M A R C H 2 0 1 6
It can be humbling — and liberating — to recognize the limited nature of how we think. Our monkey minds swing from thought to thought, busily assembling our points of view. But when we look closely, we see that each thought is made out of words, and each word signifies a concept, and each concept — for example, the word and concept “God” — must remain static enough for us to “know” what is meant by it. If I tell you, “I believe in God,” we both think we know what I mean. What is signified by the word “God” seems to sit somewhere for us both, like an object in space we can refer to even if we can’t perceive it directly. By becoming an object in our sentences, God assumes the identity, in our minds and language, of something substantial in itself. It (He, She) exists for us as an independent entity, already made.
This objectifying tendency of our minds — of how we think — is a necessary result of language. Each word we use stands for something that is not a word, and that “standing” presses our minds into the molds of objectification. This process is usually very helpful, as it allows us to communicate quickly and to navigate a world that, if it were perceived solely in its primordial unity, would not provide sufficient distinctions for us to survive. We, subjects, over here, perceive and communicate about those objects, over there, and we make our way among them. It’s the powerful and helpful appearance of duality in what is, in its essential nature, a nondual reality.
Henri Bergson, the great 19th/20th century French philosopher, continuously probes this objectifying tendency of our minds to help us recognize and free ourselves from its limitations. The phrase God is not something already made is his. “Something already made” is what we assume an object to be. An object is — we think of it as existing now as it was a moment ago and as it will be a moment from now. In the case of the physical objects around us, we now know through quantum physics that that is not how things are. Everything, even the hardest, seemingly most immutable diamond, is a humming mystery of quarks and energy potentials in constant flux.
But we would like our God to have a different status. We say, “He is now as He was and as He will be.” But what are we referring to? What is this immutable quality of Godness? Is the idea of God’s immutability a relic of our minds’ objectifying tendencies? If so, is it possible for us to perceive or know Godness without objectifying “it”?
Bergson suggests we do have that capacity, although it is beyond the reach of our intellects. He calls this capacity, intuition. Our intellects, he says, can serve intuition, but only to a point — then we need different wings. Bergson, who began his career as a brilliant mathematician, uses many examples to help us take flight. In one of them he recounts the old Greek philosopher Zeno’s story of Achilles’ race with the tortoise, sometimes called “Zeno’s Paradox,” which you probably heard about in school. In the story, Achilles gives the tortoise a head start in the race, but after that he can never overtake the tortoise, because in order to do so he has to first cover half the distance between himself and the tortoise, and then half the remaining distance, and then half that, ad infinitum, so Achilles can never catch up. Zeno uses this story to “prove” that movement is an illusion, and philosophers and mathematicians have fussed with it ever since.
Bergson points out that a fundamental error is made in Zeno’s Paradox by transposing the notion of time, which is known by movement (in this case Achilles’ movement), onto space. Our rational intellects, and the limits of Newtonian physics, reduce movement and time into “things” that occupy successive “places” in space, making them measurable, like the little lines on our watches that mark minutes and seconds. Bergson contends that this is where we get confused. Movement and time are not fundamentally transferable onto spatial places, although it is convenient for us to do so for certain purposes. Instead, the nature of movement and time is flow, and as flow, movement and time are indivisible. We know that intuitively, though not rationally.
It’s only natural that we humans would treat the idea of God in this same way. In order to make God intelligible, our minds imagine God as something that exists in space, something unchangeable and “over there,” already made. This habit of mind serves religions in that people can more readily conceive God as an entity to whom we can pray and whose commandments we should obey. But it is just this habit that has trivialized the enormity and mystery of Godness, and turned many of us to the other extreme: rejecting the whole notion of Godness as an outmoded, superstitious concept. But when we do that, as is evident in much of contemporary secular society, we impoverish ourselves and risk losing the experience of the sacred in our lives.
We arrive now at the “payoff” of this philosophical inquiry, a payoff that has the potential to become wonderfully liberating, in an immediate, personal, non-abstract way. How so?
If God is not something already made, and if we accept that God is All, unbounded and omnipresent, then we, you and I, are not something already made either. Our moments, our thoughts, our most intimate experiences, are all alive with becoming. What we think is happening and what we believe to be true — even our most cherished beliefs, or our everyday opinions about the people in our lives, or our feelings about our own self-worth and our complaints about life — none of it is conclusive or inherently true. Nothing is already made. All is flow.
Reality, including this very moment for you and me and the whole Enormous Show everywhere, is inventing itself as it goes. It is alive and creative and free. Of course, each of those words, “alive,” “creative,” “free,” can get stuck in our objectifying minds as things we think we know, but we have the intuitive capacity to let them loose, to sense them beyond their word-forms in the undefined, spontaneously creative openness that we share with Godness itself. This is Bergson’s famous élan vital, the living impulse that makes this endless, beginningless moment shine so brightly with becoming.
One with it — how could we be otherwise? — we are actually deathless: ever becoming, ever living, ever creative, ever free!