No matter the enchanting wonders of 21st century technology, immortality and the search for transcendence will always tempt our imaginations. However, neither of these topics seem to interest today’s educated masses or for that matter the uneducated. There are of course notable exceptions, and there seems a slowly massing movement of what I like to call consciousness activists.
Still, it often appears like an uphill battle. The spectacular success of modern technology -- its near apocalyptic disruption of life on earth -- have created a climate of confused incredulity. Nevertheless, there is real data that suggest immortality or at least postmortem survival in various flavors. Other masses of data, old and new, prove that people have mystical experiences and indeed encounter all manner of transcendent wonders.
As for immortality, consider a simple argument: if consciousness is not born from the brain – and nobody has a clue to how that is even possible -- why then should it cease when the brain dies?
No doubt more telling are case histories of near-death experience, veridical apparitions and mediumship, convincing reincarnation stories, and the like. All of this points to the possibility of consciousness continuing after death.
Once we realize how adjacent our world of experience is to the ‘next’ world (mind is the link), and learn to sense the hidden intersections between our psyches, the easier to imagine the veil lifting that separates the living from the dead – even if it be for a moment, as was the case the few times it lifted for me.[i]
As far as the god-question: led by the intuitions of the Upanishads, I’ll say this: In Indian philosophy, the one consciousness is prior to everything. Satchitananda --“being-conscious-bliss” -- is the supreme reality. Fancy that! The one mind pervades and transcends the physical world, according to this view. And moreover this one great mind is the root of those transcendent experiences that people have, mostly muttering about the ineffable.
Now just as pure consciousness is filtered and particularized through different brains and bodies, thus becoming personal consciousnesses, so is it filtered and particularized through different cultures, languages, and historical niches. The various filterings of pure consciousness thus produce the world’s religions. The records of transcendent encounter in different cultures express their interactions with the one mind, the one presumptive absolute.
The model sketched above is consistent with Hindu spiritual tradition. It honors the oneness of spirit and consciousness and at the same time celebrates a polytheism of methods in the pursuit of enlightenment. We can use this as a model for what is living and what is dead in religion, the premise being that the different traditions are partial perspectives on the one great mind – the absolute factor hypothesized.
The dead part of these perspectives needs to be fumigated, buried, and left behind: the fanaticism, the cruelty, the intolerance, the violence, the catastrophic hypocrisy, and the utter leaden-brained stupidity.
The living parts represent the different ways individuals and groups attempt to dialogue with the one mind whose limits and ultimate nature transcend our understanding, probably forever.
Speaking for myself, the word religion seems a pejorative term and I prefer to speak of art forms of transcendent encounter, or ways of engaging the unseen dimensions of being.
At all levels of culture we find different styles of dialogue with the transcendent, losing and gaining adherents as with styles in other domains of self-culture, like fashion, cookery, sports, music, and the plastic arts. Progress here consists of dropping the remnants of warped religiosity and radiating outwardly in a democratic uprush and outreach toward all forms of sentient life.
In a democracy of higher consciousness, we’re free to explore the unknown god the ancient Greeks celebrated. People have been in dialogue with something unknown – a great mind and force -- since time immemorial. It’s possible today to do the same, but some of us using a different, more descriptive vocabulary, free from dead religious encrustations and scientistic presumptuousness. The heart of the greatest adventure is still alive and beating within ourselves.
Once we free the concept of mind from the prison of physicalism, we can embark on a research project into the supreme frontier of ourselves. Regarding the soul, said Heraclitus, no matter how far or deep you travel, you will never reach its boundaries.
The prophet may reveal one aspect of the one mind, the mystic quite another, while artists, lovers, and diviners of every stripe will obtain suitably different effects. From the humblest petitionary transaction to the heights of mystical rapture, the thing I like to dwell on is that all the effects are surprising extensions and shocking ramifications of our own earth-muddling minds.
The element of newness is this. To people migrating in the twilight zone of the gods, the unmoored, the rovers and wanderers without a homeland of spirit -- to them for whom the stench of dead gods and rotten ideals is insufferable, it may be possible to set up exploratory interviews with our great unknown friend.
By drawing on whatever images, symbols, and methods we like in our preferred tradition, we have the trappings of an experiment. In our post-materialist, post-religious age, we are also free to wander to the outskirts of tradition and experiment on our own. As with any art form, it’s always possible to break open new veins of the possible. That goes with the territory of a truly pious polytheism of the imagination. The ways to travel are many as we play the game of a conscious life on earth.