“Like vanishing dew, a passing apparition or
the sudden flash of lightning — already gone —
thus should one regard one’s self.”
The Japanese Zen monk and poet, Ikkyu, wrote these words nearly six centuries ago; his intent, generally considered to be the extolling of selflessness and focusing our minds upon the impermanence of all things, including ourselves. Yet there is another, and perhaps even deeper, insight to be had in the recognition that just as these images represent manifestations of Nature, so too, we are manifestations of Nature, perhaps with more substance than dew, but still, just as the dew consists of atoms of hydrogen and oxygen combined to create water, we too are essentially a combination of atoms – all born billions of years ago in the furnace of a far-off star. Just as the flash of lightening is a discharge of energy when atmospheric conditions are conducive, so too, we are energy discharged into the world because conditions are conducive for this combination of atoms to be breathed with life into the creation of a person – and in the vastness of the Universe, a single human life is no more than a passing apparition, a flash of lightning – and yet – an expression of the totality of the Universe, just as is the flash of lightning.
It took the Universe over 14 billion years to create human life, an absolute miracle of an evolutionary process of increasing complexification occurring within a unified organism. For instance, when we look at our own hand, we are looking at a miracle of evolution. That our thumb sits in an opposed position to our fingers is a truly remarkable advancement in biological technology, allowing for a level of manual dexterity possessed only by creatures of the primate family that includes humans. That we can consider the implications and importance of this opposable-thumbed hand is an even greater evolutionary triumph by the Universe, the sole domain of the species hominid, for the cerebral cortex of a human with its trillions of neurons and connecting pathways is the most complex organization of biological matter allowing for the most complex and advanced awareness and creative relationship with our world of any creature on Earth. Yet, this complexity and dexterity of hand and mind seems to be working against the flourishing of life on our world. Some have come to view humanity almost as a devolutionary and destructive force, like a highly advanced virus infecting the organism that is the planet, killing off the intricate web of life-forms necessary for the Earth to be healthy and support life. The question is – is this so, or is this really only a phase in a larger process? Could it be that this perfect and balanced Universe created an imperfect and unbalanced being, or is a larger view needed to make sense of this?
It cannot be denied that humanity and all life on this planet is suffering because modern civilization lives from a dysfunctional view of humanity’s place within the Universe. The evolution of the human species has led to what amounts to a geologic force such as no other animal could possibly pose. Humanity is now capable of altering the conditions on this planet so as to diminish the possibilities for the continuation of the flourishing of the vast diversity of life that co-inhabits this planet with humans. Our civilization and way of life face an existential threat such as has never been seen before as we are confronted by twin catastrophic possibilities of a nuclear wasteland caused by war and environmental catastrophe caused by our consumer-materialism style of living and relationship (or non-relationship) with Nature. Could humanity be but a passing apparition in the life of the Universe, the 350,000 years of Homo sapiens life on this planet being no more than a flash in the 14+ billion years life of the Universe?
Yet, born in the stars, actually born with the Universe itself in a pinprick flash of unfathomably dense photonic energy that expanded into the totality of the Universe, first as hydrogen and helium atoms, and then into dense hydrogen/helium clouds that condensed into stars and then into the entire spectrum of atoms formed in the fire of these stars that then exploded into the vastness to form the material for planets and moons and comets and meteors and all forms, including life-forms on the planet Earth that then evolved into human beings. In a very real sense, we could consider that our existence is as old as the Universe; that we have always been – for the totality of the Universe is present in the atoms and molecules and cells of these human bodies.
In this expandingly intricate dance of evolution of over 14+ billion years, the result of joining atoms in ever more elaborate combination has all led to this most complex of all things, the human brain. And along with this complexification of matter, there has evolved through this human species increasingly complex systems of understanding of the nature of the Universe and humanity’s place within it from ancient mythic representations to modern scientific understandings. We have evolved cosmologies from nature-based representations of Spirit manifesting Life, through pantheisms of human-like gods, through medieval notions of a human and Earth-centered Universe with God-the-creator in Heaven (which despite a vague sense of evolution and a solar system and galaxy based universe, largely remains the modern common person’s underlying experiential belief) to astronomical, quantum and field theoretical physics, which now see a vast integrated Universe in which the properties of consciousness can be found operating at the sub-atomic level everywhere. Astonishingly, the mystery of consciousness is being found at the very foundational level of all matter, pervading the Universe, with immense implications for human relationship to the entire Universe. In these new models, which intriguingly mirror ancient mythic cosmologies, the question becomes vivid – where do we actually begin as conscious beings and where do we end? Is there actually a continuity of consciousness existence that transcends a physical life-span, for just as physical matter-energy cannot die, only recombine, could this be true for consciousness-energy as well? The ancients answered, “Yes,” and we now, as modern science-based rational beings, have to give this possibility real consideration.
In shifting our focus from an anthropocentric view based on individual lives that come and go, to a view centered on the Universe itself in which we are a continuation of a billions-of-years process of increasing complexification of matter and consciousness in a Universe that seems to be intent on creative realization of itself, bridging the gulf of the manifested world of matter with the unmanifested world of consciousness, our current seemingly purposeless individual and collective lives take on a cosmic purpose. To view each human life as an evolving organism within the evolving human species organism that is an integral expression of the evolving organism that is the planet Earth that is an integral expression of the evolving Universe, is to give new and vital perspective to this human expression.
We have labored for centuries with the delusional cosmology that we humans, as we are, represent the final expression of Creation, whether Divine or Natural, and this view carries with it a karmic consequence of exactly the kind of cataclysmic destiny we are currently shaping. But – what if we adopt a new cosmology based in our new sciences that sees and experiences our individual existences as enfolded within larger and larger macro-existences? And what if we come to understand the human species as continually evolving, much like an individual human evolves through developmental stages of life, and we can identify that the current egocentric, materialistic human culture, deficient in empathy and compassion, stumbling self-indulgently through existence without much thought to the consequences of this behavior can be seen to be very similar to the way an early adolescent human behaves and views themselves in the world? What if we could see that our true task as individuals and as a species is to evolve into our adult stage as responsible co-creators with the Universe? As we look at our current circumstance and appropriately ask – Could humanity be a mistake? – Could we not see that just as a world of only thirteen-year-olds would make no sense, the world we shape now with much the same egocentricity and callousness of a thirteen-year-old requires our collective growing up to begin to make sense?
Born in the stars, journeying for billions of years, matter and consciousness evolving with a destiny to reflect and manifest the perfect harmony that all the Universe expresses, can we not see our existence in this way and take responsibility for our place among the stars on this beautiful and unique planet where the Universe has brought together a collection of atoms in a most propitious environment for life to flourish? Born in the stars, can we take our place among the stars as mature tenders of a beautiful and abundant expression of the Universe’s evolution?
Yes, like dew, our individual lives pass like apparitions in the vast unfolding of the Universe – yet – in ways we are only beginning to comprehend, the matter and consciousness that combine to create this one human life has always been, and so, will also always be, journeying in co-creation with the Universe. Perhaps, “Thus should one regard one’s self.”