Essays on mandalas, spirituality and the universe by Peter Patrick Barreda.
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Universal Spirituality: The Unifying Essence

     Spirit is the holistic principle, the essential unity that infuses everything that exists, like a sweet breeze flowing through the endless corridors of a vast universal palace. "Spiritual" describes a unified state of being wherein this inherent oneness is evident, the distinction between self and environment dissipates, and the rippling effects of every action can be seen to spread forever outward. Spirituality, then, is the pursuit of an intimate awareness of this underlying unity, and of the manner in which it connects us with each other and with the universe around us. This is not an abstract, mystical concept, rather it is a very real system of interaction and cooperation that manifests itself as a living and harmonious cosmos. From this ubiquitous essence spring such concepts as compassion, kindness, charity and empathy, because these are qualities that describe a harmonious interaction among the elements of existence. This harmony is the state that all universal elements naturally tend toward. As integral elements in the vast mandala that is the cosmos, we share a vivid, unbreakable bond—every single one of us, every one that has ever lived and that will ever be born, has existed, in various forms, since the birth of the universe.

"Every one of our body’s atoms is traceable to the big bang and to the thermonuclear furnaces within high-mass stars. We are not simply in the universe, we are part of it. We are born from it." (1)


Though the experiences are beyond the reach of our memories and our conscious awareness, we have been here through it all, through every stage of universal evolution. Together we were there as the first stars formed, together we felt the moon emerge from the womb of the earth, and together we sensed the first stirrings of sentience on our planet. There can be no stronger bond between us, no deeper connection upon which to base our shared spirituality.
     The virtues that we consider to be of great moral and social importance are products of this vast yet simple system of absolute interrelation. Everything that we do, or that occurs at any point in the universe, affects everything else. These repercussions spread like waves from each discreet incident to every element that surrounds it until we can no longer make the distinction between the  incident and its environment. This is as true in astrophysics as it is in human society, where each kind act, and every violent aggression, affects even people that are not conspicuously connected to them. Every one of our actions and words to another person affects that person in ways both obvious and subtle, and that, in turn, will change the person in manners both observable and indiscernible. We are linked to each other so intimately, and so directly, that we should be devoting herculean efforts toward achieving comprehension and compassion on a global scale. These values are critically important because they lead us toward the pure and natural state of cosmic unity. As a society we value compassion, at least in principle, because at our core we know that this is the way of universal harmony. We harbor a subconscious understanding that to care for another, to sympathize with their condition, to practice kindness and charity toward others, leads all of us toward that essential unified state. We retain that seed of cosmic knowledge, though it is buried deep within us and is perpetually overwhelmed by the complexities and neuroses of the modern mind. Empathy is not only a state of identifying with another, it is also the act of finding ourselves within the heart of the other. We care for our fellow humans because deep down inside we know that within everyone and everything there exists the essence of our own self as well. This in no way makes it a selfish act, any more than you can consider the entire universe to be a vast, selfish organism acting only in its best interest. To give to another is to give to yourself, because in actuality the definitions that we ascribe to ourselves, the characteristics that we gather together to create the concept of "I," are too ephemeral and subjective to hold any true universal validity. We are a Gordian Knot of systems within systems, a complexity of such intricate beauty and grace that it staggers the imagination. Realization of the essential unity that exists among seemingly separate systems may be surprising to the human mind, but it is actually the true and natural state of the universe. This natural tendency toward kindness and empathy is the physical manifestation of the universal spirituality I describe. It is the behavioral product of our under-lying connection with the essential universal structure, and the vast web of interrelation and interdependence among its systems is the source of the spirituality of the universe.
     Think of the teeming web of life that thrives within a secluded pond, deep in a vast and ancient forest. All manner of creatures eat and breathe and reproduce here, shafts of sunlight piercing the shadows as their swiftly moving forms dart from place to place. There is the thumping, vibrant hum of life, the breathless activities of survival and of the passage of the genetic grail onward to the next generation. All the varied forms of life are connected here by the cool water that surrounds and permeates them. Yet to speak of the life within the pond and separately of the water that the pond contains is simply a question of limited perspective. We see the pond in the manner that we are used to perceiving the world around us, giving great importance to the individual organization of the self-perpetuating systems (the living things), and contrast this to a seemingly static background (the water). We create this distinction because the living things enjoy a more highly organized existence, and a clear and compulsive purpose—namely, to survive and reproduce. Yet if we look to a deeper level of organization we will see a gathering of molecules dancing like dervishes, fast and feverish, with a perfect equality among them. At this level the water and the life that moves through it come together as a single collection of entities, molecules each secure and stable in their own right. Whether the molecules be of water, protein, or even stone, they fill the pond with a furious activity not apparent to the casual observer. This perspective continues ever downward until we can see even the tiniest subatomic particles as representatives of universal equality. We can expand this scenario outward, as well, to include the forest that rings the pond, the valley that supports the forest, the mountains that surround the valley, and so on to the entire planet, the solar system, the galaxy, and ever outward until all that is, and will ever be, falls within our sphere of original elemental equality.
     This intimately interrelated structure is the true basis of our spiritual nature. At this level of awareness the mandala can be most clearly seen as the ultimate template for our universal structure. It is a microcosm that exhibits the mesmerizing infinity of links, relationships, cooperation and interdependence that are innate characteristics of the universal process. It is a tapestry wherein every thread depends on every other thread, every color touches every other color, and every image is born from every other image. Being so intimately woven into the fabric of existence, it should be clear to us that the morals and virtues that we celebrate as a species emerge as the natural products of universal evolution. 
     The elder mythologies exhibited a clear awareness of the intimate connection between humanity and its physical surroundings. Religions that venerate the Earth as Mother, one of the most common themes found in primitive mythology, recognize the filial relationship between humankind and the world around us. Like siblings, humanity shares with its environment the same blood, the same origins, the same essential matter. We are of the same spirit as the universe that surrounds us, and through that relation we inarguably establish our place in the cosmos. What is most difficult about this concept of humanity as sibling to the trees and the planets is to avoid being trapped by the idea that it is only a pleasant metaphor for the human condition. It is much more than that. We are, in all actuality and with absolute accuracy, brothers and sisters not only to each other, but to everything in the universe. We come from the same ancient mother, born of the same cosmic womb. The interrelation and interdependence we exhibit is as of cells within a single body, where each has the potential to form, nurture, support and enrich the other. We are vibrant cells in an organism that spans the cosmos, that is in fact the entire cosmos itself, and as such we have the potential for amazing growth and development, as well as for cancerous self-destruction. By truly understanding this intimate relationship and its accompanying responsibilities, we can fully experience the spiritual path of the universe. We can take the paradigm of cosmic unity within ourselves and effectively apply it to our internal mind-states, thereby implementing a phase transition of awareness wherein the entire world is transformed anew. The unenviable alternative is to live an unexamined life, condemned to a shrouded existence, as deluded by the illusions of perception as if mesmerized by the hypnotic dancing of shadow puppets.
     Most people think of spirituality as a facet of their personal religious beliefs. Modern religion, being an elaborately developed system of teachings and taboos, does at times draw on the principles of this underlying spiritual essence. Too often, though, it misses the point. To its members, religion offers an official explanation for the basis of their existence, their origin, the why and the how of their very being. If every detail of the story is not filled in, then what is left is considered a sacred mystery to which only the reigning deity is privy. Therefore, if one believes that their religion explains the mysteries of their origins, then the religious practices regarding the relationship with the deity are thought of as spiritual in character. However, the two are not the same thing:

"It is necessary to distinguish between religion and spirituality. [Religion] emphasizes external authority (a paternalistic deity and priesthood) and the need for mediation between oneself and the ultimate Reality, as well as confirmation to a prescribed set of moral behavior under the threat of incurring sin. [Spirituality] relies primarily on intrinsic authority ("Self" or "Inner Ruler") and voluntary self-discipline based on self-understanding." (2)

Prayer, devotion and self-sacrifice are all considered aspects of religion that practitioners utilize to maintain communication with, and show devotion to, their particular god. Religions also often preach that such ideals as compassion and forgiveness should be practiced by their followers. In the heart of the individual these edicts ring true and feel wholly right—we say to ourselves, yes, we should practice compassion, we should forgive others—and so the teachings feel like a system worthy of our noble devotion. The problem lies in the convenient usurpation of those ideals when it is politically or financially expedient for the religious institution in question—by preaching kindness yet launching murderous crusades; by promoting equality as brothers and sisters under their deity yet practicing sexism, elitism and xenophobia; by teaching honesty and accountability yet inculcating an internal culture of corruption and impunity. All of these detrimental practices diffuse and dilute the strength of religion’s spiritual message, so that their followers see and learn from the hypocrisy thus presented. They learn to go to their places of worship and think kind thoughts, then go home and labor to get the upper hand over their neighbors and coworkers—just as they see many religious leaders doing. There is a fundamental and essential contradiction with this dogmatic form of belief, presented as the edicts of a supernatural deity to be followed under threat of a hellish afterlife for transgressors. At its base it relies on fear and coercion to enforce obedience and devotion. This, coupled with the self-contradicting behavior of the institution itself, leaves in the believer’s mind a subconscious impression of insincerity that undercuts the strength of the beautiful message to "love they neighbor."
     On the other hand, spirituality based on the simple and beautiful reality of Universal Being is inarguably sincere and wholly incorruptible. This true spirituality predates the human institution of religion by many billions of years. As long as the universe has existed, its self-consistent nature has been the seed of the true and essential spirit. Everything that exists in the universe is intimately related to everything else, both physically and systemically. This is as true of the earliest stars as it is of you and of me. We are all of us born of the same particles, passed through the same processes, forged in the same stellar furnaces. The inexpressible beauty of Being resides within all of us, deep and vibrant, drifting like a unifying breath through everything that exists. But as the phenomenon we call life has developed, this interrelatedness has become more difficult to perceive. As a species, our passage through developmental stages and processing capabilities has leapt forward at exponentially increasing speeds, so that it seems to us that we are essentially different and separate from—even superior to—our environment. But this is not truly the case. The lotus flower is of the same essential matter as the mud from which it grows, gently reminding us of the sanctity and beauty of the much-derided mud. It is only in the subjective comparison that we make a categorical judgment and come to regard one as desirable and the other as unclean. When we look deeper, however, we realize the folly of this comparison. If we were to freeze all activity in the universe we would perceive an exquisite mandala of particles differentiated only by their relationship to each other. Context is everything. This context, the systematic interaction among particles, and among individuals in our society, is the intangible but intensely real nature of the universal spirit. It is not only a matter of physical proximity, but also the very act of cooperative unfolding, the cohesive and unified wave of emergence and evolution that binds us together. It is the "happening" of us, of everything, as a single flower unfolding its petals, blooming under the gaze of eternity. It is the blood of the mandala coursing through our cosmic veins. It is what connects us all, and by "us" I mean more than only the human race, or even all of life on Earth. We must realize that what links us together does not stop at the edges of our family or our community or even our planetary atmosphere. We are One—each of us, together with the pebbles and the stars, elements in a vast universal entity that thinks and breathes and acts and is. We are cells in a being that sees itself, that knows itself, spanning the limitless distances of space, encompassing everything in its awareness. This unifying essence is the spirit of the cosmos that pervades our being and defines our existence. It is all around us, it is within us—it is the true and incorruptible spirituality of the universe.
By knowing it, we know ourselves. By pursuing an understanding of it, we come to better understand the nature of our Being. By seeing, finally, that we are a vibrant element of a grand, expansive and beautiful cosmos, we come to see the beauty in ourselves. We must look within to see without, and to finally realize that to love each other, and to love ourselves, is as natural and powerful a force as the attraction within atoms or the gravity that forms the fiery stars that sparkle across the heavens. That is the secret of the spirit that burns quietly within us, the flame that lights our way toward the brilliant and beautiful horizons of our future.

Sources:
(1) Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Donald Goldsmith.
Published by W.W. Norton, copyright 2005.
(2) The Deeper Dimension of Yoga by Georg Feuerstein. Published by Shambhala, copyright 2003.

October 10, 2006
by Peter Patrick Barreda, material copyright 2009, all rights reserved


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