By Deepak Chopra, MD
It is often overlooked that the role of spirituality was once the same as the role science plays today: to explain how Nature works. As science views reality, objective facts and rational thinking outstrip the traditional spiritual worldview, which explained Nature through higher powers known as the gods or God. But recently the playing field has become much more level than anyone ever anticipated.
Explaining reality through objective means has seriously eroded, chiefly because as science drew closer to the source where space, time, matter, and energy emerge, Nature as we know it vanished. At the level of the quantum vacuum, the zero point of empirical knowledge, something inconceivable is at work. Only advanced mathematics remains as a useful tool when time and space no longer exist, and even then, our mathematical models are suspect, because there is no longer any proof that they actually match reality.
To visualize this situation, imagine that you are a traveler who has followed your tour guide to a borderline. He turns and says, "Up to now we have crossed the land where causes lead to effects, where clocks measure time and space has three dimensions, where physical objects are reliably solid. No doubt you've already noticed that your five senses no longer operate, and we had better be careful taking another step, because your mind won't be capable of reasoning out anything across this borderline. Shall we cross?"
You can imagine that you would hesitate, because across the borderline is simply "beyond," a realm where reality originates even though nothing we consider real exists. It's remarkable that thousands of years ago, looking inward through self-awareness, ancient thinkers reached the same borderline, and what they imagined "beyond" wasn't in fact gods or God, because religion arrived much later to offer a simpler story about "beyond." The non-simple story was about pure consciousness. Where science views "beyond" as a dark mystery, the ancient thinkers of India saw the starting-point of reality as a state of awareness that is actually reachable.
In both cases the familiar world of space, time, matter, and energy disappears across the borderline, but for modern science, which takes objective facts as the most reliable guide to reality, there's a breakdown, because beyond the zero point, the absence of data means there are no more objective facts. In the worldview we dub as spiritual, however, reality doesn't break down. The "beyond" is continuous with our world as the source of experience.
It turns out, when it comes to explaining reality, that where you start has everything to do with where you end. If you start with conscious experience as your measure of reality, the end is pure consciousness. If you start with physical objects "out there," you end up with emptiness, a void. A scientific skeptic might protest that the "beyond" can't be different for two people just because they began with different assumptions. Two travelers visiting the Pyramids are going to see the same thing, no matter what they expect when they set foot on the plane.
But the extraordinary thing is that the "beyond" is an exception. It can be the source of awareness or an empty void, entirely depending on how the human mind constructs it. If the world "out there" is real, once it vanishes into the quantum vacuum, the "beyond" is an empty void or at best a theoretical mathematical space. But if conscious experience is real, then consciousness was constructing reality all along. Having arrived at the borderline, we can look back over our shoulder and say, "Oh, I get it now. Everything I ever thought was real is constructed from consciousness. Consciousness isn't an add-on. It's the only thing that was real in the first place."
This simple realization is what the East calls enlightenment or waking up. One sees that physical reality is a human construct and always has been. When we are in bed dreaming at night, a dreamscape can feel entirely real, but on the moment of waking up, we realize its illusory nature. To a rationalist who bases his worldview on physical objects "out there," it sounds bizarre to say that one can also wake up and see the familiar world as a dreamscape. But that's the great challenge of spirituality, which we should more accurately called consciousness-based reality.The ancient thinkers explained with detailed specificity how consciousness constructs the entire range of reality from the grossest to the subtlest phenomena. For simplicity's sake, one can reduce the explanation to twelve salient points, as follows:
- Everyday reality appears to be a given, but on investigation, it reveals itself as a human construct.
- The building blocks of reality are not tiny physical objects (atoms, subatomic particles) but exist in our awareness, where everything begins and ends as an excitation (activity) in consciousness.
- We know reality as the experience of observer and observed occurring in the now. The fundamental experience of both observer and observed is in the form of mental sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts (SIFT).
- Sensations, images, feelings, thoughts are entangled modifications of awareness, the result of social and cultural conditioning and accepted systems of education. Our awareness gets deeply involved in many systems (education, politics, gender, religion, etc.).
- Systems are arbitrarily made and changed. Therefore, no construct has a privileged position over another. Truth is always relative inside any system.
- These constructs, however, are intensely real for the individual awareness embedded in it. We allow ourselves to be programmed by such systems and would feel naked and vulnerable without them. In the world's wisdom traditions, this is known as the state of bondage.
- Excitations of awareness are not as basic as pure, timeless, dimensionless awareness. They modulate pure awareness like a switch that brings the familiar world into existence/experience.
- Excitations or vibrations take place in the domain of time; in fact, they create the sensation of time itself. Pure awareness is timeless.
- We are entangled in a vibrational reality that feels real on its own terms but is basically a mental construct, like a dream. To realize this is known as "waking up." To someone who is awake, everything in the phenomenal world exists on the same playing field. As constructs, the same status is shared by birth, death, body, mind, brain, universe, stars, galaxies, the big bang, and God or the gods.
- Freedom lies in the experience of knowing yourself beyond all constructs. You are pure awareness before the subject/object split came about.
- All human suffering is the result of attachment to a construct, including fear of the construct we call death. Death is only real within the limits of the construct we manufactured. It doesn't occur to the awareness that stands apart and sees all experiences rising and falling in the timeless moment of now.
- The ultimate goal of all experience is the same: finding the "real" reality in one's own being.
These points are just as logical and consistent as modern science, and one can argue that they are much more sound as philosophy, given that science hasn't come close to explaining how bits of matter created conscious awareness while these points assume something everyone knows to be true: we are conscious beings. As unconventional as they may seem, these points offer a better way to find out what's real. And we don't have to debate whether ancient thinkers can rival modern advanced science. Consciousness-based reality is just as testable today as it ever way. Each person's challenge is to accept the invitation to journey inward or not, because ultimately, going beyond depends on individual experience and nothing else.
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism. He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. The World Post and The Huffington Post global internet survey ranked Chopra #17 influential thinker in the world and #1 in Medicine. Chopra is the author of more than 80 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest books are Super Genes co-authored with Rudolph Tanzi, PhD and Quantum Healing (Revised and Updated): Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine. www.deepakchopra.com