essays

What we owe one another: a spiritual perspective

This piece was written for and placed third in the Santa Fe Reporter’s 2021 nonfiction contest, in response to the prompt “What do we owe one another?” The Reporter’s publication of the piece can be found here.

I believe that happiness—and not just happiness but profound, unabating bliss—is our birthright.

Let me explain. When we are born, I believe that we are born into a singular, undivided consciousness which simultaneously contains all beings. This is spoken of in spiritual traditions as oneness, Christ consciousness, Nirvana, and various other names.

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You can see this sometimes in infants and small children, who seem so bedazzlingly open as to puzzle the adult. When the child laughs, they do not laugh with the reserve which dampens the laughter of their elders; they laugh as though the world itself is delightful, the laugh emitting from some source within the earth and passing through them. Similarly, when young children cry, they cry as though the pain is overwhelming; there is no self-consciousness about the pain, no guardedness against experience.

So what happens to this undifferentiated, and therefore interconnected, consciousness?

In your own life, you can probably remember primary experiences of trauma, experiences in which you were palpably separated from those around you. Perhaps this separation came in the form of racialized trauma, the teaching that you looked different from your community and, concomitantly, that there was something wrong with you; perhaps it was other forms of exclusion, such as your gender, your intellect, your self-expression, or any other of infinite dimensions along which we can be individualized. Necessarily, this exclusion also came with some form of judgement, the feeling that there was something “bad” or “wrong” with you, the reason for your pain.

In response to these foundational experiences, you formed a self. The self is a construct which seeks to regain the boundless pleasure of undifferentiated consciousness, precisely by denying the “truths” which have been used to exclude us. For instance, if an environment has told us that we are not intelligent enough to belong, then a self arises which seeks to prove itself intelligent; doing this, the subconscious hope is that the comfort and peace which pre-existed the judgement will return. To use a different example, if the self-forming message is that one is overweight, then a self emerges whose goal is to lose weight, to fit a predefined cultural image, in order that the self itself can disappear—in other words, in order that one can re-merge with the collective, the site of peace children know so well.

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It is not that the self is problematic—in fact, all of the literature and other art we humans have created recounts and explores the travails of the self, a canon of both great beauty and incredible diversity. However, it is important to note that the project of selfhood itself is doomed. Never in your life will you become “intelligent” enough that all self-doubt is removed; similarly, never in your life will the “perfect” body be attained, such that all worries about appearance vanish. There will be no perfect racial community in which to house your interiorized inferiority, no perfect relationship to quell your fears that you cannot adequately fulfill the role of partner. And so on and so forth.

This being the case, peace is found through relinquishing the project of selfhood as a whole, which is to say recognizing that that project lives within the unending equanimity to which we are inheritors. Just as the child laughing with the glory of existence, just as that same child crying when existence hurts, we ourselves are products of this undifferentiated, inarguable peace and love—regardless of whether we feel it in all moments, no matter how far we may stray from this awareness in any given behavior. What I have described in this paragraph can double as a description of faith itself.

And so what do we “owe” one another? Knowing that we are products of an unassailable bliss, but knowing simultaneously that the embodied experience is one of straying from that bliss, how can we help one another not only to enjoy, but to celebrate existence?

First off, we need to remember that all selfhood is conditional and, in that respect, that every circumstance bears gratitude. If we have been fortunate enough to attain the kind of awareness I describe in this essay, then that awareness itself is the consequence of our life’s circumstances; as such, we can no more take responsibility for it than we can take responsibility for being born. This being the case, we recognize simultaneously that everyone else’s awareness is a product of their circumstances, too; as such, it becomes obvious that our duty is to help liberate everyone else from suffering, rather than judge them for wherever they may meet us along their path. Political considerations arise from this simple observation that trauma and awareness are unevenly distributed.

Second, and perhaps paradoxically, we need to recognize that the self’s journey is as beautiful and revelatory as it is troublesome. For instance, suppose someone has been born into a body that is frail and that lifelong illness is a portion of this person’s lot. Well, from the perspective of singular consciousness, doesn’t this lifelong illness generate another experience which that consciousness then gets to explore? This being the case, doesn’t the person’s existence add to the whole in a way that no other life could accomplish? Once we see that the purpose of every experience is for divine consciousness to understand itself, we see also that there are in fact no “problems” in life, that even the origin of the self in trauma is something to be revered, something to be wished for. Without that separation through trauma, there could be no experience at all.

Holding these two teachings simultaneously—on the one hand wanting to help others, but on the other knowing that help is not necessary—we teach, as it were, with a light hand, offering our services as a gift, but more out of reverence and humility than out of ego. What we offer, we offer through our very gaze, our very being, and if others are not yet ready for nor interested in this offer… then that is fine. In this way, we embrace both our role as individualized beings with our own minute struggles, dreams, and personalities; and the divine consciousness which made that individuality possible in the first place. What we owe one another, is precisely the awareness of what we are.

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