I’ve been thinking a lot about the Universe and God and the Divinity. I can’t figure out what is the connection between them all. I was raised as a Christian Orthodox, in a rigid and strict manner, and I grew up wanting to get away from all the fear I associated with religion: God was a Father that was watching us and punishing us.
Time has passed and I still know that there is something up there, but I now feel that this “something” protects us, loves us, and we are connected to it in ways we probably don’t understand. It surrounds us, it is inside us.
I call it “the Universe”. But is it God (I feel I misread him, sometimes I feel he’s more of a father who’s guiding me)? What is this love that connects us all? What is it that guides and loves and protects us? How can I relate to the Divinity?
There are different ways to arrive to the truth that – though it doesn’t look that way – all is one. One of them is what can be called “the way of God” in the Western world; in the in East it’s called “Backti”. Not everybody is attracted to this way, especially in the West, but if one has an inclination towards it, it is a wonderful and direct way.
Your question is not simple and consequently the answer – although I tried to keep it as simple as I could – cannot be very easy either. Take your time to read this through.
This answer is based mostly on my understanding and living experience of the Upanishads, the ancient teaching tradition of India. According to it, there are three different kinds of devotees:
The first kind are the ones that are looking for God because they have some problems and they hope that God can help them solve them. Maybe they or somebody close to them is sick and they want God to bring health again. Or maybe they have debts and they hope God will solve their financial situation. Or maybe they feel unhappy, so they hope God will bring them happiness. There are a million other possibilities.
The second kind of devotees are the ones that do not necessarily have problems, but they want many things from the world and they pray to God to help them get those things. They hope to get a bigger house, to have more kids, to live a longer life, to get a better job, to become famous etc.
In both cases, the devotees experience a great sense of emptiness and isolation in their hearts and believe that acquiring things from the world is the solution to this suffering. It is obvious that they are not so interested in God, but mostly in the stuff that God could bring them. Deep inside, their devotion is not really towards God, but towards the world; the material world, like money, power, or enjoyment, or the immaterial world, like happiness or love.
These two kind of devotees see life as divided in three: the world, myself and God. I, the suffering person, would like you, God, to bring me things from the world. This “3 way format” is the most common way to see life and God. I am here, the world is there, and God is somewhere up there, separated from me and separated from the world; if I do enough good deeds (in the form of prayer, or helping others, or by being a good boy or girl), then I may be deserving of his grace (I will get what I want from ‘him’) and, if I am really good, I will finally meet ‘him’ at the end of my life.
In the backti tradition, this is not considered wrong, but simply as a starting point on the discovery of truth. This trust in God is very useful because the person that prays to God to get what he/she wants is a person that understands, at least to a certain extent, that the “getting and keeping” (I want to get what I want and then I want to keep it from going away – which is basically the essence of most actions done by a human being) is not completely dependent on man alone, but that there is a higher power in charge. It is the understanding that man is not the center of the Universe, but that there is something much more than “me and my needs”. That “more” is referred to as God1.
In time (months, years or lifetimes), this devotee may start to question his/her own beliefs and start to see that God may be more complex than just “somebody” very powerful that can help me take care of my needs, i.e., to get me closer to what I want and further away from what I don’t.
This discovery is what creates the third kind of devotee, one that is not necessarily waiting for things from the world, but is interested in God for God’s sake. The prayers of this kind of devotee will not be “please God, help me get what I want”, but will probably be closer to something like “please God, help me discover what you are”. This devotee is also suffering; he/she also experiences that sense of lack and emptiness but, unlike the previous two, believes that the solution to this suffering is not outside, in the acquisition of things from the world, but in the discovery of God itself.
This desire for God, in the beginning, is sporadic, is something one may think on rare occasions. But in time, this desire to know may become the most important part of this devotee: who or what is God? What is life? What am I doing here? Why do we suffer? Is there a way out of this wheel of ups and downs? Who am I?
When these questions become powerful enough, one will start to look for answers. That is exactly what you are doing now.
Here is a different metaphor – a new way to understand God – or at least, an attempt to expose in a very short note a very large and complex and beautiful teaching – based on the Upanishads – about the nature of God:
In the beginning, all there was was God2. God is known as the creator of the Universe, but, how did God created the Universe? When we think of ourselves creating something, we always think of using materials other than ourselves to create whatever it is that we want to create. Like if you want to create a chair, you will get a piece of wood and some tools and shape the chair out of the wood. But if in the beginning all there was was God, then God could not use any other element; because there was none.
And so, one beautiful way to think about it is that God created the Universe out of ‘itself’.
Everything we see, experience, touch, hear or feel is God. The whole Universe is God. God did not create the world and then left, but God itself evolved into the form of the world. The world is not separated from God, and because God itself is appearing as the world, world is another name for God, just like we can say that wave is another name for water (a creation of water); it is water with a form, but water nevertheless. There is no substance called wave; all there is is water. In this case, “Universe” is one of the forms that God can take, just like a wave is one of the forms that water can take.
Before this questioning, the way we saw the world was as world, as matter, as something existing by itself, but now, we may start to see the world as God. This change is not a PHYSICAL one, but an ATTITUDINAL one. I still see the same things like before, but now, I know that what I see is not matter, but God. Before, the only way to see God was trough some unusual, mystical states, but now I am not dependent on any state or epiphany. I can see God everywhere; I can see God in everything.
This new attitude will change completely the way I relate to the world, to other people, to my own body. Why? Because I know that everything I see, touch or feel is God. And so, the world is God, other people are God and even my own body is God. Because most people will not see that what they are seeing is God, their behavior will express their own beliefs, but I know and so my way of relating to people is completely changed.
My relationship now is a reverential relationship. I learn to look at everything with appreciation, with respect, with love. My prayers are not anymore prayers of asking, but are more about being grateful, about praise, about love.
This new attitude will completely transform my life. All the stress and suffering I used to experience will transform into the vision of what can be called a “cosmic dance”, or karma. All that happens is a manifestation of God. All the movements of life, the good and the bad, the ups and the downs, the sweet and the bitter are nothing but a manifestation of God, they are nothing but karma, meaning, the inevitable consequence of the movement of the whole at any particular moment. This movement of the whole is nothing but God, and because it is God, I learn to take it as it comes, without complaining, without fighting, without resistance. Nothing will change. I will still have to do whatever needs to be done by me: I will still have to go to work, make my living, cook my food, but I will not be worried about the consequences of my actions, i.e. if I will get what I want or not. I do what I need to do, but all is karma, all is God, and so I do not worry. And not only that, but because I see everything as God, then the way I will do my actions will be based on that vision. And since my actions are nothing but handling the world – the environment and other people – and since I see the world as God, then my actions will be nothing but the best I can do. I will be living a life of doing all that can be done according to the possibilities that are given to me, without the stress or worry about the consequences of those actions. I will live a life of reverence.
With this understanding, there is no more a “3-way format” to see life, but a “2 way format”: God and myself.
This is backti or the Way of God.
This way of living, free of stress and worry, in time, may open the door to an even deeper level of understanding, which is another beautiful and complex teaching, also based on the Upanishads.
Going back to the beginning, before the Universe existed, there was only God and we can think of God as divided into two principles, or one principle divided in two aspects: a lower or gross aspect, that after creation becomes the material principle – everything that can be experienced; and a higher or refined aspect, the intelligent, creative, spiritual principle or, more precisely, the aware/conscious principle. This mixture of higher and lower principles is the cause of the entire universe.
How do we recognize these lower and higher principles?
Whatever can be experienced is the lower element, the material element of God. And what is that can be experienced by us?
We look out of the window and see space, the stars, the planets. Space, the stars, the planets are matter.
We experience the window, the room, the house – all matter.
We experience other people – matter.
We also experience our body. Our body is also matter. But we also experience our thoughts, our emotions, our sensations. Although this is more difficult to understand, they are also matter, even if a much more subtle kind. Everything that can be seen, experienced, touched, heard, felt is matter, gross matter or subtle matter. And matter is just a name for the lower aspect of God.
What is the higher element of God, the spiritual element?
It is what sees.
The seer is the spirit, the seen is the matter.
Whatever I experience is the material element of God, but “I” – the experiencer/seer/awareness – am the spiritual Element of God.
Everything is God, either in its lower aspect or in its higher aspect.
I think I am a person, but my body and mind belong to the lower aspect of God and the “I”, the seer, is the higher aspect of God. There is no person. There is only God.
If one has the inclination towards backti/the way of God, it is not so difficult to see the material aspect of God as God. But it is much more difficult, independent of one’s inclination, to see and recognize the spiritual aspect because of the very profound belief that the “I” belongs to me, the person. But this is precisely the highest realization that we can aspire to. The realization that all there is is God.
This last realization takes time, great maturity and refinement of the mind, together with much study and dedication. And for that maturity to happen, the vision that the world is another name for God and, as a consequence, the living of a reverential and grateful life, is a very useful and necessary step.
And so, the answer to your question about how to relate to the divinity would be: forget about mysticism or higher states or unusual visions and, instead, learn to see everything as God, and relate to it accordingly, which means, be grateful and do not worry, and bring this understanding to every second of your life.
1This “belief in God” can also create an enormous amount of delusion and misunderstanding, leading to war, pain and suffering, as can be easily seen all throughout history, but that is a different subject, one that I am not touching here at all.
2God, being prior to the Universe, is also prior to time and space, and so it is the unthinkable principle (the mind can only think within the parameters of time and space) that is the essence of everything that is and exists, that is not born (and as a consequence it cannot die) and that is not confined to a specific locus/space. Don’t try to think about it. The Tao Te Ching reads: “the Tao that can be named, is not the eternal Tao.”