Only one who accepts that the essence or meaning of life is not material but spiritual can be free.
There was a time when we believed in something called stuff. Stuff was solid, permanent, the building blocks of life. But the deeper we looked into stuff the less stuff we found. Today we no longer believe in stuff. Today we know that there is nothing solid, and what we call solid is simply an illusion caused by speed. A table, for instance, isn’t really solid. It is in fact mostly empty space, but the atoms of the wood (which are not solid themselves) are racing through empty space so fast as to keep us from putting our hands or coffee cups in the spaces between them.
With the ending of stuff we might have decided that life was essentially spiritual, but this didn’t happen. Instead we defined “spiritual” as that which does not pertain to stuff, even though we know that stuff doesn’t really exist. “Spiritual” became the imaginary icing on an equally imaginary cake. This did not, as Epictetus would have hoped, set us free. It simply left us hopeless and despairing.
So now what should we do? We have two choices. Either redefine our terms, or realize that we are already free just as we are.
I opt for the latter. Definitions are necessary because language is at the heart of what it means to be human. We have to know what words mean if we are to communicate effectively with one another. But there are some words that we need not worry about, and “material” and “spiritual” may be two of these.
What if you no longer saw the world as material, and no longer posited another world as spiritual? What of you just knew that the world is the way it is and no longer divided it up into competing camps of material and spiritual? What if you simply encountered every “thing” as a temporary manifestation of life? Would you then engage life in a new way? Would you then appreciate what is while it is? Would you then not hold on to stuff or spirit, but simply, humbly, gratefully, meet what is in the moment it is?
To live in this way is, for me, freedom— freedom from categories that divide life from life, and trap me in systems of thought that may have no bearing on reality at all.
So I would rewrite Epictetus proverb this way: “Only one who accepts that the essence or meaning of life is neither material or spiritual, but fundamentally empty and unknowable can be free.” What do you think?
Jesus said, “When you know yourselves, you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty and you are poverty.”
— Gospel According to Thomas (Christianity)
What does it mean to know yourself? If such knowing leads to the realization that you are a child of the Living God, then the knowing of which Jesus speaks is not the ordinary knowing of which you are accustomed. Knowing your name, your address, your family tree, your achievements—none of this knowing leads to such a realization. Neither does knowing you are of this or that gender, race, tribe, religion, or nationality. Neither does knowing you are wise or simple, rich or poor, old or young. None of your regular knowing leads anywhere.
There are three kinds of knowing. There is the knowing of facts that form the basis for mathematics and science, and facts that allow you to function in the world: your address, phone and social security numbers, email addresses and computer passwords. It would be difficult to function in the modern world without these.
Then there is psychological knowing: you have this or that neurosis, complex, addiction, prejudice, bias, preference, etc. This knowing is the stuff of your story, and the persona you create to live in and through that story. It never leads to divine realization because it never points anywhere but back to the one who makes it. Psychological knowing is a mirror, often a fun–house mirror, that gives you the illusion that you are who you say you are.
The third kind of knowing is the knowing to which Jesus refers in this Gospel. When you know yourself you see that the persona is, as the word itself says, a mask. You know there is a face behind that mask, and that the mask is not that face. When you know yourself you know that the first and second kinds of knowing are all in service to the mask, and not the face. Knowing this allows you to look behind the mask.
When you peer behind the mask, you glimpse the face. There is only one Face, and that is God’s Face. The masks are many, but the Face is one. God’s Face is your face, just as the ocean is each of its waves. You are not all of God’s Face but you cannot be other than God’s Face.
Knowing this you dwell in true wealth, for you are one with the One and hence free from the poverty of fear of death that robs you from all lasting joy. The poverty Jesus speaks of is not a lack of funds, but of truth. When you don’t know who you are, when you identify with the mask rather than the Face, you live in fear of the mask’s death. When you are the Face rather than the mask, you can enjoy the play knowing that when the show ends you do not.
“What need have I of all your sacrifices?” says the Lord. “I am stuffed with burnt offerings…Your festivals of new moon and fixed seasons nauseate Me… when you lift of your hands to Me, I will turn away My eyes; though you pray at length I will not listen. Your hands are stained with crime, wash yourselves clean. Put away your evil from My sight; cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice: aid the wronged, uphold the rights of the orphan, defend the cause of the widow.
— Isaiah 1:11-17 (Jewish Prophet, 1213–1289)
Imagine yourself hearing the word of God from the mouth of Isaiah. What is this blasphemy? God is sick of our sacrifices? God hates our festivals? Why it was God who commanded these things! For a thousand years we were to worship God in these ways, and now they no longer work? What are we to do?
The prophets mark a sea-change in the spiritual consciousness of the Jews. God was never blind to injustice or deaf to compassion, but it was sacrifice and ritual that placated his wrath. With the prophets the people come to understand that it is not outward form but the inner conscience that matters. The former can be, and indeed was outgrown; the latter is something we cannot outgrow, and only hope to grow into.
Isaiah provides you with a guide to godliness. It is not enough that you cease to do evil, are you actively learning to do good? It is not enough that you cease to do injustice, are you devoted to justice? How are you aiding the wronged and protecting the powerless such as orphans and widows? Pray with your feet and you hands, not with your tongue.
This is the background to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew that what we do to the least among us— those without the power to help us or to harm us— we do to Jesus as well. This teaching of Jesus was as shocking to his listeners as that of Isaiah was to his. And when we put them together, what do they reveal?
If God is infinite there is nothing that is not apart of God. When we act meanly to another, we act meanly toward God. When we cheat another, we cheat God. When we ignore the needs of the poor and the powerless we ignore God, for God is all that is.
In the days of the prophet the people could hide behind their rituals. In our own time many hide just as well behind their faith. Yet not all who call out, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, “but only they who do the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). And what is that will? Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Jesus may be more than a great Hebrew prophet, but he certainly is no less.
God says, “I fulfill My servant’s expectations of Me, and I am with you when you remember me. If you remember Me in your heart, I remember you in My heart. If you remember Me in public, I remember you in public. And if you draw near to Me by a handsbreadth, I draw near to you by an armslength; and if you draw near to me by an armslength, I draw near to you by a fathom; and if you come to Me walking, I come to you running.”
— Hadith (Islam)
There are at least two aspects of this hadith that deserve closer investigation: “remembering God” and “drawing near to God.”
What is it to “remember God?” In Islam zikhir, the formal remembrance of God by calling out the ninety–nine Names of God, is an essential practice among Sufis and Muslim mystics. The Names are the attributes of God, the ways in which God manifests in the world and the ways in which we can imitate God by acting godly. So, in one sense, to remember God is to remember to act as God acts. But there is a deeper meaning to remembrance as well.
To re–member is to re–pair to make something whole again. Can it be that God is somehow broken and in need of repair? No. God is the whole that embraces and transcends all parts, so God in God’s own self cannot be broken. But our conception of God, our connection with God, indeed our ability to imitate God by acting godly can and often is not only broken but shattered. This is why the hadith links remembrance with drawing near. We remember God, we repair ourselves to God when we draw near to God. And we draw near to God when we act godly.
Any movement of godliness, of drawing near to God by acting godly, no matter how small, elicits a far greater movement of God toward us. You cannot but feel God’s love for you in this hadith: “Stretch out your hand to Me, and I will stretch out My arm. Walk even a step toward Me, and I will run a mile toward you.”
Too often we imagine that we are so trapped in our own wickedness that God is lost to us. This is idolatry: we focus on our sins rather than God’s love and ability to forgive those sins. By imagining we are beyond God’s reach we are really saying we are greater than God. Such thinking is addictive and hard to break. So Allah does not say, “Break it,” only “Reach out a little.” God does not ask us to change ourselves, but only to make a move toward change. And that is never beyond our ability.
Let God do the running. Only walk toward God as best you can.
THE NEVERCOMING KINGDOM
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
— Gospel According to Luke, 17:20–22 (Christianity)
To the Pharisees Jesus’ words could not but remind them of much older words uttered by Moses, “For this commandment with I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say ‘Who will go up for us to heaven and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go across the sea for us, and bring it to us that we may hear and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Deuteronomy 30:11–14). Both Moses and Jesus are challenging the ultimate obstacle to spiritual awakening—time.
The Pharisees challenge to Jesus is to enlist him in the illusion that the kingdom of God is something that is not yet. They believe that such a kingdom is coming, but as long as they imagine it to be in the future they never have to engage it here and now. Jesus refuses to put off the kingdom and says here, as he did for example in Mark, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand,” (Mark 1:15). In other words time is finished for otherwise the kingdom cannot manifest.
Moses is saying the same thing: Do not imagine that you have to do something, go somewhere, achieve some goal in order to live the commandment, the word, the kingdom. There is nowhere to go, no time to pass. It is already in your mouth and your heart; it is already among you, within you. The kingdom of God and the doing godly is here and now or it is nowhere and never.
The Pharisees would prefer things to be otherwise. Chances are so would you. We don’t want the kingdom to be here, now, and among us. We want it to be somewhere else that we might strive for it and have the excuse when we fail to live it that the struggle was too great for us. But there is no struggle. There is nothing you need do to achieve the kingdom; you already have it. You either live it or you don’t, but there is no pretending that it is beyond you.
Jesus says the kingdom is not coming with things that you can see. Why? Because observation implies time, and the kingdom is here, now. The time you spend looking for signs is time you are not spending living the kingdom here and now.
Time is the great hideout of the faithful allowing us to wait upon rather than live out the kingdom of God. As long as we believe the kingdom is coming we never have to deal with the simple truth that it is already here.
When you don’t display yourself, people can see your light. When you have nothing to prove, people can trust your words. When you don’t know who you are, people recognize themselves in you. When you have no goal in mind, everything you do succeeds.
— Tao te Ching, Chapter 22 (Taoism)
So much of what you do turns out to achieve the opposite of what you intend. Why? There may be as many answers as there are actions to examine and perhaps excuse, but Lao Tzu, the author of the Tao te Ching, suggests that the problem lies not in the actions themselves but in the hubris behind them.
You want to shine, to be noticed, to “be somebody.” Or perhaps you wish to stay in the shadows, to hide, to be nobody. Either way you are imposing your desire on reality and seeking to shape things in accordance with it.
When we are taught to be “somebody” the implication is really to be “somebody else.” You are always somebody, but that somebody is often thought to be less than the somebody else you could be. So you imagine this somebody else and do your best to imitate her. No matter how good you get at this game, it is always one of imitation. The true you is hidden behind the somebody or nobody who are pretending to be. Lao Tzu says, “Give up the game and let your true light be seen.”
When you pretend to be somebody else you always have something to prove, and proving it maintains the illusion that you are whom you pretend to be. The act of proving something requires you to shape your words to fit your conclusion. Everything you say is a kind of propaganda spinning reality to prove a point in service to your illusory somebody else. Lao Tzu says, “Give up proving points and live truth as you see it., then people will learn to trust what you say, even if they disagree.”
When you insist upon knowing who you are, you are addicted to the somebody else you so desperately want to be. You can’t know who you are because who you are is not fixed; it is living, flowing, surprising even itself. The somebody else is an image that can be known because it is dead, stillborn in fact. Lao Tzu says, “Give up the dead you and be the living you, and then people will see their own unfolding mirrored in you, and be drawn to you in friendship.”
If you don’t know who you are how can you have a goal? Only the somebody else has goals, and they are as dead as the somebody they are meant to support. To plan out your life before you have lived it is to abandon living it altogether. Life is surprise, living is moving from the unknown to the unknown. The known is always in the past—fixed, dead. Lao Tzu says, “Give up your goals and engage each moment fresh, doing what must be done without scheming and worry how it will serve your somebody else. In this you cannot fail.”
Behold the universe and all that lives and moves on this earth in the glory of God. Release the transient, and find joy in the Eternal… The Spirit, without moving, outpaces the mind; the senses cannot touch Him and He is never beyond them... The spirit of life, all streams of action, flow into the ocean of His being…. See all beings in your own Self, and your own Self in all beings, and you lose all fear.
— Isa Upanishad (Hinduism)
How does the Eternal impact the temporal? How does the One Who Is Beyond relate to those whose reality is here and now? If there is such a boundary between you and God it cannot be breached, but perhaps the boundary is imagined only, and that God’s eternality embraces and transcends your temporality.
This is the God proposed by the Isa Upanishad. Everything that is lives and moves in the glory of God. This is St. Paul’s understanding of God as the One “in Whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). You are not apart from God but a part of God. Hence the Spirit, without moving, outpaces the mind for it is the field in which the mind emerges, races, and returns.
Just as fish may have no concept of water, and birds may not understand the reality of air, so you may not recognize the One in Whom you live, move and have your being. It is not your estrangement from God that makes God mysterious, it is your intimate unity with God that does this. Hence the spiritual challenge posed by the Isa Upanishad is to see God in, with, and as all things: to see all life as part of your truest Self, God. But how?
How can you use your doubt and separateness to transcend doubt and separateness? To overcome doubt by sheer will, to insist on faith without first facing doubt is simply to pretend to something you have not yet earned. You can pretend to faith and do so with such vehemence that no one will challenge you, but deep down doubt still lingers and threatens to erode the charade of certainty that masks and blocks true spiritual growth.
The way out of doubt is to move through doubt. When you are willing to doubt without hesitation, which means to doubt even your own doubts, that you enter a place of not–knowing where you are open to experiencing what is rather than what you fear might be or might not be.
When you honor doubt by exploring it fearlessly all other fears drop away as well. You discover your true Self; not the temporal and temporary ego that sees God as Other only, but the fully present and timeless Self that sees God as each and all, and that which is greater still.
Trusting God with a whole heart, your prayers are empty of wants and don’t wants. Trusting God with a whole heart not a single thought of self arises. At each moment you simply trust your Father in heaven, whose love is infinite, and who gives you more than you could ever desire or imagine.
—Isaac of Nineveh (6th Century Syrian Monk)
What is it to be whole–hearted? The ancient rabbis noticed an anomaly in the Torah: an extra letter “vet” in the Hebrew word levavecha, “heart” found in Deuteronomy 6:5: “And you shall love the Ineffable One your God with all your heart.” The normal spelling of “your heart” is levcha, so why the additional letter giving us levavecha?
It would never occur to the rabbis that God’s word could contain a type–o; this misspelling points toward a deeper teaching: the two vets imply two fundamental inclinations (yetzer) in every human heart: Yetzer haRah and Yetzer haTov, an inclination toward selfishness and evil (rah) and an inclination toward selflessness and good (tov). To love God with all your heart means to love God with both inclinations.
Evil arises when selfishness dominates. Selfishness dominates when you imagine a deficient world locked in a zero–sum game winners an losers. As long as you live with this zero-sum delusion you cannot trust God or abandon your focus on self. Turning Yetzer haRah toward God is ending the delusion and knowing that “gives you more than you could ever desire or imagine.” (see also 2 Corinthians 9:8).
There are two steps in turning your Yetzer haRah toward God. First, link it to justice and compassion, the primary attributes of Yetzer haTov. The rabbis taught that without Yetzer haRah you wouldn’t marry, raise a family, or run a business. Why? Because each of these is rooted in self. Since the key is not to erase the self but to keep it free from selfishness, fall in love and treat your partner with utmost respect, raise a family and treat your children wisely and with compassion, and run a business just do so justly and honestly.
Secondly, practice trust through generosity. By giving freely from what you have, you realize that scarcity is an illusion. The more you give the more you trust the infinite nature of God’s giving, and free the Yetzer haRah from the zero–sum delusion. As trust grows, Yetzer haRah takes its rightful place as vehicle for God’s generosity, and in this way you become whole–hearted in your turning toward God and godliness.\
EVERYTHING IS GOD’S GRACE
When the wise search for the nature of all things, they discover a simple and profound truth: everything is God’s grace. Every being in the world, and the world itself, manifests the blessings and generosity of God.
—Philo (Jewish philosopher)
We tend to link the idea of God’s grace with the idea of choice: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy (Exodus 33:19). But Philo is offering us a very different understanding.
To say “everything is God’s grace” is to end the separation between grace and the object of grace. According to Philo, you are not graced by God, but rather you are God’s grace. There is no distinction between grace and the object of grace: grace is not a verb but a gerund, the acting of God in the world as the world. If this is true not only of you but of all things as well, then evil, too, is the grace of God; and if evil is also the grace of God, our entire notion of grace and God’s free will must be rethought.
God’s grace is like the sun shining. The sun doesn’t choose to shine; the sun shines because suns shine. The sun shines because that is what suns do; the sun shines because if it didn’t it wouldn’t be a sun. Just as you cannot separate shining from sun, so you cannot separate grace from God. This may be what Jesus was pointing toward when he said God “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). God doesn’t discriminate.
We like to imagine a God of free will because we can then look upon grace as a reward. While we cannot earn grace we can at least be worthy of grace. But Philo and Jesus may be saying something else entirely. God’s grace flows because of God’s nature requires it to flow. If God is infinite and all-knowing, what choice can God have? God’s very nature precludes choice as you and I know it. Choice is only possible when outcomes are unknown. Since there is nothing unknown to God, choice is meaningless to God.
God’s nature is to be God, and that means to create, to manifest life in all its multiplicity. God is less the potter who can choose to throw a pot or not, and more like the sun which shines on the evil and the good. Choice is irrelevant to God.
The key to Philo’s insight is to realize that all life is God’s generosity, blessing, and grace: all life, the good as well as the bad, the joyous as well as the sorrowful. Everything that is, simply because it is, is part of the infinity of God. It cannot be otherwise, for if something were outside God’s infinity, God would not be infinite. Everything you see is God’s manifesting grace. No longer need we ask Where is God, but only look and see there is God.
KNOWLEDGE OF BRAHMAN
Once Rama asked Hanuman, 'How do you look on Me?' Hanuman replied: "O Rama, as long as I have the feeling of 'I,' I see that You are the whole and I am apart; You are the Master and I am Your servant. But when, O Rama, I have the knowledge of Truth, then I realize that You are Me, and I am You.”
—The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna
Like Jesus asking Peter, “But who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:29), Rama’s query to his disciple Hanuman is a way of investigating the latter’s level of spiritual insight. There are as many responses to this type of query as there are levels of awareness from which to respond. You may see God as King or as Servant, as Healer or as Tormenter, as Ultimate Truth or Ultimate Fiction. Neither Jesus nor Rama prefaces their questions with theological bias. Neither says, "Do you know I am God?" It is irrelevant to them who they are, what matters is who we see them to be.
Peter’s response to Jesus, “You are the Christ,” parallel’s Hanuman’s reply to Rama: When I look at You from the perspective of ego, I am separate from You. I serve You as a servant serves a master. They differ only in that Peter sees nothing beyond the dualism of “God above, humanity below,” while Hanuman limits this level of insight to the egoic stage only, and goes beyond it to the nondual insight of radical unity.
Mystics aside, the West places duality at the heart of reality. Creation is an artifact made by God, and not to be confused with God. Hence we seek only to serve God, and those who claim to be God are thought to be heretics or insane. Both charges were laid against Jesus’ when he followed Hanuman in stepping beyond the dualism and said, “I and the Father are one,” (John 10:30).
To safeguard their dualistic outlook, Jesus is said by his followers to be unique, and by his detractors to be deluded. Unbound by dualism, and seeing that the infinity of God precludes there being anything other than God, the spiritually realized Hindu provides room for dualism even as it steps beyond it to the realization that “You are me, and I am You.”
Hanuman is not saying that dualism is wrong, only that it is limited to the egoic level of spiritual attainment. The ego has its place in a system that transcends it, and the goal of a true disciple of God is to work through the egoic to the divine and to say with Jesus, “I and the father are one.” It is on this level that religions unite in a common insight of nonduality. It is on this level that God is seen working in, with, and as the world.
The question you must answer is the same one asked of Peter and Hanuman: Who do you say God is? Regardless of how you respond, ask yourself this as well: Can there be more to God than this? And, if so, what is that more and how does it relate to me?
A season is set for everything, a time for every doing under heaven: A time for birthing and a time for dying, a time for planting and a time for uprooting; a time for slaying and a time for healing, a time for tearing down and a time for building up; a time for weeping and a time for laughing, a time for mourning and a time for dancing; a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones, a time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces; a time for seeking and a time for losing, a time for keeping and a time for discarding; a time for ripping and a time for sewing, a time for silence and a time for speaking; a time for loving and a time for hating; a time for war and a time for peace.
Nothing is withheld from you; all of life’s dualities are laid out for you. To ask for one without its partner is to ask for fronts without backs, or mountains without valleys. To ask for one without the other is ask for half a life, bespeaking a failure of nerve that leaves you unable to truly live. Ecclesiastes is not offering you a safe path through life; rather he is sharing the simple truth that life itself is the path, and walking it will bring you face to face with both the holy to the horrifying. Your choice is not between one thing and its opposite. Your choice is whether or not to walk at all.
For Ecclesiastes the question is not why things happen, but when: Is this harvest time or planting season? Is this a moment for building up or tearing down? The key is act in accord with the moment, and in so doing to discover that the entire universe seems to collaborate in our doing. The Chinese call this wu-wei, noncoercive action. Your doing is effortless and choiceless, surrendering to the moment and trusting that this is God’s will. You need not decide what you want, you simply need to know what time it is.
What time is it in your life? Is it time to tear or time to mend? A time to keep or time to discard? Don’t ask, “What do I want to do?” Ask, “What is the moment calling me to do?” and then do that without hesitation or fear.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro
Interfaith Spiritual Advisor,