Look around and rest your gaze on something nearby. What do you see? A coffee cup. A potted plant. An old paint-peeled wooden fence outside the window.
What if I told you that you are mistaken?
The things you just named are only concepts – meanings that your mind is putting around what you see. “Coffee cup,” for instance, only exists in your mind. As a concept, it links this thing into a web of associations primarily having to do with usefulness. This thing holds coffee and you can drink from it. It is an example of a semantic category that only makes sense within a general context of human purpose.
Constructivism holds that meaning is constructed by our minds and does not exist independent of a particular form of intelligence (our own) that is linguistic, conceptual, categorical and descriptive. Coffee cups wouldn’t exist if the intelligence that created and uses them never did.
But what about things that aren’t artifacts of human craft and technology?
That plant in the pot over there – certainly it exists independent of your mind, right? Look again.
“Plant” is also a concept that you are putting around that thing. It’s there on the “table” because it adds color to the “room” you’re in, as well as a hint of life in an otherwise artificial and sterile environment. The concept of “plant” and all its associations makes that thing meaningful.
But what is that thing without the concept of plant around it?
My word for it is mystery, which is about as nondescript a concept as our mind can manage before starting to spin a web and turning it into something for us. The present mystery of reality is concealed behind our conventions of meaning.
Once in a while this real presence breaks through the concepts we put around it, and when it does, our minds are typically stunned into a state of wonder, fascination, astonishment and awe. Another word for this real presence of mystery is radiant being or glory. In those moments of revelation (when the veil of meaning is pulled aside) the fullness of reality shines forth.
The practice of meditation can help us enter this state of present awareness where the radiant being and glory of reality is witnessed. Not a “coffee cup” or a “potted plant,” but this – the present-moment suchness of … this.
True enough, at some point we will need to exit this ecstatic state of mind and get back into that very complicated web of meaning called our world. We tend to be more comfortable there, more confident in what we think we know, more in control of what’s going on.
Ego much prefers to look in a mirror than through a clear window.
And what is ego but a tangled knot of personal preferences and convictions, ambitions and defenses, occasional embarrassment and tenacious conceit? Ego is our self-concept, the concept that has been put around our essential suchness. It is the conditioned self as distinct from the essential self, commonly called the soul.
Of course, once this essential self and concealed glory of the soul is named, it’s almost impossible to resist its further definition into something separate from the body – metaphysical, immortal, and belonging to another realm. When this happens, the soul is identified with the ego – as “my true identity” or “who I really am” – and a mystical realization is quickly and fatally corrupted into a heavy sediment of religious dogma.
An unfortunate consequence is that a genuine experience of mystery gets shrouded by concepts and shredded into meaning. What might have expanded into a “new mind” (metanoia) with “no-self” (anatta) to take control and make it meaningful, instead gets pulled into a neurotic orbit around me and mine. The grace and glory of radiant being is compressed into words, spun into creeds, and enforced as saving doctrine upon the minds of true believers.
When it comes down to it, ego craves tight spaces and there is no tighter space than the inside of a fervently held belief. Ironically, while ego-centered religion aggressively advances its message of escape, it makes itself a hostage of its own convictions.
If the human spirit longs for freedom and expansion – and I think it does – this constricting force of religion is largely responsible for the spiritual frustration driving our present civilization into a deepening spiral of tribal violence and rampant consumerism.
Whoa! Back to that coffee cup.
Take another look. What do you see? Suchness. Mystery. Real presence. Radiant being. Glory. This is the present mystery of reality. It is not a “cup,” just a means of carrying “coffee” so you can make it through the reading of this blog post.
Pick it up. Feel its weight and balance in your hand. Observe its color and contours. Tap it lightly and listen. Surrender your labels and concepts. Forget about what this thing is for, what use it has to you. Instead of closing your mind down on its meaning, allow attention to open out to its mystery. Give up the idea for a moment that this thing is here for your sake.
When you release the present mystery of anything from the constraints of meaning, you’ll be surprised at how centered and grounded it reveals itself to be. When you can let go of your conditioned self – although admittedly this can be terrifying when you’ve been playing safe inside its narrow space – the glory of your human nature can touch the radiant being all around you.
The glory of that present mystery in your hands calls to the mystery of your own being. As the concept drops away, so too does the part of you that craves the illusion of security, control, and distance that meaning can provide.
The early Greek Christian bishop Irenaeus once wrote, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive, and the life of a human being consists in beholding divinity.” Although orthodoxy would take off in a very different direction, this confession, this mystical witness to the glory of radiant being, is, as they say, on the books.
Now that’s a satisfying cup of coffee.