What if the entire universe is conscious and you are a shareholder of this consciousness? If this is true, as many spiritual traditions assert, then when you look at anything in the universe — a rock or a star — you are a manifestation of the universe looking at itself. In essence, you are life itself witnessing and experiencing its own miraculous nature.
Although this point of view appears unbelievable, many people claim to have had mystical experiences where they experienced a sense of unitive consciousness. For instance, in Varieties of Religious Experiences, psychologist William James said that when he interviewed people with mystical experiences he found that they all shared some common characteristics. These experiences included an ineffable noetic knowingness, an imperturbable pantheism, and a buoyant optimism about the experience of being alive.
Matter Over Mind
Opposing this numinous perspective is the view that you and everything else is just dumb matter. What’s more, your prized sense of consciousness is merely an orchestrated humming of neurons in your brains working like the cross threads of a loom. According to reductionistic science, the fact that certain things appear animated and others inanimate is just a holographic illusion, a way that the mind and the nervous system interpret sense impressions.
In essence, it’s all inert, meaningless, and will soon dissolve into dust, no doubt disappearing into oblivion without a trace when the sun bursts after 5 billion years.
When you think about it, this theory that refutes the idea of intelligent design, too, is somewhat fantastic, too. It means that everything accidentally fell into place and only orchestrates seamlessly with mathematics because that’s just how we think about design and patterns and harmony and flow.
This line of reasoning brings about some absurd thought-experiments like the infinite monkey theorem. According to this theory, and I’m not entirely sure it wasn’t a theorem conjured up in jest, if a monkey could hit random keys on a typewriter without any time constraints at all, it would eventually, in the fullness of time, complete the entire works of William Shakespeare.
Mind Over Matter
Personally, I’m inclined to throw my philosophical hat in the mind-over-matter camp. After reading numerous books on spirituality and quantum physics over the years, it seems to me more likely that consciousness, not inert matter, is the primary mover that makes the universe possible.
Based on this perspective, I’d like to extrapolate the idea a little more…
If consciousness were an ocean, then you would not be separate from it, but a wave on the ocean. This would make it possible — if you are curious and broad-minded enough — for you to be a candidate for a mystical experience at some point in your life.
When that happens, you will stop seeing yourself as a piece of consciousness separate from the rest; and you will quit seeing yourself as isolated, vulnerable, and a potential victim of any random event erupting in your neighborhood.
In fact, many people who have had near-death experiences talk about feeling themselves as connected to all of life and not a fragmented ego struggling to survive a hostile world.
Think for a moment about how free you will feel from the burden of personal suffering if you don’t have to go it alone and can call upon the greater part of yourself, which we will call the universe for now, whenever you need insight, comfort, direction, or whenever you need to get hooked up to a more fulfilling life situation.
Consider for a moment that your identity may be nothing more than a social fiction. You were given a name and experienced yourself as awareness expressing itself through a body.
As you were taught words and symbols that abstracted out tangible experiences, you became increasingly less aware of your emergence as consciousness in a body showing up in a ready-made world. You now began to think of yourself as more like a ghost in a machine.
Eventually, as you were growing up, this conditioned self, known by the Latin name, ego, meaning “I am” became so powerful that it took over your entire consciousness.
We have developed a love-hate relationship with our understanding of ourselves as an ego.
I suspect that this conviction that we are an isolated ego and nothing else gained popular acceptance after René Descartes, the French Philosopher puzzled out the origins of his own identity. In Discourse on the Method, he translated the Latin proposition “cogito, ergo sum” into the French phrase, “je pense, donc je suis,” which, in turn, has been translated into English as “I think, therefore I am.”
But, I think, he got it backward. It might be more accurate to say, “I am, therefore I think.” After all, it is our awareness that makes it possible to internalize language and use it as a tool for self-reflection.
By putting thinking first, making it supreme, we have become obsessed with thinking, made it into an idol, and got quite lost in it. Our obsessive thinking has been the primary reason why the ego rules us with the authority and arrogance of a petty tyrant lording it over a small kingdom.
Benefits of the Ego
Initially, I used to believe that the ego was the primary reason for all my big mistakes. Reflecting back on my life, I noticed that all my conflicts, disasters, and regrettably reflexive or impulsive behavior originated from the defense of my egoic sense of self. Whenever my ego was at its zenith, the quality of my life was at its nadir.
Since then I’ve softened my self-assessment. My ego has not been entirely inimical. With it, I have thought logically and abstractly, planned for the future, organized the events of my life, and controlled my worst impulses. In many ways, my ego has made it possible for me to manage my life experiences and relationships in the world in a rational and constructive way.
Liabilities of the Ego
Still, I’ve also concluded that my ego is both sad and mad. It reflects its sadness in the form of apathy, grief, and fear, and it reflects its insanity in the form of lust, anger, and pride. It’s emotional range, the psychic fuel that galvanizes it, appears quite limited, varying from feeling anxiety or dread to feeling utterly discontent and unhappy.
My ego, I’ve noticed, is also an energy hog. Since it requires a vast amount of energy to run its incessant commentary about my life — psychologists estimate we have 50,000 thoughts a day or about 35 a minute — it needs all the psychic energy it can get. It gets much of this energy to run its stories by putting itself in the foreground and sense perception and positive emotions in the background. It also derives considerable satisfaction from holding an antagonistic attitude to itself, other people, and the world. This “me vs the world” attitude justifies its assumed role as my protector and best friend.
By editing out sound, color, form, and other sensory experience that do not amplify my sense of self-importance, labeling it as irrelevant, it makes the world a remarkably dangerous place to be in, a place where I’m tempted to see my life, the way Thomas Hobbes described it in his poem Leviathan — as a “nasty, brutish, and short” journey through time.
My ego also edits out “the still, small voice within,” any insights surfacing from my subconscious mind, and any intuition arising from my superconscious mind.
Since it is not wholly successful in its efforts to keep all my attention on myself because I occasionally admire the beauty of a sunrise, a colorful flower, an adorable child, a cute puppy, or a playful kitten. Additionally, at times, I do have random thoughts that point me in the right direction, insights about what things mean, and intuitions about the truth about something.
While I’m not sure I can ever retire the ego or keep only its good parts like the occasional sharp and relevant thinking that I sometimes manage, I do not feel entirely helpless because I’ve discovered some elementary ways to allow some revelatory experiences to emerge.
The best way I have found to be less egoic is to notice my own awareness, feel it as expressed in my body, and accept myself and the moment exactly as it is. This shift in focus sometimes dislodges my self-preoccupation, allowing me to playfully interpret my experience and witness my own unfolding experience.
When this does happen, then I feel peace, happiness, and expansiveness. I feel the aliveness throbbing inside me, experience myself as a field of awareness, and intuitively understand that I am not just having a life but I am life itself. I also feel some affection for the now and pay attention to it, even during those times when I dislike what is happening in the present moment.
As consciousness moves through me, I have discovered that I can always expand it by becoming kinder, wiser, and more loving toward everything, including things that are not like me.
I also appear to have the freedom to constrict my consciousness by becoming more intolerant, disingenuous, ignorant, and spiteful toward everything, especially things that are not like me.
In short, I have at least two powerful ways of expressing my free-will:
- The first one is to think beyond my identity and to envision myself as a wide field of awareness, perhaps as broad and deep as the universe itself.
- The second one is to think in terms of helping life, rather than working to limit its expression through any narrow-minded thinking about myself and the world and mean-spirited behavior toward other sentient beings.
If you and I are the essence of life and more than our narrow sense of individuality based on a conferred identity, then the universe may very well be expressing itself through us.
While we will probably never be privy to a deep understanding of how it all works, we can still glimpse that consciousness is not static nor fixed in any way, and it is with this freedom of movement that we can exercise our individuated free-will to make the world a better place.