"UNIVERSAL SPIRITUALITY AND THE INDIVIDUAL'S QUEST FOR SPIRITUAL ENLIGHTENMENT"
by Dr. Larry Morris
Delivered at I.N.T.A. Expo, Los Angeles, California (August 1996)
Is there a universal spirituality in each of us which we are seeking to fully realize? And, if so, is this universal spirituality the same as spiritual enlightenment; what they call Moksha in India, Buddha called Nirvana, Richard Bucke called Cosmic Consciousness, Jesus called The Kingdom of Heaven and mystics throughout history have called Union with God? Is spiritual liberation or self-realization the same as universal spirituality or are we speaking of two different things or perhaps merely of two different aspects of the same thing? And is the quest for enlightenment the same as the individual's attempts to embody universal spirituality?
In New Thought we always begin with the premise that God is all: there is only One Presence in the Universe, God the Good, All Good, All Present everywhere. So God is in everyone already or everyone is already in God. If this all-inclusiveness of God is what we mean by universal spirituality, then it is self-evident given our New Thought premise that God is all. Yet universal spirituality seems also to have something to do with an emerging awareness of oneness that is evolutionary in nature. Writers such as Barbara Marx Hubbard and Walter Starcke seem to be echoing the pioneering work of Richard Bucke who postulated a progression of consciousness from simple or animal consciousness to self-consciousness to what Bucke called Cosmic Consciousness (today we may also think of Joseph Campbell's planetary consciousness). In other words, from Bucke's (and I think also from Hubbard's and Starcke's as well as many others) point of view, there is a spiritual evolution occurring within humanity.
Our early ancestors had simple or animal consciousness. From this state, initially through rare individuals until eventually through the whole race, we evolved into self-conscious beings with an awareness of ourselves as separate individuals. Finally, according to Bucke and many others, we have entered the stage within the last 2500 years or so of the beginnings of cosmic consciousness, an increased awareness of oneself not merely as an isolated and separate individual but an awareness of the sense that we onese are interconnected and interwoven, an integral part of all life everywhere, that this is a living totally and eternally connected to it. As Joseph Campbell has put it, the earth grew us, we belong here and here we are infinitely at home, these are earth eyes and earth hands and feet.
Richard Bucke felt that this evolutionary progression from self to cosmic awareness was as great and perhaps even greater than the shift from animal to self-consciousness. And Bucke pointed out that so far there have been only a handful of great illumined beings such as Jesus and Buddha who have fully attained cosmic consciousness. Yet Bucke sees these great beings as forerunners who have attained a state that eventually will be realized by all humanity. (One interesting difference here between East and West is that in Buddhism and Hinduism the enlightened state is said to extend throughout every sentient form of life, whereas in the West, it seems to still be limited to human beings, thought this awareness, too, may be changing in the West). So Ramana Maharishi is said to have led his pet cow through all the levels of consciousness into the enlightened state just before the cow passed away. It would be difficult to think of a Western equivalent for this sense that animals and plants, too, can become enlightened or cosmically conscious. Part of the issue is whether or not the enlightened state (if it be the same as Bucke's cosmic consciousness) is realized through an evolutionary process or not, i.e., could an animal skip self-consciousness and go directly from simple to cosmic awareness?
If what is meant by universal spirituality is some cosmic consciousness toward which we are all evolving, is there a contradiction with the Eastern notion of enlightenment which does not presuppose an evolutionary progression of consciousness? Another interesting question is whether the enlightened state itself represents 'universal ' in the sense that it represents the attainment of a state of universal consciousness spirituality that is more or less similar between one enlightened person and another. Richard Bucke postulates that Jesus' state and Buddha's state (and Dante and Walt Whitman and Baudelaire for that matter) were more or less the same excluding cultural differences and some differences of individual temperament. But is this really the case?
Also Bucke says that one cosmic conscious individual's experience would never contradict or conflict with that of another, and that the truth would be the same for both. But certainly there have been many instances of those who have been considered enlightened contradicting each other regarding the nature of their state and the path to its attainment. In the 20th Century, we have two men who are considered enlightened by many people: one, Jiddu Krishnamurti, who said that there is no path whatsoever to enlightenment, and two, U. G. Krishnamurti, who said that the enlightened state itself is an illusion, the biggest illusion of all.
The question here seems to revolve around the notion of spiritual progression through time. Since the oriental view of time is cyclical rather than historical, the oriental sense of enlightenment has to do more with a sudden awakening as if from a dream rather than some unfolding or progressive process. It may be argued that universal spirituality is already in us or with us; we are already it; therefore, it is not something we have to attain as in the case of the Buddha 'attaining' Nirvana. If universal spirituality is a given of our condition (perhaps something like Noarn Chomsky's organ of intelligence which is implanted in us but is far more intelligent than we are and which provides us with the capacity for language acquisition), there is still the question of how we might become aware of it. Chomsky doubted that the human organism could ever come to really know this language-acquiring intelligence within itself.
Joel Goldsmith (perhaps one of New Thought's most enlightened teachers) recalls when he had one hundred dollars in a bank account of which he was unaware. Even though he had the money, because he wasn't aware of it, it was of no use to him. So, too, with universal spirituality (or even enlightenment, if they are indeed more or less the same): even if we are all already enlightened or already one with universal spirituality, of what value is it to us, if we are not aware of it?
The question, then, is: are we in some sense, as a planet, becoming more aware of our universal spirituality? Is there really a hundredth monkey syndrome at work in human consciousness bringing us all to a deeper realization of our universal spirituality? Or is there some astrological or planetary influence at work bringing us closer to this realization? (We may think of harmonic convergence or other like theories). As some New Age theorists would have it, are we moving into a new golden age of oneness and unity where barriers and divisions dissolve? Is there any evidence to show that time has created a more unified or harmonious planet? Or will there be some cataclysmic event which will jolt this planet's inhabitants into a sudden realization of oneness? (This latter suggestion sounds almost closer to the oriental concept of sudden awakening rather than a temporal progression unless we consider the second coming of Christ as ushering in the end of history).
I don't see any particular evidence of a growing sense of unity and oneness. The spiritual movements (including New Thought) which espouse universal spirituality do not seem to be particularly on the rise. The only indication may be that bookstores carry many more spiritual and metaphysically-oriented titles now than they did ten to twenty years ago. But whether this means that people are embracing the teachings in these books is not clear. And it doesn't seem likely that the year 2000 will somehow magically create a new millennium in the minds and hearts of humanity. So without some unforeseen cataclysmic event, it's difficult to envision a profound change in human consciousness within the near future.
But from Richard Bucke's point of view, it took thousands of years for humanity as a whole to shift from simple to self-consciousness and it may well take an equal length of time for humanity to move from self- to cosmic-consciousness. So universal spirituality may be more of a vision of the distant future rather than something most of us can experience right now as a fully realized state. Or perhaps there are visionaries who know more than we and who lay claim to an occult knowledge concerning the speeding up time, if indeed universal spirituality has to do with an evolutionary progression -- but this doesn't lend itself to rational discussion.
There are moments of deep spiritual insight when we do feel one with the oneness of all life and when we know with absolute certainty that all is right with us and our world and always has been and always will be. And there are moments when we feel a profound spiritual empathy with another person and feel as if the two of us have become one. If these moments of profound spiritual insight and empathy are what is meant by 'universal spirituality,' I don't see any argument. However, if what is meant is some impending mass, lock step, social and/or political movement of people marching into a new age harmonic convergence -- the flower children of the 90's -- this doesn't seem very appealing to me or agree with my understanding of the spiritual path itself. The quest for enlightenment really is not a group sport.
It seems to me that the path, in Plotinus' words, is from the alone to the Alone. While we meet each other in spiritual communion and share the journey at times in fellowship and delight, much of our unfoldment takes place in the depths of our individual hearts. And if we look at the histories of those who are considered enlightened beings, we see much solitude and individual soul-searching. Someone once said of an enlightened being, 'he is like a flower; you don't ask of a rose that it be more like a violet or in what ways the rose and the violet are the same.' The enlightened state is perhaps the most gratuitous and unique of experiences. Just as our own inner experiences are always gratuitous (we can't predict when they will happen or determine how to make them happen) and unique (no two spiritual experiences are ever alike) so, too, with the enlightened state itself. Any enlightened experience is a gift from a spiritual dimension beyond ourselves.
Whether a second coming of Christ or the Maitreya Buddha or some other cosmic event will usher in a time of spiritual benevolence when this gift will descend universally upon all of us seems beyond the realm of human reckoning. At the same time, there is certainly a spiritual journey taking place in each of us right this moment and at any instant, any one of us may awaken into a fully complete, totally-enlightened state. At any instant our hearts can melt into the Heart of this universe and we lose ourselves in the Greater Life.