You are loved, all beings are loved
Martin Buber mused at length about the I–Thou relationship in his existential writings. His thesis is that we define our existence by the way we engage in dialogue with each other, with the world, and with God. The I–Thou relationship is an inherent part of any spiritual path—though perhaps not by the same name, as it is an inherent part of being human and living our lives with other beings. In the context of spiritual practice, ‘I’ refers to the idea of a separate self, and ‘Thou’ refers to the infinite mystery of our source. Including both the personal and impersonal, Thou is a personal term.
In the Eastern traditions, the existence of an objectified God or Gods is ever in question, just as is our existence as separate entities. The question is inevitable in Eastern traditions: Is there really any I-Thou relationship between the creator and the created? If we can’t find an actual entity that is either one, if both are merely ideas and neither point to any substantial reality, do they exist?
I was recently reading a New York Times story about the current chaos in the White House. Also on the front page was a story about a Super Nova that astronomers were keeping track of. They estimated that at the peak of this explosion, it was radiating energy 100 million times more powerful than that continuously emitted by our sun. We can’t even begin to fathom the power of our own sun, burning 24/7 for billions of years. We all have some sense of how infinitesimal the transient events of our lives seem compared to the vastness of the cosmos. Our actual being is boundless and includes everything; what are we as separate from our inter being with all beings?
Any of our attempts to answer questions like this about the Mysterium Tremendum with our thinking minds only give rise to more questions. Each of us has the capacity to frame this type of question in a unique way so that we can actually live the spirit of the question in our unique lives. One way I relate to the mystery is to contemplate that the only thing we can know for sure is that we are. We are creatures programmed to make efforts, we make efforts to relate to other people, and are programmed to believe that we do have an I-Thou relationship with them. If we continuously and rigidly try to repress that programming to relate to others, we end up severely depressed. Depression means our energy is ‘pressed down’.
When we contemplate the boundless mystery of a higher power creating and dissolving us and all manifestations in the universe, we can easily realize that we are programmed just as deeply to relate to this power as an I-Thou relationship. If we try to repress this programming in our contemplative practice, trying to bravely face a purely impersonal higher power, we end up unconsciously depressing ourselves. We are then pressing down our energy of wanting to relate to our source with our full being, which includes our very powerful inherent drive to relate to a higher power.
Many people on the contemplative path have told me they feel a strong urge for having a devotional component to their practice, but are held back by the idea of relating to something outside of themselves. When we cling to this idea, we are solidifying and fixating on the idea of an I-Thou relationship; we get stuck in the confines of thinking God, or The Mystery can be located as an object of our thoughts. We repress the urge for devotional I-Thou practice to avoid getting stuck in our ideas about it. This is like throwing out the baby with the bath water.
To make use of devotional contemplative practice with an I-Thou component doesn’t mean to cling to or fixate on the conceptual form of I-Thou. In contemplative practice the I-Thou relationship is the relational aspect of spirit; it is how our actual life force, our energy, relates to our idea of ourselves. This relational aspect includes the energy of thought, like it includes the energy of our heart beat and the energy of our lungs breathing. But in contemplative practice, this relational I-Thou relationship can be an awareness of and witnessing of the energy of thought, without clinging to it, without making any meaning out of it, any more than we do with our breath and heart beat. If we pray with and offer all of our love as our contemplation, the actual felt energy of the mystery will love us back while dissolving our clinging to anything at all.
After using contemplative prayer over the years, I realized I am not really attached to the form, the I and the Thou are not felt as solid or substantial entities. They are only more ephemeral thoughts arising and passing away. This is a way of using the I-Thou relationship, and allowing it to dissolve our attachment to it.
Key for spiritual aspirants in the West is to use devotional practice in a way that is unconditioned by the more fundamentalist and solidified I-Thou relationships of our upbringing, such as “If you forsake God and worship other gods, God will turn upon you and destroy you.” The true I-Thou relationship in the contemplative traditions is a melting of the solid sense of I into intimacy with an unconditionally loving being who knows our hearts from the inside. More and more, we are able to touch that place inside that is love. Ram Dass says: “It is being in love, really being in it, being bathed by love until it saturates your being.”