What does it mean to perceive a coherent unified world, filled with people and animals and plants and oceans? Are trees observers too? Are stars? What does it mean to ask what something means? Does meaning matter? And who or what is so curious? What is really going on here anyway?
These are deep questions in the sense that they cannot be answered quickly (we’ve been at them collectively for thousands of years), reasonable people will reach different conclusions about them, and they often require insights from lots of fields (neurology, chemistry, theology, information theory, et cetera).
In general, because academia has been a consistent waystation for me over the years, my particular answers to these questions have owned an academic tilt. Read broadly, check for biases, create curricula and reading lists, muster evidence, seek out opposing views, write and rewrite the answers, teach them in classrooms when you can, don’t stop asking questions . . .
Over the years, my shorthand for that fun, interesting and demanding process has been “thinking critically.” More recently – the last five years or so – it has been “thinking critically in and through dialogue,” where dialogue is understood in a Bohmian way.
But thinking critically (in and through dialogue) – while it matters a great deal to me – never doesn’t eventually lead to giving attention to this particular experience. This this, as I like to say. The being that I am right now, characterized by all these sights and sounds and tastes and memories and hopes and needs and desires and so forth. The subjective first person welter. “I” is always experienced in a complex embodied way – even when it is stable, homeostatic, et cetera.
It is important to look closely at what calls to us. If spiritual awakening or oneness is what calls to us, then we should give attention to it – read Sri Aurobindo, Eckhart Tolle, Thomas Merton, Emily Dickinson, Darwin, Schrödinger, Husserl. Do zazen, try celibacy, pray in hillside monasteries. Confess one’s sins, eat peyote, open up to a good therapist. Do yoga, stop doing yoga. What resonates and what doesn’t?
Asking about resonance is really a way of asking: what is your experience? Right now – the you that is sitting in a chair by the window, sipping tea, reading a little before making dinner or breakfast. What is it like to be you? How does it feel? What ideas pop up with regularity? What have you forgotten? What is true and what is false? How do you know the difference? Who gets you? Who do you wish could get you? What don’t you know? How do you know you don’t know?
These questions anticipate (without necessarily mandating) subjective answers. You can most readily and authoritatively talk about what it is like to be you. What it is like to be someone else – Sean, say, or a sunflower, or a comet sailing through the sky . . . that’s beyond you. You can speculate, make inferences based on evidence and probabilities and so forth, but . . . ultimately, subjective first-person experience is our fundament.
For me, asking and exploring these questions has been most fructive in dialogue settings. This was one of David Bohm’s most helpful insights. Going deeply into complex abstract questions without a lot of premeditation and goal-setting, especially when done with folks who are equally committed to inquiry-without-a-net, tends to yield (when we are persistent and patient) wildly interesting and helpful answers.
But to be clear: these “answers” are not dispositive. They don’t really end anything. They’re more in the nature of helpful directives about what to do next – read this author, study that poetic tradition, pray less, walk more, write some haiku, et cetera.
I am not saying that questions like “what is the self” or “what is consciousness” – what is oneness – can’t be answered. I am neither smart enough nor studious enough nor holy enough to truly know if they can or can’t be, or what those answers might even look like. But that’s okay! The point is not to be Einstein or Sri Ramana or Emily Dickinson. The point is just to participate in our shared human experience in a gentle, thoughtful and nurturing way, to the maximally optimal extent possible. I want to be an effective and helpful human observer, which means giving attention to experience in gentle and sustainable ways and reporting back on what I find.
And what do I find? Well, I find what we all find. No matter how complex our inquiry becomes, no matter how far out into the cosmos or deep into the soul it reaches, we all end up in the same place. We need to eat, we need to sleep, we need to pee, we need to make love. Truly, bread, blankets, a roof and someone to share it all with is our penultimate and most meaningful joy. The intensity and urgency of the deep questions dissolves.
In this way, our very basic human existence is what calls to us over and over. It is, after all our spiritual and intellectual wandering, our home. This is why it is important to gently and lovingly attend our lives. At home with our beloveds, the spiritual drama and metaphysical inquiries are seen at last as distractions. We are home: we are always home.