining some perspective, as seeing all this as very small within this great void. Our humanity lies, our Kingdom awareness lies, in living to a very different rhythm, within a higher state of consciousness. A far broader view of things, not so invested in the superficial, with a deeper sense of self, stretching down beyond the flimsy planes, and then from that deeper state, reenergised. We see all. We are all. And we are still. And we are at peace. And then we open our eyes, and embody love and compassion.