The Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything
I've just finished editing an amazing clip from our last course with Bernardo Kastrup. You'll be pleased to know he covers the meaning of life, the universe and everything...
He also explains why everything is happening in nothing even though nothing ever happens, and how this paradox is a potential key to the ultimate riddle of reality.
In case this is new for you, in Bernardo's philosophy, the whole universe is one mind, and living beings such as you and I are 'dissociated alters' of that one mind. In other words, we are parts of the whole, and only seem separate due to temporarily being consciously aware of just one part of existence - the part you call 'me, my life and my experiences.'
It's a bit like how you probably weren't aware of the sensations in your right foot until you just read the words 'sensations in your right foot." But those sensations were there the whole time as a vague, barely conscious background, and they aren't separate from you. Similarly, your present moment experience is simply that part of the whole of existence of which you are aware right now.
What we 'see' as the universe is a representation of the experience the one mind is having. The experience from which we are dissociated. So the sun, for example, represents an 'inner' experience that universal mind is having - the sun and cosmos are like a dashboard representing the experience of universal mind.
Which is you. Which is all happening all the time. In nothing....
Confused? Intrigued? Watch the clip!
It presents a most beautiful framework for why the universe and life came into existence, and how we can all play a part in this grand cosmic drama...
Below I've also edited a transcription of my favourite bits:
What is the origin and meaning of life?
I see life as something the universe does, just as it does a supernova or a volcano. Just as it does a quasar or a black hole. It's part of what happens in nature. We want to see special meaning in it because we happen to be it. But we may not have an answer for our existence any more than we have an answer for why quasars and supernovae exist. It's just part of the intrinsic potentials of the Universal Mind and given enough time, it will express its potentials.
Now, that doesn't mean that it's random. It's not random. It's determined by the mental archetypes of the universe. Or to say the same thing in different language, it's determined by the regularities we call the laws of physics.
So it's not random. It's not arbitrary. It just may not have the kind of reason that would comfort us. Because we look for a reason couched in some form of premeditated planning and meaning, and it may not have that. It may have a spontaneous instinctive reason. And that reason may be, to get a grip on itself. Universal Mind deceives itself so much that at some point, it really wants to know itself. To get a grip on itself. And dissociation may be an expression of that archetypal drive.
It's instinctive, it's spontaneous. It's not the result of reasoning about it and premeditating, drawing a plan and weighing the pros and cons. No, it probably arose spontaneously - but there may be a cognitive impetus for that. Actually, it must have a cognitive impetus since the universe is mind. And that cognitive impetus may have to do with the impetus to get a grip on itself and somehow contemplate itself from the outside. But what outside! There is no outside! It is all that exists! So it creates an outside through dissociation. And this may have been a very spontaneous process - but that's about the origin of life, not the origin of the universe.
What is the meaning of the origin of the universe?
So, beginning with some disclaimers about the Big Bang, that it's just a useful fiction, and that we have to be careful about how literally we interpret it, and how much confidence we place on it, and that we shouldn't take it as an established fact because physicists don't think it's an established fact, having made all these disclaimers, I will venture a speculation: I think the physical universe is a symbolic representation of the universe as it is in itself.
Am I saying something different than the dashboard metaphor? Yes. And adding a nuance to that and saying that not only does the dashboard present measurements, but those measurements are invested with symbolic meaning. You have to extend the metaphor beyond just the mechanical dashboard of an aeroplane, which is used to appeal to your physicalist intuitions of this day and age in our culture. And you have to think of it as something that is not only mechanical. It has nuances that go beyond the mechanical aspect of the metaphor. You have to think of it as a symbolic drama, as a metaphor.
Those measurements have a metaphorical nature. They symbolically point at something beyond themselves, in the same way that we use symbols in our religions. Something that is invested with the full properties of mind. The cognitive abilities of mind to represent things through symbolic analogies and metaphors.
“the whole physical universe is an expression of symbols, suggestive symbols. It's mind trying to tell itself something in the only language that it knows, the language of analogy.”
Therefore, the whole physical universe is an expression of symbols, suggestive symbols. It's mind trying to tell itself something in the only language that it knows, the language of analogy, the language of symbols. Trying to tell itself what it is.
That's how all humans used to think before we developed conceptual language and the notion of literal truth which is very, very, very recent in human history, let alone the history of the universe. Therefore, everything we learn about the universe is invested in some symbolic meaning, if only, we have the attention and the subtlety of perception, to discern.
What is the purpose of existence?
I think what the universe is expressing, through the notion of an evolution from an origin that came out of nothing, to all the richness and variety we see today, (in other words, through the metaphor of the big bang), is a fundamental thing about the nature of mind. Which is its ability to create everything out of nothing.
And of course, once you get there, you will start pointing out all kinds of inconsistencies in whatever I say from this point on, because what do you mean? Mind is certainly “a thing”. It's not nothing. How can mind come out of nothing?
The invitation here, from mind to itself, is to try to apprehend things beyond your present day categories. We have a certain set of categories, in terms of which we think. Those categories may be limited. Our very notion of existence or non-existence, “something as opposed to nothing.” Those very notions may be limited. For mind creates everything out of the nothingness of the present moment:
The present moment is a singularity. However, small you make it, you can cut it in two, the past and the future. And you can play this game ad infinitum forever. There is no quantum limit to the present moment. (Well, according to quantum theory, there is a limit but that limit is only the limit of the minimum amount of time in which we can say that nothing has happened. There's a technical definition for that but forget about it. It's a diversion.)
What I'm trying to suggest to you is that if you think carefully about past, present and future, you realise that none of the three can exist. Because the past only exists insofar as you remember it, and you remember it now. You cannot point out that there is the past. It's not anywhere. It's gone! It doesn't exist! All you have is your memories, and your memories are experienced now. They don't exist in the past. You associate them with the past through your conceptual reasoning, but you only ever have the memories as experienced now. There is no past.
There is no future either. Where is the future? Point to the future. It's not there! The future is a set of expectations that you experience now.
So what about the present? The present exists, because the future and in the past are in the present right? Well, where is the present? Now? The moment I move my tongue to say “now”, it's gone! It's the past! The present is infinitely small. It doesn't matter how small you make it, you can cut it in two and say "past and future". It is not there. And the past and the future are in it. Therefore everything is in it. Everything is in nothing. There is nothing that has ever happened. Nothing will ever happen. Nothing exists. Nothing is going on. And out of that nothing, everything exists. The entire richness of the drama of life. Your regrets, your disappointments, your successes, your loves and your heartbreak, everything of every living creature in this universe exists in this nothing. And that points to this fundamental thing about mind, which is to exist in nothing.
"There is nothing that has ever happened. Nothing will ever happen. Nothing exists. Nothing is going on. And out of that nothing, everything exists."
Now, I'm speaking a completely different language than you're used to hearing from me. I've spoken this language in one book, "More than Allegory". But otherwise, I don't go there, because people who think like me will start pointing to all kinds of contradictions and inconsistencies in what I'm saying and think I’m nuts. You make no sense and they will be right. Because what I'm saying now violates our categories. And normally, I surrender to our categories because that's the only way to be respected in the cultural dialogue of a culture that has elevated those categories to the position of religious truths.
So you have no option but to surrender to that. 90% of what you see from me is a surrender to our categories. I cannot reach people if I don't surrender to those categories. I make an exception to you because you're a special audience. This course, experience tells me, has a different kind of audience. So I'm running the risk, the same risk I run when I wrote More than Allegory. This dichotomy between nothing and everything is entirely artificial. It is not there. It's a narrative. It's an artefact of our very, very young cognitive apparatus, which exists on this minor planet of a minor galaxy for only 200,000 years, and arguably for 30,000 years because our ability to think symbolically conceptually only arose much later than our human anatomy.
So the big bang is the universal mind's symbolic attempt to tell itself about this archetyal property inherent to mind. It's telling itself “look, I exist in nothing. Everything I am is nothing. And everything. Please, as a dissociated alter who has developed the ability to metacognise, try to make some sense of that for me, because I myself cannot make any sense out of it. And I'm profoundly distressed with it. So I'm hoping you guys out there, in your lives full of suffering, will manage to get a grip. So when you die, I get some relief! Because I inherit some of your understanding, some of your precarious attempt to make sense of this thing about me that I know, but I can't make sense of.” And I see you putting your hand on your face and I think I just drove you to la la land. Hopefully, you'll be able to return and be a functional human being after this.
Is this the same view as Advaita?
It is Advaita, but it's not the Western understanding of non-duality. That’s too superficial. What we call “non-duality”. Look, the answer to the riddle (and this is not coming from me - maybe it's coming from me too in the sense that I resonate with it, so I make it my own, but I'm not the first one to say this,) the answer to the riddle has to do with self-reference. Computer Scientists call it recursion. It's when a function calls on itself to solve a problem.
This self-reference is the answer to the riddle of how everything can exist out of nothing. And in the Vedas, (a collection of all kinds of oral histories,) there is a segment in which it said that Brahman created the primordial waters, and then it planted that seed in the primordial waters, and gave birth to itself within its own creation.
“trying to hold on to that cognitive tension, to that cognitive dissonance for as long as you possibly can, because the sages say, that at some point, if you hold on to that tension long enough, at some point, it dissolves into clarity.”
Now, what do you mean? To be given birth to means that you begin your existence at birth. But if you give birth to yourself you have to pre-exist your own birth and pfff! Short circuit! Because this doesn't fit into our normal categories. But the answer to the riddle has to do with exploring this idea of self-reference to a degree that makes the rational mind entirely uncomfortable. And trying to hold on to that cognitive tension, to that cognitive dissonance for as long as you possibly can, because the sages say, that at some point, if you hold on to that tension long enough, at some point, it dissolves into clarity. A clarity of obviousness of, of something that is so self-evident so much under your nose that you can't see. It's the most familiar of all answers, although it's the deepest of all riddles. That's what the sages promise.
I don't know - I haven't been there. All I can tell you is I understand the question. And not trying to speak highly of myself or anybody who understands the question, but understanding the question is halfway I think. Maybe I'm being too optimistic. I understand the question in the riddle: how does something come out of nothing? That's what the Big Bang model is hinting at. Because it's literally what it's saying! Everything came out of nothing. Try to wrap your head around it!
So why do we have this model? Because that's what the universe is symbolically suggesting to itself, (through us) as the riddle of existence. And it's hoping that we can wrap our heads around that riddle. Because without us the universe is acquainted with the riddle because it is the riddle - it is the embodiment of the riddle. So it is acquainted with it, it sees it, but it cannot make sense of it. It cannot get to a level of comfort that it goes, "Okay, now, I'm alright with this." No. It's uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable in the same way that you would be uncomfortable if a great question about your past wasn't answered. If you didn't know your origins. If you didn't know how you came about. People who don't know that because they were adopted struggle with this question. Multiply that by kazzilions and you may have an idea of the discomfort of the Universe Mind. And that’s why dissociation arose, (which is how this question was triggered.) Maybe it has to do with trying to answer that question by taking a step outside of itself. Because for as long as you are it, you are the riddle, you can't answer it. You have to take a step outside of the riddle to contemplate it more objectively in order to have any hope to unravel it.
So how does the thing that is the only thing that exists take a step outside the riddle, which is itself? Well, it dissociates. And then presents the riddle to its own dissociated alters in the hope that from that exterior, seemingly singular perspective we are dissociated from the emotional charge of the riddle. (I mean, most people don't even think about it.) So we are dissociated from the emotional charge of that riddle, which gives us the position of objectivity.
The problem is we have become dissociated that we can't even see the riddle anymore, can't even contemplate the riddle. So we have to take a step outside, and then slowly re-approach the riddle. Not too fast, otherwise you just end up where you began. But enough that you can recognise the riddle. And you're still not it again, you're still outside of it, but you're close enough that you recognise it.
This may be the dance of life! How do you answer the riddle! How can everything existing nothing? And it's obvious that this is exactly what's going on. The past is not there! The future is not there! The present is infinitely small. And yet everything happens in it. What the hell! It's obvious! This is what there is no doubt of. That this is what's happening: Everything is unfolding out of nothing. In no time. Where nothing's happening. And yet, everything is in this nothing that's happening. Wrap your head around that. That is the universe's invitation, through the dance of galaxies and galaxy clusters and quasars and exploding supernovae, and monkeys on planet Earth. That's the invitation. Have a look. Pay attention and make something out of it that can benefit the whole after you're no longer dissociated so you can bring it back.
Next Course with Bernardo and Special Guest Rupert Spira
If this whets your appetite, I highly recommend joining the next exploration with Bernardo in March, where we'll be joined by special guest Rupert Spira - a much loved and lucid non-dual teacher, and friend of Bernardo. The most amazing conversations emerge and sometimes we speak well into the night, three or four hours grappling with the most profound questions you can think to ask...
Everything you ever wanted to know about everything, but were too afraid to ask:
A direct experience of your deepest essence...
If that wasn't enough this Sunday evening we have Richard Lang pointing out some fundamental truths about your direct experience that you'll be amazed every escaped your attention. If you've not had the mind-blowing pleasure of Headless Way with Richard yet, I highly recommend it!
It dovetails beautifully with Nonduality, metaphysical idealism and a childlike infatuation with the wonder of bare perception. Come lose your head with us!
Adventures in Awareness Retreat
Also, if you love exploring awareness, the mystery of existence and all the weirdness that entails, come join the upcoming Adventures in Awareness Retreat, 19th to 23rd of May. Very limited spots so do book early if you want to join, and since you were kind enough to read this far, here's a 10% discount code you can use when booking:
Still want more? Then check-out this clip about the primacy of consciousness from Dr. Michele Bitbol, who holds a PhD. in quantum physics and is a student of Phenomenology, Buddhism and Dzogchen.
Also, there is an amazing collection of essays on the survival of consciousness after death thanks to an prize from the Bigelow Institute. If you're short on time you probably don't have to worry. Turns out there is a good chance you can read it in the afterlife...
Hoping our paths cross before then!