The Mystery: Why Does It Matter?

The Mystery: Why Does It Matter?

“Why do you care whether there is a God, or extraterrestrials, reincarnation, or any of that? What relevance does it have to your life?”

This is a question which I have often heard, in one form or another, when bringing up topics related to the mysteries of life, from those who are not typically inclined to ponder them. Personally, I have always found the mysteries irresistible, so this common refrain has always been somewhat baffling to me. How could you really not care whether there is a God, or extra-terrestrial life? Such apathy toward the ultimate questions of life seems unfathomable, to me.

Indeed, those who find themselves involved in Freemasonry are generally those who are inclined to explore these questions, and this is part of what draws us to the craft, esotericism in general, and what is often referred to literally as The Mysteries. This is also why the fellowship of a brotherhood of truth seekers is so precious to those who find it, because our kind so often feel alone in a world full of those who care more about their bank balance, newest electronic gadget, or mundane interpersonal dramas than the quest for ultimate reality.

So, like a fish trying to describe the ocean, for a long time it was difficult for me to articulate why these things matter to me so much when this question arose. However, I eventually did manage to create some semblance of an explanation, which I would like to share with you now. Perhaps by reading this, you will have a new answer in your repertoire the next time someone asks why you seek truth.

The short version is: I care about the mystery because the mystery is the ultimate context of my existence, and context is absolutely everything; the context of a thing defines that thing and gives it meaning. Allow me to explicate.

The Universal Existential Constant

VitruvianManThe human condition is defined by a finite or limited conscious existence, and a mystery beyond it. In fact, I believe that this is probably the condition of not just humans, but any entity, since any finite consciousness is always limited, by definition. If it had no limits, it would not be an “entity,” it would be infinite.

In other words, there are things you directly experience, and there are things beyond that, with a gradient boundary between them. Regardless of how far your awareness may expand, there is, a priori, always a boundary to it and always something beyond that boundary, which to you is a mystery.

The only possible exception to this would be if our awareness became infinite, perhaps, but we cannot really imagine that. Barring the hypothetical exception of infinity, there is always a boundary to conscious existence, and therefore, a mystery beyond it.

This would presumably also be true for any self-aware finite entity, from the lowliest worm to the most vast super-intelligent species, or even advanced spiritual beings. If they are not infinite, then it seems to me that their existence must have this structure: the known, the unknown, and the boundary between.

The Existential Island in an Ocean of Mind

9d5f825306d964f0b1fe99d921e05627One helpful metaphor is to think of our existence as a sphere, like a planet. That planet has its basic substance or ground, which for us is our direct sensory awareness. These are the things we are most certain of, because we directly experience them, and in this metaphor, they are our ground or earth, which also relates to our colloquial sayings about being “grounded” in reality. This is the reality to which we refer, our most certain, sensory reality, the bedrock of our experience.

Then, there is another layer which is beyond the ground of sensory experience, but which is near enough to be relatively certain; you can liken this to the atmosphere of our metaphorical “planet” of existence. For us, these would be facts outside of our senses, but nevertheless trustworthy, thanks to evidence and logic (to put it briefly).

For instance, I can be relatively certain that oxygen exists, a faraway country like Russia is really there, and that I have a liver, even though I’ve never truly seen or experienced any of those things. Thus, there are things I have not directly experienced, yet of which I am relatively certain. Here is where the boundary begins.

Finally, beyond that of which we are relatively certain, there is the larger Mystery, about which we ponder, and upon which we weave the fabric of our beliefs, by combining reason with imagination. To continue our planet metaphor, this would be the vast starry expanse in which our planet is suspended. Just as the cosmos is the context of a planet, whatever is beyond the boundaries of the ground and atmosphere of our existence forms the context of it.

Thus, the mystery is the context of our existence, and is experienced purely in the realm of imagination, hopefully tempered by reason. Regardless of what is actually “out there” beyond what we know with varying degrees of certainty, our experiential existence floats in a cosmos of mind and imagination because we can only imagine and reason about what is beyond the boundary of our experience and certainty.

Not only that, but no matter how far we expand our knowledge and experience, it always will float in an ocean of imagination and mystery, because that seems to be the inherent structure of any finite, experiential entity. How else could it be?

Context is Everything

a52f2b4eede4932789bf0d916be16850So, “Fine,” you might say, “the mystery is the context; why should the context matter to me?” My answer to this is that the meaning of anything essentially is derived from its context. Let’s take a very concrete example: a bar fight.

Let’s say that you witness a fight break out between two men in a bar. If you know absolutely nothing about the context of this fight, it will mean very little to you; perhaps you may have some thoughts about the volatility of alcohol and testosterone when combined in too great a quantity. In other words, to you, it is a relatively meaningless occurrence.

Let’s say that you now expand your knowledge, when someone tells you that the reason they fought is that one man was sleeping with the other’s wife. Now, to you, this is a very different bar fight, is it not? Yet, it is the same bar fight; it is the context of it in your own mind and imagination that has changed. Let’s say that you hear from yet another person that the reason the affair occurred in the first place is that the husband was abusing her; yet again, another vastly different bar fight.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that your spiritual “third eye” suddenly opened, and you were able to see that this was an unfolding of karmic patterns through time that had been in motion for thousands of years between these two souls, as they weave a pattern of flesh-bound experiences in and out of various bodies and lifetimes, trying to find a balance and transcend the illusory nature of this physical reality, for their ultimate mutual enlightenment. Yet again, a totally new bar fight, with a totally different meaning.

Why? Because with every expansion of your knowledge of the context of the fight, your experience of the fight transforms. The same is true of your entire experiential existence, the same principle is in operation every time you learn, and explore the mysteries.

That, my friends, is my answer to the question of why the mystery matters. To me, this is like something I had always subtly known but for the longest time had difficulty articulating. Perhaps it may strike you the same way, as almost obvious, yet novel in it’s explanation; or, perhaps you somehow disagree, in which case I would love to hear your perspective.

Either way, I hope that you have enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!

Service: Why Do We Help?

Service: Why Do We Help?

If you were to ask five different people of five different belief systems why it’s important to serve others, you’d probably get five somewhat different answers. For instance, a Hindu might say that it will accrue positive karma, a Christian that it’s to spread the love of Christ, and perhaps a scientific atheist might say that it simply reduces the amount of suffering in the world, and that is reason enough.

The teaching that we should serve others is almost universal in the various religions and wisdom teachings of mankind, although their stated reasons may vary, as one might expect. To most of us, it seems obvious that it is good to serve others, to help those in need. But as Freemasons, what is our explanation? Why do we help?

Freemasonry defines itself as an organization based on service to humanity, and masons throughout history have spoken on the subject of service to humanity extensively, and focused heavily on both charity and enlightenment. As with every other philosophy or belief system, our perspective on service is deeply rooted in the masonic perspective on humanity’s essential nature, and destiny.

An important caveat is necessary, here: technically, there is no single “masonic perspective,” because each mason chooses for him or herself how they think about any given topic. Freemasonry is a fellowship among truth-seekers, not an orthodox belief system. Therefore, the ideas presented here are in no sense meant to be understood as universally accepted by all masons.

The Vector of Human Evolution

888695607In Freemasonry, and the Western esoteric traditions in general, we do generally have a particular perspective on humanity’s purpose. We do not typically view it in the way that some religions might, which is often the idea that humanity was created merely to worship and please a deity, nor do we generally believe that humanity’s existence is randomly purposeless, a chance occurrence in an otherwise dead and meaningless universe, as might those skeptics who believe only what science can prove.

One of the most deeply-held core values of freemasonry is that humanity does in fact have a teleological vector, which is a fancy philosophical way of saying that we believe humanity has a purpose, a trajectory, an inherent potential which each and all of us are in the process of unfolding. We may have differing ideas about what that purpose entails, or what its ultimate goal is, but the common thread is that we believe a process is taking place which involves a perfecting or evolution of each person, so that we eventually become something more and better than what we were before, both individually and collectively.

In fact, it is this vector which underlies the current and overall purpose of Freemasonry. This is one understanding of what we term The Great Work, the progression towards the highest potential in the self, and in humanity as a whole.

Service in Context

So, what does all of this have to do with service, you might ask?

images-5If we believe that all people have this higher potential which is yet to be unfolded, then our chief task in this world must be to unfurl it in our self, as well as to do whatever possible to help the people we come into contact with to do the same. In other words, to catalyze and cultivate the process of human evolution towards our destiny. That is my attempt to encapsulate the essence of service, from the perspective of the esoteric wisdom teachings.

When most people think of service and charity, they probably wouldn’t think about contributing to our evolutionary process. We might simply think it’s the “right thing to do,” or that our compassion simply compels us to do so. People are suffering, so we do what we can to provide relief; many people are lacking in knowledge, so we do what we can to provide insight and enlightenment. If we are able, we help those who are not able. For many, it feels almost written into our DNA. Why do we need an explanation?

These reasons are good enough, insomuch as they spur us to action. However, in my opinion, the best possible understanding of the purpose of service must necessarily be embedded in, and in alignment with the purpose of our entire existence. To me, there is value in seeing things in the larger context of what we ultimately believe about ourselves, our species, and the universe itself.

Climbing the Pyramid

Any of us who are blessed enough to have found some measure of spiritual awakening in this life find ourselves in a peculiar situation, in respect to our relationship with the rest of humanity.

It is a fact of life, and has been for as long as there have been those who wake up to some degree, that the majority of humans exist in a state of confusion and suffering. This suffering is not purely economic, although poverty is a real problem. Those who have their basic needs taken care of, or even those who live in lavish luxury, can and do still suffer a great deal on an emotional, social, and soul level. And this is precisely the state which we ourselves seek to extricate ourselves from.

Yet, we know from the understandings handed down to us from various wisdom teachings that each of those confused and suffering people contains a divine spark, and the potential to ignite that spark, and transmute their suffering, thereby transforming into a vibrant, soulful, and purposeful human being. Whether we know it or not, I believe that this is the ultimate purpose of service, not simply to reduce suffering to reach some state of equilibrium, but to free up resources to realize a higher potential in each person.

1579917_origMany readers will be familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, perhaps from Psychology 101. For those who aren’t familiar, it is a model of human needs which arranges them in a pyramidal structure, grouped into levels, each needing to be satisfied before the next level can be advanced. At the base are the most basic, biological needs, and they transition up the pyramid into emotional and social needs, with the capstone being self-realization, the fulfillment of some transcendent purpose that is beyond all the others below it. The key idea is that one must take care of the needs in sequence, from bottom to top. If the basic needs are not addressed, the higher needs will remain unfulfilled.

So, if the capstone of that pyramid is equivalent to the destiny towards which we are moving, and which we hope to assist all of humanity in achieving, then helping those around us means helping them move beyond the level where they currently exist. For those whose basic needs still are unsatisfied, we would not necessarily hand the deepest teachings of soul wisdom. It may simply be that they need food to eat or a roof over their head. For yet others, mental/emotional stability may be their current requirement. Yet, in all of these, the reason we help is the movement towards that capstone of ultimate good, even transcendence.

In this way, if we wish to be good servants to our Creator and our fellows, it’s helpful to first be able to recognize which service is required, depending on where that person is at, and how we are best equipped to provide it. This begins with a concrete conceptual model of the hierarchy of needs, as well as the ultimate goal.

Tending the Garden

400017260I find the garden to be a useful metaphor both in inner work, as well as work with other people. To me, the relationship between those who wish to serve a higher purpose and the rest of life and humanity is similar to the relationship of a gardener to a garden. In this vein, we are not the sole rescuers or providers of the essential life processes. Rather, we should best view ourselves as Life’s humble and equanimous attendants.

We cannot make the garden grow, the flowers blossom, or the vegetables ripen, but we can water them, prune them, prop them up when they have fallen, and dig out the weeds. If more of us are wise, conscientious, and faithful stewards, then the garden of human civilization will be more sweet with the scent of compassion, bright with the colors of inspired expression, and fulfilling with the fruits of human self-actualization.