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Basic Spirituality: The Way I See It Is Not The Way It Is

I recently read a column in the Adventist Review based on an “aha!” moment the author (a Spectrum commenter) experienced recently while visiting the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. “The Room and the Light” is worth reading for the insight it reflects concerning human perception and spirituality. Here is the key portion:

At the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C, I entered an exhibit room so small and dark that an usher had to guide me. The only light was a dimly lit wall opposite my seat. Though I often reach out in faith regarding “modern art,” that faith began to waver as I sat staring at the wall. Within a few minutes the wall got brighter and, fascinatingly enough, light started to emerge from the bottom of the wall into a kind of shelf that stopped about a foot off the floor and halfway across the room.


As I sat there, still wondering what it was all about, the usher guided another man to a seat, as she had done for me. But why? There was plenty of light now. Then it hit me: the room, to my mind, which had adjusted to the light, seemed bright enough. But to the man who had just entered, the room was so dark that he needed an usher. In other words, the reality of the room appeared one way to me and another way to him.”

Then the writer has a moment of reflection: There was only one room and one light in it, so whose view, mine or his, of the room and the light was the true one, the one that accurately corresponded to the immediate environment around us both? By the end of the essay, he concludes: “…as fallen humans seeking to understand reality, we have three strikes against us getting it right: (1) the limits that our minds place on how the world appears to us, (2) the subjectivity of how we interpret what does appear, and (3) the tiny slice of reality ever within our view.”

To which I say, “amen!” But why is this experience significant? I suggest it is an example of an important moment in the development of a person’s spiritual consciousness. At such times, one can glimpse a truth that can change a life by enlarging a heart to include the viewpoints of others.

Normal Dualistic Consciousness

In our everyday waking lives, we live in a world of dualities: good / bad, right / wrong, like / dislike. We also see nature and society in terms of safe / scary, like me / not like me, etc. This greatly simplifies the great array of sensory input we receive and enables us to make quick decisions about life as we encounter it. The problem is: reality is not like that at all. These binaries are just necessary illusions, distinctions brought to life’s experiences by the mind, abstractions for survival value.

Non-dualistic Consciousness

At other times, much rarer, something happens that breaks through our dualistic consciousness and reveals another world to us. By this I don’t mean another physical reality or supernatural sphere, but another way to see this world. We suddenly perceive life and the people in it without these imposed binaries, closer to the way reality actually is—wholly. The dualistic concepts of “his or mine,” “my opinion is the true one,” and “I have it but you don’t” are transcended by a more holistic perception. With this glimpse, new ways of being open up, including the possibility of a life free from illusions.

Such an illumination can happen anywhere, anytime—in a museum, listening to a mountain stream, reading scripture, ruminating on a Zen koan, swimming with dolphins, looking into the eyes of children. The essential thing is an enlarging of our perceptions to include the duality, the Other—and the simultaneous recognition that our perspective is only one among many. In these moments, often brought to us by Art, we fall from our self-made pedestals to become wiser, more realistic and compassionate human beings.

Graeme Sharrock writes from Chicago where he is the owner of Parliament Media.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Philosopher in Meditation, 1632

Richard Serra, Balance, 1972.

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