When’s the last time you thought seriously about thought itself? I don’t mean the meaningless, incessant, and distracting chatter that torments us for much of our lives. I mean contemplative thought. During a meditation over the holidays the role of thought in the human being clarified for me. It’s one of those moments that when you say it out loud it sounds obvious. But on the other hand, we often miss the obvious because it’s too close for us to see. I had been reading Owen Barfield, and at his recommendation, the brilliant theosophist, Rudolph Steiner (founder of Waldorf schools). Then something coalesced.
With the gift of self-conscious awareness, (Eve’s eyes are opened after taking the apple) human beings exit a condition of undifferentiated unity with the world. For good or ill we can imagine ourselves as distinct from the world. (Which depends on how we understand and use this gift). This is unique to humans. We are that part of the world which can ideally act on the world’s behalf through freedom to shape a future that both reflects and enhances the Wholeness that animates the world. Evolution becomes conscious of itself in, through, and as us, and thereby gains the capacity for what Owen Barfield called a “directionally creator” relationship with the world (conscious evolution).
But there is a downside, and that is the conscious awareness divides the world into object and subject—there is me, (the subject), and the world (the object) that I am observing. It’s like humans are the 3D dimension of the world. We “pop” out, and from that moment the religious or spiritual impulse (along with the scientific impulse) is all about finding a way to re-unite with the lost (albeit naive/unconscious) unity with the world. Self-conscious awareness separates us, and we want to find a way home. This separation is painful. It’s a lost intimacy leaving us feeling like maybe my “I” and the world are two essentially different entities.
By the time of the Enlightenment the feeling of separation became acute, leading to all manner of philosophic debate about whether or not we could actually know anything of the world. The so-called Critical Idealists came to the conclusion that by the time the objects of our perception were filtered through our senses, nervous system, chemistry, and brain, nothing of the “thing-in-itself” remained. We see the world not as it is, but as we are. A lot of new age woo-woo (there is no “reality”, only that which we create) is based on this partial truth. The existentialists got to the point of so much despair over a sense of alienation that only through the cultivation of courage could we bear existence.
There is no going back to a pre-3D world for humans or what Barfield calls “original participation”. And we wouldn’t want to go back even if we could. But that’s where thought comes in. Steiner elevates thought to almost the same status as Spirit. It’s unfashionable these days in spiritual circles to imagine thought as anything other than being “in our head”. Big mistake. Contemplative thought’s primary function is to give us knowledge or to confer a knowing of that which is not us. Try to imagine that thought is not so much something we do, but rather that thoughts come through us. Thoughts of this nature have us, we don’t have them. We are thought by the Originating Wholeness, and our role is to become conscious of the ways and wherefores that this Wholeness is thinking through us. There’s no going back, but there is a way forward.
There are a couple different ways of knowing. One is analytic and the other is empathic and intuitive. The former emerges from and reinforces the split between subject and object, the latter emerges from soul and can overcome the division. Science uses the analytic method, and it has its merits unquestionably. But it doesn’t help us overcome this object/subject split and an accompanying feeling of isolation. In fact, it tends to deepen the divide. Empathic knowing on the other hand is our way back to the lost unity. Through deep curiosity and wondering about the nature of what we are observing, the “object” becomes a “Thou”. A bridge is formed that connects us. We take the other into our being and are taken into its/his/her being through this desire to know what is not us. Celtic Christians never lost the sense that it’s not just us knowing the world, but that the world, the land, the trees, the animals and plants, desire to know us. The urge to know, or knowledge, is the desire for reunion.
When thought is honoured in this manner— as the activity of a Wholeness that is coming through us, and as the precondition for the intimate act of knowing the other—it is really synonymous with love. And love is the key to lost intimacy with the world and each other. I wonder if whatever we mean by G_d experienced a similar separation when S/he chose to allow a world to be born that would be other than Her/Him. I wonder if the evolutionary process itself is the world slowly gaining the capacity to know and be known by this Originating Mystery. To be made in the image of G_d is to be gifted with the capacity for contemplative thought, the fruit of which is this knowing that bridges the perceived divide. I wonder if the human capacity for this knowing is our way of responding to G_d’s yearning for reunion with that which is now other than, but always connected. I wonder if G_d enfolds G_dself into the evolutionary process as a hidden presence. The evolutionary process itself could be interpreted, then, as a divine longing to know and be known, thereby bridging the distance between Self and not-Self. It’s pretty cool that, through the process of thought, we can know the other not as alien, but as intimate other.