I am god; You are god; All is godness – or Material Reality, Transcendence and the difficulty of maintaining a both/and awareness

I recently finished re-reading Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.” I first read the book when I was in college, (it was quite the cult favorite back in the 60’s and 70’s). The memory that most resonated for me from when I first read the book was the word “grok” which means to drink deeply in the sense of deeply understanding or loving and becoming one with whoever or whatever is groked. As I read the book this time around the phrase that resonated equally for me was “thou art god” as an expression of the responsibility of each of us for the ongoing creation of our world, our universe, and also our oneness with all that is. Ah, I thought, if only we all really got that, we really could celebrate the unity and diversity – the diversity and the unity of all that is! And then, we really could deeply respect the dignity of all that is, and live lives of compassion and justice. If only!

And then I came across a story in Joseph Campbell’s “myths to live by” that reminded me of the difficulty of keeping all of this in our awareness. Here is my ever so slightly tweaked version of the story:

Mara, a young spiritual aspirant whose teacher had just brought home to her the realization of herself as identical in essence with the power that supports the universe and which in theological thinking we personify as “god.” In english, Mara just ‘got’ on every level the meaning of “thou art god.” Mara, profoundly moved, basked in the euphoria of being one with the Lord and Being of the Universe, virtually levitated away in a state of profound absorption. Still caught up in the ecstasy of the realization, she walked though the village and came upon a great elephant bearing a load on its back and with the driver, riding – as they do – high on its neck, above its head. And our young candidate for sainthood, meditating on the proposition “I am god; all things are god,” noticed that mighty elephant coming toward her, she added the obvious corollary, “The elephant also is God.” The animal, with its bells jingling to the majestic rhythm of its stately approach, was steadily coming on, and the driver sitting on the elephant’s head began shouting, “Clear the way! Clear the way, you idiot! Clear the way!” The young saint to be, in her rapture, was thinking still, “I am God; that elephant is god.” And, hearing the shouts of the driver, she added, “Should god be afraid of god? Should god get out of the way of god?” The elephant and driver came steadily on, with the driver at its head still shouting, and Mara, in undistracted meditation, held both to her place on the road and to her transcendental insight until the moment of truth arrived and the elephant, simply wrapping its great trunk around our somewhat lunatic Mara, tossed her aside, off the road.

Physically shocked, spiritually stunned, Mara landed all in a heap, not greatly bruised but altogether undone; and rising, not even adjusting her clothes, she returned, disordered, to her guru, to require an explanation. “You told me,” she said, when she had explained herself, “you told me that I was god.” “Yes, said the guru, “all things are god.” “That elephant, then was god?” “So it was. That elephant was god.” “So why did that elephant not recognize me as god as well?” Mara retorted. And the guru smiled and asked, “Why did you not listen to the voice of god, shouting from the elephant’s head, to get out of the way?”

Joseph Campbell credits this Indian fable to Ramakrishna. Both use the story to illustrate the difficulty of holding simultaneously in the mind the two planes of consciousness, the plane of material reality and the plane of the transcendent. So, there is a project to work on – fully groking the material world and the transcendent world even while we work to bring dignity, compassion and justice more fully into it all!