February 9, 2012
Living In An Infinite Universe
Last week I gave a talk at Alex and Allyson Grey’s Chapel of Sacred Mirrors (CoSM) in upstate New York. I based the talk on an interesting story that I had heard on NPR earlier that morning while I was brushing my teeth about some new scientific discoveries that support the surprising hypothesis that apparently the material universe is infinite. Included here is an audio of the NPR segment, followed by an excerpt from my talk (a rough transcript). Enjoy!
Here’s the 3-minute segment, “Strange Universe,” hosted by Astronomy magazine columnist Bob Berman:
My Talk at the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, January 29th, 2012
I heard something very interesting on NPR this morning about a new study by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory which mapped nearly 900,000 galaxies and gave us the best ever view of the large scale structure of the cosmos. According the show’s host, Bob Berman, the study affirms something that cosmologists are only recently starting to accept as fact: the universe isn’t finite as it was long thought to be, but infinite. The universe is infinite in its expanse and also, simultaneously, the material contents of the cosmos are infinite. Berman suggested that this is a very challenging concept for scientists and the general public to accept, because the implications of living in an infinite universe are very profound for all of us.
In traditional Eastern mysticism, for example, it has been said that the unborn, uncreated, unmanifest empty void out of which the entire material cosmos emerged is infinite. It has no beginning and no end. It is what the Buddha called the Unborn. It is an Absolute dimension of reality that is both birthless and deathless. The material universe, on the other hand, is considered to be finite. Even though it is vast in its expanse, it is ultimately relative, because it has a beginning and an end. It was created. So from this perspective, we could say that what mystics refer to as the Absolute or nonrelative domain of reality is infinite, while the creative process, which includes all of manifestation, is finite.
But if what these cosmologists are discovering is true, we need to rethink this traditional mystical assumption. If the evolutionary process and everything contained within it are part of an infinite unfolding as they’re finding—if it’s not merely inconceivably vast but it’s literally infinite—then we don’t have to close our eyes or even transcend the mind, time, body, and universe in order to discover that which is infinite. All we have to do is behold the universe that we are already an inherent part of. Just beginning to contemplate the fact that we are inherently part of a process that’s infinite opens the eye of the philosopher in all of us. If you wed this with the ultimate mystical truth about the nature of reality, that there is only One and not two,, then what will become apparent to you is that you are not separate from a process that is literally infinite.
Think about this for a moment. If you don’t see yourself and your own existence as being in any way separate from the process that gave rise to you, then that means that you are infinite—the infinite is who and what you already are. From this point of view, you don’t necessarily have to close your eyes and transcend your awareness of the material world outside you—or even of the cognitive process inside you—in order to awaken to the infinite nature of existence.
Usually, for human beings to be able to experience to the infinite nature of existence, we have to somehow transcend the mind, transcend time, transcend the world. We need to transcend our awareness of the entire created universe in order to experience that which has no beginning and no end. But given these new discoveries about the infinite nature of the material universe, maybe we don’t need to do this. Maybe it’s just a matter of reeducation. For example, what would it be like if we were introduced to this marvelous new scientific discovery that the universe is infinite at an early age? When I was a kid, I used to imagine what existed before the universe was born and contemplate where everything came from. This kind of thought experiment is pretty common for children of a certain age. But now with this new information, we don’t even have to do that exercise. If the creative process itself is infinite, then you don’t even have to think of where it all came from to get in touch with that sense of awe and mystery that comes from contemplating the infinite. The process that we are an inherent part of is already infinite, so all we need to do is think about that.
What makes all of this even more interesting, is that something profound and miraculous seems to be happening within the creative process. This material universe that we’re all part of seems to be going somewhere. It’s evolving and developing. We’re evolving and developing. What does this mean? It means that higher levels of existence, higher levels of being, higher levels of complexity are continually emerging in the creative process. From light to energy to matter to life to mind to culture, the universe is constantly evolving and developing. The universe is not a static, dead, place where nothing is happening. It’s inherently creative. And that means that new and extraordinary things are happening all the time.
So in light of all this, I think that we need to embrace a new form of evolutionary mysticism. Traditionally mysticism, as far as I understand it, has two fundamental steps. The first step is the inquiry into the ultimate nature of reality. We need to catalyze a burning inquiry into the ultimate nature of existence. If this inquiry is going to be fruitful, it has to be deadly serious. You have to get to the point where you actually feel that your sense of well-being and self confidence literally depends upon finding out the answer. This is something that most people don’t do, because they’re distracted by other things. They just don’t care enough about the truth to get to the Absolute bottom of the inquiry. But if you’re deadly serious and you’re lucky enough to find the answer—and you have to be a very lucky person to find the answer—the result will be a very unique kind of conviction that I call “spiritual self-confidence.” It is a kind of Absolute philosophical and spiritual certainty, which can often be seen as a bit dubious—even fanatical—to modern and especially postmodern sensibilities. But it is deeply liberating.
So if you stay with it long enough to find the answer, the gift will be a rare degree of spiritual self-confidence and certainty. Then the next step is to aspire to make your life an expression of what you’ve realized and recognized the truth to be. And that’s the much harder part. The goal is to actualize this profound degree of spiritual and philosophical certainty in and through the life that you live.
So if we take these new scientific discoveries and apply them to the first insight, we can say that the ultimate truth about the nature of reality is that the material universe is infinite. This is the first step in embracing an evolutionary mysticism. So then the second step is to answer the all important question: is our relationship to existence also infinite? I’m not asking if we’ve had moments when we’ve experienced that which is infinite. That’s one thing. I’m asking if our relationship to existence itself is infinite. Which is something altogether different. What does that really mean? It means inwardly we are ceaselessly reaching towards a better and better future—a future whose furthest boundaries are ever-accelerating towards infinity. I’m suggesting here that there is a way to embrace our own experience of life and embodied consciousness that would manifest and demonstrate the aspiration to express the infinite potential of who and what we are in the way that we live. That would involve not just a passive experience of illumination of the infinite, but it would also require us to manifest a very active, conscious, and deliberate engagement with the life process that is an expression of the infinite nature of our own identity.
In order for that to be the case, one would have to be profoundly awake to the infinite nature of the cosmic process that’s making it possible for us to have the experience that we’re having right now. It would require that we have at least some access to that kind of knowledge more or less on a daily basis. Otherwise you won’t be able to do it. Most of us don’t have consistent access to that kind of depth of insight because we’re so distracted by other things, and our culture has far from embraced these kind of non-relative truths and perspectives about reality.
To become an enlightened person at this time in history, we need to embrace a relationship to reality that’s limitless and then deliberately engage with the truth that evolution is a process that’s going somewhere. I believe that’s what the spiritual path is in this day and age. It’s very potent, it’s very powerful, it’s very significant, and it’s very meaningful. And I can guarantee you, that when you begin to embrace the truth of evolution at the deepest level of your own self, you will discover a kind of freedom and an inspiration to participate in life that is inherently liberating and deeply empowering.