Either an ordered universe, or a chaos of confusion. Certainly a world order. Or do you believe that the order within you is conformable to disorder in the universe? — Marcus Aurelius
How beautiful and sublime is the world we live in! The light of the morning sun touches us lightly and awakens within us a profound humility towards the greatness of life. Plants, animals, the firmament at night, a long look into the eyes of a friend — how perfectly our eyes convey beauty to us, but just as easily its opposite. Just so with our hearing, which may convey the cacophony of cities as well as the blackbird's song or the harmonies of musical genius played by a virtuoso. The senses of touch, taste, and smell also enable us to feel, discern, and differentiate the world in our special human way. But aren't they also our greatest prison, in which we voluntarily and gladly linger?
We have developed our senses more and more while following rounds of development on planet earth, and thus have bound almost our entire awareness to our material senses. The question is: What may we have given up to achieve this? An answer involves further questions: What is a stone, an apple, a planet? What is the universe with all its facets and countless multitude of manifestations? Do our senses suggest this is the only true reality, because it is tangible? And who is its creator? Within such questions lies the answer to the greatest question: What is the meaning of our life — if there be such? Every religion, philosophy, and natural science tries to answer this question.
Intuitively mankind senses that something is missing in modern life, that an inner emptiness is spreading. People often try to ignore probing questions and the resulting feelings of discontent by increased sensory stimulation and physical activity, but this is like trying to quench one's thirst with salt water. According to the wisdom of Gautama Buddha, it is tanha or trishna, the thirst for life and sense perceptions, which leads us to incarnate time and again. Buddhism considers this the fundamental cause of suffering.
What answers do modern scientists give to the question: What is the world? Triggered by Albert Einstein's relativity theory and by the quantum mechanics postulated by Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, and Erwin Schrödinger, a strong movement among leading physicists began a search for a Theory of Everything. This theory is meant to explain not only space and time, but also to explain and predict all phenomena. It includes quantum physics, strong and weak atomic forces, gravitation, electricity, and magnetism. Important as well is an explanation of the genesis of the universe.
At present the acme of physicists' research is M-theory, which describes a network of relationships, so-called dualities, which connect the five independent string theories and the eleven-dimensional super-gravitation. In The Universe in a Nutshell Stephen Hawking writes that M-theory is far from completely understood: "We have come closer to this target/objective . . . , but we still are not yet able to explain the origin of the Universe." Undoubtedly, science has acquired far-reaching insight and gained enormous knowledge and technological progress. But does it really give answers which will endure in the long term, answers which satisfy the heart as well as the intellect?
Let's consider the issue of consciousness. Though it cannot be determined mathematically or physically, consciousness is still widely considered a material byproduct that ends with death. Nevertheless, leading 20th-century physicists have themselves supported metaphysical ideas contrary to this view. In an interview for the London Observer, for instance, Max Planck commented on whether he believed consciousness could be explained as a function of matter: "No, I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness."* This opinion is supported by some scientists who research consciousness, such as Stanislov Grof. He writes that such studies are "in radical conflict with the most fundamental assumptions of materialistic science concerning consciousness, human nature, and the nature of reality. They clearly indicate that consciousness is not a product of the brain, but a primary principle of existence, and that it plays a critical role in the creation of the phenomenal world" (The Cosmic Game, p. 3).
*The Observer, London, Jan. 25, 1931.
At this point two worlds of thought directly oppose each other. On the one hand we find the mainstream scientific view, which holds that the universe came into existence through a Big Bang, and consists of a huge but finite amount of quanta (and perhaps strings) which bring forth all phenomena, ourselves and consciousness included. On the other hand is the worldview of occult science, as well as many spiritual traditions, which accepts the phenomenal world as a product of consciousness and postulates that consciousness and matter are essentially one. This view does not accept any ultimate beginning or ending of the universe, but rather that existing forms alternate between periods of manifestation and quiescence. What insights does this archaic science offer us that could be important in finding answers to the great questions of life?
Occultism concerns the hidden aspects of the functions and processes of nature and man. Its teachings, however, are as difficult to comprehend as the n-dimensional spaces and rolled-up dimensions of modern string theories. Yet we can find an entrance if we try to set foot on a new continent of thought and liberate ourselves from prejudices and dogmas. The findings of occult science are the result of thousands of years of research. Sages and seers, masters of life and wisdom, have employed experience, experiments, research, and reflection over a vast number of generations to collect and express their findings systematically. Such systems offer detailed instructions concerning how spiritual experiences may be brought about, methods validated and renewed repeatedly. The results of their journeys into other spheres of consciousness and existence were passed on from adept to adept in order to make them available to those prepared for studies of the inner worlds, and to safeguard them for mankind.
According to occultism, physical nature is brought forth from within itself. The material world is only a veil, a manifestation of interior causes and forces. What we perceive, therefore, reflects an inner universe hidden from our senses. In fact, theosophy describes the whole cosmos as consciousness coming into manifestation in manifold forms in order to develop and express itself fully. It is structured in hierarchies that unfold from within outward, and then are inrolled at the end of a phase of manifestation. Hindu philosophy expresses this process as Brahma first breathing the universe out and then in again, following karmic necessity.
The periodicity of all manifestations is one of the great fundamental principles of existence. Emanating from the Causeless Cause, the transcendent origin of all existence, the universe alternates between phases of activity and dissolution. The point of origin and return is that nameless principle (called variously Tat, Tao, etc.), the source and goal of existence. As Lao-tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching:
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
This appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.
A very similar teaching is expressed by Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita:
All this universe is pervaded by me in my invisible form; all things exist in me, but I do not exist in them. Nor are all things in me; behold this my divine mystery: myself causing things to exist and supporting them all but dwelling not in them. . . . at the end of a kalpa all things return unto my nature, and then again at the beginning of another kalpa I cause them to evolve again. Taking control of my own nature I emanate again and again this whole assemblage of beings, without their will, by the power of the material essence. — Chapter 9
In the West such pantheism is vaguely understood as divine Spirit standing behind the universe. Considered as impersonal, this Spirit is an omnipresent power at work through all things, and all things are part of it. This does not mean that every stone, plant, or material object is a full-fledged god, but that the essential consciousness-energy-substance of the universe is the same everywhere: in the stone, in the plant, in you and me, in the planets and stars. Thus Spirit becomes manifest in an infinite number of forms; and you and I and the universe are One. From this viewpoint the material universe is but a living garment made of consciousness-life-substance, a ladder of consciousness or life that extends inwards and outwards infinitely. In thought we can ascend this ladder from the material to more ethereal, spiritual, and divine spheres, and further endlessly.
How superb is this view compared to the common presumption that the universe and mankind may have been created out of nothing and will someday die a final death. How could absolute vacuum, void, nothingness, bring forth this wonderful cosmos? This is but a theory, whether postulated by scientists or asserted by religious dogmatists. Opposite stand the traditions of mankind which teach that a principle beyond human speculation is the source of all existence; that the universe emanated from this ineffable first cause; and that what existed long before has embodied itself once more. Here the universe embodies itself time and again, like all other beings.
Why does the universe reappear? It is life's divine hunger to know itself, to grow into something greater. We humans can only guess at the reason: "I do not know where it comes from, it is the forefather of the emperors," said Lao-tzu. Everything wants to expand and self-consciously become one with the Infinite. Great beauty lies in this thought which arises from deep within us that we ourselves are the Infinite and part of the great All. Our wish to live, to grow, is the same wish which impels the universe to come into existence again.
The Hindu concept of maya (illusion) emphasizes this view of nature. It holds that everything we can perceive with our physical senses is transitory and therefore not the reality of existence. In this sense our material body is an illusion, as is the table we are touching. The apple we eat, its taste, the sensation of hunger it satisfies — everything is simply sense perception translated into electrochemical signals, which are finally interpreted by the perceiving consciousness on the basis of past experience. The hard edge of the table against which we bang our knee, the sharp pain, are just nerve signals we interpret; the sight of dawn is just an interpretation by the cone cells of the eyes, translated and transformed into the subtle material worlds of consciousness — perhaps. But what actually is this body, if it is only an illusion?
The body — like any other body — is a manifestation of consciousness solidified and cast into matter. It consists of an enormous multitude of minor centers of consciousness which we may call monads, the souls of atoms, or life-atoms. Material atoms are the bodies of these life-atoms. Under the guidance of the spiritual essence within us, this multitude of atomic monads together brings forth the material body. When the body dies, its form dissolves. The life-atoms go their own ways into the kingdoms of nature, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The actual human being, the consciousness that brought forth the body, does not die; it simply retires to another plane of existence. The home of our consciousness is the universe, whose children we all are; the forms are transitory manifestations on material planes. This means that we cannot really die. We leave our bodies at the end of our lives, letting go of the life-atoms which built them up, and enter upon our long journey through the inner spaces until there is a new call for incarnation. We change our exterior, but death does not exist in the sense of complete annihilation with no return.
How then can this ethereal consciousness become dense matter — a stone or piece of wood? When considering this, we may apply the ancient axiom, "As above, so below; as below, so above." Looking at an atom, we can see that it occupies a relatively large space but that the nucleus and electrons themselves take up very little space. At least 99.9% of the atomic mass is concentrated in the nucleus. If we enlarged the nucleus to the size of an orange, the innermost electron shell would be miles away from it. We realize that even substances in which the atoms seem very densely packed contain little matter. The rest is — empty space? Not really. The manifold spaces of space are filled with the thousandfold consciousness which pervades each and every place, and its various manifestations which we cannot (yet) perceive with our human senses or technology. The universe is consciousness, within as well as without. If we rely on our sense perceptions, we forget the most essential thing — the causative monadic consciousness. Interestingly, atomic proportions of mass and size correlate very closely with our solar system. Our sun represents over 99.8% of the mass in our solar system, the rest being planets and interstellar dust. "Atom from atom yawns as far / As moon from earth, or star from star," as Emerson said.
Pursuing this train of thought, we observe that while our intellect can follow the argument, it cannot fully comprehend the new world opening up within us. If we leave the home-ground of our sense perceptions, we must learn to perceive the world in a new way. Occultism enables us to look behind the veils of matter which bind and deceive our senses. One of its most important axioms is that the universe becomes manifest from the inside to the outside and that the essence behind everything is consciousness, which includes the other phases of cosmic existence we call life and matter. This consciousness exists in an infinite number of minor centers, organized in families or evolutionary types. Consequently, everything in the universe is the individual expression of a monad and, in its innermost essence, is identical with the universe itself. A saying from the ancient Vedas expresses this: Tat twam asi — "You are That, the Ineffable."
All mysteries of heaven lie concealed within each of us. The divine and spiritual self within us is the pathway to the heart of the universe, since we ourselves are in fact the universe. This is true occultism, which promises us endless expansion, development, evolution, and modification of our consciousness, always ascending, until the central self finally outgrows the human plane to continue on its journey in the (to us) divine planes. It awakens our nobility, and also calls us to take our hearts in our hands and begin the journey. For awareness is the child of loving action. As the mystic Jakob Böhme wrote: "For the Book in which all mysteries lie is man himself; he himself is the book of the Being of all beings, seeing he is the likeness of Divinity. The Great Arcanum lies in him; the revealing of it belongs only to the Divine Spirit" (Epistle 9).
(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 2006; copyright © 2006 Theosophical University Press)
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