3 – The Absolute & The Relative
The interplay of two levels of reality
‘There is another world, but it is in this one.’ – W.B. Yeats
Jez: From the viewpoint of Non-Duality we’re all made of Love, we are One, and yet as sentient beings we experience the appearance of separation. You’re in that body, I’m in this one, and this feels very real to the self.
Matthew: It’s confusing; how can both be right?
Jez: I know; how can two apparently opposite things be true at the same time? It seems to make no sense whatsoever.
Matthew: This isn’t something we often encounter in everyday life is it? Usually it’s either ‘This is true’, or ‘That’s true’ – never both!
Jez: That’s because in normal life we’re focussing on the World of Separation – the Relative Level – and here we’re discussing metaphysics and the Absolute Level. But you can see this phenomenon in the world: The metaphor of the wave and the ocean is often used to illustrate this.
Matthew: You mean how can a wave be both a wave and the ocean at the same time?
Jez: Yes, how can one thing be another thing at the same time? It’s illogical. The wave looks separate from the ocean but in fact it’s just the ocean in a particular form: the form of a wave. Which interpretation is true? They’re both true. It all comes down to which perspective you’re looking from: Is it the perspective of the wave or the ocean?
So to understand how we can be both One and separate at the same time, we have to realise there are different perspectives involved. When it comes to human life we have to take into account the fact that essentially, human beings are the interplay between two perspectives or, you could say, two realities. ‘Reality’ might not be the right word but it’s the closest I’ve got.
Matthew: So what do you actually mean by these ‘two realities’?
Jez: The simplest way to explain it is if we go back to where we began this enquiry: Remember we talked about the baby in the Natural State of Love? That state is a reality for the baby, it’s not an abstract theory held in her brain. It’s who she is. It’s who we all are. If you try to describe that state, words become inadequate. Perhaps the best we can do is to define that ‘reality’ as Oneness, Being or Love. All of that is summed up by the umbrella term: ‘the Absolute Level’.
Matthew: But it’s not really a ‘level’, is it?
Jez: You’re right, the ‘Absolute’ is the ground in which everything appears, including something called ‘Levels’, so technically the phrase is incorrect. But go with me on this: In order for us to be able to discuss this metaphysical subject, and to aid comprehension of the concept I’m going to share with you, that phrase will be helpful.
Matthew: So it’s just a concept you’re going to share with me?
Jez: That’s a loaded question! Yes, it’s just a concept; but why use the word ‘just?’ Our talks are littered with concepts that I’m putting to you. What’s wrong with concepts?
Matthew: I suppose I have this idea that concepts aren’t the truth.
Jez: Oh no! (Laughs.) Now you’ve introduced another contentious word: Truth!
Matthew: I presume that we’re trying to get to the truth in these discussions?
Jez: Yes, let’s agree that we’re trying to get to something called ‘the truth’. (We’ll go into what I actually mean by the word ‘truth’ in a later talk). So you had the idea that concepts aren’t the truth; I think we need to look up a definition of the word ‘concept’.
Matthew: The definition here says: ‘An abstract idea representing the fundamental characteristics of what it represents.’
Jez: Perfect, that’s nice and clear. So you can see from this definition that you’re absolutely correct: Concepts aren’t the truth. What I’m going to share with you about this subject is not the truth, it’s ‘just’ an attempt to point to the truth using abstract ideas. (In this case the idea of levels of reality.)
The thing is, through Being, humans have the ability to perceive the Absolute Level. Through our senses we can feel the Stillness, the peace, the joy – whatever form you perceive it in. But when it comes to thinking about and understanding the Absolute Level, our equipment falls short. Our brains have the ability to contain and understand what we perceive in the Relative Level, but they can’t ‘contain’ the Absolute Level. It’s a bit like looking directly into the sun. Our eyes are not built to do that, it’s too much for them.
The fact that our brains can’t fully ‘contain’ the Absolute is reflected in our inability to speak about it. Language can’t accurately describe the Absolute Level but, using concepts, analogies and metaphors, it can point in its direction. That’s the best we can do. Going back to our sun analogy; you can’t look directly at the sun but you can look at it one step removed, as a reflection in a mirror or a body of water. The reflection isn’t the sun, but it’s a representation of it.
So the teacher employs concepts to point to life beyond Personality, because that’s all he’s got to use. There’s a danger though that you take the concepts very literally and mistake the reflection for the real thing. So every now and then I have to remind you that the concepts I use are just thought formations trying to point to something beyond the scope of language. The concept is not the subject; it’s a reflection of the subject.
Unless we’re going to just sit in silence together, we only have words and concepts to point to Being and Oneness; that’s the game we’re playing. It’s like trying to catch the sky in a butterfly net. If we agree on the language and definitions we’re using, even pointing to ‘the truth’ can be a very powerful means of communicating it.
Matthew: It seems ironic to be using thought to point towards something that’s beyond thought.
Jez: Yes, to point to what the Zen people call ‘no mind,’ or ‘empty mind’ by using the mind is kind of absurd. Imagine a Zen monk in a temple who spends his time immersed in ‘no mind’. Then a visitor knocks on the temple door and asks: ‘What’s going on in this temple? What’s the secret hidden inside these walls?’ The Zen monk might take the visitor on as his student and assume the role of a teacher. Then he’ll have to use thoughts to communicate what he knows of the Absolute Level because that’s the only language the student will understand. Why? Because the visitor has forgotten the Natural State he knew as a baby, and like everyone else, has become located primarily in his mind.
The monk has remembered his original state of Being, which, when lived as an adult, spans the Absolute Level and the Relative Level, where thought arises. So the monk is able to use thoughts to try to communicate with the student and remind him what exists beyond thought. He will use mind to express no-mind. That’s what all Zen koans do: They are riddles, using words to express the wordless. Some Zen koans have even become well known in mainstream society. The most famous is:
What’s the sound of one hand clapping?
Matthew: It does kind of throw you beyond the mind doesn’t it?
Jez: Yes, because the mind can’t make sense of it. It speaks of a place beyond the mind’s logic. Zen koans like this can have a strong effect, but only on someone who’s ready and willing to penetrate their real meaning. Otherwise they become just wordplay, or gibberish.
Matthew: This is turning into a bit of a detour.
Jez: That’s why I call these talks ‘travelling conversations’: You never know where they’re going to lead you, but in the end, wherever that is can become another reflection back to the topic we’re discussing. But to get back on topic, do you understand what I mean when I use the phrase ‘the Absolute Level’?
Matthew: Yes, the name seems appropriate because all the words you ascribe to it – Love, Oneness, Being etcetera – we think of as being infinite.
Jez: OK, so this Absolute Level, the formless ground of everything, manifests as the phenomenal world, where there appears to be a different reality, in which there’s time, space and form – where there appears to be a me and a you.
Matthew: I can’t argue with that.
Jez: If you did, it would be a ‘you’ arguing so, in effect, you’d be proving my point! So that world, where there’s appearance, form and separation, is the ‘Relative Level’.
Matthew: So these are the two realities you’re referring to: the Absolute and Relative Levels?
Jez: Actually, there’s only the Absolute Level; what we mean by the Relative Level simply arises within that. But from the human perspective, and for the purposes of human beings talking about this subject, there appears to be these two levels, two realities, and the point is our existence as human beings spans both of them.
Matthew: What does that mean?
Jez: It means that, on the Absolute Level, we are Oneness, but on the Relative Level we appear as a person, an ‘I’ that’s separate from the world ‘out there’.
Matthew: So this is what you mean by two apparently opposite things being true at the same time: We’re all essentially One, yet you and I are apparently two?
Jez: Yes. To express the conundrum mathematically: How can two equal one?
Matthew: It’s impossible, isn’t it?
Jez: Certainly to a mathematician! (Both laugh.)
Matthew: And to most people I should think!
Jez: Probably, but it’s not a conundrum to life; it’s just the way life does its thing! This is what we’re built to do, to live as – and in – the Relative expression of the Absolute.
Matthew: We’re part of the Two, which arises from the One.
Jez: Exactly. This is what we’ve forgotten: We’ve learned to focus on the ‘Two’, and we’ve lost our perception of the One. This enquiry is all about realising that we’re locked into the perception of the wave and remembering the perspective of the ocean.
Matthew: The way you’ve explained these two realities makes it seem quite obvious; why do you think this isn’t more widely known?
Jez: Because part of that manifestation of the Relative Level is man’s mind and, as I said, man’s mind is used to seeing logical divisions of opposites in the World of Separation: black/white, up/down, day and night. Man’s mind knows only ‘either/or’, so it says: ‘How can two opposing things be true at the same time? It’s impossible: Either one is right or the other.’
We didn’t always operate like this: Before we learned to divide the world in this way, there was a time when we perceived and lived only that Oneness that’s the mother of all Duality; we didn’t live as this idea of separation. Back then, as babies in the Natural State, we didn’t have minds to conceptualise Oneness like we do now, we just lived it. So although to adults, we appeared to be separate beings, to us we were just part of the everything that was arising. So there’s no division between the Absolute and Relative: They appear as both at the same time.
However, the longer we live in the world, the more we attune to the Relative Level, the more our developing minds learn to name it and then everything starts to become separate. Eventually we arrive at the decisive moment when we apparently become separate too. This is the moment when we identify as the self. From then on, through the development of the Personality, we’re attuned mostly to the Relative Level, because what’s real to the Personality is mind, matter, thought and logic. This means we experience a division, a dissonance, between the Absolute and Relative Levels in us, because we’re operating as if there’s only the Relative Level.
We pay a heavy price for this: Because we’ve forgotten that we are One, that we are Love, we suffer the illusion of thinking that we are separate. This manifests as neurosis, worry, emotional states, depression, addiction, self-hatred etcetera. This kind of Suffering, with a capital ‘S’, follows the Personality like a shadow. We’ll look at Suffering in more detail later.
Matthew: Unless we have some sort of Opening – then we suddenly have an experience beyond the Relative.
Jez: Yes, then a more ‘spiritual’ life can sometimes begin, which recognises there’s something more, beyond this rational, physical world of things and names. It’s as if we start to remember the Absolute that lies behind the Relative. This can actually intensify the Suffering and give it a more ‘spiritual’ dimension.
Matthew: What do you mean?
Jez: Quite understandably, the Suffering of the person becomes focussed on the loss of the stillness, peace and clarity of the Opening, and the quest of how to find it again. So although the Absolute has been experienced in the Relative Level, there’s still a disharmony between them, because the Absolute perception is lost once the Opening has passed.
Matthew: But you’re suggesting there’s a way to live in which what is found in the Opening becomes available all the time.
Jez: Yes, then the dissonance between the Absolute and Relative Levels in human life, which causes all the Suffering of the Personality, disappears. Then we return to a synthesis of the Absolute and the Relative, just as we knew as babies in the Natural State.
This understanding of the Relative and Absolute Realities is a key that explains a lot of confusion which can crop us in this enquiry, because along the way many subjects arise in which opposite accounts are given of the same subject. This is because each side is looking from a different perspective, from a different reality. Both of which can be true.