We live in a world of relativity. Einstein discovered that much of our understanding of physics is relative, that reality is true for particular frames of reference and is not absolute. But I think this extends to many other areas of our life as well, and can be seen through a spiritual lens as well. Our perceived reality is nearly all relative, it seems to me, and we encounter few, if any, absolutes in our everyday life. It seems only in mystical experience that we may come to know the Absolute, Truth, or God.
Einstein found that because light (or information) has a speed limit, and always travels at that speed in every reference frame, that much of what we perceive in the universe is relative based on the point of view of a perceiver or a reference frame. Bodies in motion perceived time and space and the objects in them differently than other bodies not in motion, or in different states of motion (relatively speaking).
The way things appear to one observer may be quite different than the way they appear to another observer, and the strange thing is that they may both be right. The truth about everyday reality seems to be relative to their frame of reference. What is “true” for one, in their reference frame, is not necessarily “true” in other reference frames. That doesn’t mean that there is no absolute, but just that our everyday experience of reality is mediated by our particular finite localized point of view. However counterintuitive it may seem, we usually don’t experience absolutes, but relativities. Or said another way, the absolute is relativized when we perceive it.
One of the best examples of this phenomenon that I’ve come across is the relativity of simultaneity, as demonstrated in this short video:
This video fascinates me because it shows a clear example where two people experienced two very different realities, and yet both are right or “true.” The man on the platform saw the lightning strikes simultaneously, whereas the woman on the train saw the lightning strikes sequentially. And since light always travels at the speed of light in each reference frame, they conclude that the lightning strikes actually happened at different times. For the man, they were simultaneous, but for the woman they were sequential. Both conclusions are “true” because the truth depends on their frame of reference. The simultaneity of the lightning strikes, or the time when they happened, is therefore a relative truth, and not absolute. It is relative to the observers themselves. There is no “absolute” time when the lightning strikes occurred. We can only generally agree when they occurred when we share the same frame of reference, or if it is approximately shared (if another person was on the platform, or another person was in the train car).
Where this gets even weirder is if we add another person going in the opposite direction. Say there were two parallel tracks, and there was a person on another train heading in the other direction, and happened to pass at the same time. To that person, they would similarly see the lightning strikes sequentially, but in the opposite order to the person on the other train. Because they are traveling towards the back strike, they would see that light first, and then the light from the front strike, so they would conclude that the back strike happened first, and then the front. Three people, three different perspectives on the timing of the lightning strikes, and all three are relatively “correct” (in their frame of reference).
But does this apply more generally, to other situations? I think it does. In many many situations, far more than we typically consider. And not only with physics, but in all other areas of perception, and even thoughts. We don’t perceive an absolute “out there,” but relativities, or perhaps better, an absolute made relative.
Consider color. We see colors out in the world, but these colors are not in the things themselves, as aspects of those things, but are how we see them relative to our being, our mind, our biology. Color is qualia, or an experiential quality, and the truth of color is therefore relative to the experiencer. Color is in the perceiver. There is perhaps truth in the saying that “art is in the eye of the beholder.”
Take, for instance, the difference between how we humans see colors and how we think dogs see colors. We don’t see the same thing. And neither is more “right” or the absolute.
Because our biology is different than dogs, humans having three different color-detecting cones in our eyes, and dogs only two, we see colors quite differently. Dogs don’t have red cones in their retinas, and so don’t perceive red color. That doesn’t mean they don’t see red objects, but just that those objects are seen differently, as simulated in the photo above.
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So we can’t say that color is an absolute quality of an object. Rather, it is a relative quality of our biology, of the way we see things, and if dogs could talk to us, we would not agree as to colors. Those flowers are red to us, but yellowish to dogs, and we are both “right.” Nothing has an absolute color, but only a relative color based on the perceiver. It is how the perceiver, and their biology, interacts with the light reflecting from the object. We don’t even agree with other humans who are color-blind as to the color of objects. And many animals and insects have vision that is quite different from the way humans see things. We seem to agree only as to the color of objects when we share a frame of reference generally with another in regards to our biology, lighting conditions, and other factors. Color is relative.
What about thoughts? Do thoughts have any kind of absolute quality? I don’t think so. I think they are relative too. We usually think in language, and language is inherently dualistic and referential, symbolic. It is always referring to something else. The word is not the thing. It is a pointer, which has a referent. It is never that thing in itself. It is always pointing away from itself to something else, and so it cannot be absolute. An absolute stands independent of other things. By definition, it is not relative.
When we think about something, like a rose, we are not thinking about an absolute, an absolute truth, but rather, we are thinking about past experiences we’ve had, experiences with roses, either in photos or in life, or an idea of a rose. The rose we picture in our mind’s eye is not an absolute rose, but a relative one. It is usually dependent on our past experience with roses, our personal past experience. If we’ve had good experiences with roses, if they were often put on display in our home, then we might have more pleasant thoughts about them. If we fell into a rose bush when we were young, and got thorns in our skin and all scraped up, then our thoughts may not be that pleasant regarding roses. What seems to be the case is that our thought about the rose will be particular to us, to our experience, to our relationship with the rose, to how we envision roses. It is about our personal interaction with them, and is subjective, not objective or absolute. Even if we are looking at a photo of a rose, or even a rose directly, it is also a perspective on a rose that is relative from a particular point of view, from a frame of reference, from a finite point in space.
And I think this may be the case with all of our thoughts. Our thoughts are all relative, even the “thoughts” of our perceptions like sensations and feelings. As many have said, we don’t see the world as it is (an absolute), but as we are (the relative). The philosopher Immanuel Kant’s considerations of the noumenon, the thing in itself, and the phenomenon, the thing we can “know,” have their place here. Our thoughts and therefore our knowledge is all relative to our finite being, to our experiences, to our understandings, conditioning, culture, education, relationships, environment, surroundings, family, language, history, etc. This may also be the source of our tendency today towards postmodernism, and the idea that none of our thoughts are absolute, that we cannot be “certain” about anything.
This is why I think it may be mistaken to take any of our thoughts as what God is. That would mean our thoughts are an absolute, but it seems that can never be. Our thoughts may be pointers to God, symbols pointing to God, but none of them are God its Self, the finite cannot be the infinite, this absolute that is sometimes also called “ultimate reality.” When we mistake our thoughts or ideas or concepts as God as God really is, I think we may be creating idols for ourselves, symbols that we begin to worship, rather than God its Self. Perhaps this is why Jesus said that true worshipers worship the “Father” in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:23), because in no other thoughts or concepts or images is the “Father” found but in those states of Spirit and Truth itself. It seems that all that we experience in everyday life is relative, finite, symbolic, referential, subjective, dualistic, and is not the absolute certain Truth. It is all relative to this finite being that we think we are, the self that has been shaped in our consciousness through our lifetime of experiences.
This is the “ego” that is often referred to in spirituality, our finite localized perspective on the world. We can agree with others when our finite beings share frames of reference, when we have similar perspectives on the world, similar biology, similar race, similar class, similar socioeconomic standing, similar gender, similar nationality, similar religion, similar culture, etc., but it often becomes difficult to agree with others when they have a different frame of reference than us or our tribe. The “truth” to them may be quite different than it is to our particular conditioned being, and yet they may all be relatively “true,” pointers to that Absolute Truth. That’s not to say that every perspective is equally valid, or equally points to Absolute Truth, but they may still be relatively “true” to them, to their understanding, to their conditioning, to their experience in the world. Very limited perspectives may be much less valid than other more encompassing perspectives.
Then how do we know anything about God, about the Absolute, about “Ultimate Reality”? If we live in a relative world, does an Absolute like God even exist? I think this is where the experience of mystics may come into play. The mystical experience seems to transcend the finite, the relative, the particular, in order to know the infinite, the absolute, the universal. It seems to be a change in consciousness, a shift in one’s state of consciousness, a completely different way of perceiving, of seeing (seership), an “ascension” beyond the finite relative individual to a far greater Truth, or a descent back to the origin of our being prior to the emergence of the finite “self,” beyond all thoughts, beyond all symbols, beyond all relativities, beyond all dualities.
The most unitive mystical experiences seem to be a perception of Being from within Being itself, not in a dualistic subject-object relationship, but in oneness, in nonduality, in unity, in Love. The human mind seems to have the capacity to transcend itself, or for the mind to fall away from consciousness, and for pure consciousness to become aware of its Self. This begins to get into areas which philosophy and theology have been trying to go for millennia. But none of it can actually get there (including this article!) because as soon as it is put into thoughts or concepts it becomes relativized again. And no relative is the absolute, and so it will be never be that absolute Truth, that Ultimate Reality. It will always be fallible, uncertain, partial, imperfect, and it will pertain to the particular, the finite, the limited, the temporal, it will be conditioned. It will not be Reality as-it-is.
The experience of self-transcendence seems to be the mystical transcendence of “self,” of the individual identity of the subjective “self,” of who we think we are as finite individual beings localized in reality. When we transcend this identity as the “separate self,” when that “self” falls away, we come into a space of consciousness which identifies itself with nothing in particular and everything universally. It is both nothing and everything, simultaneously. It is no particular thing, but includes all things. The relative world of our individual “self” mind is transcended, so consciousness may come to know the Absolute. And this is nothing that is separate from its Self in a dualistic sense (because that would be relative again), but it is its own Self. When the mind of clear and empty of the psychological “self,” of anything that would refer to particular finite identity, then it seems that consciousness may be open to experiencing itself in a boundless, infinite, mystical way as the totality of all existence, all experience, and beyond all existence that we know of—the Absolute.
Only when we transcend all relativities, all opposites, all particulars, all time-dependent localities, we come into this space of contemplation in consciousness where we seem to merge with the Infinite, the Absolute, the One, the Singularity, the Whole, God, the Father, the Godhead, the Dharmakaya, the Ein Sof, Allah, Brahman, the Tao, YHWH, the I AM, the Truth, Reality, and we know this not as an “other,” but as our Self, the divine Self, the Holy (Wholly) One which gives our finite sense of self birth in the world. We come to see that primordial “Light” which is the Source of all Being, from which all relativities and creation flow. All incarnations, all forms, all beings, all energies seem to become manifest from out of this One. All of creation, all that we think of as the cosmos and the universe, all that we are as finite individuals, finite beings, flows out from this supreme One, this Ultimate Reality. The “Father” is in us, and we are in the “Father.”
We realize that our finite selves are expressions of that ultimate, that Absolute, and that each and every such self is included within that Ultimate, is part of that Absolute, which is why it is Love. But this is necessarily “hidden” from every finite self-mind that takes a relative view or perspective in the world for the very reason that every finite separate self is a relative position with respect to that Absolute, it is a finite particular localized frame of reference. It seems we cannot consciously be One with God until we are One with God, until we’ve transcended that localized frame of reference and begin to see with and as that Absolute, transcending all finiteness. But the paradox is that the finite is still always One in God, this Absolute birthing us into the universe in every moment, even if we don’t know it, if we are not conscious of it from our finite perspective. And so we must often have faith, belief in something that is beyond our finite perception.
Mysticism seems to be those practices such as meditation and contemplative prayer that lead us to consciously transcending the dualistic finite to know the nondual infinite, to become aware of that Absolute that is the basis of our own being, and each and every being in the whole of the cosmos, the essence of Reality, including our relative realities as finite selves. It is the One in which we are all expressions, manifestations, which by knowing it, by being aware of it, by identifying ourselves in it, by having our consciousness “raised” to that unitive consciousness, even though it still resides in our finite bodies, we come to know this deeper identity in us all is shared with us all.
It is the Love which binds us together as One. It is the Body of Christ. It is the Sangha. It is the comm-unity. It is the whole of Humanity on this planet. It is the whole of Life, of Nature, of the planet Earth (or Gaia), of all planets, galaxies, and the universe. It is all included in that One. And the only way of knowing this as it is, is through that transcendent mystical experience, that Beatific Vision, that contemplation, that samadhi, that satori, that devekut, that enlightenment or nirvanic state, which reconciles all opposites, which at-ones all things, which brings all things into that primordial unity, showing us directly that they have the same Source. We come to know the Singularity as the Source of our own being and every being. It is our common original identity, and it is our “divine nature.”
That Absolute is us, which incarnates itself into the world of nature, into bodies, into incarnations, into forms, into this multiplicity and diversity of beings in the world, into all these relativities, into who we are as the “Son” of God, or “children” of the “Father,” as Nirmanakaya manifestations of the Dharmakaya, of the many who are also within the One, as the Atman that is the expression of Brahman, of the Cosmos coming to know its Self. When we can see through the eyes of that ultimate “frame of reference,” that “third eye,” that seer, that nondual consciousness, which includes all frames of reference within its Self, we come to understand what Love is, what compassion is, where all morality comes from, where ethics have their Source, what empathy is, what Truth is, what Reality is, what “eternal life” is, and all the spiritual traditions and religions and science find their reconciliation in that Absolute as well. We come to know our Self.
There really is One “God,” a Uni-verse, a Singularity, an Absolute, and it is becoming us in each and every moment of our particular finite times and temporal relative lives. That is our deeper and truer identity, the Christ identity, the Buddha-nature, the Tao, the Cosmos.
What are your thoughts on the relative and the absolute? Please share your insights in the comments.