The Universe: An Interplay of Lives

By Sarah B. Van Mater

When we look up at the night sky with its multitudes of stars, we feel at times a reaching out from within ourselves, as though some part of us were connected to those distant beings of light. Such responses, it seems to me, would be impossible unless in some way all parts of the cosmos were linked in a basic unity of essence. This intuition of the oneness behind the apparent multiplicity of the world has found expression in many systems of thought, ancient and modern, which attempt to explain the relation of the parts of the universe to each other and to the whole. In the West, for example, philosophers have spoken of the Ladder of Life and the Great Chain of Being, both metaphors describing the universe as a graduated series of interconnected lives extending from the minute to the immense, and from the most material to the most spiritual. One approach found useful by theosophists is to consider the cosmos as a series of hierarchies. This term implies that every unit found in nature is a living being composed of many smaller lives and, in turn, that each such unit helps to form some greater entity.

The human body is a good example of one such hierarchy. Basically, man's body is built of cells grouped into organs and other systems, which together form the whole. Each cell, as scientists are discovering, is itself a conscious life responding in an individual way and having its own distinctive magnetic or vibrational character. The organs, too, have their own character and moreover impress their vibrational or magnetic stamp on the cells that build them. But dominating everything within it is the quality of the consciousness informing the structure in its totality -- that of a particular human being in this instance. Thus while each entity in the universe is an individual in its own right, at the same time it influences and is influenced by everything around it. From this perspective the cosmos is seen as an interlocking series of lives or consciousness centers.

We can extend this concept to the earth, which is also formed of individual lives, such as the minerals, vegetables, animals and humans. Here it is easier to see the individuality of the various subordinate beings than it is to detect the impress of the earth's magnetism or vibrational identity upon them. However, the earth must imprint its constituent elements strongly, for even the phenomena of day and night, seasons, climate and atmospheric variation affect our lives profoundly. While we note the physical effects of such cycles, scientists are only beginning to discover the energic or magnetic relations between the planet as a whole and all its parts.

Expanding our perspective further, the earth can be viewed as an organ within the solar system. According to modern astronomical research, the stream of particles and energies from the sun is so dense that from one point of view the earth exists within the body of the sun itself. The same principle of hierarchical structure can, by analogical reasoning, be applied to the atomic and subatomic as well as to supergalactic realms. For where can we say that we have found the ultimate beyond which nothing more can exist? At most we can reach the limits of the human mind and imagination and state that beyond these lies the unknown or infinity. When we imagine clusters of galaxies as molecules within some cosmic substance, we become aware of the relativity of our human perspective. Such a view is both humbling and exalting, for while from one standpoint we seem to shrink to nothingness, from another we see that we ourselves are universes containing hosts of smaller lives.

So far, we have concentrated on the physical bodies we see in nature -- whether of man, the earth or the atom -- because they are the most common to everyday experience. Yet we see that man is active on many planes distinct from his body, which serves mainly as a vehicle or focus for expression in the physical world of his mental, emotional and spiritual faculties. Clearly our fundamental selfhood resides in our more spiritual aspects, for we maintain our sense of identity despite changes in our body, and even of our emotions and mind. In the same way, everything in the universe -- from atom to supergalaxy -- may also be a many-layered being: a point of consciousness or individuality expressing itself on various levels including what are to us invisible worlds. This picture of other planes of matter and consciousness beyond the physical suggests that all of nature is filled with conscious life on various levels although we cannot perceive these with our present sense organs.

The real importance of these ideas for us lies in the light they throw on the nature of the world and man's place in it. We often tend to picture the universe as a container of life or as a field in which life exists in selected areas. But if the universe is composed of lives, it is those lives, just as man's body is built of living units which are itself. And yet, paradoxically, the man and the lesser lives are each individual entities themselves. From one angle, then, the cosmos is the aggregate of the hierarchies or groups of lives which form it. This presents a vital image of our galactic home by making man one expression of consciousness surrounded by innumerable others at various stages of development.

The concept of hierarchies also brings out the interconnectedness of all things, their essential unity as expressions of universal life and mind. If everything both affects and is affected by the smaller lives composing it and the larger lives it composes, man's actions have a wide-ranging influence on all around him, from his cells to the solar system, including of course humanity. Therefore, brotherhood is not something to be achieved, but a fact embedded in the most fundamental structure of the universe, which needs only to be recognized.

This extremely close connection among all living things makes it clear that true ethics is not an arbitrary code imposed for utilitarian or other reasons, but an expression of the structure of the universe and of its operations in human life and behavior. From this standpoint the suffering and disturbances in the world come not from inherent evil or divine punishment, but from man's inability or refusal to conform to the workings of nature, i.e., to the workings of those beings which are the earth and the solar system. Just as cells cause the whole body to suffer ill effects when they disrupt its established processes, so man, like a wayward cell, throws the various spheres of the earth into turmoil when he does not cooperate with the processes demanded by the organism to which he belongs. The physical side of this idea is being popularized under the name of ecology, while the mental and psychological consequences have yet to be widely acknowledged.

The recognition of brotherhood as a fact in nature gives the scientific basis for those universal ethical guidelines found in cultures the world over. But of equal importance is the realization that this oneness is rooted in more than a physical interdependence. The intricate interrelations visible in nature reflect a unity of consciousness or spirit which underlies all material expressions, for the same universal consciousness forms the central core of every entity from atom to star.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, October 1975; Copyright © 1975 by Theosophical University Press)

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