Ignorance in Radical Oneness
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’” (Genesis 2:15 – 17; NRSV)
I think I should begin with a disclaimer. I am not attempting to perform an exegesis or to formally reinterpret this Biblical selection. Now that any fundamentalists or Biblical scholars can relax the tension in their shoulders, let me begin with a slightly different way of looking at this passage. This is from the second chapter of the first book of the Bible. It is still describing the Judeo/Christian creation story. The Divine Creator has already basically finished the six day task of making the entire universe and every creature, including man. The Creator took the seventh day for rest. Now the Loving God is giving the first emanating human his instructions. We get the sense that the first manifesting human already had some notion of agriculture, and was not without any knowledge. The human had work to do and a plentiful supply of food, but, it seems, was ostensibly immortal. The story also shows an element of tension: there’s one thing in the garden that should not be eaten. The one thing is a tree with at least a part, later we find out the tree bears fruit, must not be eaten. If the fruit is eaten, the Loving Creator says that the human will die. We find out that this was not an immediate death, the first emanating humans to eat the fruit did not die immediately, they lived on, had a family and lived long but now mortal lives. When we read this section two questions immediately come to mind: if the manifesting humans were not to eat the fruit, why did the Loving Creator put it there? and how does fruit at once give knowledge of good and evil and cause the emanating humans to die?
Clearly the fruit was not some kind of poison hallucinogen. It is called the tree of knowledge. Did the first humans have no knowledge? Clearly they had some knowledge; they could till the soil, they were also given the task of naming every creature. The fruit gave the eater the knowledge of good and evil. It gave humans perhaps the first experience of moral dualism, first the opposites of good and evil, and then of naked and clothed. We can imagine the discrimination of opposites flourished from there, leading to the ultimate understanding that if the emanating humans were alive, they would also experience and opposite state of death – they would die. Why would a loving creator put such a tree in the garden? Most people I know say it was a test of fidelity, if this is true, doesn’t it seem like God was the original tempter? What happens when we tell our children, “O.K., look but don’t touch?” I think there is another way to look at this. The Loving Creating Divine One is ever creating and supporting development. The first emanating human form or condition was not a final product but yet another new start. The Loving Creator perhaps intended the human creature to develop intellectually, to develop rational thought, but instead of forcing this development on the human, gave the human the choice of when to begin the journey of development because in the imminent love and compassion of the Creating Intelligence, God knew that it would not be an easy journey. It would also begin the cycle of birth and death. The Loving Creator gave the human the choice to begin the journey, and as much understanding of what the journey would entail as the newly manifesting human could understand. In this way, the tree is a gift, it is also the double edged sword of binary opposites. It is the spark that began the journey of intellectual inquiry.
If we think a little more on the before eating and after eating states of the manifesting humans, we may come to an interesting insight. Before eating, the humans could survive, could do work and could name. They knew how to find food on their own and to cultivate it. They had mental faculties enough to name things and so some form of language must have been available to them. One must admit, however, that there is a limit to mental and cultural development with having only those skills. A plateau must be reached. For advancement, rational and critical thought must be engaged. Rational and critical thought require the ability to form questions, to distinguish contrast, to select an answer or solution to the question, and to judge value. The ability to perform these mental tasks is crucial for socio-cultural development and for the expansion of knowledge. To want to know more, we must first know our ignorance and have the desire to move toward increased knowledge. For human thought to develop, we needed the mental tool of dual opposites, of dissimilarity. to be able to distinguish, choose, and then distinguish again.
Our ability to discriminate into categories of good/evil, right/wrong, hot/cold, light/dark, self/other, etc. is a very useful tool. We can develop preferences; we can associate and discriminate; we can also come to know more and more, which in and of itself is creation: creation of knowledge. However, we get so attached to our tools that we begin to identify with them. We confuse ourselves with our tools and the categories with reality. When we identify with a tool, when we think the tool is intrinsic to ourselves, cannot let it go because that would ostensibly mean losing our selves – our identities. When we confuse our categories for ultimate truth, we lose sight of the wholeness of reality. We forget that every discrimination we make is only a thought object, it is not truth but a relative truth. I say the day is hot, but for someone who comes from a warmer climate it could be a cool day, and relative to the temperature of the sun, my hot is actually near freezing. The true state of things lies beyond discrimination, but discrimination is a very useful tool for creation. For humans, it is a necessary tool, and it increases our knowledge.
I find it interesting that we only ascribe ignorance to humans on this great planet of ours. We do not attribute ignorance to a tree, the bird sitting on the tree, or to the insect in it’s beak. We do not even accuse the simplest life form, the single celled fungus, ignorant. Nor do we say that rock, water or air are ignorant. Ignorance seems to be limited to the embodied human mind, and I would like to add one more distinction: the embodied human egoic mind. I don’t think we would call our unconscious minds or our spiritual selves ignorant either. It seems to me that it is only the portion of human manifestation that gathers information and knowledge that can have the opposing attribute of ignorance.
And so, eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge granted us the gift of understanding opposites and at the same time awareness of ignorance. We do not like admitting ignorance. Labelling someone as ignorant is one of the worst ways to show scorn for another. We absolutely disregard someone we believe to be ignorant. We also do everything we can to hide our ignorance, even though just a moment of reflection should show us that as manifesting humans it is impossible for us to know everything and so some ignorance is necessitated simply due to the fact that we are human. Ignorance is also not a permanent or immutable state, once we notice a gap in knowledge, we can move towards filling that gap. There should be no disgrace to ignorance, yet we stigmatize it. Of all of the times in my life I have tried to hide my ignorance, the most embarrassing happened when I was in the sixth grade of elementary school. I had begun attending the most prestigious elementary schools in San Francisco. Until that time, I was going to good schools, have no doubt about that; but my mother was determined I would get the best education I could. I had made a sudden shift to an entirely new educational environment. In sixth grade history class we were reading The Iliad, and had to write a report on The Oddessy. I had suddenly jumped to reading modern novels like Catch 22 and Lord of the Flies, both of which are usually read in high school or higher, in English class. I was thought to have a reading disability and had to go through a special reading program over the summer. I was also the poor kid in the class (this was a very expensive school). Needless to say, I was not a popular kid. So, in science class we had to prepare science presentations. Once, I chose to do whales. I was scared out of my gourd. I got through the presentation and then had to face the questions of my classmates. Everyone was quiet, about which I felt very ambivalent: I was at once relieved that I might not have to talk anymore and at the same time I was worried that their silence was because I had failed miserably. One boy finally raised his hand and asked me, “Are there any whales in Switzerland?” Please remember that in my leap to this school, I had missed some classes that they had had earlier and I probably would have had that year if I had continued in the same school. One of those was obviously world geography. I had no idea where Switzerland was, and my classmates had probably all been there already to go skiing with their families. I couldn’t imagine there could be a completely landlocked country. I answered, “I guess there could be.” The entire class erupted in laughter. I was humiliated. I played that scene over and over in my head for the remainder of that year and beyond. It was then I really understood the pain and humiliation of ignorance.
There are so many things that we are ignorant of. We are ignorant of many facts, both important and insignificant, for example how many angels can sit on the head of a pin? or who is the author of The Cloude of Unkowing, a medieval spiritual text in English (I leave it to you to decide which or if either question is important). We are ignorant of most of what is out there in the wide universe. We are ignorant of customs and attitudes of other cultures. We are ignorant of other people’s feelings or thoughts. Our awareness of our ignorance causes us pain and we strive to ease that pain by finding out. Think of a three of four year old child incessantly asking why? why? why? questions. They are becoming aware that they don’t know things, it is frustrating, and they want to sooth that pain. We continue asking questions throughout our adulthood. Sometimes, however, when the answer to our questions is not readily coming, we will cover up the pain of not knowing with an easy or a fabricated answer.
If we look at our ignorance in our interpersonal relationships, I think most of us, to one degree or another will opt for one of the easy ways out of our ignorance/pain dilemma. When our friend, lover or relative do something we don’t understand or react in a way we cannot fathom, we will not always ask the other person why they did that or how they are feeling. We project our own experiences, fears and, in short, psyches onto the other person to find meaning. Or, we will write off the unknown with some little meaningless and hollow answer like, “well, she always does that,” or, “he can’t help it, he’s just a man.” And it isn’t just in one to one relationships, we do the same thing with groups of people, with other races, religions and nations. We form prejudices. Sitting with our ignorance until an answer can be found is uncomfortable and even painful, but covering it up with any answer, even if it is essentially incorrect, gives us some kind of relief. However, suffering through our discomfort for truth is creative, it broadens our perspective and creates more knowledge and wisdom. Covering up our ignorance is easier in the short term, but it creates more ignorance and thus, in the long run, more pain.
Our ignorance of other is a dilemma, but we are also ignorant of ourselves. We think we know who we are, what we want, what we do, how we feel and even what we think, but for most people that is simply not the case. We primarily only know our personas, the faces that we show to the outside world. We piece these masks together and say, this is who I am. I am a doctor or a janitor. I am a mother or a son. I am a baseball fan or an aficionado of classical music. That is not the makeup of a human being, it is a list of roles the emanating human plays in the physically manifesting environment. We think we want to live in Hollywood or Paris. We think we want to be married to the sexy blonde or the wealthy CEO. We think we want to go to Harvard, Oxford or Seoul National University. We even think we want to win the lottery. These are also not truth, but rather socially invented icons of success. And even the people who say they want to give up everything and live in a shack by the beach or go back to the countryside and have a little farm are equally guilty of buying into an antithetical icon. I am surprised by how often we are not even aware of how we feel or what we are thinking. We seem to get so used to hiding our thoughts and emotions or covering them up and responding to questions about them with platitudes and trite answers that we begin to believe them ourselves. We build up layer upon layer of untruth about ourselves that we eventually find ourselves ignorant about the one person we should be on the most intimate terms, and we start to have to ask ourselves the tough questions and weed out fact from fiction in our answers.
Being aware of our ignorance is indeed painful. But have you ever become aware that you have run up against someone who is ignorant of their ignorance? That is, when someone don’t even know enough to stop to ask the questions in the first place. Even when we have asked a question and covered it up because we didn’t want to suffer the pains of discerning an answer, I think we know at some level that there is an area of ignorance that we are not facing. But there are times when we can’t even discern a gap or lack of knowledge. When we haven’t even asked the question in the first place. This could be in the form of prejudices that we have accepted at face value, rather than those we have formed on our own. or false knowledge that we have acquired unquestioned and false assumptions that we have not examined or challenged. Ideas such as the infidel will kill you and eat your heart, or your child or your soul. Or, my country right or wrong. Or, if your doctor says you have three months to live, you have three months to live. Or even, god is just waiting to get his hands on our souls after we die so he can cast them down into hell. When we accept these assumptions, we become them in some way. We react not just from a place of rational thought but from a place of being. We may even give our lives for them. I really do not think that this serves creation in any way.
On a more personal level, our ignorance of our ignorance could take the forms of projections. The unquestioned assumptions that everyone in my family, my group, my religion, or my country think and feel the exact same way that I do is a perfect example of this kind of ignorance. I remember meeting a man once who exhibited this trait very clearly. Whenever he didn’t approve of something he would say that people in his country don’t do that. He would say this when he saw a foreigner doing something he didn’t like and when he saw one of his own country people doing something he found reproachable. In thinking of these false assumptions, I started to think of what are the false assumptions that I might hold, the projections that I might have. I have a little difficulty in weeding these out because I don’t really feel I belong to many groups, which is perhaps another unquestioned ignorance, that no one is like me. It must be possible to have an inflated sense of individuality as well. While every physically manifesting human is unique and there is no one exactly the same, having no sense of belonging must be as much a projection of self as believing every one is the same as me is a projection of self. And of course separation does not exist in radical oneness.
Our ignorance could be in the form of even more fundamental statements like, I am my body, I think therefore I am, or my senses accurately describe the physical world, or my memory is accurate, or even that there is a past and a future. All of these are assumptions left unexamined can cause extreme pain. If I am my body, then when the body dies, I die, as in absolute annihilation. If I think my existence is based on my thinking mind, do I stop existing when I stop thinking? A belief that our senses accurately present the real world is disproven both by science and nature. Our senses are quite limited to every form of input from sight to touch. We cannot see frequencies that some animals can, and electromagnetic radiation, visible and nonvisible are all the same thing at different frequencies and wavelengths that span far above and below what we can see. The foam that we feel as soft and have difficulty not piercing is a comfortably solid surface for some insects to walk on, and the wall that we feel is impenetrable is in fact penetrable by radiation.
In radical oneness the most fundamental ignorance is that there is an object. This is perhaps the most fundamental concept we have as humans: the I/you split. I radical oneness, the fundamental truth is that nothing is a separate object but a unique manifestation of the One, within the One, with no separation. It seems to me we would know this in our non-physical form, that that which we call our Selves would have complete awareness of their unity with the one and access to all knowledge and awareness of the Creating One. Babies seem to have some awareness of this at first and have to learn separation of I/me/mine you/your. In a sense we learn our ignorance, but this is for a purpose. It is to be able to function as rational beings in this physical plane, to add to the knowledge of the whole and to develop preferences, follow those preferences and create. Our ignorance when seen as a motivator to learn and discover can serve us well. But when we attach ourselves to it or identify with it, and at the same time fall prey to separation, we cause ourselves much pain and start down the road to suffering. When we try to ignore it and cover it over with falsehoods, we do even more damage. If on the other hand we can become aware of our ignorance in the physical plane and our essential oneness, this whole experience of emanating into physical can be a playful game of discovery and creation. When we can embrace our ignorance and let go of our need to be right and our fear of being wrong, we can enjoy the coming and creation of knowledge.
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