Each of us has a personal sense of truth, a description of what the world is and how and why it functions as it does. This also includes our ideas about who we are and the meaning of life. As we go through life we have experiences and come to perceive or understand things on the basis of these experiences. We also have occasion to communicate with other people and learn something of their experiences and their sense of truth. This gives rise to collective or socially accepted truth. Finally we may come to consider the concept of Truth, which is beyond personal, or even collective, experience. Truth is associated with the fundamental basis of existence, with divinity, spirit, or nature. It’s something that’s usually thought to exist beyond us and independently.
The relationship of these levels of truth/Truth to each other depends on the fact that we’re limited—individual beings living in duality rather than unity. In our normal state of consciousness our awareness and understanding encompass only a minute fraction of all that is. This applies to ourselves as well as to what we consider to be other than ourselves. However, these limitations are unique for each of us. Our experiences, and thus our understanding, are always in small ways, if not in large ways, unique. We each have a limited and uniquely different experience of the whole.
Our limitations apply to our conscious perceptions as well as our experiences due to the non-linearity of understanding and experience. It’s generally known that we’re consciously aware of only a fraction of our physical perceptions. Filters are set to pick out the “important” perceptions from the general mass, allowing a manageably small number to enter our conscious awareness. Thus two people going through the same events will literally perceive different things. A second layer of limitation, or difference, has to do with the interpretation of what we perceive. In order to determine which perceptions are “important” we attach emotional significance to them. These emotional layers may vary more widely than the perceptions themselves. Finally, we add a more conscious layer of “meaning” as we reflect and consider, trying to understand what we’ve perceived.
This is all part of a process that’s based on physical survival, a process that allowed our distant ancestors to determine which perceptions had survival value, and encoded emotional responses (that can still act completely outside of our conscious awareness) to promote nearly instantaneous reaction to life-threatening situations. It’s a process in which we construct a model of the world (i.e. abstract some elements as particularly important) and attach appropriate significance (emotional and otherwise) to these elements. This model has become more complex over time as our brains have become more complex, but is still only a limited picture of the world and our experience. However aware we are as spiritual beings, when we’re in a human body we have to work through this mechanism.
Understanding the ego model
Our model also represents (at least in its upper layers) our notions of truth, our understanding of the essence of the world and ourselves. It’s non-linear in that the model itself affects what we perceive and how we interpret and understand our experience, particularly on the conscious level. Those things that are considered important, or given emotional weight, are more often brought to our attention while other matters are excluded. Another name given to this model is the ego. It’s important to realize that it has very necessary functions, just as our body does. It’s also important to realize that it’s a model (i.e. a limited, simplified, attempt to represent existence).
We have an evolutionary drive to create a coherent and useful model of our world on which to base our actions and decisions. It’s tied into our very survival, which means that there’s a great deal of emotional charge behind it. This energy is also tied to our having the “correct” model, one that most accurately represents the nature of things in general. This leads to another non-linear feature in which we’re able to adjust the model and make changes over time, either as the world around us changes or as our perception and understanding change. One can loosely call this “reality checking,” a process of comparing the model against “reality” and making adjustments as necessary. One way to do this is to compare notes with other people. However when we do this we may well find that their model, or truth, is not quite the same as ours.
There are many ways to respond to this discovery, depending on how big the difference is, how important the relevant aspect of our model is, our certainty in ourselves and how much power we give to the other. In some cases we may add to, or adjust our model, or the others may similarly modify theirs. If we were all fully conscious individual beings this would be the normal procedure.
Given the strong premium on being “correct,” and a level of investment in what we have created and are used to, the ego may be threatened more by the concept of being “wrong” than by the potential dangers involved in having the wrong model. When we consider that we have not in the past been fully conscious (and undoubtedly are still not now) we may understand that it has often been the case that changing, or controlling, “reality” has been a more attractive solution than changing our truth. On a personal level this is possible because we filter and interpret our perceptions (pushed to extremes we may even create perceptions). On a social level we have competition over whose truth is “correct.”
Moreover, we’re generally collective (social) beings as well as individuals. The social aspects of human existence are associated with a new layer of collective consciousness, collective survival, and collective, or social, truth. This tends to promote a certain level of agreement and uniformity, which may be more or less tolerant of variation among individual truths of its members. It also creates a possible new level of competition between individuals over the nature of the collective truth, with a tendency for each to promote a version that is as close to their personal truth as possible.
While some people may contend, and put forth their truth, others will simply accept the collective, perhaps with some personal reservations, and work with that. In either case they’re rewarded by being in agreement with others, and this agreement is very comforting to the ego, as it says that it’s correct and by implication safe.
Into this dynamic comes the idea of Truth, i.e. that there’s a level of being beyond (or behind) our experience, that’s absolute, perfect, divine. It’s beyond all our limited and imperfect perceptions and ideas, arising from spirit, God, nature, etc. It is, moreover, unique, and often thought to be universal and timeless. On all levels it’s desirable for the individual to identify their truth with this cosmic Truth. If one’s personal truth is in fact the Truth, then one is as “correct” as one can be, and thus as safe as can be.
However, this also raises the stakes in any competition. We have gone from debating models of the world, based on which is most useful, to the question of the nature of absolute Truth, in which there can only be one answer, and if you’re wrong perhaps you will not only lose in life but in death as well.
While we’re (generally) not fully conscious, we’re also not fully unconscious, and have perhaps always had the sense that at some level we’re part of, or connected to the divine. Certainly human beings have been exploring ways to obtain insight into their world by parting the veil between the physical and the spiritual for a very long time. That the divine or spiritual is in some way responsible for creating the material universe and ourselves is also ancient knowledge, as is the idea that it may still manifest itself in various ways, more or less directly.
While some have attempted to use reason and logic to derive the nature of Truth, more often it has been through the intuition, which is probably the more ancient tool. Thus there have been various methods of divination, of talking with spirits, interpretation of dreams, and even directly communing with the divine. The important aspect for the present discussion is the idea of being able to directly access Truth, or that it may be revealed to special individuals, who can manifest it to others. It then becomes natural for people to want to believe that their truth is, in fact, the Truth.
The central aspect of my view is that the manifest world is a world of relativity, a dynamic world in which circumstances are always changing. In the process of manifestation the absolute becomes limited, separate, i.e. finite, and even when Truth manifests, it’s always to some degree relative and less than absolute. The manifest (at least any finite portion) can never express fully the unmanifest.
In yoga it’s said that the purest form of Samadhi, of union with the unmanifest Cosmic, is beyond thought, and thus beyond our mental awareness, so that when we return from that state we can never remember it, it’s not expressible in terms of our perceptions and awareness at all. There’s a slightly less profound state in which one achieves union with the full manifest universe, and in which the unit consciousness retains awareness. This is, however, not easily expressible in words, as we have no common language for these experiences. The first verse of the Tao Te Ching reads: “The tao that can be spoken is not the everlasting Tao.” There are limits to our ability to express Truth, no matter how clearly it is apprehended. One can live it and express it by being it, as with Christ or the Buddha, but there are inherent limits to words and their ability to express the spiritual.
In part this goes back to the uniqueness of human existence. We think and communicate in terms of words, pictures and emotions. But there are differences for each of us. Even something as straightforward as the word “stone,” for each of us presents a different collection of specific experiences with specific stones. While the basic meaning has been agreed upon, and for most purposes the word serves to express our thought, it’s unlikely that it will conjure in our listener exactly what it does for us. If this is true for concrete objects, it’s more so for experiences or abstractions, and perhaps most true for the spiritual experiences that are closest to the divine and furthest from the manifest.
Communication generally has to go through one’s mental and emotional filters. It’s most difficult when the other has no corresponding experience; trying to describe snow to someone who has never seen it, or to convey the emotions of victory in an Olympic race to one who has never raced. Even when there’s corresponding experience it’s never quite the same, and what stuck out or had meaning may very well be different. Imagine the difference in even our own experience of something now versus five, ten, or twenty years ago. We’re different, and thus our experience is different. Communication is always somewhat like the game of Whisper-Down-the-Lane; by the time the message has gone through even a few people, it’s distorted, and by the end, usually unrecognizable.
We’re often misled by thinking that everyone speaks the same words and must therefore have the same thoughts. We’re in some ways all the same, and in others infinitely varied. True, clear, communication is actually quite difficult, even in something as concrete as scientific publications, much less with the emotions of a personal relationship, or when conveying some spiritual experience or insight. It’s something that I often struggle with in doing a reading, trying to find words that can clearly convey what I’m seeing, without various “extra” implications and shadings that come with the words, but are not a part of the vision. It’s easiest when the person is consciously aware of the energies I’m looking at, and so I only need to say enough so that they can recognize them.
This is one reason why we each need to learn our own lessons in life. There are levels of comprehension that can only be obtained by personal experience. No one can ever explain to us what it feels like to be burned, though they can clearly convey the idea that it’s likely to be unpleasant. Similarly the ecstasy of divine union is beyond the power of words, although we can feel something of it when we’re near the person who has experienced it.
Another factor is our uniqueness as spiritual, rather than manifest beings. We may (or may not) all learn the same lessons over the ages, but we certainly don’t all do it in the same order or even in the same way. This is an aspect of the relative nature of the manifest.
We all have our personal truth, which is based on our varied and unique collection of experience. We can come together with others and agree on collective truths, which are hopefully more general and closer to Truth, but not necessarily. There are various revealed truths, attempts by individuals who have had a closer experience than most of the divine to communicate what they’ve experienced or come to understand. Even these latter cannot (almost by definition) be exactly Truth, nor all of Truth. They have to be expressed in the idiom of the day, and told in terms of the culture in which they have become manifest. Truth is at best indicated, or hinted at but never fully expressed, especially in words.
I suspect that in some complex way all the personal truths are a part of Truth, at least they’re part of its manifestation. They all approach it more or less closely, but even those revealed truths that are closest in approach are limited in scope to what’s relevant for the place and times of their revelation. Some might complain that this makes the spiritual quest too hard, that there has to be an Answer, but that doesn’t change the nature of things. There’s a story of a Chinese master painter who said that to paint a picture of a mountain you had to know it by observing it from all sides, in the various seasons, and throughout the day, in all its conditions. Then one could begin to know the mountain and paint its picture.
It’s same with Truth, it has many facets and manifests in many ways depending on time, place, and person. The limits on communication (short of divine grace) imply that we need to rely on our own experience, and that spiritually we need to learn our own unique lessons. I can read a book about the castles of southern France, but only by going and seeing them can I begin to really know them and even then I will certainly not “know” everything about them. The fact that others have seen other facets is a benefit to us, not something to fight over; it’s not a matter of right and wrong, but looking at two different things, or the same thing in two different ways. I have seen this as often in science as in spiritual matters.
Since we cannot cover all that is by direct experience, we can learn and benefit from what others have seen and done, both because they may have different experiences, but also because they may have experience of things that we need to learn. This is where teachers come in. I see the role of a teacher as being a guide, someone who can say, this is where I’ve been, this is where you can go, play with this and you may learn something. But we still all have to do it ourselves and in our own way. Especially if the teacher has a great deal more experience they cannot give all their experience or knowledge at once. They might tell you, or you might decide, that they have the Truth and if you copy them you can have it too. But this is not possible, as you have to experience it for yourself. No matter how perfect their truth is for them, it will not be quite what Truth is for you. They can, however, point the way, but only by getting beyond the specific details to the essence can you find it for yourself and attain Truth as well.
Visit Alan McAllister’s website http://www.wholebeingexplorations.com.