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Is The Universe Real? Yes, No, Maybe So!

Is The Universe Real? Yes, No, Maybe So!

For most people, to question the reality of the universe may sound totally absurd. Well of course the universe is real you might say, I can see it, taste it, hear it, smell it, and touch it. However we could argue, just because your five senses detect it does not mean it is real. A good hypnotist can convince you that you are seeing, sensing, tasting, smelling, touching, and hearing a landscape that no one else but you is experiencing. Everyone watching you would say that what you are experiencing is a hallucination. So much for real unless you are someone that says everything is real, even hallucinations. Psychotic people often see people and landscapes that no one else sees or hears. Are they real? Your brain fills in the blind spots in each of your eyes. Is that fabricated area real? Native indigenous tribes could not see the ships at anchor offshore belonging to Columbus and his invaders. Does that mean they were not real? Apparently they were real because Columbus’ landing revolutionized the Americas.

There are some philosophies that say that the physical universe is not real. The Hindus suggest it is not real as do the Zen Buddhists. In a famous Zen Buddhist teaching we have no head because we cannot ever prove it. Our vision shows us only a little cloud of pink in the bottom of our sight that we assume is a nose on an assumed head. We infer we have a nose on our heads because we can touch it and smell with it. We can think with our head and even eat with it but that does not mean we actually have a head, only something that seems like a head. The course in miracles says that nothing that is separate exists apart from God and therefore the thing we call the universe does not actually exist. God is the only thing that is real and since the physical universe exists as a bunch of separate parts it cannot be real. This is a rather radical conclusion but it does have its interesting logic.

On the other hand we have many religious beliefs that say that God is everywhere and in everything and this includes all of creation, the plants, animals, minerals, and elements throughout the physical universe. This even gets very specific with Christians saying that humans are made to the image and likeness of God and that God showed up as Jesus, in the form of a man. What are we to make of these radically different views about whether the universe is real and whether God is in everything or not.

Some years ago I had a rather fascinating discussion with a Jesuit priest while we were on the staff of a leadership conference together. He knew I was a shamanic practitioner and that I had grown up Catholic and had attended a Jesuit high school and college. He wanted to know what the shamanic understandings were about God. I told him that the shamanic understanding was that Spirit is in everything, in the subatomic structure of everything, in the plants, animals, elements and so on and therefore God as he understood it would be in everything including us. With this he took exception. He said that man was not God. That we had to petition to God to save us. I objected questioning how the Catholic Church could say that God was everywhere but not in human beings and that we had to regard ourselves as separate from God. This discussion went round and round and I never could really get a clear answer from him or a least one that satisfied me. We eventually agreed to disagree but I could detect that he was very concerned for me that I would somehow believe that he and I were both made of God stuff. To him this seemed like a real violation and the stuff of heresy. He was very polite about it but I could tell he was disturbed at the whole notion because in his mind it seemed to negate a human’s need to be saved and to have a class of ministers or priests to take up this role.

Over the years I have returned to this conversation many times trying to understand the logic of the need for salvation and contemplating whether the universe as we now it is real or not. I had more or less come around to the belief that it is a dream, and not real. Fast forward quite a few years and I was taking a hike with my dog in the mountains near my house in Santa Fe, practicing a contemplation that I like to do and one that I often teach to my students. It involves becoming aware of my self-awareness or being aware of being aware, realizing that this awareness is not moving or going anywhere because it is outside of time and place. My body seems like it is moving but I am in fact always at home going nowhere at all, just resting in the ever present moment of now, no matter what my body is up to.

Now this is actually an ancient contemplation practice that is used by Tibetan Buddhists to realize their mind’s natural emptiness. This emptiness is concurrent with the supreme intelligence of the universe being within the emptiness like a hand in a glove. Meanwhile the five senses of the body are hallucinating a moving landscape complete with body sensations, sounds, and out-pictured visuals that I am walking along a trail in the mountains, my dog seeming to be running ahead while various hikers are meeting and greeting my dog and me.  The contemplation is as follows: We realize that the movement is actually like the movement of a filmstrip with many still shots, each slightly different from the last, moving past a projector so quickly that the movie appears to be real. If we divide time into microscopic increments then there is no time for anything to actually happen in one of these increments. It is rather like a snapshot of realty. Added together all these snapshots make it seem like there is movement. This contemplation would imply that the universe is not actually real, only more of dream or an illusion.
On this particular summer day, because of all the hikers on the trail, I switched my practice of this contemplation to another one I like to do because it takes advantage of others present. This practice is similar to the greetings that are exchanged between travelers in the Himalayas, who raise their folded hands to their foreheads  and say “Namaste” to one another. Namaste basically means I bow to the divine in you that is in me. In the land of the Mayans in Central America there is a similar greeting between strangers on the trail who say Inlakesh to one another. Inlakesh basically means I am another you, you are another me. Both these greetings imply there are no differences, that you and I are the same in spirit.

The practice I switched to involves thinking thoughts rather than saying anything out loud. The thoughts are similar but vary slightly. Here are some examples, “All is sacred as am I. All is holy as am I. All is divine as am I. All is blessed as am I. All is full of love as am I. All is Spirit as am I.” The meaning of the word sacred is whole. So is the meaning of the word Holy. All the rest of the phrases imply that there is a common thread, a unity, a sameness in Spirit, no difference. It is basically like saying Namaste or Inlakesh to not only the people but the landscape as well and to myself. This practice usually results in my feeling that I have risen to a higher state and that my being is more spacious and inclusive. In other words it is a powerful and wonderful elevated altered state.

On this particular day something snapped into place that had been eluding me for a long time. It was as if I was finally able to hold a paradox that before I could not come to terms with. God is in everything only if God is in everything. Now this may seem only like a solipsism but it is actually way more than that. I had the realization that if I look out at the universe and only see separation, everything in separate parts, that this is not true and if it is not true then it is only a hallucination. Spirit does not acknowledge as real anything that is not true. The only true thing is that Spirit is One and if Spirit is one then the universe is one. There is no separation. If, as an alchemist, I see the world as one, then I am looking at and experiencing the real universe. This is the meaning of Jesus saying, I am the resurrection and the life. I resurrect the truth when I see all as one. Unless I do this, the universe that is made of individual parts remains un-resurrected for me. Jesus was just trying to teach this simple alchemical principle but few got it at the time.

Let me say this again to make sure this is clear. If I see the universe as whole, complete, perfect, and one then I am seeing the true real universe. If I see the universe in separate parts it is not the true universe, only a dream that has no actual truth to it. This is rather similar to the picture in psychology books where you can either see a young woman or an old crone. Once I see the young woman I see her. Once I see the old crone I cannot deny her. The moment I perceive the universe as whole, as one thing, then, as an alchemist, it turns real or turns from lead to gold. When I perceive myself, or another as only a body, or a personality, then I am not seeing the truth. When I perceive myself and other people as their multidimensional selves, I see them as perfect, whole, and complete or perfect. In this form we are beautiful, magnificent, and truly awesome. If I see human beings as flawed, imperfect personalities we appear far from magnificent and therefore this is not really reality at all, just an illusion, a projection I have created in my mind.

From this vantage point, the distortions of religion that we are not part of God or Spirit is the worse possible way of seeing the world because it insures that we will not see what is actually true. If we see ourselves and one another as separate then we seem to be, but that not true. If we see the world as whole then it is and it is a reality.

As far as I can understand all the self-realized saints who have walked this earth, the enlightened ones, achieved a state where they realized their oneness and everyone else’s oneness. They committed themselves to perceiving the world in this way. The Buddha saw everyone and everything as perfect in their Buddha nature. Jesus perceived everyone and everything with the eyes of the Christos, perfect in every way. Lao Tzu saw everyone and everything as “Just So,” a manifestation of the Tao or All That Is. Quan yin, Tonantzin, Isis, Ramana Maharshi, and Yogananda similarly saw the world in these terms. The Tibetan Buddhists dedicate all their spiritual practice to the final outcome that all beings are released from their suffering and realize their Buddha nature. All these great saints are dedicated to this one outcome that all beings realize who they are and what they are, that there is no actual separation. They eternally contemplate our redemption, our liberation from our ignorance, our fixation on what is not true, separation and the fear that is spawned from this false belief.

And even with all their help, we persist in holding our hallucination of separation and so attached are we to our stories and our perceived suffering that we cling to them like Velcro even though none of it is true. How crazy is that? Suffering begins to vanish when we realize we are one.

All the great saints know that restoring the world to perfection amounts to nothing more than a shift in perception, an alchemical shift of greatest import. When I see it as disturbed, broken, and in pieces it deepens the hallucination that it is and that does not help. It only reinforces conditions that make life more miserable for all of us. Hate, anger, blame, judgment, vengeance, violence etc. deepen the dream and makes it that much harder for others to wake up from the nightmare much less ourselves. Having compassion for the misery of living in ignorance is a good start at shifting how we choose to see the world. Seeing people in their multidimensional selves is a next powerful step in the right direction. If I see the politician whom I recoil from as a multidimensional being who is reflecting only a tiny fragment of who they actually are, like the glint off a tiny facet of a huge diamond, then in ever so subtle a powerful way, I help them to find their way back to their perfected self, just so. And once I see I am a multidimensional being, already self realized, then I realize my true self worth, my source in unconditional love, and my ultimate service to humankind, to see everyone as I see myself, whole, complete, and sacred, all this with a little shift in perception, like the flip of a switch. This is actually quite easy to do, just challenging to remember to do it with regularity since in our culture we are not taught to say Namaste, Inlakesh, when we greet each other.

Namaste! Inlakesh!

José Stevens PhD is an international lecturer, corporate team builder and organizational coach, consultant and trainer. A psychologist, licensed clinical social worker and author of more than twenty books and numerous articles, he is also co-editor for A Journal of Contemporary Shamanism and a board member of the Society for Shamanic Practitioners. He is the founder, with his wife Lena, of the Power Path School of Shamanism and The Center for Shamanic Education and Exchange, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating youth in indigenous cultures. He has completed a ten-year apprenticeship with a Huichol Maracame in Mexico and has studied with the Shipibos of the Amazon and the Paqos of the Andes for the last thirty years.

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