The Mystery of Existence

At the center of all existence stands a deep mystery, and this is the mystery of existence itself. The fact that there is something rather than infinite nothingness reflects and gives form to a profound truth. The universe exists and we are alive in it.

How simple it would be if there were to be nothing at all. Yet, wondrously, there remains the inexplicable fact: there is being; and being continues to be from moment to moment, year to year, eon to eon. At the arrival of each new moment from within the deep mystery of being, the universe itself in a sense proclaims “Yes!” to the miracle of existence.

A profound affirmation resounds in this proclamation. In their own unique ways, the daffodil reaching through the late winter snow, the baby bird breaking through its shell, trees reaching for the sky, the river running to the sea, the stars blinking in the vast night, all in a sense proclaim “I am!”, and in so doing, take part in the mystery that is existence itself.

Who is it who hears this universal proclamation, “I am!”?  We ourselves hear it, and we ourselves are moved by it, when our hearts are open to it. The effect such an open heart has on us is unmistakable. The experience is so powerful, or perhaps so subtle, or so inexplicable, that we often feel it cannot be expressed in words; and in its very ineffability resides one of the elements of its deep mystery. Try to describe the feelings you experience as you truly look into the eyes of a newborn child, sit quietly with your life partner or closest and deepest friend, or gently stroke the cheek of a person you cherish who is dying.

One word comes back to us again and again, and that is love. What do we feel when we open our hearts to the wonder of existence? We feel love.

Whom is it we love? Do we love the child, the friend, the dying person? Yes, of course we do, for it is the light in this person’s face, this one’s unique personality, that we find so beautiful, so compelling, so poignant. Yet, as we allow ourselves to move ever deeper into the love we feel, we move ever deeper into a sublime and wondrous mystery that lies behind that face — a mystery that gives rise to, supports, fulfills, and sparkles within this particular person’s existence, as it does within each being in the entire universe.

To say this differently, we are touched and moved by others, we love others, because in a mysterious and compelling way we see in them lovely intimations of the divine Self. In their eyes we see the light of the universal “I am.” The person’s outward situation does not affect or determine this inward loveliness.  The one we love may be strikingly handsome or pretty, or perhaps in some ways rather homely. He or she may be full of good health or suffering from illness, wealthy or holding few material possessions, young or old. We love particular people not simply for what they look like or what they do for us, but rather for who they truly are, and in truth they are lovely expressions of the Self.

Revelation of the Self can take place in any circumstance. I remember one time, many years ago, I was sitting near a small tree at the edge of a desert in India in the midday heat. This was a time when India was at war with Pakistan. Some of the fighting was going on quite near where I was. I knew there was tension in the air. Yet, where I was sitting everything was perfectly still. There was nobody around, perhaps for miles. I hadn’t spoken with anybody for many days.

At one point, a small and rather plain-looking bird landed on a low branch in the tree, just a few feet from me. It did not make a sound. I fixed my eyes on it and watched it for some time. It looked at me, too, then away, then at me again. Then, it focused its attention on me. What might otherwise have appeared as its rather bland feathers struck me as quite beautiful in their own shimmering way. The bird shifted its head back and forth as it looked at me, seemingly getting different perspectives of me. I felt a warm sense of fondness for the bird. Actually, it was more than that: it was a recognition of sorts. By this, I mean that I both noticed the bird’s presence and at the same time was aware of my own presence in that moment I shared with it. I felt a soft upwelling of my own soul as the bird and I briefly lived our lives together.

That the bird and I existed at all was for me, in that moment, a wondrous fact. There we were: sitting near each other in the compelling mystery of existence itself. I shifted my eyes from the bird and looked around me. I saw that the tree was part of that same wondrous universe, as were the desert sand, the small cliffs and hills that rose out of the sand, and the deep blue sky that stretched above them. Everything seemed alive with and embraced by a quiet yet powerful presence that I experienced as a single Consciousness that infused and supported all things in all of their vast multiplicity.

I sensed that this Consciousness was of the nature of pure affirmation of life and that in fact there was no difference between this Consciousness and Love. No word came to my mind to name this Presence—yet, if one had come, it probably would have been God. All that I could see, everywhere I looked around me, was an expression of God’s benevolent wishes for the world. Everything I saw was set in Love. The bird was an expression of Love, the tree was Love, even the blanket I sat on was Love. All was Love.

All of this happened within just a few minutes, but I seemed to enter into the infinite depths of eternity within that moment. Boundaries of time and space dissolved into a unity of being pulsating with Consciousness that is itself Love. This sacred Presence was transcendental and powerful beyond all imagining, for I understood it to be the force that creates and sustains the whole universe. At the same time, it was soft, gentle, and closer to me than my own heartbeat. All-embracing, it was at once both majestic and intimate and, in that moment, I experienced it as benevolent.

I knew that nearby there was much hostility between people, as there had been in so many different contexts throughout history. I could not forget that there is much suffering, sorrow and pain in so many peoples’ lives. Yet, I sensed that the power and presence I experienced as Love and identified as God continued nevertheless to shimmer and move within the fact of existence itself. I felt it to be immeasurably patient, for certainly people have not always responded to the wonder of life with their own love and have sometimes mistreated each other and themselves in the most grievous ways. And yet, I knew that, even though I may not always experience it, Love is nevertheless real and it is constantly here. I felt that Love to be infinitely compassionate, even in a world torn by forces to the contrary. My response was to put my hands together in a prayerful position at the level of my heart and quietly to say, “Thank you” to this embracing, affirming, sacred presence that supports and infuses all life. I then spontaneously and gently closed my eyes and entered into quiet meditation, immersed in that Love. Some time later, as I came out of meditation, words of prayer moved through my heart: “May all people know God’s love for them and for all others.”

This all occurred as I shared a brief moment with a small bird. The experience of the divine Self within all things can happen in any context, even an otherwise seemingly insignificant one such as this. It reaches profound depth when it comes through the face of a person you truly love. Yet, even then, the experience of love takes you beyond the surface of the person who draws it from you and into the Self reflected in the light of his or her soul. The ultimate object of your love remains that divine Self.

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Excerpted from Exquisite Love: Reflections on the Spiritual Life based on Narada’s Bhakti Sutra, © 2014, by Bill Mahoney, (Davidson, NC: Sarvabhava Press).

William Mahony, PhD, professor of religion at Davidson College, is author of Exquisite Love: Reflections on the Spiritual Life Based on Narada’s Bhakti Sutra.

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