The Living Universe
I. Is the Universe a Living System?
A number of crises are puttingthe world system under enormous pressure to make fundamentalchanges: economic breakdowns, growing climate disruption, theend of cheap oil, desperate poverty, violent conflicts over resourcesand religion, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, andmore.
Given the urgency of a great change as well as the enormous differences and divisions within the humancommunity, where can we find a commonly shared understandingfor building a sustainable and meaningful pathway into the future? What vision of humanityâ€™s journey has the breadth, depth, and reach to enable us to look beyond our many differences and galvanize our efforts in building a promising future?This integrative vision of humanityâ€™s journey canbe summarized as follows: The universe is deeply alive as an evolvingand learning system and we humans are on a journey of discoverywithin it. We are learning to live within a living universe.
Is it accurate to regard the universe as a unique kind of living system? We begin by acknowledging that many scientists regard the universe as non-living and without consciousness at its foundations.
Living in a Dead Universe
Particularly in the world of science, it has been common to encounter the view that we live in a universe that, at its foundation, lacks feeling, consciousness, and vitality. This view is clearly expressed, for example, by Dr. Susan Blackmore, an author on human consciousness, who said: â€œWe live in a pointless universe. Weâ€™re here for no reason at all. There isnâ€™t a soul. There isnâ€™t a spirit. Weâ€™re not going to live forever in some kind of heavenâ€¦there are no paranormal phenomena, although I canâ€™t be sure of that.â€1
Dr. Blackmore provides a stark description of a non-living or â€œdead universeâ€â€”and she is not alone.2 This has been the â€œnormalâ€ view of many scientists for roughly the past 300 years. For roughly three centuries, science has viewed the physical universe as â€œall there is.â€ Therefore, everything that exists represents different combinations of inert matter and to suggest otherwise is to regress into superstition. Matter, at its atomic foundations, is assumed to lack any kind of inherent vitality. In turn, aliveness, thought, and feelings are phenomena that mysteriously arise when matter evolves to high levels of complexity in its physical organization and creates beings like ourselves. All of existence is thereby explained solely in material terms (except for the part about life spontaneously organizing itself and becoming conscious of itself). There appears to be no need for an invisible consciousness because the workings of the entire universe are explained through the workings of matter. Because human aliveness, thought, and feeling are assumed to have emerged from chemical reactions between non-living matter, when the physical body dies, that is seen as the end of consciousness. Understandably, in this view of the universe, more â€œbasicâ€ forms of matter (atoms and molecules) are thought to have no vitality or consciousness of any kind.
If the foundations of the universe are regarded as non-living, then â€œlifeâ€ seems to have emerged only recently as matter somehow managed to organize itself into ever-higher levels of complexityâ€”evolving from atoms to molecules to cells to organisms. Consciousness or a knowing capacity is viewed as a biological phenomena located in the physical brain.
If we assume the universe is non-living and without sentience at its foundations, it is only natural to further assume there is no higher purpose or meaning to life. Love and happiness are no more than chemical reactions in the body and have no other meaning or significance. There is no prospect of a future beyond our physical existence. Because the universe will disperse and the stars burn out, all life will eventually die off and be forgotten, meaning nothing. Material possessions and accomplishments are the primary expression of oneâ€™s identity, and an important source of happiness.
In this â€œmatter-onlyâ€ view of the universe, it is only logical to conclude that the most intensely living (we humans) have the right to exploit that which is dead (inert matter and the rest of nature) for our own purposes. Nature is our warehouse, filled with resources to use. How should we relate to the world? By exploiting that which is dead (nature) on behalf of the living (ourselves). A tendency toward materialism, hedonism, and the exploitation of nature are predictable outcomes from a dead universe perspective.
Despite its bleak outlook, a dead universe perspective represents a critically important stage in humanityâ€™s long journey of awakening. In pulling back from nature and pulling apart from one another, we have also become much stronger and more differentiated as individuals. My sense is that we humans have separated ourselves as far from union with nature as we will ever go. Now we have little choice: If we are to continue to evolve and realize our potentials as a species, we must become conscious of our partnership with nature and one another.
Although the transition to industrial society and hyper-rationalism has largely severed our connection with raw, material nature, I believe we are opening to a new level of connection with nature, particularly in science. From the electron microscope to the Hubble telescope to the human genome, we are transforming how we look at and understand the universe and ourselves. The more we look, the more we are finding the universe to be a place of breath-taking immensity, astonishing subtlety, and unfathomable mystery.
II. The Science of a Living Universe
In this section, we will mobilize the tools of science to explore the possibility that our universe, taken in its totality, is a living system. My goal is not to prove that the universe is a living system; instead, by drawing insights from different areas of science, I will present evidence that points strongly in this direction and offers a compelling invitation for deeper inquiry.
In thinking about how the universe could be â€œalive,â€ it is only natural to turn to living things that we already know. Animals and plants are the life forms with which we are most familiar, so it is understandable that many of our theories on the nature of life are based on them. However, to confine our understanding of life to these familiar forms is to confuse the material expression of aliveness with the energy of aliveness itself. The form is not the aliveness but its container. To restrict our definition of â€œlifeâ€ to only the familiarâ€”primarily plants and animalsâ€”is to blind our inquiry into the nature of a living universe. Therefore, it is vital that we open our inquiry into the meaning of life.
At the outset, it is important to recognize that the idea that we live in a non-living universe is a recent invention. Throughout most of human history, we humans did not question whether the world around us was fundamentally alive. It is only in the last few hundred years that science has made a great separation between ourselves and the rest of the universeâ€”regarding the universe as mostly non-living matter with only a few islands of life such as ourselves.
In launching our inquiry, it is important to recognize that, within the scientific community, there is no widely accepted definition of â€œlife.â€ To illustrate the difficulty scientists are encountering, there is no clear demarcation between the living and non-living realms. There is considerable debate, for example, over whether a virus is â€œalive.â€ By itself, a virus is a non-living entity but when it finds a suitable hostâ€”such as a human beingâ€” it can rapidly replicate itself (think of the common cold) and evolve into new, more contagious forms. Because the ability to replicate and evolve is fundamental to life, a virus hovers in the gray zone between life and death.
Since we barely understand the mysterious property that we call â€œlife,â€ it is not surprising that there is no broadly accepted definition of what constitutes life. Is â€œlifeâ€ an invisible energy or is it inseparable from the physical container of that energy? Many scientists focus on the container and say that living entities are carbon-based creatures that need water, get their energy either from the Sun or from a chemical source, and are able to reproduce themselves. Although this may be a fitting description of life on the Earth, it is such a narrow definition that it leaves little room for the possibility of alternative expressions.3 While many scientists apply only a few criteria for describing a living system, I will take into account a demanding array of six criteriaâ€”a composite taken from a range of sourcesâ€”for considering whether the universe is alive:
- Is the universe unified despite its great size?
- Is energy flowing throughout?
- Is it being continuously regenerated?
- Is there sentience or consciousness throughout?
- Is there freedom of choice?
- Is our universe able to reproduce itself?
This is a very challenging list of criteria for our universe to meet if we are to regard it as a living system. Letâ€™s consider them one at a time, drawing insights from respected sources in mainstream science and cosmology.
A Unified Universe
A living entity is not a random collection of disconnected parts but a unified whole. How could our universe, which appears to be mostly empty space with widely separated islands of matter, be unified? On the surface, our universe appears to be composed of separate componentsâ€”from atoms to people to planets. How, then, is it possible to regard these pieces as parts of a unified whole? Reflect for a moment on the scale of unity we are considering. Our home galaxyâ€”the Milky Wayâ€”is a swirling, disk-shaped cloud containing a hundred billion or so stars. It is part of a local group of nineteen galaxies (each with a hundred billion or so stars) that form part of a larger, local, supercluster of thousands of galaxies. Beyond this, astronomers estimate that there are perhaps a hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe (each with a hundred billion or so stars). How could this vastness be regarded as an undivided whole?
One of the most stunning insights to emerge from modern science has been described as â€œnon-locality.â€ The basic idea is simple: In the past, scientists have assumed that instant communication cannot take place between two distant points; instead, it takes time for a message to travel from one place to another, even at the speed of light. For example, it takes light about eight minutes to travel from the sun to the Earth, which means that something could happen on the sun and it would take eight minutes before we would know about it on Earth. Because other galaxies are millions of light-years away from us, they seem so remote as to be completely separate from our own existence. Yet, scientific experiments show that, despite these vast distances that seem impossible to bridge, in reality, everything in the universe is deeply interconnected.4 Experiments have repeatedly demonstrated that subatomic particles are able to communicate instantly with one another, regardless of the distances that separate them.
The highly regarded physicist, David Bohm, explained this phenomenon by portraying the universe as a gigantic hologram that is regenerated at each moment. In Bohmâ€™s view, the entire cosmos is a dynamic projection from a deeper common ground that is â€œholographicâ€ in nature. At every moment, every part of the universe contains information about the whole. Analogously, if you take a holographic picture of a person and then cut the plate in half, when each half is illuminated, it will contain the entire original image, although more faintly. If each of the halves is cut in half again, each of the pieces will contain a smaller but complete version of the original. The whole is in every part and every part is in the whole.
Nonlocality exists, not because of some extremely fast messaging back and forth at the subatomic level, but rather, because separation does not exist. Bohm said that ultimately we have to see the entire universe as â€œa single, undivided whole.â€5 Instead of separating the universe into living things and nonliving things, he viewed animate and inanimate matter as inseparably interwoven with the Life force that is present throughout the universe. For Bohm, even a rock has its unique form of aliveness, because the Life force is dynamically flowing through the fabric of the entire universe.6
The eminent physicist John Wheeler expressed the unity of the universe in this way. He said: â€œNothing is more important about the quantum principle than this, that it destroys the concept of the world as â€˜sitting out there,â€™ with the observer safely separated from itâ€¦. To describe what has happened, one has to cross out that old word â€˜observerâ€™ and put in its place the new word â€˜participator.â€™ In some strange sense the universe is a participatory universe.â€7 In the earlier view of a universe composed of separate objects, we could regard ourselves as independent observers; however, in the new understanding of the universe, everything participates with everything else in co-creating reality, moment by moment. As stunning as it seems, nonlocality means that we each participate in the totality of the universe. In the words of the physicist Sir James Jeans, we may think that we are â€œâ€¦individuals carrying on separate existences in space and time, while in the deeper reality beyond space and time we may all be members of one body.â€8
An Ocean of Background Energy
A second key property of living systems is that energy flows through them. What about our universe? Despite the vast reaches of seemingly empty space, is there evidence of energy flowing throughout the totality of the universe?
Nearly fourteen billion years after the big bang, the expansion of the universe is not slowing down, as we would expect with a mechanical explosion; instead, it started picking up speed roughly five billion years ago. To account for this expansion, scientists have been shocked to discover that phenomenal amounts of energy present throughout the universe are pushing it apart. Scientists estimate that dark energy comprises the majority of our cosmosâ€”an estimated 73 percent of the universe. In turn, it is thought that invisible or â€œdark energyâ€ is causing our universe to expand at an increasing rate.
Scientists also know that throughout the universe there exists a sea of background energy called â€œzero pointâ€ energy. It is called â€œzero pointâ€ because it is found at the lowest temperature that can exist in the universeâ€”absolute zero. We cannot see zero point energy because it is everywhere and through everything and, as a result, it does not stand out. Although it is not yet clear how zero point energy is connected with dark energy, it is evident that stupendous amounts of background energy constantly flow through the universe. While we are just beginning to understand the nature of these remarkable energies, their existence is not disputed.
Whatever we call it, the background energy of the cosmos is shockingly large. Physicist David Bohm calculated that a single cubic inch of â€œemptyâ€ space contained far more than the energy equivalent of millions of atomic bombs!9 Empty space is a dynamically constructed transparency requiring immense amounts of energy to create and sustain. This underlying ocean of energy is the primary reality. This is not simply a theoretical abstraction; a number of scientists are working to invent technologies that can utilize this background energy.10
In recognizing the immensity of background energy in the cosmos, Bohm said that â€œmatter as we know it is â€¦ rather like a tiny ripple on a vast sea.â€11 In a similar way, Sir James Jeans suggested that we think of the world that we see with our senses as the â€œouter surface of nature, like the surface of a deep flowing stream.â€ He said that material objects have origins that go â€œdeep down into the stream.â€12
A Continuously Regenerated Universe
Another key characteristic of living systems is continuous regeneration. To illustrate, consider how your body is being continuously renewed: The inner lining of your intestine is renewed roughly every five days, and the outer layer of your skin every two weeks. We receive a new liver approximately every two months, and the bones in our body are fully replaced about every seven to ten years. Clearly, an important attribute of any living creature is continuous regeneration. When we look for evidence of regeneration in the universe, what we discover is so stunning as to be virtually incomprehensible, even to the modern mind accustomed to great marvels. Simply stated, it appears that the entire universe is being continuously regenerated at an incredibly high rate of speed.
Until recently, the dominant cosmology in contemporary physics held that creation ended with the big bang nearly fourteen billion years ago and since then, little more has happened than a rearranging of the cosmic furniture. Because traditional physicists thought of creation as a one-time miracle from â€œnothing,â€ they regarded the current contents of the universeâ€”such as trees, rocks, and peopleâ€”as constituted from ancient, non-living matter. This â€œdead-universeâ€ theory assumed creation occurred only onceâ€”billions of years ago, when a massive explosion spewed out lifeless material debris into equally lifeless space; â€œlifeâ€ then somehow mysteriously emerged as non-living atoms inexplicably organized and grew themselves into ever more complex forms (molecules, cells, organisms, etc).
In striking contrast, the living-universe theory views creation not as a one-time event, but as an ongoing process. The entire universe is maintained moment-by-moment by an unbroken flow-through of energy. A regenerative perspective suggests why there is so much energy flowing through the universeâ€”it is needed to continuously recreate the entire universe, including the fabric of space-time and matter-energy.
If we go to the heart of an atom, for example, what we find is almost entirely empty space. If the central core or nucleus of an atom were expanded to the size of a golf ball, the electrons that circle the core would extend outwards a mile and a half. The electrons that circle the center or nucleus of the atom are moving so fastâ€”circling the nucleus of an atom several trillion times a secondâ€”that they manifest as a blurred cloud of motion. Beneath the solid surface of material objects, an extraordinary flow of activity is occurring. If you were to look at a yellow dress for one second, in that amount of time, the electrons in the retinas of your eyes would vibrate with more waves than all the waves that have beat upon all the shores of all the Earthâ€™s oceans in the last ten million years.13 Physicist Max Born writes, â€œWe have sought for firm ground and found none. The deeper we penetrate, the more restless becomes the universe; all is rushing about and vibrating in a wild dance.â€14 The deeper we look into the heart of matter, the less substantial it seems. Upon close inspection, matter dissolves into knots of energy and space-time whose dynamic stability gives the appearance of enduring solidity. It is extraordinary that this hurricane of flowing motion comes together to present itself as the â€œordinaryâ€ world around us. As giants, it is easy for us to overlook the ongoing miracle taking place at such a microscopic scale.
If we go into the heart of space, what we find is dynamism, energy, and structure. Space is not a pre-existing emptiness waiting to be filled with matter; rather, like matter, it emerges anew at every moment. Space exists as â€œactivelyâ€ as does matter. Both are infused with the all-sustaining Life force. Empty space is a dynamically constructed transparency filled with immense levels of energy and motion. Einstein wrote, â€œWe have now come to the conclusion that space is the primary thing and matter only secondary.â€15 Erwin Schroedinger, father of quantum theory, stated it this way: â€œWhat we observe as material bodies and forces are nothing but shapes and variations in the structure of space. Particles are just appearancesâ€¦Subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have broken downâ€¦for this barrier does not exist.â€16
Physicist John Wheeler has used the following analogy to suggest how, upon closer inspection, the fabric of space-time comes alive with motion. He imagines an aviator flying several miles above the ocean who looks down and sees what appears to be a flat and uniform surface. When he flies lower, he begins to make out rolling waves moving across the surface. Diving down still closer to the water, he sees smaller waves and crests forming on top of these swells. And looking even closer still, he sees the surface of the water boiling with mist, foam, and bubbles. In a similar way, the closer we look into the fabric of space-time, the more it appears as a complex symphony of waves and patterns; the smooth fabric of reality breaks down into â€œquantum foamâ€ and our usual ideas of space and time disappear.
When we put the complete dynamism of matter together with the dynamism of space, it seems astonishing to me how stable and utterly dependable is the fabric of reality. We do not have to worry about â€œspace-time stormsâ€ that might create rips and tears in the fabric of reality. It is extraordinary that complete dynamism at the microscopic scale manifests as a stable and unwavering reality at the human scale.
Given the dynamism of both matter and space, the universe is, in the words of David Bohm, â€œan undivided wholeness in flowing movement.â€17 In this view, the entire cosmos is being regenerated at each instant in a single symphony of expression that unfolds from the most microscopic aspects of the subatomic realm, to the vast reaches of billions of galactic systems. The whole cosmos all at once is the basic unit of creation.
Scientists sound like poets as they attempt to describe our cosmos in its process of becoming. The mathematician Norbert Wiener expresses it this way: â€œWe are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves; whirlpools of water in an ever-flowing river.â€18 Imagine water flowing over rocks in a stream. If we look at the flow over a particular rock, we can see a persisting pattern despite the continuous streaming of water. We, and the rest of the universe, are a persisting pattern that, as physicist Brian Swimme tell us, â€œemerges out of an all-nourishing abyss not only 14 billion years ago but in every moment.â€ 19All flows comprise one grand symphony in which we are all players, a single creative expressionâ€”a uni-verse.
Sentience at Every Level
The word â€œconsciousnessâ€ derives from the root â€œcon-scireâ€ and means, â€œthat with which we know.â€ Some level of sentience or knowing or consciousness is basic to life. Therefore, if the universe is alive, we should expect to discover evidence of consciousness operating at every level of existence. This does not mean, however, that we should expect to encounter human consciousness. We humans embody the third miracle, the capacity to see ourselves in the mirror of our own self-awareness. Our scientific name as a species is Homo sapiens sapiens. In other words, we are the species that is not only â€œsapientâ€ or wise, but also â€œsapient-sapientâ€ or doubly knowing or doubly wise.20 In contrast, the consciousness that we find at the foundations of the universe could be called â€œprimary perceptionâ€ or basic sentience. This refers to the capacity for knowing, but without the ability to reflect upon the knowing process itself.
When we look along the spectrum of existence, what do we find? At the most fundamental levels we find evidence of primary perception. The respected physicist Freeman Dyson wrote the following about consciousness at the quantum level: â€œMatter in quantum mechanics is not an inert substance but an active agent, constantly making choices between alternative possibilities. . . It appears that mind, as manifested by the capacity to make choices, is to some extent inherent in every electron.â€21 Again, this does not mean that an atom has the same consciousness as a human being, but rather that an atom has a reflective capacity appropriate to its form and function, which gives it the ability to make choices. In a similar vein, Max Planck, developer of quantum theory said: â€œI regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness.â€22 In accepting the Nobel Prize, he said: â€œAll matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force. . .We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.â€
Looking one step above the level of the atom, we find a rudimentary consciousness present at the level of primitive molecules. Researchers have found that molecules consisting of no more than a few simple proteins have the capacity for primary perception that is the signature of living systems. As one of the researchers who made this discovery stated, â€œWe were surprised that such simple proteins can act as if they had a mind of their own.â€23
Next, we step up from molecules to what biology often regards as the smallest â€œlivingâ€ entitiesâ€”single celled microbes that are found everywhere, from inside our intestines to the scum on the surface of a pond. Scientists studying bacteria, amoebas, and yeast have discovered that they are intensely social creatures that possess unique forms of language. These single cell creatures are not lonersâ€”instead, they are connected as a community and use chemicals to communicate with one another. This is amazing enough, but the truly remarkable finding is that the same chemical communication can have different meanings in different circumstances. Microbes are not unconscious machines but discerning organisms with a social intelligence previously considered possible only in the realm of intelligent animals.24
Another clear illustration of sentience in the smallest organisms is the behavior of a forest slime mold. Slime molds are primitive, single celled organisms that originated very early in Earthâ€™s history and are not classified as either a plant or an animal. For most of its life, slime mold exists as a single-cell organism, living in moist soil, looking for decaying bark, leaves, and other matter on the forest floor. When the food supply runs out, something remarkable happens: between ten thousand and fifty thousand individual cells come together to create a multi-cellular organism. Individual cells organize themselves, without the aid of an apparent leader, into a flower-like stalk supporting a ball of spores. This micro-scale â€œsuper-organismâ€ seems to have a will of its own and is able to move across a forest floor, as well as respond to changes in light and temperature. Upon reaching a better feeding area, this multi-cellular entity releases its spores into the air, dispersing them into the more favorable feeding ground. New single cells grow from the spores and then go about their foraging as individuals.25 Through its actions, slime mold demonstrates that, at the fundamental level of individual cells, some form of primary consciousness is able to communicate with the consciousness of other cells to co-create a larger entity. In turn, this larger entity is able to respond to the surrounding environment and to work for collective survival.
Another single-celled organism that is more conscious than we thought is the amoeba. Studying their microscopic feeding patterns in a Petri dish, scientists have discovered they demonstrate a rudimentary consciousnessâ€”they do not move about randomly; instead, they are able to remember the last turn they made as they go about looking for food.26 Again, we find a primary consciousness operating at the simplest levels of biological organization.
Turning to a higher level of complexity and the world of plants, scientists have found plants can communicate with one another using subtle odor molecules. Plants can send out chemical signals that repel insects; they can also attract insects that eat the pests that feed on their leaves. Not only can plants use chemical signals in their defense, they can also use them to warn other plants of danger, enabling their neighbors to jump-start their defenses.27 Again, we find a rudimentary knowing or a discerning sentience.
When we turn to the world of animals, we find elements of human-like consciousness that indicate we are less unique than we previously thought.28 For example, self-recognition is not restricted to humans. Great apes as well as elephants, dolphins, magpie birds, and pigeons are able to recognize themselves in a mirror.29 A capacity for empathy and feeling for another animal has been observed in primates, dolphins, whales, elephants, dogs, hippos, birds, and even some rodents. Elephants will remain by the body of a deceased member of their group for hours in an apparent gesture of respect, and this suggests the capacity for compassion. Tool making has been observed in crows, chimps, and bonobos (a species of great apes). Dolphins have also shown they can use tools; for example, they will sometimes use the spiny body of a dead scorpion fish to get a moray eel out of its hiding place. The ability to understand language has been observed in dolphins, bonobos, and parrots. Overall, there is a continuum of consciousness and an array of life-forms has demonstrated they have an active consciousness and a much richer cognitive life than previously suspected. Although we humans have an advanced capacity for reflective consciousness, we are not a unique and separate form of life; instead, we have simply progressed further along a spectrum of reflective consciousness.
Because we find evidence of primary perception or some form of consciousness operating at the level of atoms, molecules, single-cell organisms, plants, and animals, we should not be surprised that sentience is a basic property of the universe. It is when we move to the human realm that we find the most direct evidence that consciousness is not confined within the brain; it is instead a field property of the universe itself.
Although still controversial among more traditional scientists, the field properties of consciousness have been a subject of intensive scientific research for more than forty years. Sometimes called psychic or â€œpsiâ€ research, this field explores a wide range of phenomena and human capacities that allow us to connect with the world beyond our physical bodies. The respected author and researcher, Dr. Dean Radin, did an exhaustive analysis of psi research involving more than eight hundred studies and sixty investigators over nearly three decades.30 Based upon decades of research, Radin concluded that consciousness is a capacity that includes both â€œreceivingâ€ and â€œsendingâ€ potentials. Let us consider each aspect of consciousness.
Evidence of the receiving potentials of consciousness comes from experiments on a type of clairvoyance (or you could say â€œpsychic skillâ€) sometimes called â€œremote viewing.â€ Remote viewing is the ability to gather meaningful information about a remote person or location by intuitive or non-physical means. In remote viewing, the receiver is not expected to acquire exact information, but rather intuitive impressions regarding, for example, the actions and location of a specific individual. Radin found that remote viewing has been â€œrepeatedly observed by dozens of investigators using different methods.â€31 He concluded that a capacity for conscious knowing â€œoperates between minds and through space.â€
Evidence of the sending potentials of consciousness comes from experiments dealing with mind-matter interactions, such as the ability to influence the swing of a pendulum clock. Radin concluded that, â€œAfter sixty years of experiments . . . researchers have produced persuasive, consistent, replicated evidence that mental intention is associated with the behavior of physical systems.â€32
To summarize, evidence is accumulating across many levels, from the atomic to the human, that a field of consciousness pervades the universe and is mobilized by different living systems in ways that support and sustain their functioning. While the idea of an underlying ecology of consciousness and aliveness is quite remarkable, it seems no more extraordinary than the widely accepted view among scientists that the universe emerged nearly fourteen billion years ago as a â€œvacuum fluctuationâ€â€”where nothing pushed on nothing to create everything.33
Freedom at the Foundations
A final attribute of living systems is their freedom to make choices. Without some measure of freedom of choice, existence is that of a meaningless machine. Is our universe a mechanical system without authentic freedom at its foundations? Or is it a living system that has the freedom to grow and develop in innovative ways?
The earlier, Newtonian paradigm envisioned a deterministic universe where, once the laws governing things were understood, everything could be predicted. In striking contrast, findings from quantum physics tell us that uncertainty is built into the fabric of the universe. At the quantum level, where our universe comes into existence, the certainty that we find at the larger scales breaks down and, instead, we find only probabilities. At the foundation of the universe is the quantum foam seething with titanic energies and this is where we enter a realm of likelihood, of possibilities and estimated outcomes. Freedom and uncertainty are basic to the quantum level where the universe continuously recreates itself and provides us with an opportunity to exercise our freedom to do the same.
Freedom permeates our lives. We are playing jazz together. The world is a collective improvisation, and we have the creative freedom to transcend the habits of nature. While uncertainty and freedom are fundamental to our universe, freedom is not without limits. Everything that exists contributes to the overall cosmic web at each moment, whether it is conscious of its participation or not. In turn, it is the interrelation of all parts of the universe that determines the condition of the whole. We, therefore, have great freedom to act within the limits established by the larger web of life.
Able to Reproduce Itself
An essential capacity for any living system is the ability to reproduce itself. How could our universe produce offspring universes? A startling insight from the frontiers of physics suggests the answerâ€”our universe may be able to reproduce itself through the functioning of black holes. Astrophysicist John Gribbin explains that the bursting out of our universe in the big bang is the time-reversed mirror image of the collapse of a massive object into a black hole. Many of the black holes that form in our universe, he reasons, may represent wormholes that lead to new universes: â€œInstead of a black hole representing a one-way journey to nowhere, many researchers now believe that it is a one-way journey to somewhereâ€”to a new expanding universe in its own set of dimensions.â€34 Gribbinâ€™s dramatic conclusion is that our own universe may have been birthed this way out of a black hole in another universe. He explains: â€œIf one universe exists, then it seems there must be manyâ€”very many, perhaps even an infinite number of universes. Our universe has to be seen as just one component of a vast array of universes, a self-reproducing system connected only by the â€˜tunnelsâ€™ through space-time (perhaps better regarded as cosmic umbilical cords) that join a â€˜babyâ€™ universe to its â€˜parent.â€™â€35
The insight that there could be many universes evolving through time is not recent. Philosopher David Hume noted in 1779 that many prior universes â€œmight have been botched and bungled throughout an eternity [before our universe].â€36 A growing number of cosmologists are now suggesting a universe evolves like other living systemsâ€”by passing along favorable characteristics to their offspring: â€œUniverses that are â€˜successfulâ€™ are the ones that leave the most offspring.â€37 Many cosmologists now consider our universe to be one of many universes, all existing within a vastly larger universe that is sometimes called the â€œMeta-Universeâ€ or â€œMaster Universeâ€ or â€œMultiverse.â€38 I will give this a friendlier name and call the generative source and sustainer of all the island universes the â€œMother Universe.â€
An Integrative View from Science
When we bring together these findings from science, an extraordinary picture begins to emerge: Our universe is a profoundly unified system in which the interrelations of all the parts determine at every moment the condition of the system as a whole. Our universe is permeated and sustained by an unimaginably immense amount of flowing energy; it is being continuously regenerated in its entirety while making use of a knowing capacity or consciousness throughout. As an evolving, growing, and learning system, it has freedom as a fundamental property of the quantum foundations. The universe also appears to have the ability to reproduce itself by using black holes as a wormhole for creating a new cosmic system.
Combining these key characteristics, we can say: A â€œliving universeâ€ is a unified and completely interdependent system that is continuously regenerated by the flow-through of phenomenal amounts of life energy whose essential nature includes consciousness or a self-reflective capacity that enables systems at every scale of existence to exercise some degree of freedom of choice. The universe also appears to have other characteristics of living systems such as the ability to reproduce itself (via black holes that provide the seed instructions for growing new cosmic systems).
Because the universe appears to meet each of the key criteria for aliveness, current scientific evidence points toward the conclusion that the universe is a unique kind of living system. Now we turn to consider how this understanding connects with us as human beings by exploring insights from the worldâ€™s wisdom traditions.
III. Spirituality as Intimacy with a Living Universe
Who we are depends directly upon where we are. Are we an inseparable part of a greater aliveness? Or are we a small speck of life that is surrounded by a vast sea of deadness? How do the worldâ€™s wisdom traditions view the universe and our relationship to it? Do they see this world as a place of deadness to leave behind and move beyond? Alternatively, do the wisdom traditions see the universe as a miracle of stunning aliveness? When people around the world and across the centuries offer their in-depth accounts of the nature of existence, what descriptions of the universe emerge? When sages and saints across cultures and history have come to a place of profound centeredness and quiet, what has become self-evident to them regarding the nature of the universe and our place within it?
For more than three decades, I have been exploring how the worldâ€™s wisdom traditions view the universe. At the outset, I did not know what I would discover. Although views of the worldâ€™s spiritual traditions are fairly well known when it comes to themes such as love and compassion, it was not clear to me how they regarded the universe. Might wisdom traditions regard the universe as something â€œout thereâ€ and largely separate from the spiritual quest â€œin hereâ€? Alternatively, is our relationship with the universe seen as integral to our spiritual awakening and development?
To show how wisdom traditions view the universe, I have drawn from a range of sources: Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, Indigenous, and more. Given differences of history, culture, and geography, it is not surprising that each of the worldâ€™s spiritual traditions would have a different way of describing the universe. It is important to receive each tradition on its own terms and allow it to speak for itself and inform us with its unique insights. I also realize there are deep differences, both within these traditions and between them. The clash of religions is a powerful and unsettling reality in todayâ€™s world. Nonetheless, if we allow for their many differences, and look at the way each tradition regards the universe, I think the similarities we discover are striking and of immense importance in revealing a common understanding shared by all wisdom traditions. Common themes emerge as different spiritual traditions describe their in-depth understanding of our common home, the universe. Often it is the more mystical tradition within a spiritual family that explores these depths most fully.
We will explore views of the universe through the lens of a half-dozen wisdom traditions that comprise a majority of the worldâ€™s population. Although all belief systems deserve consideration, these few embrace the overwhelming majority of the human family and provide us with a strong foundation for this overview. As a cautionary note, I recognize that some people may not give much attention to how their spiritual tradition regards the universe. Nor do people necessarily hold a view of the universe consistent with their particular faith. With care to not overstate humanityâ€™s beliefs about the universe, let us explore how the worldâ€™s spiritual traditions view the universe and humanityâ€™s relationship to it.
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have common roots in the idea of a single God. Despite their differences, all three religions trace their lineage back to the Hebrew patriarch Abraham whose life is described in the Old Testament in the book of Genesis. From Abraham we find the core belief in a single, all-knowing, all-powerful, and transcendent God who created the universe â€œas goodâ€ and continues to be involved in its existence.
It is important to acknowledge that, for many, the word â€œGodâ€ tends to evoke the image of a remote, masculine, authority figure who is separate from this world. However, another view runs through Christianity and uses the word â€œGodâ€ to evoke the image of a powerful, boundless spiritual presence that infuses, sustains, and transcends the universe. It is this latter meaning of â€œGodâ€ that is the focus of this inquiry.
The Judaic view of the origin of the universe is described in the first sentence of the first book of the Bible. In Genesis 1:1, we read that G-d (a deity beyond words and whose name cannot be written) created this universe out of nothing. â€œIn the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth.â€39 The word â€œcreatedâ€ comes from the translation of the Hebrew word â€œbaraâ€ and means to bring forth out of nothing.40
In Exodus (3:14), God reveals his name as â€œI AM THAT I AM.â€ God is without limits or boundaries. God simply is. Also, in the Jewish Bible (and Old Testament), we find this powerful description of a spiritual presence creating and sustaining the universe:
Another translation of this Psalm is written differently. Instead of saying â€œthe heavens declare the gloryâ€¦â€ it says, â€œthe heavens are telling of the gloryâ€¦â€ The phrase, â€œare tellingâ€ suggests the heavens are being presented to beholders as an active, ongoing process.42 The heavens are proclaiming the magnificence of their creator as a continuing dynamic.
Here is another Psalm that describes an infusing spiritual presence throughout the universe.
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
— Psalm 139:7-10 43
Overall, Judaism has viewed the universe as a divine creation and humans as having a direct relationship with its creative unfolding. Christianity has drawn from these roots and, with roughly one-third of humanity as adherents at the turn of the twenty-first century, it is the worldâ€™s largest religion. To explore the connection between Christianity and the cosmos, it is important to begin by acknowledging the theological complexity of Christianity with its many voices, institutions, and shifting emphases over time.
As theologians reexamine Christian history, one of the themes being explored is the idea that God not only creates and sustains the universe, but that the universe actually participates in the being of God. Here are quotes from the Bible that suggest a view of â€œGodâ€ as a divine spiritual presence that creates the universe and continues to be present within it.
â€œIn him we live, and move, and have our being….We are his offspring.â€
â€œThrough him all things came to be, not one thing had its being but through him.â€
Christianity sees the universe as a divine creation permeated by a spiritual presence and that celebrates the glory of its creator. In the New Testament book of Hebrews 11:3 we read, â€œâ€¦ the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.â€ 44 What we see around us was not made out of anything visible, which is very congruent with modern cosmology describing the birth of the universe from nothing as a â€œvacuum fluctuation.â€
The idea of a living universe is expressed powerfully in the Eastern Orthodox Churches that comprise the worldâ€™s third largest Christian community after Catholicism and Protestantism. Eastern Orthodox Christianity holds the view that Godâ€™s energies are vital for anything to exist at all and, for things to continue to exist, Godâ€™s active involvement is essential. Godâ€™s active presence is required to sustain the universe at every scale, from the most minute to the most grand. Because everything is upheld equally and without favoritism, this means that the entirety of creation is equally valued and sacred. Godâ€™s energies sustain even those beings who reject the idea of God. God will not abandon creation, as nothing is viewed as existing separately from God. Beings may not be conscious of their communion with God, but God is ever conscious of us.
The idea that God is not separate from this world but is present within it is found in other Christian sources. Perhaps the most exciting was the discovery in 1945 of acollection of fifty-two religious and philosophical texts, not far from the village of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. Experts estimate that they had been hidden in an earthenware jar for roughly sixteen hundred years.This was an enormously important discovery as it includes texts such as the â€œGospel of Thomas,â€ that were thought to have been destroyed during the early Christian struggles to define orthodox Christianity. The Nag Hammadi texts did not fit the accepted views of the times, so they were apparently sealed in a jar and hidden in a cave until they could be safely brought back to the public.
The most famous of these texts, The Gospel of Thomas, opens with these stunning words: â€œThese are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke,â€ and continues, â€œWhoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.â€ What does Jesus have to say in this gospel that shifts our view of death from an ending to a transformation? In the Gospel of Thomas, when Jesus was asked, â€œWhen will the new world come?â€ He said, â€œWhat you look forward to has already come but you do not recognize it.â€ Elsewhere Jesus says, â€œâ€¦the Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.â€ Jesus is clearly saying that what we are looking forâ€”the divine presenceâ€”is around us and within us. Jesus says, â€œThe kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that you are the children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.â€
Moving forward in history, in 1215 the Catholic Church put forth the idea of creatio ex nihilo as official church doctrine, declaring God to be â€œCreator of all things, visible and invisibleâ€¦out of nothing.â€ In the 1300s, the great Christian mystic and theologian, Meister Eckhart, expanded on this theme and wrote â€œGod is creating the entire universe, fully and totally, in this present now. Everything God created. . . God creates now all at once.â€ 45 No declaration could be more specific or explicit concerning our universe as a continuously renewing system.
A number of Christian theologians now hold the view that God created our vast cosmos from nothing (ex nihilo) and that God upholds the universe through time (creatio continua).46 Continuous creation is the pouring forth of the universe in a continual flow, without ceasing, over billions of years.47 The world around us is seen as an ever-emerging miracle of divine generosity, continually emerging from an invisible source. Creation is always new, always fresh, and always alive. The Catholic Church now teaches that creation is always journeying towards its ultimate perfection. Evolution, therefore, poses no obstacle to genuine faith, as Pope John Paul II said in 1985. Instead, he said, â€œEvolution presupposes creation. . . creation is an ever-lasting processâ€”a creatio continua.â€
Although there are many differences within the Christian tradition, there exists a strong thread that sees our universe as a sacred body upheld by a divine presence in a process of continuous creation.48
Islam has its roots in the same tradition of a single God as Christianity and Judaism. The word â€œIslamâ€ means submission in Arabic, and Islam asks its followers to surrender their lives to Allah or God. This dynamic faith emerged in the seventh century with the prophet Muhammad (570 â€“ 632), a native of Mecca in Arabia. Within a century of his death, an Islamic state stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to central Asia. Today, with nearly one and a half billion followers, Islam is the second-largest religion in the world.
Muslims believe Muhammad to be the final prophet of God. Over a period of twenty-three years, Muhammad received a series of revelations that were recorded by his followers. These revelations later became the Koran (Quran), the central religious text of Islam, believed by Muslims to be the word of God or Allah as revealed to Muhammad. Here the relationship of God to the universe is very explicit: â€œGod is the Creator of everything; is the One, the Omnipotent.â€ Not only is God the source and originator of everything, but also its sustainer: â€œGod keeps a firm hold on the heavens and earth, preventing them from vanishing away. And if they vanished no one could then keep hold of them. Certainly He is Most Forbearing, Ever-Forgiving.â€ (Koran, 35:41).
The Islamic view of God sustaining the universe is called â€œoccasionalismâ€ and describes the universe as being continuously reborn in a series of unique occasions or events.49 Al-Ghazali, who lived in the eleventh century, was a celebrated theologian and great synthesizer of Muslim thought. He advanced the Islamic view that our universe is not an ancient, static structure; instead, it is born anew at each momentâ€”created out of nothing in a series of events by the will of Allah.50 Nothing continues to exist unless God constantly re-creates it. The book that you are holding now will be, in a moment, a new â€œoccasionâ€ of the book that went before it. Nothing endures in time; rather, everything comes into existence freshly in each moment, only to disappear and be replaced an instant later by another fresh expression or occasion.
Another major Islamic teacher is Ibn Arabi who lived in the thirteenth century. Arabi wrote more than three hundred works and had a powerful influence on Islamic spirituality. Even during his lifetime, he was considered one of the great spiritual teachers within Sufism, the esoteric tradition within Islam that focuses on direct experience of the divine. The central doctrine of Sufism is that all phenomena are manifestations of a single reality and arise out of a deep unity. According to Arabi, we do not notice the world is coming into existence and then passing away at every moment because, when one expression of existence passes away, it is immediately replaced by another nearly like it, He says that in thinking the world endures from past to present to future, we overlook the reality that, at every moment, the world presents a new creation of itself.
Rumi is an internationally famous, thirteenth century Persian poet and Sufi.51 His works have been translated into many languages, and his influence transcends ethnic and spiritual borders. Rumi wrote clearly about the continuous arising of existence: â€œYou have a death and a return in every moment.â€ â€œEvery moment the world is renewed but we, in seeing its continuity of appearance, are unaware of its being renewed.â€ He also said that life is like a stream: â€œit arrives new and fresh at every moment while it appears constant in its material form.â€
Mahmud Shabistari is another celebrated Persian poet. He wrote the following in 1317:
The world is this whole, and in every twinkling of an eye,
it becomes non-existent and endures not two moments.
There over again another world is produced,
every moment a new heaven and a new earth.
Things remain not in two moments,
the same moment they perish, they are born again.
Finally, A.H. Almaas, a modern-day teacher with roots in the Sufi tradition, has written powerfully about all of existence continually coming into being: â€œThe universe is never old; it is always new, for it includes both animate and inanimate objects, the Earth and the sky, the planets, the Sun and the stars, the galaxies and the space that contains them; it also includes all the thoughts, images, memories, feelings, sensations, and all phenomena at all levels of being.â€52All of this says Almaasâ€”the one totality that continuously comes into beingâ€”is something that we can experience directly.
Hinduism dates back at least thirty-five hundred years and is the oldest and perhaps most complex of the worldâ€™s living religions. It has no identified founder, but is known by its Vedas or scriptures. Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world with roughly 14 percent of the worldâ€™s population, the majority of whom live in India. Although the term Hinduism encompasses many diverse sects and philosophies, all Hindus believe in a supreme cosmic spirit called â€œBrahman.â€ Brahman is the sustaining Life force that is ultimately beyond description and the reach of human language. Brahman is the foundation of existence and the source of all things as all things participate in the being of Brahman. By practicing different forms of meditation, Hindus believe that we can directly experience our sacred nature as Brahman. Atman, our individual essence or soulful nature, is Brahmanâ€”the sustaining cosmic spirit whose nature is often described as infinite being, infinite consciousness, and infinite bliss.
At the heart of the Hindu view of reality is the belief that our universe is continuously upheld by a divine Life force. Huston Smith, scholar of the worldâ€™s religions writes, â€œAll Hindu religious thought denies that the world of nature stands on its own feet. It is grounded in God; if he were removed it would collapse into nothingness.â€53 In the words of a revered Hindu teacher, Sri Nisargadatta Majaraj, â€œThe entire universe contributes incessantly to your existence. Hence the entire universe is your body.â€ 54
We are continually created from Brahman, and therefore at the most fundamental level, all things are one, unified, whole. The Bhagavad-Gita, written roughly twenty-five hundred years ago, is one of the main holy texts of India. There, Brahman is described as the â€œking of all knowledge.â€ The Gita states: â€œThis entire universe is pervaded by Me, the unmanifest Brahman. All beings depend on Me. I do not depend on them.â€ â€œI am the origin or seed of all beings. There is nothing, animate or inanimate, that can exist without Me.â€ â€œâ€¦the creator exists in the creation by pervading everything. . . He is inside as well as outside of all beings, animate and inanimate. He is incomprehensible because of His subtlety. He is very near as well as far away.â€
Turning to even older sources of wisdom in the Hindu tradition, the texts of the Upanishads, we find this declaration:
Out of himself he brought forth the cosmos
And entered into everything in it.
There is nothing that does not come from him.
Of everything he is the inmost Self.
He is the truth; he is the Self supreme.
You are thatâ€¦you are that.
Hindu mythology portrays the cosmos being born anew at each moment through the cosmic dance of Shiva. â€œNature and all its creatures are the effects of his eternal dance.â€55 All expressions and aspects of the living world are but momentary flashes from the limbs of the Lord of the dance.56 In the Hindu view of the universe, there is nothing permanent; rather, the cosmos is seen as one body being continuously danced into creation by the divine Life force.
For a more contemporary Hindu perspective, the writing of the revered sage and philosopher, Sri Aurobindo is insightful. He wrote: â€œâ€¦there is but one Force in the world, a single unique current which passes through us and all things. . . it is this force which links up everything, animates everything; this is the fundamental substance of the Universe.â€57 Finally, when Mahatma Gandhi, the great spiritual and political leader of India, was asked what he considered to be the essence of Hinduism, he quoted the first verse of the Isha Upanishad that begins with these lines:
Again and again, in Hinduism, we find the theme of a Life force continuously regenerating the universe in a dance of cosmic-scale creation. Heinrich Zimmer, the respected scholar of Indian art and civilization, summarizes Hindu cosmology by saying: â€œThere is nothing static, nothing abiding, but only the flow of a relentless process, with everything originating, growing, decaying, vanishing.â€ 59
Buddhism is a family of wisdom traditions and its followers comprise about 6 percent of the worldâ€™s population. These traditions have their origins in the historical person of Siddartha Gautama who was born in the foothills of the Himalayas in India in the sixth century BC. Siddartha was an Indian prince who eventually renounced his power and wealth to meditate on the nature of reality. After his â€œenlightening experienceâ€ other monks saw his newly discovered radiance and knowing, and asked him, â€œAre you a God?â€ He replied â€œNo.â€ They then asked if he were an angel? Again, he answered â€œNo.â€ â€œThen what are you?â€ they asked. He replied simply: â€œI am awake.â€60 He became known as the Buddha, which means â€œthe one who is awake.â€ After his awakening, he taught for the remaining forty-five years of his life, traveling through Northeastern India, teaching and mentoring a diverse community of people. Primarily, he taught that through meditation and spiritual inquiry, anyone could awaken from the sleep of ignorance and directly realize the nature of the universe and their own nature.
What was the core realization that the Buddha awakened to? At the foundation of the Buddhaâ€™s teachings is his description of the simultaneous arising of all things in the universe. Variously translated as â€œinterdependent co-arisingâ€ and â€œinterdependent co-origination,â€ the Buddha said this insight was at the heart of his awakening. According to the Buddha, to discern the moment-to-moment, interdependent co-arising of all things in the universe is to awaken to a reality that is subtle, sublime, hard to perceive, and not accessible through logic alone. Because the co-arising of all things in the universe is a process that completely includes us, we cannot stand back to observe it; instead, to know this reality we must relax completely into ourselves and become transparent to more subtle levels of our own experience. When we consciously experience ourselves in this way, we find nothing permanent but rather, complete dynamism and flow, including the direct experience of ourselves.
From the perspective of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama has written, â€œAt the heart of Buddhist cosmology is not only the idea that there are multiple world systemsâ€¦but also the idea that they are in a constant state of coming into being and passing away.â€61 The Tibetan teacher, scholar, and artist Lama Govinda writes, â€œThe world is in a continuous state of creation, of becoming, and therefore in a continuous state of destruction of all that has been created.â€62 He also writes, â€œThis apparently solid and substantial world [is]… a whirling nebulous mass of insubstantial, eternally rotating elements of continually arising and disintegrating forms.â€63 Namkhai Norbu, another esteemed teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, states, â€œAll phenomena…no matter how solid they may seem, are in fact essentially void, impermanent, only temporarily existing.â€ 64
Because the world around us is being continuously regeneratedâ€”arising freshly in its totality at each moment so absolutely nothing enduresâ€”it makes sense that the Buddha would describe existence as a â€œflash of lightning in a summer cloud,â€ a â€œflickering lamp,â€ an â€œapparition,â€ and a â€œphantom.â€ The world flashes into existence as a unified whole at one momentâ€”presenting itself in all its vividnessâ€”only to disappear completely and be replaced an instant later with a new representation of itself. In learning the skills of meditation, the Buddha said we can become centered in the flow of natural time and experience directly the co-arising of the cosmos.
Turning from the Buddhism of Tibet to that practiced in Japan, we again find this insight of the moment-to-moment arising of the universe. The respected Zen scholar and teacher, D. T. Suzuki, has written, â€œMy solemn proclamation is that a new universe is created every moment.â€65 Elsewhere, he writes, â€œAll things come out of an unknown abyss of mystery, and through every one of them we can have a peep into the abyss.â€66 Also from the Zen tradition we have this unequivocal statement from Alan Watts: â€œThe beginning of the universe is now, for all things are at this moment being created, and the end of the universe is now, for all things are at this moment passing away.â€67 Others in the Zen tradition describe the continuous arising of the universe. Robert Linssen describes the world seen through the eyes of a skilled meditator: â€œA tree, a stone, and animal cease to be seen as solid and durable bodies. . . in their place the practiced disciple discerns a continual succession of sudden manifestations only lasting as long as a flash of lightningâ€¦â€ 68
At the foundation of Buddhism, then, is the view that the entire universe is arising freshly as a unified whole at each moment. Because everything arises or emerges along with everything else, this means that the condition of anything depends upon the condition of everything to which it is connectedâ€”and that is the totality of the universe.
Taoist and Confucian Views
Taoism and Confucianism represent the spiritual beliefs of about six percent of the worldâ€™s population. They are the foundational religions of China that have also influenced Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
The origins of Taoism are generally traced to the third or fourth century BC and Lao Tzu, a mythical figure whose existence is still debated. Legend has it that as the â€œold masterâ€ prepared to ride off and disappear into the vast China desert, he was asked by a customs official to write down his philosophy. In response, he wrote the Tao Te Chingâ€”roughly translated as â€œThe Book of the Way and Its Virtue.â€ This book is the only written record of Lao Tzuâ€™s philosophy.
At the heart of Taoism is the understanding that the Tao is the sustaining Life force and the mother of all things; from it, all things â€œrise and fall without cease.â€69 The Tao is the source of all there is and so is the unifying principle that resolves all contradictions and opposites. Because the Tao is both everything and the source of all things, the Tao is ultimately beyond names, language, and thought. For this reason, it is called the â€œnameless way.â€ The Tao is the â€œMother of the Universe,â€ a generative and maternal Life force that continually gives birth to the universe. Because the Tao is regarded as inexhaustible and unbounded, it is empty of limiting characteristics.
The goal of Taoism is to live in harmony with the flow of existence. Life is forever moving, never still, always becoming, so the wise person learns to watch carefully and ride the ever-cresting wave of lifeâ€™s flow. Taoists see the universe as a vast ocean of interacting energy. Since they believe that â€œchiâ€ or Life-energy is abundant throughout, great importance is placed on cultivating harmony in our energetic connection with the universe. By bringing an awareness of Life-energy into our direct experience, we see ourselves as participants in a vast dance of becoming, where everything participates with everything else. In experiencing ourselves within the flowing river of life, we can sense when we are pushing against the current or riding with the flow.
The second great religion of China is Confucianism. Its primary concern is the establishment of harmony between the energies of heaven and Earth. This religion was founded by Confucius, a sage and social philosopher who was deeply concerned about the troubling times in which he lived. Although his ideas gained little acceptance during his lifetime (551 â€“ 479 BC), his teachings deeply influenced Eastern Asia for twenty centuries.
Confucianism perceives life as a seamless and continual interaction between three realms: â€œHeavenâ€ (a Life force), â€œEarthâ€ (the natural world), and â€œHumanityâ€ (the socially constructed world). Confucian social ethics were intended to bring a harmonious interplay between humans, the natural world, and the forces of heaven through the binding force of the Life-energy or châ€™i. This energy is the unifying, vibrant, and ceaseless vitality that underlies our physical reality. Châ€™i is the Life force of heaven that gives birth to the universe and nourishes it in a profoundly unified, interpenetrating, ceaselessly active cosmic process.
While Taoism and Confucianism are quite distinct in their specific teachings, they share a perspective of the universe that might be described as organic, vitalistic, and holistic. 70 They both see the universe as a unified whole, permeated with life and involved in a continuous process of transformation.
The indigenous or tribal peoples of the world represent roughly 6 percent of the worldâ€™s population. â€œNativeâ€ or â€œindigenousâ€ or â€œfirst peopleâ€ societies are found throughout the world and, historically, have relied on subsistence farming as well as hunting and gathering. Without a written language, native peoples have preserved their rich knowledge of the world in stories, rituals, songs, and legends. Many people living in cultures with a written language tend to view the oral traditions of indigenous peoples as more primitive and less articulate. However, this is an erroneous perspective, as native cultures often possess an extensive and sophisticated language with a subtle and complex worldview.
Indigenous traditions see an invisible presence throughout the world, an animating force permeating the universe and connecting all things into a living whole. According to Navajo tradition, a â€œsacred windâ€ blows through the universe and brings the capacity for awareness and communication with others. Our individual consciousness is simply a local part of this larger, animating wind or Life force that moves through all of nature.
For the Lakota, who inhabited the upper mid-West of the United States, â€œreligionâ€ is a direct experience of an all-pervading aliveness throughout the world. Luther Standing Bear, a Lakota elder said of his tradition, â€œthere was no such thing as emptiness in the world. Even in the sky there were no vacant places. Everywhere there was life, visible and invisible, and every object gave us a great interest in life. The world teemed with life and wisdom; there was no complete solitude for the Lakota.â€71 Since a living presence is felt to be in and through everything, all things are seen and experienced as related. Because everything is connected through the Great Spirit, everything deserves to be treated with respect.
One of the more dense concentrations of Indian populations in North Americaâ€”the Ohlonesâ€”lived in the fertile region that now extends from San Francisco to Monterey, California.72 The Ohlones, now extinct, lived sustainably on this land for roughly five thousand years. Like the Lakota, their religion was without dogma, churches, or priests because it was so pervasive, like the air. Their religion was found everywhere, as nature was seen to be alive and shimmering with energy. Because everything was filled with life, power was everywhere and in everything. Every act was a spiritual act because it engaged the worlds of power. All tasksâ€”hunting an animal, preparing food, or making a basketâ€”were done with a feeling for the surrounding world of life and power. 73
The Aborigines of Australia believe the universe has two aspects. One aspect is ordinary reality and the other aspect is the â€œDreamtimeâ€ reality from which the physical world is derived. In Aboriginal cosmology, the everyday reality of people, trees, rocks, and animals is â€œsung into existenceâ€ by the power of the Dreamtimeâ€”and the Dreamtime needs to continue unabated if the ordinary world is to be upheld and maintained.74 The Dreamtime for Australian aborigines â€œâ€¦is an ongoing processâ€”the perpetual emerging of the world from an incipient, indeterminate state into full, waking reality, from invisibility to visibility, from the secret depths of silence into articulate song and speech.â€75 Like the Aborigines, the Kalahari Bushmen have a saying that, â€œThere is a dream dreaming us.â€76
The Koyukon Indians of north central Alaska live â€œin a world that watches, in a forest of eyes.â€77 They believe wherever we are, we are never truly alone because the surroundings, no matter how remote, are aware of our presence and must be treated with respect. A clear theme emerges: Indigenous peoples have long recognized the aliveness at the foundation of the universe. They understand that we are not, and never have been, disconnected from the larger universe. With a cosmology of a living universe, a shining miracle exists everywhere. There are no empty places in the world. Everywhere there is life, both visible and invisible. All of reality is infused with a vital presence and this creates a profound relatedness among all things.
Although not a â€œreligion,â€ Western thought is an integral part of the worldâ€™s wisdom and has had an enormous impact on human development. Here again we find the idea of a living universe running like a bright thread through the complex tapestry of Western thought. More than two thousand years ago, Plotinus declared, â€œThis universe is a single living being embracing all living beings within it.â€78 In a similar manner, the ancient Greek philosopher and mystic Heraclitus said in describing the universe that â€œeverything flows, nothing stands still.â€ â€œAll things are in a state of flux,â€ he wrote, and â€œReality is a condition of unrest.â€ 79 Heraclitus also declared that, â€œFor those who are awake the cosmos is one.â€ 80 He wrote that life is an eternal becoming and the universe is continually â€œflowering into deity.â€81
Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was a visionary priest and philosopher. He maintained that a spiritual force is found in all things, and that even the most minute body contains a sufficient portion of spirit to animate itself. Bruno felt that God was present throughout the worldâ€”a Life force that permeated the universe and gave all material things some measure of life. No matter how small something might be, he believed it would strive to organize itself into an animated body of some kind, whether plant or animal. Brunoâ€™s views of an infinite universe infused with an animating Life force was seen by his contemporaries as undermining the authority of the Catholic Church, and he was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600.
The idea of a living universe surfaced again a century and a half later, as the industrial revolution was getting underway by the mid-eighteenth century in Europe and America. This revolution was accompanied by a new sense of dynamism, particularly in Western thinking. No longer was life anchored in the seasons, going round and round in an ever-recurring circle, and ultimately, not going anywhere; instead, life was seen as moving forward as an ever-unfolding expression of the divine. The philosopher Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854) wrote, â€œHistory as a whole is a progressive, gradually self-disclosing revelation of the Absolute.â€ His contemporary, the influential German philosopher Georg Hegel (1770 – 1831), viewed humans as vehicles for the universe to become conscious of itself. In Hegelâ€™s view, spirit seeks embodiment in matter as much as matter seeks transformation in spirit.
Henri Bergson (1859 – 1941) was a professor who lived in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His writing powerfully expresses the idea of a living universe, infused with a divine Life force that he termed Ãˆlan vital and that animates not only human life, but the entire cosmos. He saw the whole universe as a pulsating, participatory reality. According to Bergson, the reach of our identity is not limited by our physical body, but extends as far as our conscious perceptions. Our body provides a manageable island of stability as we grow in our capacity for conscious knowing and expression of the Life force that animates the universe. Beyond the power of our intellect, says Bergson, we have the power of our intuition which is our connection with the â€œocean of life,â€ the cosmic vitality from which we draw energy and insight.82 The â€œessential function of the universeâ€ says Bergson, is nothing less than â€œthe making of godsâ€â€”or human beings who are fully conscious expressions of the Ãˆlan vital.
The British philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead (1861 – 1947), developed a process view of reality in the late 1920s. In his view, what we consider the concrete reality of the universe around us is, in fact, a series of â€œoccasions of experience.â€ The overall universe is the totality of all of these occasions and, because free will is inherent in the universe, each occasion is always different, new, and alive.
I have only touched upon Western views, but this is sufficient to show there has existed a stream of thought that, for more than two thousand years, has regarded our universe as deeply alive. In contemporary Western philosophy, this view is sometimes called â€œpanentheismâ€ meaning that a divine Life force both pervades the world and also extends beyond it. This Life force is both immanent and transcendentâ€”including all that is in our universe and extending infinitely beyond.
Harvesting the Wisdom of Human Experience
Harvesting the wisdom of human experience is like watching a picture gradually come into focus and seeing an extraordinary image of the universe emerging before our eyes. Common streams of experience are described by wisdom traditions around the world. Within each major traditionâ€”Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, Indigenous, and moreâ€”we can find remarkably similar descriptions of the universe and the Life force that pervades it: Christians and Jews affirming that God is not separate from this world but continuously creates it anew, so that we live, move, and have our being in God; Muslims declaring that the entire universe is continually coming into being, and that each moment is a new â€œoccasionâ€ for Allah to create the universe; Hindus proclaiming that the entire universe is a single body that is being continually danced into creation by a divine Life force or Brahman; Buddhists stating that the entire universe arises freshly at every moment in an unceasing flow of interdependent, co-origination where everything depends upon everything else; Taoists declaring that the Tao is the â€œMother of the Universe,â€ the inexhaustible source from which all things rise and fall without ceasing; Confucians viewing our universe as a unified and interpenetrating whole that is sustained and nourished by the vitality of the Life force; Indigenous peoples declaring that an animating wind or Life force blows through all things in the world and there is aliveness and sacred power everywhere; and a stream of Western thinkers portraying the universe as a single, living creature that is continually emerging anew and is evolving toward higher levels of complexity and consciousness. Overall, beneath the differences in language, a common reality is being describedâ€”our life is part of a larger life.
Despite our great diversity and differences of history, when the worldâ€™s wisdom traditions penetrate into the experiential depths of existence, a common understanding emerges that is in accord with insights from science. This understanding is utterly stunning: We live within a living universe that emerges, moment-by-moment, as a unified whole. The universe is a living system that is continuously sustained by the flow-through of phenomenal amounts of energy in an unutterably vast and intensely alive process of awesome precision and power. We are beings the universe inhabits as much as we are beings who inhabit the universe. The unity of existence is not an experience to be created; rather, it is an always-emerging condition waiting to be appreciated and welcomed into awareness. The â€œpower of nowâ€ derives from the fact that the entire universe arises in the NOW as an extremely precise flow. When we are in the now, we are riding the wave of continuous creation. Each moment is a fresh formation of the universe, emerging seamlessly and flawlessly.
IV. In What Ways Does Aliveness Make a Difference?
What difference does it make if the universe is dead or alive at its foundations? When children are starving, climate is destabilizing, oil is dwindling, and population is growing, why is it important to put our attention here? Below are a few reasons why it makes a profound difference whether we regard the universe as either dead or alive.
Indifferent or Welcoming? How we feel about the surrounding universe has an enormous impact on our experience of life. If we think of the universe as dead at the foundations, then feelings of existential alienation, anxiety, dread, and fear are understandable. Why seek communion with the cold indifference of lifeless matter and empty space? If we relax into life, we will simply sink into existential despair. However, if we live in a living universe, feelings of subtle connection, curiosity, and gratitude are understandable. We see ourselves as participants in a cosmic garden of life that the universe has been patiently nurturing over billions of years. A living universe perspective invites us to shift from indifference, fear, and cynicism to curiosity, love, and awe.
Forgotten or Remembered? A non-living universe is without consciousness at its foundations so it is indifferent to humanity and our evolving creations. Nothing we do will ultimately matter. All will be forgotten. A dead universe has no deep purpose or meaning. It does not matter whether it is a person or an entire species-civilization the same principle applies: a dead universe tells no stories. In contrast, a living universe is itself a vast story continuously unfolding with countless, unique characters playing out gripping dramas of awakening. The essence of these life stories and learning is remembered and conserved so that an evolving universe has wisdom to pass along to her offspring.
Pull Apart or Pull Together? If we see the universe as mostly barren and devoid of life and our time on Earth as primarily a struggle for material existence, then it makes sense that we humans would pull apart in conflict. However, if we see the universe as intensely alive and our time on Earth as a journey of discovery into that aliveness, then it makes sense that we would pull together in cooperation in order to realize this magnificent potential.
Consumerism or Conscious Simplicity? Materialism is a rational response to living in a dead universe. In a material universe, consumerism offers a source of identity and a measure of significance and accomplishment. Where do I find pleasure in a non-living universe? In things. How do I know that I amount to anything? By how much stuff I have accumulated. How should I relate to the world? By exploiting that which is dead on behalf of the living. Consumerism and exploitation are natural outcomes of a dead universe perspective. However, if we view the foundations of the universe as being intensely alive, then it makes sense to minimize the material clutter and needless busyness and grow in the non-material riches of lifeâ€”nurturing relationships, caring communities, creative expressions, and more.
Separate or Inter-Connected? If we are no more than biological entities and we are fundamentally separate from one another, then it makes sense to see ourselves as disconnected from the suffering of other living beings. However, if we are all swimming in the same ocean of subtle aliveness, then it makes sense that we would each have a direct experience of communion with, and concern for, the well being of others. If we share the same matrix of existence, then the rest of life is already touching me, co-creating the field within which I exist.
More than Biology and Chemistry? Are we no more than a collection of elements that are experiencing a series of chemical and neurological reactions? In a dead universe, the boundaries of our being are defined by the extent of our physical body. However, in a living universe, our physical existence is permeated and sustained by an aliveness that is inseparable from the larger universe. If we are beings whose consciousness can extend beyond our biological bodies and into the depths and reaches of the living universe, then our physical bodies comprise only the smallest fraction of the full scope of our being.
Our view of the universe creates the context within which we understand and choose our future, so it is critically important that we have an accurate understanding of our cosmic home. Where a dead-universe perspective generates alienation, environmental destruction and despair, a living-universe perspective generates feelings of communion, stewardship, and promising visions of a higher pathway for humanity. The perceptual paradigm of a living universe is an understanding of such immensity that it transforms the story of humanity and reveals the cosmic dimensions of our journey. Although the idea of a living universe has ancient roots in humanexperience, it is now radically new as the frontiers of modernscience cut away superstition andreveal the authentic mystery and subtlety of our cosmic home.
2 It is important not to equate the idea of a dead universe with â€œatheism.â€ Most atheists focus on denying the existence of an external deity, saying this idea is beyond the reach of scientific investigation. The living universe hypothesis is not focused on an external deity but rather on the here and now. Whether the universe is living or non-living is a subject for scientific inquiry. This means that someone could be an atheist (and not believe in an external deity) and at the same time regard the universe as profoundly alive. Conversely, someone could also be a theist and believe in an external deity and at the same time, regard the universe around us as non-living at its foundations. It seems more likely that someone would be a theist and view the universe as living. However, no particular religious orientation automatically fits persons who regard the universe as alive.
3 See: John Roach, â€œAlien Life May Be Weirder Than Scientists Think,â€ National Geographic News, July 6, 2007. The article describes the report by the National Academy of Sciences on the search for extra-terrestrial life. Also see: â€œFrom plasma crystals and helical structures towards inorganic living matter,â€ V N Tsytovich et al 2007 New J. Phys. 9 263 http://www.iop.org/EJ/abstract/1367-2630/9/8/263
20 The designation of modern humans as Homo sapiens sapiens is widespread; see, for example: Joseph Campbell, Historical Atlas of World Mythology, Vol I: The Way of the Animal Powers, Part 1: Mythologies of the Primitive Hunters and Gatherers, New York: Harper and Row, Perennial Library, 1988, p. 22. Richard Leakey, The Making of Mankind, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1981, p. 18. Mary Maxwell, Human Evolution: A Philosophical Anthropology, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984, p. 294. John Pfeiffer, The Creative Explosion: An Inquiry into the Origins of Art and Religion, New York, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982, p. 13. Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World, New York: Penguin Books, 1993, p. 28. In the popular press, see: Newsweek magazine, Nov. 10, 1986, p. 62 and Oct. 16, 1989, p. 71.
27 Patrick Johnsson, â€œNew Research Opens a Window on the Minds of Plants,â€ Christian Science Monitor, March 3, 2005. â€œWe now know there’s an ability of self-recognition in plants, which is highly unusual and quite extraordinary that it’s actually there,â€ says Dr. Trewavas. â€œBut why has no one come to grips with it? Because the prevailing view of a plant, even among plant biologists, is that it’s a simple organism that grows reproducibly in a flower pot.â€ Another study shows that plants appear to have the ability to communicate through the atmosphere. There is â€œtangible proof that plant-to-plant communication occurs on the ecosystem level,â€ says the author of a study that discovered plants in a forest respond to stresses by producing significant amounts of a chemical form of aspirin. This results in the release of volatile organic compounds into the air that may help to activate an ecosystem-wide immune response to the stresses. See: â€œPlants in forest emit aspirin chemical to deal with stress; discovery may help agriculture,â€ Science Daily, September 25, 2008.
28 Griffin, Donald, Speck, Gayle, â€œNew Evidence of Animal Consciousness,â€ in Animal Cognition, Vol. 7, No. 1, January 2004. Published by Springer. Also see, for example, Helen Phillips, â€œKnown Unknowns,â€ New Scientist, December 16, 2006.
29 See, for example, â€œPigeons Show Superior Self-recognition Abilities to Three Year Old Humans,â€ in Science Daily (www.sciencedaily.com), June 14, 2008. Also: â€œSix â€˜uniquelyâ€™ human traits now found in animals,â€ Kate Douglas, New Scientist, May 22, 2008.
33 See, for example, professor Alexander Vilenkin of Tufts University who has developed a model of the expanding universe which accounts for the birth of the universe â€œby quantum tunneling from nothing.â€ â€œBirth of Inflationary Universes,â€ in Physical Review D, 27:12 (1983), p. 2851. Other essays by Vilenkin: â€œQuantum Cosmology and the Initial State of the Universe, â€œ in Physical Review D 37 (1988), pp. 888-897, and â€œApproaches to Quantum Cosmology,â€ in Physical Review D 50 (1994), pp. 2581-2594. Also see, the work of philosopher Quentin Smith writes in his essay â€œThe Uncaused Beginning of the Universe,â€ that: â€œthe fact of the matter is that the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing and for nothing.â€ William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith, Theism, Atheism and Big Bang Cosmology (Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress, 1993).
34 John Gribbin, In the Beginning: The Birth of the Living Universe, New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1993, pp. 244-245. Also, see: David Shiga, â€œCould black holes be portals to other universes?,â€ New Scientist, April 27, 2007.
37 See, for example: Alex Vilenkin, Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes, New York: Hill and Wang, 2006. Ervin Laszlo, Science and the Akashic Field, Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2004. Joel Primack & Nancy Abrams, The View from the Center of the Universe, New York: Riverhead Books, 2006.
39 English translation provided by Jewish Publication Society taken from http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/jps/
42 For another point of view based upon the timeless nature of Godâ€™s existence, see, Psalm 19:2, â€œText, Translation, and Notes,â€ http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2007/08/psalm-191-text-.html
47 It is important to differentiate between â€œcreationismâ€ and â€œcontinuous creationâ€ as they differ in in fundamental ways: Creationism focuses on a one-time event with no evolution whereas continuous creation focuses on a continuous process that includes evolution as an integral aspect of its self-transforming dynamic. Creationism is a one-time event and static where continuous creation sees the universe as dynamically regenerating itself and creatively unfolding through time.
48 A living universe perspective brings new insight into the last supper where, in a sacred ritual of remembrance, Jesus proclaimed that bread and wine were his body and blood. This makes sense when the universe is viewed as a living and continuously recreated entity: all things are the literal body of Godâ€”manifestations of a divine Life force. Jesus could be providing a ritual for remembering that bread and wine are, both symbolically and literally, tangible expressions of a living universe and are infused with the sacred Life force that sustains the entire universe.
49 See, for example, D.B. Macdonald, â€œContinuous Recreation and Atomic Time in Muslim Scholastic Theology,â€ Isis, 9 (1927): 326-344; also, Majid Fakhry, Islamic Occasionalism and Its Critique by Averroes and Aquinas, London: 1958. The Islamic view of occasionalism is more inclusive than the Western philosophy by the same name developed by the Cartesian school (which saw mind and body as absolutely separate; therefore, bodily motion was dependent on the co-operation of God).
71 Luther Standing Bear, quoted in Joseph Epes Brown, â€œModes of Contemplation Through Actions: North American Indians,â€ Main Currents in Modern Thought, New York: Center for Integrative Studies, November-December, 1973, p. 194.