The fundamentally Subjective nature of Reality

1. The experience of unity

Researchers in the field of religious phenomenology have conceived of various schemes for categorizing “religious experiences”. For instance, Frederick Streng’s categorization [3] includes six categories: the numinous experience of the holy; the transformative experience of reorientation; the courage to face suffering and death; the moral experience of obligation; the mystical experience of order and creativity in the world; and the mystical experience of unity.

In this section we will focus on Streng’s last category – the experience of unity – because this will allow us to classify esoteric traditions in a natural way, on the basis of the kind of unity their practices strive to Realize, or do, in fact, Realize.

The unitive experience is also the perhaps the best-known form of esoteric experience. The great world traditions of holiness and wisdom include many accounts of unitive experiences from Spiritual Masters, Spiritual Realizers, saints, sages, shamans, and other holy people. Everyone is familiar with some account – by a great saint, a friend, or maybe even their own – of an experience of “connectedness with everything”, “oneness with all”, etc. Generally, it is not described as merely an experience, but also as a Revelation of the nature of reality: the Revelation that everything and everyone is always inherently connected in this way, and that one is fortunate enough in this moment to be privy to at least a partial Revelation of what always already is the case (my Spiritual Master’s phrase for the Truth).

William James testifies to the universality of the unitive experience, touring many of the world’s religious traditions in the following passage:

“That art Thou!” say the Upanishads, and the Vedantists add: “Not a part, not a mode of That, but identically That, that absolute Spirit of the World.” “As pure water poured into pure water remains the same, thus, O Gautama, is the Self of a thinker who knows. Water in water, fire in fire, ether in ether, no one can distinguish them; likewise a man whose mind has entered into the Self.” “Every man,” says the Sufi Gulshan-Raz, “whose heart is no longer shaken by any doubt, knows with certainty that there is no being save only One.... In his divine majesty the me, the we, the thou, are not found, for in the One there can be no distinction. Every being who is annulled and entirely separated from himself, hears resound outside of him this voice and this echo: I am God: he has an eternal way of existing, and is no longer subject to death.” In the vision of God, says Plotinus, “what sees is not our reason, but something prior and superior to our reason.... He who thus sees does not properly see, does not distinguish or imagine two things. He changes, he ceases to be himself, preserves nothing of himself. Absorbed in God, he makes but one with him, like a centre of a circle coinciding with another centre.” “Here,” writes Suso, “the spirit dies, and yet is all alive in the marvels of the Godhead... and is lost in the stillness of the glorious dazzling obscurity and of the naked simple unity. It is in this modeless where that the highest bliss is to be found.”

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience [4]

That sense of unity with, or absorption in, or identity with a Greater Reality, also coincides with the feeling of happiness; that is to say, such accounts speak of such feeling-awareness of unity as instantly relieving suffering, fear, anxiety, etc. (the degree of relief depending on the nature of the Realization).

For this reason, the direct feeling-awareness of unity becomes the aim of esoteric practice, because it realizes happiness (to one degree or another) and dissolves suffering. We will see that the implicit association here between “un-happiness” and “non-unity”, that is, separation, is a critical clue in the understanding of the ego: both its nature and how it obstructs the clear and stable Revelation of the Unity that is always already the case.

If we don’t take the scientific materialist’s reductionist stance in such matters, then we must seriously consider (either at face value, or with additional contextualization) the countless testimonies to the fundamental unity of Reality.

2. The Subjective Substratum in which material reality arises

But this unity is not like the scientist’s quest for a unified theory of physical reality. The unity of which we are speaking here is subjective in nature, not objective.

That is, Reality Itself, whatever that is altogether, is subjective in nature rather than objective. That I feel connected with everything in certain Graceful moments indicates that there is a substratum between “me” and all apparently other “beings” and “things”, which is subjective, in the sense that feeling or awareness is “carried” or “conducted” through that substratum, from me to everything else. In other unitive experiences, the description is more one of identification with the Subjective Substratum itself. I refer to it as “Subjective” because, depending on the tradition and the unitive experience, the nature of the Substratum is either psyche, or Spirit, or Consciousness.

Here I am not merely inferring the existence of such a Substratum for conducting feeling-awareness, like scientists hypothesizing that there must be an “ether” because something must be responsible for conducting light waves across otherwise empty space. Rather, I am saying two things:

  • that Subjective Substratum – variously called “God”, “Nature”, “Reality” by different esoteric masters – is an absolutely obvious and an essential part of what is directly Revealed in these experiences.

  • This makes sense, because the presence of that Subjective Substratum, in some manner, does account for how we can feel connected to everything. We need not try to explain “feeling at a distance” or how feeling could occur in a “subjective vacuum” (to make some analogies with the notion of ether in the history of physics).

The esoteric view that Reality is fundamentally subjective in nature stands in sharp contrast to the materialist’s view that reality is fundamentally objective in nature. That is, you and I not only appear to be separate, but we really are separate, not inherently connected by any Subjective Substratum. Any “feeling” to the contrary must be a “warm and fuzzy” hallucination of the material brain, in the materialist’s view.

Of course I and anyone else who has had a profound unitive experience knows otherwise. The experience authenticates itself in a manner much like the manner in which I know (but can’t prove scientifically) that I exist in this moment.

Some new and good news is that even the “objective” tools of science may now be on the verge of being powerful enough to invalidate the scientific reductionist view of mystical experiences, which reduces them all to hallucinations, wish-fulfillment, and psychotic episodes. The new results emerging from the field of neuro-theology [5,6,109] are an example of such broader-minded scientific enquiry. All it really takes is to use the current tools of neurophysiology to show that hallucinations, wish-fulfillment, etc. are associated with certain regions of the brain, or certain patterns of brain activity; and then show that, when unitive experiences occur, a different part or the brain is being invoked, or a different brain pattern is being manifested. Even stronger evidence would be to show that the brain parts being used or brain pattern being manifested are the very same brain parts that are activated or brain pattern that is manifested when “external reality” is being experienced. That is to say, mystical experiences are indeed experiences of something that is just as real as “objective reality”. The primary researchers in neuro-theology seem to be on the verge of demonstrating exactly these conclusions.

All esoteric traditions accept as a primal fact (and primal experience) the existence of the Subjective Substratum (though they may disagree on Its nature), and, further, our own mysterious dependence on It, and inherence in It. There is a Greater Reality, and we arise in It, whatever “It” is altogether. Thus, our connection to It is extraordinarily intimate and personal, whether our tradition refers to It as our True Self, our True Nature, or as the “ground of our being”.

This fundamental esoteric notion that we arise in the Greater Reality, leads esoteric spiritual practitioners to a very different feeling about God or the Greater Reality than the one that follows from the exoteric notion of a set-apart, Creator God, who is – at a distance – in charge of the world. Esoteric practitioners, by means of their esoteric practices, are constantly re-discovering their non-separation from God or the Greater Reality, and the ever-available, experiential accessibility of that Greater Reality. And they are always looking to intensify that feeling-awareness to the point where it becomes a stable Realization, a constant happiness of communion (or identification) with the Greater Reality, rather than merely an occasional experience.

Human potential and samadhi states