Everything is consciousness. That is one way to summarize the Buddhist understanding. Or, everything emerges from different declensions of consciousness. Govinda’s languaging of the ‘vesica’ symbol suggests that all three segments — the universal, the empirical and the field of awareness — are different declensions of the same thing:
Consciousness is seen to be a relationship between different aspects of itself! This relationship is mediated by the field of conscious awareness. In fact this field is the means by which the universal is translated into the empirical consciousness:
“[Intuitive mind] is the principle through which the universal consciousnessexperiences itself and through which it descends into the multiplicity of things, into the differentiation of senses and sense-objects, out of which arises the experience of the material world.’
Our ‘empirical’ awareness of the world around us is not necessarily what it seems, or how we have conceived it to be. There is a deeply woven connection between what we see and how we see it. As the inheritors of Descartes’ and Newton’s belief in a separate, objective, measurable reality, this way of thinking about the world is still very difficult for most of us. Even though the Newtonian revolution is over 300 years old, the ideas catalyzed then brought profound and fruitful new impetus to scientific and moral thought as well as liberation from the dogma and mental imperialism of the church and the fuzziness of superstitious belief.
But as already mentioned, then came Neils Bohr and many others in the early part of the 20th century, whose work and experiments gradually opened up the world of subatomic particles. Their conclusions were baffling. First, there was essentially no-‘thing’ there. No fundamental tiny billiard ball part out of which the rest is made. And, whatever is there, the quanta, are impacted, turned into either particles or waves, by our observation of them. Here so-called physical reality and Buddhist insight came into agreement. We cannot cut our consciousness away from the fabric of the empirical world.
When intuitive mind is in place, maintaining a balanced awareness between universal and individual consciousness, it participates in the translation of what Govinda calls ‘transcendent intelligence’ into the manifest world. Transcendent means accessing what is beyond, or surmounting higher. Manifested means more than just ‘formed’ — it means something that is evident, or made clear. So the manifest realm gives evidence of, or form to, the transcendent, by means of the ‘overlap’ of conscious awareness. Everything that our senses report to us, is a manifestation, an evidence of that which it emerged out of.
The concept of the manifest world, one that gives evidence of a transcendent intelligence, combined with the idea that our individual consciousness — through which we perceive the world — is itself fed by this transcendent realm and plays an active part in shaping that world, has, to put it mildly, far-reaching implications. For one thing, it implies that the world we live in is malleable, that it can be shaped, like clay. Some of this shaping is simply in the form of how we frame things — what we notice, what we emphasize. A rock climber, for instance, when driving through hilly or mountainous terrain, will perceive the rock faces very differently than his non-climber friend.
Supposing out of this experience, the rock climber decides to start a rock climbing school to introduce non-climbers to the rudiments of climbing. Now his idea, born out of his own love of rock climbing and the interaction with his friend, has ‘shaped’ the world into the form of a rock-climbing school. This in turn gives rise to new experiences in rock-climbing students, so that they begin to see rock faces in a way that they never used to.
None of this is very mysterious of course, and does not necessarily give evidence of a transcendent consciousness. But what about the serendipity of factors that came into to bring about the school? That funder who showed up unexpectedly at a dinner party? The building that came vacant at the right time?
Or not? Why do some projects come together easily, and others fail? Do ‘market factors’ dictate the outcome? There was a need for a rock-climbing school, or there was an over-capacity of rock-climbing schools? But if the latter, why did the rock climber not take that into account?
A well-known quote, often mis-attributed to the German poet Goethe but actually by William Hutchinson Murray writing about the first Scottish expedition into the Himalayas, evokes the mysterious way the universe can appear to co-operate in our plans:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. “
In other words, it may not be just ‘empirical’ market forces that determine the success or otherwise of our ideas, but something about the way our own consciousness is functioning. As if the strength of our focus and intention determines whether we draw down that stronger force which Murray calls ‘Providence’, but which we could also call ‘transcendent intelligence’ to stir up and shape the world the way we have envisioned.
Phrases like ‘universal consciousness’ or ‘transcendent intelligence’ are abstract and difficult to relate to in a personal way. But if we think of this dimension as a powerful flow of energy, that river of life, which brings with it the quality of boldness Murray describes, it makes sense that accessing this dynamic but intangible force impacts how we see the world and how we create within it. One of my most vivid experiences of how this works occurred during a stay in a holiday cottage in the Cotswolds, a very lovely rural part of southwest central England. Both the cottage and its environs were well known and well loved, and on previous visits I had often felt conflicted because the enjoyment of being there was tainted with the knowledge that soon I would have to leave again. But this time, something very different started to happen. I found myself dropping into a profound sense of stillness, a stillness that seemed to be embodied in the ripe full August countryside, and in the quiet of the cottage, with no radio or CD player, no TV. An occasional car or tractor would pass in the street, but otherwise there was birdsong, the lowing of cattle in the adjoining fields, and sometimes the bleat of sheep, carried across the valley on the breeze. We were close enough to the village to hear the church bell toll the hours and close enough to woods to hear, half-awake at night, the soft, brief hooting of owls.Their calls seemed to form out of the dark, and carried a sense of secrecy, as if we were overhearing coded messages about the processes of the night itself. And as this sense of stillness permeated me, I became aware of the well spring of the flow within me.
Everyday I went walking, sometimes just a short way down into the village, or across the adjoining field to visit my daughter’s favorite cow, sometimes longer walks out into the countryside or across the fields to the next small town. Footpaths led literally in all four compass points from our door. And as I walked I realized that something had changed. The movement through the landscape and the flow moving through my consciousness were becoming the same thing. My feelings of sadness, poignancy that I would have to leave, would not be here to see the land in the mists of autumn or in spring, had been replaced by this flow and a visionary perception which both brought the beauty of the gardens, fields and vistas alive in a different sort of way and revealed them to be deeply related to me, not separate, but part of my own consciousness.
The flow has many emotional qualities to it, one quality, as I already mentioned, is joy. And even this one quality contains subtle colourations. There was joy in me at witnessing the beauty of the landscape, another modulation of joy in recognising that somehow it was an expansion of my own consciousness — that I was one with it — and another aspect of delight in awareness of the flow itself, the freedom and abundance of it. It is difficult to separate these colourations out from one another, they all twist together into a thread, but just one thread in the many stranded substance of the flow. There were other threads, of wonder, anticipation, thankfulness, like the currents, eddies and patternings of flowing water, or like a song that has rhythm, melody, harmony. It felt almost as if I was singing the world into being when this flow moved out from me, as if the woods and hedgerows, the golden wheat fields, the banks of wild flowers responded like the answering form to the inner song. In the first book of C S Lewis’s famous children’s’ stories, Aslan the lion sings the world of Narnia into form. I wasn’t quite doing that, this world had already been created, but it did feel like I was singing it’s aliveness more vividly into being.
I noticed that whenever the sense of loss or desire to grasp hold of this place in some way started to surface in me, the flow and the sense of oneness faltered. And not only did my experience start to close down, but the actual glory of the surroundings also started to be ‘dimmed’. The rustling trees, the glimpsed vistas of fields, the circling rooks would appear diminished, like a cloud passing over the sun. And light is another way to name this flow: an invisible radiance that lights up the world of manifest creation. When that light flow is cut off, the world darkens and at the same time, our own experience of that world is abated. One minute I was walking the lanes and the river of joy moved out from me and brought the surroundings alive; the next minute, something caught at me, my eyes, my heart and suddenly all the beauty would be tinged with pain — that I would have to leave, that I could not own, fix down forever, this land, this oak tree. This was the experience, or variations on a theme of it, that Wordsworth was writing about in his famous Ode 536: ‘Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’:
“There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight, to me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore:-
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.”
It was fascinating, exhilarating even, to begin to reflect consciously on what was going on here in my own awareness. I was discovering in a graphic way how the circuitry of consciousness works. The difference in my own experience was unmistakable. If my love for the land, the village, my cottage turned into a want, a want that made me ‘negative’ to these elements of my world, and hooked me onto them as objects exterior to me, I felt a disconnect from the flow: the flow faltered, the light dimmed. I had become ‘positive’ to the flow and was therefore repelled from it. As my experience of the flow lessened, the sense of want intensified and the experience of being ‘hooked’ on to the world of form entrenched as I sought — compensatory — sustenance from it. At the same time, however, this so-called outer realm had itself faded, wilted slightly as the flow that was bringing it alive (in my experience) dropped off. The beauty and substance I was seeking from this realm was no longer so evident. I couldn’t find it. The world I thought was there had started to disappear.
Equally, when I let go to, or became ‘negative’ to, the flow, the pain of wanting and not-being-able-to-have went and instead I experienced the joy of deep relatedness to what I was seeing that also then brought the world alive. This was the experience of representing the radiance of the flow at the conscious level, at the level of the dimensional world.
During this holiday, I was in the last stages of writing a book about the meaning of the Arthurian legends. There was one piece of symbolism that I was still fathoming which was why the wizard Merlin gets trapped in a crystal cave at the end of his story. So while I was walking, and the insights and reflections about the different ways I was experiencing the landscape were flooding my awareness, I had set myself the task of figuring out what this piece of the legend meant. At the same time, I also found myself puzzling over the fact that many local people, who lived here permanently (something I envied them), did not seem to be able to take much pleasure from it, they often seemed unhappy, even downtrodden. So these three thought processes were moving along and intersecting as I walked.
One morning we set out on one of the longer walks to a neighboring village. Having made the long climb out of the valley, we were headed down the other side of the hill.The path was steep, and bordered on one side by a crumbling stone wall, with views out over it of patchwork fields, and on the other by shade-filled pine woods. This was rather like the two trains of my thought laid out on either side of my process. Suddenly I realized that the thoughts answered each other — the story of Merlin was a metaphor for the experience I was puzzling over in the local people. Merlin represented the magical flow from within, that brought with it new vision and creativity — the very experience I was having myself. In the story, Merlin had become infatuated with Nimue, his young female apprentice. And Nimue, having got what she wanted, tricked Merlin by luring him into the cave, and then using her new magical skills to trap him there. Merliin’s infatuation with Nimue represented my own desire to own the landscape, to fix things down, to grasp them. In love with the appearance, the surface of things (Nimue’s beautiful face), I lost the relationship to the flowing reality of them, which was also the flowing reality of myself. And instead I became trapped ‘under’ that surface, the surface of the earth, of form. The crystal cave suggests a hall of mirrors, in which one’s own face is reflected back to oneself in an infinite sequence. All I started to see were images of my own disconnected self. I could not see the real dimensional glorious world anymore. This was the condition that I felt in the local people, it was why they seemed untouched, unmoved by what was around them. They could no longer really ‘see’ it either.
In other words, what I was fathoming in the story of Merlin was a symbolic depiction of the ‘malfunctioning’ circuitry of consciousness; what I was puzzling over in the local people was a way this got played out — the sense of staleness, stuckness. And both of these insights were being experienced by me in a visceral and conscious way as I noticed how my internal experience either brought the landscape and my sense of connection to it alive in a new way, or trapped me in feelings of loss. Therefore my own experience was also the meaning of what I was contemplating!
Precisely at this ‘eureka’ moment of my realization, an owl came flying out of some trees that were further down the path. A large brown and cream barred barn owl. It flew straight towards me and then, right above my head, turned and flapped off into the pine trees. It was noon. An owl at midday, Merlin’s familiar. I immediately felt it as an answering resonance out of the land itself, confirming the accuracy of my insight.
In the few seconds of the owl’s flight and the aftermath of reflection, I started to get a sense that there was a radically different way to create in and interact with our worlds. It was as if I remembered something, it seemed familiar, a recognition that essentially there is no separation between our inner and outer worlds, that the world of form, and the world of thought are one thing. The landscape of the Cotswold hills and fields had become the terrain of my consciousness. My walking through it was the movement of thought. The two areas on either side of the path were the parallel thought processes. The owl flew out of the trees as suddenly as the new insight connected in my awareness.
The notion that our thoughts and deep perceptions correspond with elements of the natural world, that there is a living fabric of consciousness weaving together our thoughts and emotional perceptions with the animals and landscapes of Mother Nature has long informed many indigenous traditions. In the ritual of the Native American vision quest, for example, a young man went out into the wilderness to fast and survive on his own. And during this time, a creature would often appear, as an embodiment of his own spirit and purpose and to signal the end of his quest. Jung has this to say about the connection between the world of form and our consciousness:
“Since psyche and matter are contained in one and the same world and moreover are in continuous contact with one another and ultimately rest on irrepresentable, transcendent factors, it is not only possible but fairly probable, even, that psyche and matter are two different aspects of one and the same thing.”
Jung’s perception that psyche and matter are two different aspects of the same thing is echoed by quantum physicist Amit Goswami who suggests in his book ‘The Self-Aware Universe’ that: “objects are already in consciousness as primordial, transcendent, archetypal possibility forms.”
In his book about the two hemispheres of the brain, Iain McGilchirst uses the phrase a ‘hall of mirrors’ to depict the self-referential world that is created by the left hemisphere, with all the doorways back through to the larger view of the right brain hidden or cut off. Perhaps our sense of identity and brain function are intertwined. Without the larger sense of self, the larger perception of the world as living and interconnected is lost, and the narrower, ‘materialist’ view takes over. Our thoughts are no longer generative, we no longer resonate with the forms we see, we lose our sense of joy and expansion. But when we reconnect, the circuitry works once more, the world comes alive, and we draw to us, or notice the elements of form that appear as embodiments of our thought.