I recently heard that a fairytale by a writer of our day ends, “And so they lived happily ever after – more or less.” That surely sets the stage for what follows.
The astronomer-cosmologist John Dobson, whom some of you may have met and heard, gave a talk which inspired this piece, and its debt to him is immense. John is the co-founder of the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers and now he speaks all over the world. John suggests that we solve the mystery of creation in a special way: we must be able to see, to experience, Unity here rather than diversity; Brahman rather than a world of objects; the Atman in place of separate selves. How the One assumes the form of the many he calls “apparitional causation”, which is much the way Sankaracharya describes maya’s action in his Advaitic works. Here I want to remind us briefly of Dobson’s physical, cosmological framework, and then from that, to extrapolate to what may be called its mental and emotional counterparts. In other words, while our perception of Brahman is broken up by maya into three forces of nature (the gunas) the same three forces are at work in our personal lives.
Naturally we want to know right away what is this triangular struggle of competing forces which I am calling the Triangle of Frustration. But wait a moment. Let us first consider what we know about motion. One of the very oldest ideas in the Vedas is the division of phenomena into the moving and the unmoving. One of the old Sanskrit prayers describes Brahman as “yena sthavaram jangamam vyaptam” – the one who pervades both the moving and the unmoving. It was easy for early man to divide things in that simple way – things which “moved” and things which did not. But as you know, the world of science has to classify with more sophistication. It points out that things are always moving, externally or internally, no matter how slowly, and there are two ways in which things move: out of attraction and out of repulsion. Also, more important for an understanding of the whole is whether a moving thing is accelerating or decelerating at a uniform rate. We see that by the principle of inertia everything is moving; what we have to account for is a change in the rate. So we in the age of Einstein have to look at everything in a new way: nothing is standing still; we on the earth are going 700 mph around its axis and the earth itself is travelling 18 mpsec. around the sun. The sun and galaxies too are moving.
Everything, then, is in motion. Ah, but what is the nature of that which is in motion? Does anyone ask what it is that is in motion? To keep it simple for now, let us say “particles.” Einstein went on calling them particles even after it was discovered that they behave in some ways more like waves. And he said this very interesting thing: “We cannot understand why matter should appear as discrete electrical particles.” Note that this pronouncement makes two assumptions: (a) matter might be experienced as homogeneous or undividable and why it isn’t asks for explanation, and (b) he uses the word “appear”; does it not suggest that we may not be seeing it as it really is?
Dobson shows us that the “particles” making up this universe do three things: they come together (via gravity and the strong force), they move apart (e.g. via the electromagnetic and weak forces) and they resist every change of state (we call this inertia). These are the three energy-phenomena, and top-flight theoretical physicists are working, consciously or unconsciously to bring these three together into a single common formula, theory, or equation, says Dobson, who sees it in this way: We see particles as separate and as finite, because we ignorantly suppose that space divides them and makes them small. We see what we call change because we ignorantly suppose that time is passing. But the Vedanta is one outlook which tells us that there is nothing here that is separate, nothing that is finite, nothing that really changes.
Then he has this to say:
“Do you say it’s crazy for matter to behave in these contrary ways – coming together, flying apart and remaining as it is? You may laugh but you are no different! We fall in love and get married; find our freedom gone, want out, and then get lonely again. We want in, we want out, and all the time we are saying, ‘Leave me alone.'” So we can say that this universe is made of frustration, the triangular pull of these three tendencies. We see the Reality, the Advaitins tell us, as a manifold universe by means of a trick, a mistake.
But — and here lies our hope and our deliverance — in order to see a snake (in that famous illustration) where there was no snake, you had to see something, a rope. In order to mis-percieve it as a snake something of the rope had to be visible. The Reality is always there. And so, says Dobson, we are all the time seeing the Undivided. It is That which is constantly drawing us away from our supposed separateness; we perceive the Infinite: it is constantly enticing us to fly away from our finiteness. And we are experiencing the Unchanging, constantly urging us to let go of time. There are no other goals, says Dobson. The universe is driven from the front, if you are fooled by space-time; if you are not fooled, you will know that the cause is apparitional.
So much for a background in this, this part of Dobson’s philosophy. Let me take off from there now, to see how the triangle of frustration carries on up into human life and how we can come out of it. How do we, as humans, differ from all the particles? The latter are direct in their behavior: if you let them go they fall, through gravity, straight toward the closest blob of matter. We are indirect. We have egos. We run after the undivided not by directly falling to the ground, but by undertaking transformational actions. We take up the so-called raw materials and transform them and think we are improving, creating and so on. Alas, this will not take us to the goal we have in mind. Dobson speaks to the West and he calls these egos of ours “genetically invented and genetically mis-programmed.” Traditional Vedanta would describe the egos as the result of our samskaras, our vasanas – karmic tendencies from past lives.
As a matter of fact, we do fall directly to the ground at times. We rest and sleep on our backs or fronts – prone, at any rate. We prostrate ourselves before that which is holy. Also when we are injured we collapse and let gravity pull us down to the level.
Let us now use some code-words, a kind of verbal shorthand, to illustrate these motivations, so that we can have clearly in mind what they stand for: love – love for the Undivided, the Whole, for That which is not in space; freedom – the freedom to be Infinite, Unlimited, that which is not in space; and peace – the peace to be Changeless, to maintain status quo, the peace of That which is not in time.
Suppose we take mating and sex as our most obvious example. Here one attempts to make one’s body as completely one with another’s as possible, and it is frustrating because two bodies can never be fully one. (You see our trouble is, we never think in this way; it’s too crude. We are sophisticated and we cover up everything with “culture.”) But sophistication is maya. And when ultimately we feel the bondage of sex and try to have more freedom, it may end in divorce. For a little while enjoying peace, then loneliness comes. See how our Western society is now full of persons going over and over again through the full cycle of union, disunion and union again. And all the while they are cherishing the wish that they didn’t have to do anything like this.
Take the children of a marriage: they are an expression of the love angle of our triangle. We are seeking our larger Self in the little offspring that run around the house. But they are not copies: a clash of preferences, of tendencies, of values, comes into play. Maybe father makes a New Year’s resolution, “I must spend more time with the children; I’m not being a proper father.” So he does. How many days? Not long. One morning he’s getting into his car with a duffle-bag packed. “Where are you going?” mother asks. “I’m going fishing for a few days – get off by myself.” When the children disappoint us, our love may rapidly decline. It may even come to the point where we virtually deny being their parents, and teenagers can be turned out on the streets. Maybe its mother who can’t stand the kids, and decides to seek a “career”. Meanwhile, what is the peace angle whispering? “Wish we’d never had kids; we were peaceful before.” The same thing often happens with a pet. Happiness is a warm puppy or a little furry ball of a kitten — and what bondage! How many times have you seen an elderly couple vow to themselves that as soon as the old dog dies they’re never going to have another? Go and visit them after four months…
The love angle is what makes us join things — a business firm, a club, organizations and institutions, a symphony or band or chorus, a dance troupe, cooperatives, a government. “There is security in numbers,” we say. We find delight in cooperation and community, it increases our power.
Then things somehow go wrong, and the peace-angle says, “Why did I ever get involved? I’ve had nothing but trouble.” The freedom-angle says, “I’m getting out, I’m going to free-lance it”, or “I believe in private enterprise!” We try to be independent, less finite, and wind up being only more vulnerable.
Think of all those cartoons and movies you’ve seen, of persons stranded on desert islands. At first the man is a Robinson Crusoe, exploring, hunting, exploiting his freedom, he’s master of all he surveys. Eventually, though, may come the yen for company. The love-angle makes him put a note in a bottle with a message of distress; up goes a white handkerchief. Eventually perhaps a ship arrives. And what does he say now? “No, no, I didn’t mean it, I’ve become used to this now. Please go away. Leave me alone. Leave me in peace!”
A teen-age girl falls in love for the first time. The boyfriend tries to persuade her to elope. “We’ll travel…. we’ll go places, see the world, we’ll make it somehow!” But she has two other angles; they are strong and she wants them both: love and peace. She wants to stay where she is and still be in love. “No,” says the boyfriend, “there is no freedom here, we need to keep moving. Come on!” She gives in, runs off to taste the elixir of runaway excitement. It lasts for a while. But this is a gal with a strong peace-angle and before long quite ill with homesickness.
What does the teacher want? Students. He or she wants to cherish them and be cherished by them, to admire and be admired, help and feel like a helper. But often this doesn’t work out. Problems come. The students may not be grateful, may not want what the teacher has to offer. I’ve heard of pupils saying to their teacher, “Why do you come around, bothering me?” If the latter backs off, then comes the cry, “Don’t you care for me any more? You’ve become indifferent to us.” The teacher is likely to go off on a long sabbatical or finally give up teaching.
Spiritual aspirants, too, get caught in the triangle of frustration. We still have egos, and those egos operate in the same ways and are subject to the same analysis. Have you not seen the spiritual aspirant who wants to live in an ashrama or monastery or convent, saying, “Things will be easier for me if only I can have the company of the holy!” Or, “just let me stay around the guru, and then I know my spirituality will really bloom.” And you know what happens. After some days, or weeks or months or even after years, the holy don’t seem so holy, and this individual suddenly discovers that God intended him or her to be a hermit after all.
Looking a bit deeper into our own psychology, Vedanta reminds us that broadly the three states of consciousness are waking, dream and deep sleep. In a way you can say it is the love vector which keeps us in the waking state: we love to use this body, its appetites and comforts. But we must admit that it’s very restrictive. The freedom-vector comes into play and, releasing us from body-consciousness, makes us dream; for in dream we have much more freedom; we can do amazing things. And finally we get tired of all this mental activity, all the pluses and minuses of dream, and we want inertia, rest, deep sleep. Look at birth: just see how we come into this world: The soul, the jiva wants to be born (out of desire, as Buddha says); it doesn’t want to be born, for it cries as soon as it is, and all the time it intuitively suspects that there is really no need for birth, as its true nature is immortal.
Does all this sound too negative? But in spiritual life there is both negative and positive work to be done. We must analyze, undermine and negate our erroneous and egoistic behavior, at the same time fostering the positive which is in us. Here are these tendencies, the three energy-phenomena. Each has many symbols, some negative, some positive. The lure of the Infinite is symbolized by warfare, by competition, aggression, but also by self-transcendence, by the bird (free as a bird, we say) the bee, the aeroplane, wind, the rocket and space-ship. The lure of the Undivided is symbolized by the moth, flying to its death in the flame: that’s true. But also by mating, dissolving, by a magnet, by business mergers, corporate enterprises, churches and charities. The lure of the Changeless is symbolized by sleeping and sloth, but also by peace, stability and things “immovable.”
Writers have said some wonderful things about these goals of life. Hear what the famous author Anais Nin says, for instance, about love: “Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source, it dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds, it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.” TIME magazine once published a number devoted to American Immigrants. In the editorial essay freedom was characterized in this way: “Freedom,” the author wrote, (himself an immigrant), “won’t let one be. It pursues one relentlessly, like a secular hound of heaven, challenging, provoking, driving.”
So the message of Vedanta is that this triangle can be one of fruition, fulfillment. If we are blind and foolish we will see these as opposing, conflicting and crippling forces. But if we are alert, athletic, discriminating, endowed with self-control, then we shall see that they are really all one energy, the Sakti of Brahman. We will have our “unified field”.
It isn’t love that makes us one; it’s Oneness that makes us love.
It isn’t activity and expansion that makes us infinite; it is the Infinite that makes us act and expand.
It isn’t resistance that makes us changeless, peaceful; it is the Changeless that makes us resistant and peaceful.