Last Updated: January 27th, 2019
The wholeness of life
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking
new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
– Marcel Proust
The wrinkles on your elderly father’s hands. The cry of a newborn baby. A sculpture in an art gallery. A certain combination of notes in a piece of music. A dewdrop on a blade of grass. A momentary look on a stranger’s face, suddenly and unexpectedly melting your heart. Wholeness suddenly piercing through separation.
Life is rich with mystery.
I was recently talking to a friend of mine who had just given birth. My friend is a scientist, a “rational thinker,” and an atheist, with no interest in spirituality or religion or anything that cannot be proved through “peer-reviewed research,” as she calls it. She believes that life is all about working hard, providing for your family, saving for old age, and eventually retiring and enjoying “the good life” before you die.
And yet, as she talked about her experience of her daughter’s birth, her words were not those of an atheist; they were religious words, spiritual words, words pregnant with awe and wonder and the overwhelming miracle of creation. She talked about the miracle of life itself—the mystery of birth and of death, the cosmic riddle that permeates all things. She told me that as she held her newborn daughter for the first time, all self-centred thoughts fell away, past and future dissolved, and suddenly there was only this—only life itself, present, alive, mysterious. There was only this precious moment, here and now, and nothing more.
She told me how she wept with gratitude upon seeing her daughter’s tiny little fingers for the first time—how delicate they were, how fragile. She told me how amazed she was that something so mysterious and alive could have emerged from her, how something could have come out of nothing, how life could produce life out of itself, how the same life that was present at the Big Bang is somehow also here, in the form of this tiny, pink creature. She was suddenly consumed with an unconditional love—for her daughter, for all babies and mothers everywhere, for all existence. It was a love she had no words for. All peer-reviewed research crumbled in the face of the incomprehensible vastness of present-moment experience.
My friend, the scientist, the rational thinker, the skeptic, had temporarily become a nondual mystic, and she didn’t even know it. For a moment, she had touched the wholeness of life, the wordless mystery that permeates all creation. For a moment, she had fallen in love with existence; the separation between her and life had fallen away, to reveal a love with no name.
I have met many people over the years who have become interested in spirituality because of certain strange, inexplicable, incomprehensible experiences or realizations they’d had, often out of the blue—experiences that were later hard to put into words and harder still to communicate to their friends and families.
Artists talk about the self falling away when they are absorbed in painting. Musicians tell of how, while absorbed in their music, there is only the music, and they, as a separate entity, vanish into it, as if they’ve been absorbed by life. They are not playing the music—they are the music, playing itself. Athletes talk about getting into the flow or entering the zone, a place where running or riding or jumping happens effortlessly, and the body functions perfectly even though they no longer experience the body as their own. Actors talk about disappearing into their characters, about losing themselves in a role, about how when they are really acting, there’s nobody there acting. When they are later congratulated on their performance and asked how they managed to achieve it, they have to admit that they really don’t know.
Or you’re walking through the park, and suddenly there’s no you walking—there is only the wind on your face, the rustle of leaves, the laughing of children, and the barking of dogs. You disappear, and you become everything—or everything disappears, and you become nothing. Words simply don’t do it justice.
Sometimes the stories are less dramatic. You’re washing the dishes, and suddenly the glistening soap bubbles become the most fascinating things in the universe—indeed, the soap bubbles become the universe in that moment. And all your problems, your fears, your anxieties, your desperate search for a better life, for fame, for glory, for love, for enlightenment, fade away. Everything is deeply OK again—cosmically OK. Even though your life situation hasn’t changed—there are still bills to pay, children to feed, work to do, pain to feel—your relationship to it all has suddenly transformed. In an instant, you’re no longer a separate individual struggling to find wholeness. There is only wholeness. You’re back in the womb of life—a womb you never really left. And yet, ordinary life is still present, and you continue to function in the world effortlessly.
Science has a hard time explaining these experiences—or non-experiences or whatever you want to call them—for they take us beyond the world of cause and effect, subject and object, observer and observed, absolute and relative, inside and outside, even time and space. They are hard to prove or demonstrate logically, scientifically, philosophically. But to those who experience them, they are more real than anything. Call them awakenings or peak experiences or simply raw encounters with life as it is. It doesn’t really matter what you call them, because in the end, the words always come later.
Existence is rich with mystery and wonder, and sometimes, without warning, light can shine through the cracks in the separate self. For a few brief moments, there is the cosmic suggestion that life is somehow infinitely more than what it appears to be. The most ordinary of things can easily turn extraordinary, making us wonder if, perhaps, the extraordinary is hidden in the ordinary always, just waiting to be discovered.
Yes, perhaps the ordinary things of life—broken old chairs, bicycle tires, sunlight reflecting on broken glass, a smile from a loved one, the cry of a newborn baby—are actually not ordinary at all. Perhaps hidden in their ordinariness is something extraordinary. Perhaps all of those things we take for granted are actually divine, sacred, infinitely precious expressions of a wholeness, a Oneness that cannot be expressed in thought or language.
And perhaps this wholeness is not “out there,” somewhere else or in the future, waiting to be uncovered. Perhaps we don’t need to go to the farthest reaches of the universe to find it. Perhaps it is not in the heavens or hidden away in the deepest depths of our souls. Perhaps wholeness is right here, where we already are—in this world, in this life—and perhaps we have somehow blinded ourselves to it in our obsession with our search for it.
Modern physics is now confirming what spiritual teachings throughout the ages have always been pointing to: everything is interconnected, and nothing exists separately from anything else. We have invented many words over the years to try to point to this cosmic wholeness, words like spirit, nature, Oneness, Advaita, nonduality, consciousness, awareness, aliveness, Being, Source, Existence, Isness, Tao, Buddha Mind, and presence. We could sit and argue for a hundred years about what the wholeness of life actually is, but I wonder if we’d end up arguing over words and miss what the words are pointing to. So pick your favourite word for wholeness, because in the end it’s not about the words. You call it the Tao. I call it Life. She calls it God. He calls it consciousness. Someone else calls it nothing, and someone else calls it everything. Someone else likes to keep silent about it. An artist paints pictures about it. A musician writes music about it. A physicist tries to touch it through complex calculations and mind-bending theories. A poet or philosopher juggles with words to try to reach it. A shaman gives you strange substances so you may see it for yourself. A spiritual teacher points you to it both with language and silence.
The point is, whatever it is will never ultimately be put into words. Thoughts and words fragment wholeness; they break up a unified reality into separate things: bodies, chairs, tables, trees, the sun, the sky, me, you. The world of thought is the world of duality, the world of things.
But the most important thing to remember is that it’s not about the words. It’s about the wholeness of life itself—and that comes before all words, even the word wholeness.