My Theory of Everything
This post was written by my dear friend, Carol Orsborn
I think of myself as a seeker and for years I experienced myself as a human being utilizing spiritual practice to alleviate the drama of life. But one of the great gifts of age is that perceptions—even cherished ones– can seemingly change in a flash, like the final drop of water finally overflowing a dam. All the life experience, all the trial and error, all the observation and contemplation finally amounts to something. And so it is that my experience of not only myself but the world shifted dramatically somewhere along the way and I suddenly have a new theory of everything.
By everything, I mean everything important. For example, why people do bad, hurtful and disappointing things to one another. Why we can touch happiness but find it so hard to hold on to it. Why we turn against ourselves for things that aren’t our fault—and find it difficult to acknowledge let alone make amends for the things that are. Then, too, there’s everything else: questions of meaning, of purpose, of forgiveness, of worthiness, of unrequited love, of good and evil, of aging and mortality, of grace and belonging. In other words, variations on what Einstein believed to be the most important question every one of us needs to ask of one’s self. Is this a friendly universe—or not?
We each have a spiritual Rosetta Stone: a touch-point that we believe will unlock the answer to Einstein’s seminal question. For some, it’s acceptance. For others, it’s fulfillment. For me—for many of us—it’s love. Although one can certainly touch the state I’m getting at through loving relationship, I’m thinking more of the kind of existential love Tolstoy writes about in The Death of Ivan Ilyich: a nearly physical place–an ultimate destination from whence we come and to which we will return. I picture this as a vast field of love, both personal and transcendent: a place of unity with the universe in which your individual story recedes, and your heart breaks open with clarity and compassion for, well, everything.
I know that many of us have glimpses of the field of love, but most consider these transcendent moments to be treasured exceptions rather than the rule, as if the love and beauty of life is something scarce that comes and goes, and is, at best, a sneak preview of coming attractions. But what if the truth is that we never really did leave the field of love that we envision as both preceding and awaiting us? What if it just feels like we pass the bulk of our days on less luminous terrain because for a number of logical, inevitable reasons, we’re blocked. Like standing in a field in the bright noon sun but with eclipse glasses on.
If this were true, love would be freely and abundantly available to us for the asking, regardless of whatever happens to be transpiring at any given time and however thick, distorting and dark the glasses we’ve donned. Stones could be hurled our way, we could know we’ve fallen short in multiple ways, life could be disappointing or even fatal—and we’d still be fundamentally okay, if only we were just to take the glasses off. So what’s stopping us? Ah, the answer is the other half of my Theory of Everything. And it begins by asking, why did you put the glasses on in the first place?
Here it is. We were born. Arrived on the scene clear-eyed and laughably unprepared for what was about to greet us. If we were lucky, the first eyes that met our gaze—the first welcoming arms—gave us reason to hope that the transition from water to air would be seamless—vast, eternal, all-encompassing. But soon enough, somewhere between 1 second and for the very lucky, 14 years of age or so, we begin to realize that we appear to have been mistaken. People come into our field of love more concerned about self-protecting, manipulating or even harming than basking in the sacred. We look into eyes seeking connection, and can’t see behind the lenses: dark glasses, fogged glasses, funhouse glasses that block and distort. This hurts. You soon realize you need your own self-protection: some means to control—to manipulate and to elevate, or, at the very least, a place to hide. So what do you do? As soon as possible, you find your own pair.
Most of the rest of your life, except for transitory transcendent exceptions—like falling in love, viewing the sunset from a mountaintop, immersing yourself in a great piece of classical music or a particularly deep meditation –you forget you were the one who actually put the glasses on yourself. For good reason—but still. Here you are standing right smack dab in the middle of the field of love, seeking unconditional love, to be successful, to win affirmation, to find meaning. Bit by bit, over time, you build a persona, something as shiny or mysterious or enrolling as possible, in order to have a chip in the game. Sometimes you’re happy, sometimes you’re mad or sad. You go up with the good news, plummet with the bad. You bask, you begrudge, you win, you lose. In other words, the story of your life happens.
But you’ve forgotten something. The field of love was not something you left behind, or are going towards. It’s not an exception. It’s everywhere. All the time. Right here. If you were to take off your glasses, right now, you know what you’d see? All those folks who you wished wouldn’t have to be quite so bad are just a bunch of people standing around in the field with you, with their glasses on. You will only know your own glasses are off when you can look at the dysfunction all around you and simultaneously experience grief and compassion. And what’s this? You will recognize others scattered about whose glasses have already been tossed off, waiting patiently for you to make eye contact.
What does the Theory of Everything look like in action? This story about the Dalai Lama taken from Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle’s new book Aging with Wisdom tells us everything we need to know.
“At one of his annual three-day retreats in New York City, the Dalai Lama…explained that when we open to the experience of interconnectedness with the world, our sense of individuality softens and the heart opens with compassion toward all beings. This compassion has a radiance about it, he added. Suddenly he paused, interrupting his own train of thought.
‘But that’s not the way things are,’ he shared. ‘We are just people groping in the dark,’ and he put his head down and began to weep openly.
After a few moments, he sat up, blew his nose, and continued where he’d left off.”
The external world may not ever change its storyline, but you are now free to cease preoccupying yourself with all the apparently unloving stuff that’s happened to you and to others, and see beyond your own compelling but tertiary story, as well. When you realize that you are living in a vast field of love, you can more easily co-exist with the people who come and go in their various states of awareness. You stop taking things so personally. Of course, you still experience disappointment, sadness, anger and all the rest of the emotions on the human spectrum. But rarely do you experience confusion or self-pity. And even if you do, you experience whatever—everything–all the while knowing that you are being held, which changes everything.
The mystics put it like this. Consider the possibility that you are not just a human being capable of having spiritual experiences, but, rather, you are a spiritual being having a human experience. In other words, spirituality is not just a way to alleviate the problem of being human with sporadic moments of transcendence. Rather, you are made of the very same stuff as the field of love, itself.
So that’s everything. The story of our lives and the truth of things. Not a matter to be defended, compared or exalted. Not just a place we’ve come from and are heading towards. Rather, we are here. We are now. And whether your glasses are on or off, distorted, thick or too dark to see through presently, you are already always beloved.
Originally published at carolorsborn.com, November 15, 2017
Carol Orsborn, Ph.D., is the founder and editor-in-chief of Fierce with Age: The Digest of Boomer Wisdom, Inspiration, and Spirituality. The author of more than 20 books for and about the Boomer generation as well as popular blogs on Huffington Post, PBS’s NextAvenue.net, and BeliefNet.com, she has served on the faculties of Georgetown University, Loyola Marymount University, and Pepperdine University. She lives with her husband in Madison, Tennessee.
(photo by Katarzyna Kos)