There is much about the world to which we are blind. It is estimated that humans can only see about 0.0035 percent of the electromagnetic spectrum, otherwise known as light. Spend a day at the beach and your skin may turn red, but your eyes won’t notice the ultra-violet rays that cause it. If dogs could talk, they’d be glad to tell us about all the sounds and smells to which we are oblivious. No person can track the odorous trail left by a criminal fleeing on foot. And don’t try to navigate a trip to Mexico using the earth’s magnetic field, as birds do. You probably won’t end up in Cancun.
We use science to augment the limitations of our senses, but even science has limits. Physicists seem certain that everything in the universe consists of energy, which is defined as “the capacity for doing work.” But their definition simply describes the effects, not what “capacity” is? Energy, itself, remains an indefinable something. Scientifically, the entirety of our existence is founded in a mystery.
We are surrounded by the inscrutable, arriving from parts unknown and eventually returning there. In the brief gap between arrival and departure, we exist in an expanding bubble called the universe, floating in a multidimensional question mark. Even our consciousness, our experience of each passing moment, betrays the basic unknowability that lies at the center of things. Though we often don’t think about it, awareness of our own presence is a very strange phenomenon, not required by any element on the periodic table from which we are made. Where does it come from?
According to Mahayana Buddhist thinking, our awareness is a localized and impermanent expression of Infinite Mind. Our mind is a manifestation of Mind, the basic substratum of everything, an unknowable knowing from which all things arise and return, referred to as Emptiness. From that point of view, depthless infinity is at the core of our transitory self.
To borrow from Winston Churchill, we are “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” While the effect can be disconcerting, those riddles and enigmas also exert a pull on us. It’s why adventurers left on ships to find where the oceans ended. It’s why settlers headed to blank regions on the map. It’s why we have machines running around on Mars. We explore every material aspect of our world, in response to the call of the unknown.
Exploration, however, also has an immaterial dimension. Physical reality is simply one aspect of existence, a particular region within the wonder of the infinite, which, according to quantum physics, could simply disappear at any time, and someday probably will. Where will it go? Where does it come? Why does it exist in the first place?
Those questions form the boundary of science, and the place where a spiritual journey begins. There are other realities to know in the vastness beyond our finite, material world. There is the reality of spirit, and there is the reality of the One, the God of Spirit, the Source of all, available to anyone who seeks connection.
Since a spiritual aspect to our lives cannot be provided by technology or discovered with a map, it must be developed within each person. Intimately engaged in individual lives, spirituality is individually attuned. There is no one way by which someone connects with their Creator. It can be through worship, prayer, meditation, study, music, dance, a stroll on the beach or a walk in the woods. We can use whatever allows us to pay attention. Spiritual practices are methods of listening.
An analogy can be drawn to the scientists who work for SETI, searching the heavens for signs of intelligent life. In our secular society, they are the equivalent of hermits who lived in caves, aspiring to know God, or ecstatics who danced themselves into delirium hoping for an experience of spirit possession. There’s no proof that extra-terrestrials exist, just as there’s no proof for the existence of God or spirits, but the researchers carry on, operating in the faith that they do.
What the researchers do is listen. Because of the distances involved, telescopes are not going to see ETs walking around on a planet. Instead, the scientists aim antennae out into the universe, collecting radio waves, hoping to pick up a signal, a genuine message from the great beyond. The tricky part is picking out the signals that signify actual intelligence, filtered from all the background noise and intelligence look-alikes.
Spiritual seekers are engaged in a similar process. They listen. Since the knowledge being sought isn’t directly revealed, a different kind of awareness and organization for our experience is required. While we may think we find God in a passage of scripture, or a sunset, or a baby, if we pay attention, their meaning lies in what we hear emanating from within those words, or orange skies, or sleeping newborns.
Spiritual knowledge is no longer obvious to our eyes, if it ever was. Human thoughts and constructions have become such an integral part of our world that we exhibit real difficulty discerning the Sacred within the mundane. That baby is a product of sperm and egg. A sunset is caused by airborne particles. The words were written by a man. The knowledge we seek lies beneath those common realities we learn to see. So, we listen for a communication, for a whisper within the workings of the world.
There is an ancient tradition that God spoke creation into existence. For Stoics and early Christians, the Logos, the Word, was the cause of the universe. In the beginning was the Word, and the intent of the Word was to be known. In this profound way, all of creation is a form of speech.
The intention of the Word is reflected in the work of science. Einstein thought the greatest miracle in the universe was its intelligibility. We can know our cosmos, in the sense of taking it apart and putting it back together, mathematics and engineering, sometimes in remarkable ways. But that is only part of the story. Numbers and forces are blind to the Source, to the character of what offers to be known, to the living love imbued within the energy they describe.
SETI scientists listen to a narrow range of radio transmissions, believing these are more likely to reveal the presence of intelligence. Seekers must attune themselves to an entirely different frequency, relations that arise from within, and come according to their own schedule, often unbidden. Seekers must learn how to tune out the noise and the nonsense. Most importantly, seekers must always be listening.
Many are deaf to what others hear. But the Word is there for all, who choose to pay attention.