Guest post by Michael Brown
I have often been asked if any one experience led to my view of existence, and one certainly stands out. Hindsight shows me that it was a vital signpost on my path, which, as you’ll see, is deeply ironic.
I was in the Andes mountains of Peru at the time. Although my training was in science and physics, it was obvious that the incident could not be explained away by science, logic or rational thought.
I was on the altiplano: a frozen desert more than 16,000 feet above sea level. I was alone, exhausted from walking all day in the thin air. Snow was falling through air so deeply cold that stalactites of ice were fattening in my nostrils. I was not yet worried, because the most remote village in the region should be little more than two hours away. I had checked carefully in the previous village, where the chief, el jefe, was delighted to help—perhaps because a gringo was a rare sight in those parts. He assured me enthusiastically that the way was unmistakeable. “No problem, Señor, there is only one path. There is no fork.”
There was a fork.
The implications sank in immediately, infused with fear. I was in serious trouble. With the snow covering everything, I could not tell which path was the most used, nor could I hope to make it all the way back to the previous village. I had to choose one of the paths ahead, but which one? The correct one led to safety and warmth. The incorrect one, I reasoned, must lead to long-abandoned silver mines in desolate wasteland. In this cold, I would be condor breakfast by dawn—that specific, gruesome image flopped into my mind.
At first, I just stood there, with snow building up on my poncho. I wanted to sit down to think about it calmly, but that would lead to lying down, then to the urge to sleep, which would be suicide. So I just stood there, trying to control my thoughts. Which way to life? Which way to death? Life or death? Heads or tails? Life or death? Heads or tails?
Then, for the first time in my life, astonishing to me, I found myself praying—but not to any god, because I had no religious faith at all. My prayer was a wordless, formless reaching out to… something. It was a silent crying-out from my belly, both a plea and a command which meant: Show me the safe path and let me live! Above all it was an upward surge of passion that I did not generate with my mind, and it would be years before I understood the full significance of that passion.
Then my mind took back control and sneered, Of course there’s no answer; what did you expect, you idiot! So I made the choice. I convinced myself that the path to the right was marginally more substantial than the path to the left, and began to walk.
In less than half a minute, perhaps only twenty seconds, a condor landed directly in front of me, exactly in the middle of the path.
It folded its wings in slow motion and bobbed its head and moved a couple of paces towards me, turning its head side on, and placing its feet carefully as if sensitive to the snow. I stopped still and watched it blink at me. The condor is a vulture, the world’s largest flying bird—wing span 11 feet. I looked around, but couldn’t see any others circling or waiting anywhere. Thoughts gusted through my mind, each trying to strip the condor of significance, trying to make me continue my travel along that chosen path. But all thoughts were a waste of time, subjugated by a black, leaden dread, dragging down through my gut. My feet simply refused to move one step further.
So I turned and went by the other path.
Immediately the blackness changed to certainty, exhilaration and triumph. I felt fantastically, thrillingly alive as never before, and expanded as if I were somehow merged with the world around me. I didn’t hope I was on the right path, I knew I was on the right path. And in two hours I was recovering in the safety and warmth of the last village between the altiplano and the headwaters of the Amazon.
What was that… something I had entreated so passionately? What was the condor about? What was it doing there? And when I chose the other path—where did my utter certainty come from?
When I returned to New Zealand, months later, a Christian friend pronounced judgement immediately and without reservation. The conversation went like this.
“God saved you. He sent the condor.”
“Why would He bother? I’m not a believer. Not only that, I’m anti-religion.”
“Well, in His infinite mercy He wanted to save you anyway.”
“Oh, really? Then what about a bit of infinite mercy for all other people in strife and danger? And what about the millions of children born into poverty and disease? And what about-”
“Well, He moves in mysterious ways,” said my friend.
That’s the Christian Gallic shrug.
The rational and science arguments I heard were even less convincing.
“It was a fluke that it landed on your path. A coincidence with no inherent meaning. It’s a human characteristic to look for significance where there is none.”
“In that case the condor must have been blind, deaf, nostril-deficient, and unable to feel the vibrations from my steps.”
“Maybe it was expecting you to keel over right then.”
“A lone vulture lands directly in front of a meal that is still walking strongly and that could disable it with a kick? I don’t think so.”
“Well, just because science can’t explain it yet, doesn’t mean that it won’t in the future.”
That’s the science Gallic shrug.
So both religion and science required me to have blind faith to paper over the cracks. I couldn’t accept either position. But nor could I let it go. I wanted another alternative: a seamless cosmology, capable of explaining the condor incident without insulting my intelligence.
I had many more experiences (some in the Andes), many more clues, and even wrote a couple of books which laid out my first understandings. Then, very recently, the whole cosmology fell into place.
The condor was actually a distraction from the first real clue. Let’s go back to those vivid feelings: leaden dread, utter certainty, exhilaration, triumph. And a sensation of expansion and connection so vivid that I was the condor, I was the path, I was the snow and the wind sweeping the flakes around me. Now, finally, I do have words for that first clue and for what it meant: passion is the source, not the result, of all that we call reality. All events and all things are passion expressing itself.
The universe is a giant feeling—not, as has been famously said, a giant thought. Descartes was mistaken; he should have written, “I feel therefore I am.”
Passion is our essence. Feelings are the generator of the eternal creation. But thoughts are feelings with the juice squeezed out of them. The more that thoughts reach for passionless objectivity and stand-alone reality, the more they skate across the surface of existence. Undoubtedly, some very fine intellects interpret the great masters. But for spiritual growth—as distinct from spiritual knowledge—those interpretations only have value when they arouse vivid feelings and become a powerful experience in their own right.
Now let me get to the point. There is nothing we have to do to grow spiritually. There’s nothing we have to study. But nor is there any one experience we must have, because all experiences are paths up the same mountain. We are already that …something which creates us and is created by us, on every path on the entire mountain.
Let’s play with Genesis and give that …something a name. Let’s call it Consciousness.
Imagine. In the beginning, there is no universe, no galaxies or stars, nor any material thing. There is no gravity, no space or time, no contrast and no opposites; which means no up and down, no here and there, no before and after, no hot and cold, light and dark, or black and white. There is only Consciousness, which is a deep longing, and the longing is the question, What Am I?
Now, Consciousness decides to play a game of chess. It uses a portion of itself to create a chessboard, with pieces drawn up ready.
Who to play with? No problem. Consciousness places another portion of itself on one side of the board and calls it Mind. Then, in order to make the game real, it gives Mind a gift. It’s the gift of contrast and opposites (black and white), space (forward and back), time (this move, then that move), and gravity (so that the pieces don’t float away). And it makes the first move (pawn to king 4).
But the game still cannot begin, because Mind still knows itself as Consciousness. It knows every passion and stratagem, every move and counter-move in advance.
So Consciousness gives Mind another gift—the gift of forgetting. It forgets that it is Consciousness. It now experiences itself as alone, made of flesh, and contained by a shape with head, arms and legs. Finally, Mind makes its first move (also pawn to king 4) with the question Who Am I? and the eternal game begins.
We humans are the cutting edge of the Creation. Our question is the answer. Our journey is itself the destination because there can never be a final answer to the eternal question. We can choose to be happy now, not tomorrow. We can choose to appreciate the path now, even when it is painful. We are that …something that whispers across the chessboard, you are already home.
Do I sound spiritually complacent? Well, in part I am; there is no need to get out of bed in the morning and seek enlightenment, which is like going out on the horse to look for the horse. But why abandon a perfectly good adventure? Besides, the horse is keen on the exercise and the more passionate a rider you are, the more willingly it responds to the reins.
And I do still have my own spiritual goals. For example, I strive to fully realise, in the most passionate sense of the word, that all is connected; when 10 or 20 or 100 people gather, there is only one being in the room—a being with many faces and many adventures. I strive to fully realise that I am the creator of my life; that before birth I create the highway and during life I choose the lane. I strive to realise that my life is a mirror, constantly showing me what I believe, and what I feel and think, and taste and touch, and smell and hear and see. And I strive to fully realise the end of fear, knowing that the essence of me will live forever, continually changed by me and my journeys.
And who are you? Who is it that is aware that you have a body? Is it your thoughts and feelings? But who is it that is aware that you have thoughts and feelings? Is it your soul? But who is it that is aware that you have a soul…?
The higher we climb those rungs, the more we know ourselves as that… something which, when passionately experienced, needs no proof of its own existence.
Michael Brown lives in New Zealand. He has recently published Finding the Field: an adventure of body, mind, and spirit. His website is www.findingthefield.com.