Loving personhood or liberation from personhood? (May 4, 2012)

In recent months, I have been watching video testimonies of two very different kinds. One kind is of people who have had near-death experiences (NDEs). The other kind is of people who claim to have awakened, become enlightened, basically within the context of the Advaita Vedanta tradition (nondualistic Hinduism).

The weird thing is that, while both are essentially accounts of spiritual awakenings, they are really quite different. The Advaita people speak of a radical shift in which they realized that, as it is sometimes put, “there is nobody home.” They had identified themselves as separate beings, but now they saw that reality does not consist of individual beings, but rather of limitless “Presence.” The result was liberation from the awful anxiety of being somebody. The worry fell away, the self-concern fell away, and were replaced by endless peace. To use my words, it’s as if personhood itself is inextricably bundled with suffering, and so the goal is liberation from personhood and all its ills, liberation in “the Emptiness.”

The near-death experiencers, on the other hand, tell a very different story. They often meet a God who is boundless, formless light. Many even merge with this Light. But rather than the picture being about the dissolution of personhood, it seems to be about loving persons in perfect relationship. NDErs are often told they have to return to earth to learn unconditional love, so they can permanently unite with an unconditionally loving God. They are told that all that matters here is our relationships, how we treat others and feel toward them. There is an acknowledgment of oneness—with both God and others—but it is a oneness that is also the union of beings who are in relationship.

It is easy to focus on the commonalities between these different sorts of awakening. After all, people on both sides are feeling liberated from a constricting identification with the separate self. They are experiencing a merging with some greater oneness, and an accompanying state of indescribable peace.

But I am also struck by the differences. The Advaita people say very little about love, about relationships, about God, about being sent on missions to help others (which the NDErs routinely talk about), and about becoming more loving people. Instead, they talk mostly about their own inner journey and about the state of peace and bliss they have awakened to. They key thing is not so much what they do, but what they feel. In their interviews, we learn very little about their relationships and quite a lot about their inner state.

In my mind, the key difference lies in the notion of personhood. What are we? Are we persons who are inherently one with others and with the ultimate Person—God—but have identified with our separateness? Or is personhood itself the problem, the illusion, the knot to be untied?

How we answer those questions profoundly determines our view of reality. It also determines how we see the goal of life, and how we measure progress toward that goal.

For instance, imagine an awakened Advaita teacher having an NDE. I can see two very different scenarios. In one, she encounters a typical NDE scene in which God appears as a vast orb of light, accompanied by Jesus and angels and countless spirits. But then she realizes, this is just a mind-created illusion. There is no God as a being; there are no beings, period. She no longer has an ego that needs to be “loved” by God or Jesus or angels. Having realized the emptiness of personhood, she has gone beyond the need for that kind of personal reassurance. The whole scene is just a mirage, just a vestige of her ego’s old mythologies. Realizing this, she has overcome the final hurdle. The scene vanishes, and she herself dissolves into the infinite bliss of the Emptiness.

In the other scenario, however, she has all the same realizations, but in this case, the scene doesn’t vanish. Instead, God commences to guide her through a review of her life. But this review is not the story as she has told it, with it all revolving around the climactic moment of her enlightenment. Instead, it’s a story of how she has treated the people in her life. She discovers that on both sides of her enlightenment experience, she was often unloving, often callous and self-serving. And she discovers that her salvation lay in seemingly insignificant encounters in which she was genuinely loving, moments that in many cases she had forgotten because they did not rate highly in her worldview. Yet despite the evaluative nature of this review, she is not judged. Instead, she feels embraced by God with a love that is intense beyond anything she has experienced. And then God sends her back to earth and tells her, with infinite tenderness, that she can do better.

Obviously, these are entirely different scenarios, and yet each one, I think, makes sense within its particular worldview. Which brings us back to the question, Which worldview is correct? The one centered on loving personhood, or the one centered on liberation from personhood? I don’t think it is a question that we can leave unresolved. We can’t just focus on the common ground; we have to reckon the differences. Even if we decide the truth falls somewhere in the middle, we still cannot hold to both ends at once. Both of the above scenarios can’t be true.

As students of A Course in Miracles, I think we have to resolve where the Course comes down on this question. Is it all about loving personhood or liberation from personhood? There are those who see the Course as coming down on the Advaita side. In such a view, all the language in the Course about God, the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and our brothers is really a veil over a nondualism so absolute that no such beings actually exist. There is nobody out there, and we just need to wake up to that.

I believe, however, that the Course comes down firmly on the loving personhood side. Its language, imagery, priorities—and in my view, its teaching—all sound as if they could have come straight out of someone’s NDE. So, while I can’t say that I know for a fact what ultimate reality is, I believe that I am here to learn how to unconditionally love others, so that I can reawaken to a God Who unconditionally loves me. I believe that I’m here to learn true relationship so that I can spend eternity in the One Relationship.

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