It seems as we look into our experience of living that we are free to adopt various means of looking into our experience of living, each of which may provide a slightly different perspective of and thus experience of living.
That is to say, the way we look at our living affects our living which affects the way we look at our living. It is circular. But it is not a vicious circle – one that traps us, like “I am a liar,” where if it’s true it’s false but if it’s false then it’s true.
Rather, it is – to borrow Francisco Varela’s turn-of-phrase – a creative circle, one that deepens and extends itself by including (rather than excluding or occluding) more and more – eventually all, if such a thing is possible – of the cosmos.
Thus, the self-referential self can learn about Buddhism and socialism, it can adopt veganism or celibacy, it can learn to play cello or run a marathon, it can go to therapy or read R.D. Laing . . . All of these apparent activities enlarge and expand the fundamental self-reference and recursion that is always underway and always underlies – and incorporates and expands – self-experience.
To put this somewhat more abstractly, or perhaps just differently, we are observers and our observation is free. It can assume different forms, pick and choose among a priori assumptions, study and amend itself, treat itself to chemical alteration through drugs, fasting, meditation, ritual. Doing so changes it and its observation.
In this way and for these reasons, a fundamental freedom underlies our experience as human observers. Realization of this freedom evokes an ethics of responsibility. Since we construct our worlds and selves, then the world and the self we construct is our responsibility.
This is less onerous than it seems. Love is natural; what is not love is love-obstructed or love-inhibited or love-denied, at either cultural or individual levels. The work is not to invent love or replace love but rather to undo the blocks which prohibit its natural extension (this reflects a natural understanding of a core principle of A Course in Miracles).
Thus, we are not called to be Buddhists but to allow others to be Buddhists. We are not called to learn to play the cello but to allow others to play the cello. Naturally, this allowance is mutual, which means that if we want to be Buddhist or cellists we can be – but not as an assertion of a personal right. Rather, it happens as a gift or blessing from the collective, the all-of-us. They – the other(s) – allow us to be Buddhists or cellists (or Buddhist cellists).
This is what it means to be free. Freedom is always relational, and what we give to others is what they can and do give to us. This is not complicated. But what obscures it can be – and often appears to be – complicated indeed. One can become obsessed with untangling the various semantic and cultural forms that obstruct love, often without seeming to obstruct it, and often while explicitly declaring they are not obstructing it.
Love is what arises naturally, and what extends itself naturally, and one merely has to notice this. It effectuates itself; it is not our job to do it. Our job, so to speak, is simply to notice it happening and, as much as possible, not get in the way (by insisting that Buddhists are better than Christians, or more spiritually mature than Zoroastrianists, or that cellos are superior to electric guitars, or that Beethoven beats Chopin but nobody beats Mozart et cetera).
This “job” can seem quite abstract. It is tempting to merely talk about love, and to describe love, and to profess one’s love for love, and so forth. It is tempting to do that because it is easier than actually loving! In order to bring love forth, it is helpful to become clear on who and what we are – and who and what the self is, which is also to answer who an what the other is, and the collective, and the many worlds we bring forth, et cetera.
Hence the importance of giving attention to self-reference, and becoming clear on how it functions. This is not a spiritual quest but a human one that can be cast in spiritual terms, if that is helpful.
Regardless of how one frames it, it is the work we have to do if we are going to establish the primacy and maximize or optimize the free expression of love as our fundament. What this means in practice is what Francisco Varela suggested was a possible human Utopia.
If everybody would agree that their current reality is a reality, and that what we essentially share is our capacity for constructing a reality, then perhaps we could agree on a meta-agreement for computing a reality that would mean survival and dignity for everybody on the planet . . .
The center of any such meta-agreement – and the ground of our ability to see that reality is always “a” reality and not “the” reality – is the question of self-reference. Varela called it “the nerve of this logic of paradise.”
I find this characterization – because it hints at spirituality without toppling in headfirst – helpful. The self is an illusion but it’s no good saying so; we have to see it, and then, having seen it, integrate it into our ongoing experience. Doing so is hard to varying degrees but peace and joy – ours and everyone else’s – is contingent on it. Why wait?