Looking for Answers

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

With this issue Sunrise opens its fiftieth volume, and though we note many changes over the last half century, events in our homes and around the globe confirm that human nature remains virtually the same as it was millennia ago. Also unchanged are the timeless questions that underlie human existence: Who am I? Why am I here? How am I related to the rest of the world? What is the purpose of life? What happens to me when I die? In considering these fundamental concerns, most of us also ask: How can I find answers to such questions and have confidence in the results?

Science, the modern arbiter of reality, gives us little guidance in this search. Deliberately circumscribing their field of inquiry, its practitioners must generally ignore or deny the reality of anything nonphysical in their publications, if they wish to be taken seriously. That such a materialistic approach satisfies so many as an explanation of life attests to our tendency to assume that the evidence of our physical senses is more "real" than our consciousness itself.

It is puzzling that the reality of the material world should seem so self-evident and consciousness so hypothetical, when in fact the only thing we each experience directly is our own consciousness. Our consciousness is such an integral part of us that we generally are unaware of how we use it constantly in apprehending and interpreting every aspect of ourselves and our surroundings. The physical world as we each know it is a mental construct built mainly of perceptions reaching us through our senses. This picture does not tally very well with what we understand about the world on a deeper level. Scientists, for example, assure us that "solid" matter is actually formed of rapidly moving subatomic particles, a phantasm of whirling energy. Our ordinary view is an illusion resulting from the limitations of both our senses and our awareness, a truth which many oriental philosophies point out.

Moreover, it is well known that our senses are very selective and imperfect, sensitive to only a fraction of the radiation that scientists have thus far discovered. In many ways our senses and brain function as filters limiting our perceptions, protecting us from being overwhelmed by the vastness and complexity of the cosmos. Certainly we cannot logically maintain that something does not exist solely on the grounds that we do not perceive it, when so much that until recently was undetectable is now accepted as real. Nor are our senses fixed. Many people have found that they can gain new senses or enhance old ones. Some have learned to perceive the earth's magnetic currents, to "see" colors with their skin, and so forth; while with practice most of us can learn to discern finer distinctions of colors, tastes, tones, or temperatures. Our senses also can be distorted by factors such as chemicals and physiological, emotional, and mental conditions. In view of our obvious limitations and frequent errors in interpretation, to accept the image presented by our physical senses as reality seems foolhardy, even when it is supplemented by the mechanical "sense" apparatus of scientific investigation.

What if, instead of focusing on the objects we perceive, we were to focus on our consciousness as a means of gaining insight into reality? This is the approach adopted by mystics throughout history, and it forms the basis of many ancient and traditional schools of psychological investigation. The consensus of those who have undertaken such research is that ordinary human awareness is a restricted form of a more universal consciousness. Our individual consciousness followed to its root is identical with this cosmic consciousness, which is beyond the ability of our ordinary awareness to encompass or describe. This more comprehensive consciousness becomes the normal state only in those willing to undergo the necessary discipline and training, though it may be experienced in brief flashes by ordinary people, often quite unexpectedly. Typically, among the first steps recommended to serious seekers along these lines is to free the mind from domination by the physical body and its senses.

Those with a materialistic view often dismiss other perspectives as "feel-good" rationalizations or ego defenses against an unpleasant reality. But just because something is bleak or nihilistic does not mean it is realistic. That we are material organisms whose "states of consciousness" represent only complex chemical reactions is sometimes asserted as a scientific fact, while it is actually an unproved, and unprovable, hypothesis. Whether consciousness is a cause or an effect of brain chemistry -- or both -- cannot be solved by axiom or fiat. However, our day-to-day experience would indicate that consciousness is a fundamental part of us.

As integral parts of the cosmos, we partake of its reality. If our concern is finding truth above all else, with persistence and honesty we will move towards an ever fuller understanding of that reality. How? One place we can start is by looking at the advice that has come down to us from the greatest and wisest human beings. One of these, the Hindu avatar Krishna, counseled his pupil to

Seek this wisdom by doing service, by strong search, by questions, and by humility; the wise who see the truth will communicate it unto thee, and knowing which thou shalt never again fall into error. . . . There is no purifier in this world to be compared to spiritual knowledge; and he who is perfected in devotion findeth spiritual knowledge springing up spontaneously in himself in the progress of time. -- Bhagavad-Gita, ch. 4

The path to true knowledge explained by the great Jain teachers is discussed in this issue (see The Fourteenfold Path of the Jains). Gautama Buddha's path to understanding revolves around the way we live each moment. The centerpiece of his presentation is the practice of right views, right thought, right speech, right action, right means of livelihood, right endeavor, right mindfulness, and right meditation. By striving to express the truth as we know it in all aspects of our existence, we will eventually rid ourselves of delusions and perceive reality. Yet another spiritual teacher summed up his instructions in very simple terms, enjoining us to

love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. -- Matthew 22:37-9

Such time-honored guidance, given by the most profound psychologists and investigators into the human condition, remains valid regardless of changes in popular culture or the global situation. It holds out keys which any one of us may use to discover the realities of ourselves and of inner and outer nature -- the heart and soul of the universe.

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2000; copyright © 2000 Theosophical University Press)

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