Plenitude of Being

Kenneth L. Patton

Berry Street lecture, 1965

 

Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly

Boston, Massachusetts

May 22, 1965

 

Liberal religion has need for a focal concept, for an ultimate principle and goal because of our free-mind attitude. We have an operational hesitancy that deters us from formulating such a concept, but liberty itself presumes some assumptions. To what end does the ideal of the free mind operate? In our past history we have been heavily negative, ridding ourselves of the ultimate goals we have in­herited, rather than creating a new one. As the final extension of the Reformation, heresy was our major function more than the constructionof enlightened ideals. The concept of universal salvation servedtemporarily as such a focal theme, but its theological rationale has evaporated. The idea of the unity of God is no longer a pertinent issue to a movement mainly oriented toward naturalism. We have tended to be vague and sentimental about our ultimate goals. The lack of a central concept is one reason why the query, "What do liberals believe?” arises so often, both outside our fellowship and within it. We are not very sure what we do believe.                                                                                                       

We have moved in a general direction, working in several areas that have not been integrated intoone viewpoint. We have espoused theological liberalism and the criticism of traditional beliefs, al­beit without much philosophical distinction. Fewer liberals have an­nounced economic liberalism, and fewer still have practiced it. The issue of social justice and social reform has found a scattering of enthusiasts, but even now it does not dominate our liberal societies. We have been staunch supporters of education, in the churches and in the schools, but so have many other religions. Our societies are as much bent on human relations, counseling, psychiatry, recreation,togetherness, conferences as most other religions. Mysticism and the arts we largely neglect, preferring the dry deserts of rationalism to the tropical valleys of romanticism. All of these together do not give us a very definite personality or clear sense of direction.

 

The influential religions of his­tory have each had a central theme. In Christianity it has been the sal­vation of man's immortal soul, through the saving power of Christ,the only begotten son of God. Judaism has its covenant between Jehovah and the tribes of Israel, and the establishment of Zion through the practice of righteous­ness. The theme for Islam is the total power and determinism of the will of Allah, and, the assurance of immortality to all his followers. Hinduism seeks escape from the wheel of rebirth, through the per­fecting of being and behavior. Buddhism seeks enlightenment andnirvana, through self-discipline, meditation, and non-attachment. The goal of Confucianism is the just society, right relations within the family and society, wisdom, temperance, etiquette, and education. Taoism, a nature mysticism, seeks release and fullness of being through the discovery of the Tao, the way of nature and of life. Through these focal concepts, these movements have had an enduring impact through many centuries, and still flourish today. It seems to me that the last three, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, have a more generic relation to liberal religion than the others.

 

This essay proposes as a focal concept for liberal religion the search for and attainment of plenitude of being for the members of the human family. Plenitude, as a concept, carries the dimensions that we have discovered in the world of reality. Astronomy has given us a new vision of the universe, wherein space is possibly curved and infinite. Infinity has been transferred from deity to nature. Cosmic space provides the setting in which men place themselves and their lives, framing the dimensions of their being both in thought and emotion.

 

Plenitude is also descriptive of the atomic world. The microcosm is, in its opposite way, as vast as the macrocosm. We have diagrammed the incredible complexity of the living organism, and the subtle biochemical and biophysical relation to its environment. We see the vastness of the beauties of nature, the diversity of its forms. We have glimpsed the plenitude of science and learning and culture that we must achieve in order to realize the full development of our potentiality within this setting. The word plenitude is the exact term for our condition, since it describes the plentiousness of our own natures and of the world. There must be an enlargement of man's vision, his images, symbols, and concepts in his art and literature, if he is to come to terms with this plenitude. Above all, his religion must offer him the motivation to his own growth, achievement and becoming, that he may avail himself to the fullness of reality, both known and unknown. This can become the ultimate goal of liberal religion.

 

What does man expect of himself? What dimensions of being are open to his prospect? How do we measure human attainments, capacities, strength, and endurance? What value do we place on ourselves and our labors and our loves? Man takes his own measurement, and rates his own self-expectancy, and these he tests in his living. All depends on whether he has faith in life, or doubts its worth. Liberals have always been opposed to the myth of man as a fallen creature, impotent, sinful, and incomplete without the saving grace of deity. For the orthodox, plenitude lies only in God, or in the soul saved by God; all else is mean, including the man of flesh and bone and blood, man the mortal.

 

Traditionally we have announced the supreme worth of every person, the potential dignity, competence, and improvability of man. We have a positive, if conditional, faith in human reason and goodness, the product of the optimism of the Enlightenment. Current concepts of psychology picture man in a state of becoming, stressing his unrealized potential. The mood of our times is expansive, growth in science, knowledge, health, length of life, material abundance, the conquering of time, distance, and space, the development of world government, of sanity and love. But we are ambivalent; we move toward the absurd, toward nihilism at the same time. The irony is that what man will become seems to depend upon what man believes he can become. Nature allows him either self-realization or self-destruction.

 

The concept of the plenitude of being relates to the three areas of existence and experience, the cosmic, the personal, and the social. Its personal dimensions are the most immediately grasped, for this is the area of the inner experience, the selfhood of each of us. The cosmic dimension is next in accessibility, for this is the universe which is the immediate and the far-flung environment in which each of us lives his life. We experience the cosmic dimension every time we look upon the earth, the sun and the stars, and the personal dimension every time we contemplate our own being. The social dimension is more difficult to realize. We can relate immediately and powerfully to the adjacent social world, to our family, friends and neighbors, but the fullness of the social dimension includes the entire family of man, and all the creatures of the earth's family of life. Altogether they compose the fellowship of life, created in their common emergence and involvement in one evolutionary process on one planet.

 

The plenitude of being as a social concept is the ideal of the fullest possible self-realization of all the members of the human family. It takes its key from the examination of the plenitude of being in one individual life. Multiply that by several billions of persons, and the problem is set. But this is no mere matter of addition, for the social plenitude of being is not simply the aggregate of several billion individual lives. It is the milieu, the matrix, the organic structure of culture and civilization that is created in the joint labors and sharing, in the institutions established by these billions of people.

 

Society as a whole can be a reality of plenitude or of poverty, of goodness and creativity, or of destruction and evil. This can be illustrated by two opposing social realities. The Second World War included all of mankind in its aura of death and mania. Those nations that remained neutral were nevertheless involved in a thousand ways. The war was fought amongst primitive tribes on far-off islands. If we were to attempt to evaluate the significance of this war, we would have to take account of the effect upon the entire human community. The plenitude of being, or the poverty of being, that ensued from it were personal for each human being, but were also social in terms of the human race. Any future world war, if it involved germ and atomic warfare on a vast scale, would involve all of human society even more disastrously and totally than the Second World War.

 

An opposite case is presented by world art. In our century the arts of all the cultures and all the remote corners of the globe are becoming interrelated, compared, and of mutual influence. Large museums are now museums of world art. The Encyclopedia of World Art is now in publication. The art of Europe and America is heavily influenced by the arts of Africa, the Orient, and Oceania. The arts penetrate the Iron and Bamboo curtains as if they scarcely existed. Especially in the world of art, the past is still a living influence upon the present. From the Stone Age to the present, from the Australian aborigines to the New York Galleries, the arts of man are one organic unity, and provide one structure of goodness and communication for the human family.

 

As a religious concept, the social plenitude of being relates to that total world of human culture and civilization. As a goal, the issue is to make this plenitude of cultural riches available to all people, through education, through performance, through distributing the work of art, through publication. On the creative side, the issue is to encourage and enable the creation of new art on the widest basis. If we add to the arts all human activities, science, learning, education, industry, agriculture, health, religion we have the full scope of the social plenitude of world civilization.

 

The key principle underlying the social plenitude of being is universality, the principle of all-inclusiveness. Its plenitude begins herein, since the total history and experience of the human family is a more plenteous reality than that of any single nation or culture. In this insight we are afforded the agency for an immediate enlargement of the riches of our inheritance. By opening ourselves to the creations of all peoples in all times, we make all the treasuries of the human store house our own, whereas before we may have laid claim only to those which bore our family name. Likewise, if we can erase the barriers of prejudice, antipathy, and ignorance in ourselves, we become opened to the friendship and fellowship of all people. The plenitude of being to be found in human history, culture, and companionship, as it now exists, is a wealth that many lifetimes could not adequately explore.

 

The process that would make this plenitude available to us is one that the psychologists have called decentering. If a man can be moved from being centered in the self, in the family, in the town, to becoming identified with and related to the nation, the continent, and then the world, he can find in himself the width, the emotions of belonging, and the understanding to make all the world his home of being.

 

The social plenitude of being carries a double benefit, first to the person who develops universality of understanding, sympathy and involvement within himself, thus enriching and deepening himself; and secondly to the world, which inherits the benefits of his labor and his care, in his activities as a citizen of one world. The ultimate wealth lies in a society wherein the widest and most inclusive fellowship pertains, but this depends upon people capable of universal fellowship. Thus the goal of a society that has plenitude of being depends directly upon individual members of the society who possess plenitude of being within themselves. The same principle obtains here as in Judaism, where the righteous nation depended on the righteousness of all the people.

 

Thus social plenitude of being begins at home, in our face to face relationships with our most intimate companions. Are we able to comprehend and share the lives of the members of our own families? The tragedies of coldness, quarreling, carelessness, enmity, brutality that are common in marriages and families gives warning as to how difficult it is to attain social plenitude of being. It is not easy to love others, to understand, sympathize and cooperate with them in a common life. But the immense amount of goodwill, self sacrifice, tenderness, understanding, and care that do exist in our families show what we can be, properly motivated, and gives us hope that the term "the family of man” indicates warmth and belonging, and not the cold hells that some families are.

 

The social plenitude of being presents problems as a concept. What is in a set of words? How does it live within our minds? What pictures, images does it call forth? What realities does it usher back into the arena of our attention? What emotions and convictions does it reawaken within us? Can we have an image for "humanity” that is as vivid, as compelling, as initiative of love and care, as is the name of our child, our parent, our mate? Can we love humanity, a composite of billions of folk, as we would love a person? Is it possible to talk about loving all men, or is it only mawkish sentimentality? How many people there are, and at what distances they live from us. How strange and at times how repellent their ways seem to be. Are we large enough, intelligent enough, loving enough to encompass this horde of humanity within our fellow-feeling? Out of this swarm of faces and figures, can we gather one human image that includes them all, the face of man, which is yet the gathered faces of all the men, women and children of the earth? Can we care for this many people?

 

This is our problem of conceptualization. In semantics, we consider the need for each word we use to have some specific reality to which it points, which it denotes. If a word calls to our remembrance something vague, ill-defined and ill-conceived, it means little in our discourse, and too many words of this kind will make our thinking muddy, confused, and poorly related to the world of reality. Each word must have its "denotatum”; it must be the sign and symbol of a reality.

 

Without doubt several billion people is a reality, and we need a word for that reality. But what do we see when we use the word "humanity”? What do we feel? This should be the richest word in our human language, but for many it is one of the most barren, one of the emptiest of all words. The means whereby it can become full and meaningful are simple to discern. We move from the image of ourselves, to the images of those we are closest to, and then, by an act of imagination, include all other people within that image. We are all basically alike, one species, one type of organism. How rich this word should be in overtones and concommitants, since it sweeps all of human history, all the people who have lived and who now live, into the circumference of one term. It is a big word, like the words universe, earth, life.

 

Can a person extend his understanding and sympathies to all peoples, in spite of their differences? Experience shows us the differences are not as great as we at first imagine. Flaherty, the photographer, went into the north to make a film of the Eskimo, and found that he could relate profoundly to these people, and that in many ways they were better and more loveable than the people with whom he had grown up. The beautiful film, "Nanook of the North,” makes Flaherty's compassion and brotherhood into something that is shared by all who see the film. Laurens Van der Post has done the same with the South African aborigines, going to the people of the old Stone Age, those farthest from us in their way of life, finding their humanity, sharing it with us in his films and books, showing us that these are "the beautiful people.”

 

It can be done. The question is only whether we have the intelligence, the compassion, the motivation to achieve the concept of humanity within us. But a contrary condition afflicts many of us, a sense of alienation from ourselves and from society, and a lack of sense of reality relating to our own person, a lack of our own identity. If we cannot feel close to ourselves and our neighbors; how can we feel close to humanity? If we do not have a conviction of the reality of our own image, how can we have a conviction of reality in such a wide, gathering term as the image of man? If we cannot belong to ourselves, how can we belong to humanity? This sets the scope of the problem for liberal religion, that of achieving personal identity and plenitude of personal being, and then extending this to its ultimate fullness, so that our personal identity becomes one with the identity of mankind, and we yearn and labor for the goodness of life of all mankind.

 

The human image is a discernable form and substance. We have no difficulty in establishing the human image in contrast to that of all other animal species, unless prejudice twists our powers of observation and judgment, to call some members of our own species "ape-men.” If we would take a leap of imagination, the human image will come into clearer focus and unity. Let us suppose that we were acquainted with the life systems of twelve other planets in our galaxy, and on each there was a species that, like ourselves, had developed into thinking, culture-building creatures. Each one of these species would have its own individual personality, striking differences in body, in ways of life, in form and expression of culture. The science fiction writers have had a heyday inventing such species. But if we knew them in reality, we would have no trouble at all establishing the human image in contrast to the images of these twelve other species of thinking creatures.

 

But the human image is just as real, as specific, now, even though we do not have these others for contrast. Even though we cannot all be world travelers like Justice William Douglas, through books, films, art exhibits, and association with travelers from other parts of the world, we can meet and confront the rest of humanity. We can get what clues, what suggestions we need, and our imagination can fill in the rest. There is no excuse any longer for us if we fail in our personal responsibility to know and to love our human family.

 

Once man left his tribal state and began to build city-states and empires, he has been reaching out in his mind and emotions to encompass the world and all its people. He has attempted to put its dreams of universality into effect in several ways, one being that of war and conquest, but always here remained further borders to be crossed, further peoples to be subdued. The missionary religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam have set out to preach their gospel to all nations. Ideals of world brotherhood have flowered in various forms. Bentham proposed the goal of the greatest good for the greatest number, and Max Otto criticized this as being too statistical, and writing off as a loss the minority who did not get into the greatest number. He proposed as a superior concept a good life for every man who has a life to live.

 

This ideal has a direct corollary to the traditions of our liberal religions. It does not depart from the universal salvation of Universalism, but only translates it from the realms of immortality and theology into the lives we live in this world. The salvation of the soul becomes the development of the human personality, and the fullest realization of those potentialities each of us has within him. But the general theme and ideal is the same. It follows from the spirit of the prayer of Jesus, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Heaven has been replaced by an ideal, a goal for this life, which sometimes seems as far off, as inaccessible, as any heaven could be. This ideal, is in the tradition of our twin themes of unity and universality.

 

Some of us are convinced that the greatest document of our times is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, produced by a commission of the United Nations. That the delegates from many nations all over the world could have produced this agreement as to the basic rights, freedoms and needs of mankind, demonstrates to us that there is a common mood, a common idealism, a common striving that unites all people, and one day it will move us to achieve a common world of law, and prosperity and peace. It sets forth the basic conditions under which social plenitude of being could be attained, or made possible, for all men.

 

Man is not only a member of human society; he is a member of the society of all living creatures. If he thinks and strives narrowly and unimaginatively for mere human benefits, he will destroy much of the benefits of his own life. If he does not protect the soil, air and waters of his planet, he will deform and destroy the neighborhood in which he must live. One scientist has asserted that on the basis of scientific analysis, one could define man as a cancer that has afflicted the earth. What will man be, a gentle gardener and husbandman, or the rapacious destroyer of the earth and its creatures?

 

A religion proposes for mankind an idealism, a dream, a concept sufficient for the needs of the time. If we delay too long, the last remnants of the family of man may soon be on the beach, waiting for death, and the end of all human dreams and striving forever. Even as the heavens have been brought to this life and this world, so have the hells. The one difference in which the prospect facing liberal religion differs from that of traditional Universalism, is that our fathers proposed only one fate for mankind, the universal salvation of all souls by a loving heavenly father. We have a choice of two fates, universal salvation or universal damnation, in the form of the extinction of the species, or in the decay of civilization for that remnant of the species that might survive the holocaust.

 

But the genius of liberal religion is toward growth and expansion of life, toward plenitude of being. The perils only teach us what to avoid. The creative and constructive idealization of our personal and shared lives is our main task, and its motivations are those of growth, not those of fear. Our religious role is the perennial one, to give the people a vision. But as liberals and realists, this vision must have its roots in the earth, and we must be able to hold its produce in these present hands, to be food for the strength and sustenance of this life.

 

The plenitude of being is such a dream. It gathers the vision of the observable plenitude of the universe, of the atom and the galaxy, into our minds, to expand the realm of our imagination, to spell out the infinity in which we move. The plenitude of being is the vision of the development and deepening of our own persons, to be practiced in our studies and labors and loves, to discover what fullness the brief life of man can encompass. The plenitude of being moves from the New Jerusalem and the Kingdom of God into the vision of a free and sharing commonwealth of humankind, that society of equality and opportunity where no doors are closed, where whatever we are is encouraged to flourish and bear its fruit of life.

 

Religion is the one institution of society concerned with the plenitude of being in all its dimensions and in its totality. The outer reaches of the province of religion encompass the universe and its meaning for man. In its human outreach religion evaluates human history, taking in the whole life from birth to death and beyond death. All of man's thoughts and acts come under its scrutiny and concern. Theology and religious philosophy contain man's best attempts to present a critical and rational evaluation of the meaning of existence. All other institutions, no matter how wide their scope may be, are concerned with only a part of the world of experience, a portion of man's life, or a specialized concern.

 

Thus the plenitude of being is the province of religion. Just insofar as any man ponders upon and strives toward plenitude of being, he is religious, no matter what name he may give to this interest. The sacraments of religion are celebrations of this total concern and come at the initiative and consummatory occasions of life, at birth, puberty, marriage, and death.

 

Religious celebrations in their fullest expressions make use of all the arts, of all man's accomplishments in communication and expression. The size and extravagance of decoration in temples and in the major celebrations within them, are attempts to express this plenitude of being, the fullness of the beauties of the universe and the joys of life. The religious attitudes of praise, adoration, dedication, and celebration arise from the overwhelming fullness of experience and being, which is the hallmark of the religious dimension of life. This is to express no bland optimism. The sense of tragedy in religion is as immense and overwhelming as the sense of fulfillment. Visnu stands against Shiva, heaven against hell, life against death, and one dimension is shallow without the complimentation of the other. We are stayed from being devastated by evil and grief only by the bright invasions of goodness and joy. The religious attitudes include longing, courage, fortitude, remorse, and tragedy.

 

The goal of religious teachers, prophets, and enthusiasts is simply stated by Jesus: "I come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.” When liberalism claims as its central theme and goal "the plenitude of being,” it is only giving another name to the abundant life. Liberalism does not, and cannot have a distinctive goal in the definitive sense, for liberals are but a part of the stream of human history and need. They will differ from their orthodox fellows in the place and manner of their realization, but not in the realization itself. They put their hope for the abundant life primarily in this present life, and the hope for self-realization in this mortal self.

 

The original teachings of the Buddha have been described as the most demanding of all religious challenges. Each individual, by his own meditation, self-development, and self-discipline, must attain his own self-enlightenment, his own release from destructive passions and illusions. Buddha can help him only as a teacher, an exemplar. It is conceivable that as the various cultures and peoples draw closer together, that there will be natural alliance between the more radical movements of Hinayana Buddhism and liberalism. For liberalism shares this basic conviction, that it is through self-development that we find the plenitude of being, that there are no supernatural saviors or powers to come to our assistance, and that the state of blessedness is in this person and this life. We may not have the same idea of self-fulfillment as do the Buddhists, but this is less important than our agreement on means and setting. Indeed, there will be an endless divergence of the nature of fulfillment from person to person, as well as from area to area.

 

I can only define plenitude of being from the prejudicial standpoint of my own life engagement, and what I assume from this to have universal validity. Plenitude of being is that state wherein there is a total focusing of the attention and powers of the person upon every act of experience; it is the state of being wholly alive, wholly engaged. In it we have a sense of the total power of self, in that we are elated with seemingly ordinary occasions, and every sensation is replete with vivacity. This state is impossible to maintain, for we soon weary, but we measure the worth of all our days by these fullest moments. We learn from them that the plenitude of being is in us, not in the world about us. Anything in nature can evoke this fullness of focus, a grain of sand, a fly, a bird, the sky, a person. It is as if, at these times, all things are of equal wonder and significance.

 

Just as we learn that nothing is miserable and despicable, we also learn not to belittle our own bodies and their senses, for the senses are the gates of being. The self is released through the senses to the world, and through them we receive all that we know of the beauties of the world. When the senses are engaged in the state of the plenitude of being, they are exalted in their uses; in the arts the senses become the agents of our most profound creations and enjoyments. Through the senses we are released into the realms of being of human love, parental, erotic, and communal.

 

The senses have a degraded reputation because, like all other means of supreme good, they are capable of being perverted to the use of supreme evil. When sensual ends are sought without the attitudes and feelings of love, mercy, sensitivity, beauty, and truth-seeking, the senses become gates of corruption and death. Good and evil do not exist without each other, in the sense that evil is the destruction of the good that is known. The senses are precarious, in that lack of discipline, control and knowledge will turn good into evil simply by losing the balance of their use. It was because of this that. Buddha developed the doctrine of the golden mean, where all things were to be done without excess, reaching the fullness of benefit, without going beyond into the self-destruction of over-indulgence and weakness.

 

In the arts the sensual, the physical forms become symbols of something more than themselves. They accumulate meanings and overtones, unforeseen and shimmering intuitions of other realms as yet unexplored. The plenitude of being arises as we are released from the narrow realm of our past selves and understandings, into areas only hinted at, only subtly tasted. Thus not only our stolid, plodding selves are engaged, but all our more than we knew we could be, of comprehending more than we know. The boundaries of the is, of the that, become limitless. Our beings become infinite, and yet they are solidly here, of this locality. It is this realization that in Buddhism is called tathagata, or thatness.

 

Hinduism historically held to the idea that all things in nature are in continual flux and change. The world of process of science follows the Hindu mode. We move in a twisting path of continual development, never at one moment quite the person we were the moment before. It is hard, perhaps impossible, to reach back and get a true sense of the person one was as a child. The fullness of life must be adapted, as a goal, to a flow of events and being that cannot have any final goal; we forever move on into a new becoming.

 

The fullness of being is possible in any stage of life, and is relative to the person we are, to our limits of experience and comprehension, at that period. Since the plenitude is thus relative and not absolute, it cannot be said that this experience is more available at one stage of life than another. The child, fully alive and responsive, is as plenteous in his being as is the grown man in flood. Each man has a fullness of being that is natively his own, fitted to the dimensions of what he is on any day of his life. Thus it is not something that one must strive to be, and attain at some far-off goal. It is something that is available to us any time, in terms of what we are then. Fullness is fullness.

 

The goal of the plenitude of being is the salvation of the moments of living unto their fullest realization. Since nothing is permanent, all is in flux and change, the goal is to fulfill the moment, the hour, the day, and to make the lifetime a history of many such fulfillments. Thus sufficient unto the day is the life thereof, and also sufficient unto the life is a day thereof. Fulfillment is a passing thing; it cannot be frozen or captured. The artist can trap the beauty of the moment on his canvas, but the moment itself cannot be caught. The picture is only a note taken upon the reality, not the reality itself. Except that the picture becomes a reality in its, own right, and the stimulus to fullness of experience in those who find beauty in it, even as the painter found beauty in the original scene that the painting depicts.

 

We have been conditioned to expect and desire permanence in a world where no permanence exists. In orthodoxy the permanence is in God who always was and always will be, perfect and unalterable. In the self, permanence exists in the soul which will eternally survive the body's passing. In time, permanence is found in heaven, where there is no death, and a kind of static, unmoving perfection persists. The most radical shift of attitude and expectancy occurs just here, when one becomes a naturalist, for the world of absolutes and finalities vanishes, and a world of movement, of transiency, and of becoming is our living reality. This is not so much a matter of believing as experiencing, for the fact of process is something that we live, that we recognize with our blood and bones as well as with our brains.

 

Then we seek to make the moment glorified in its being, and we try to invest our passing lives with freshness, fullness, achievement, and growth. We seek in each fullness of experience the lessons and the self-development that will open new visions of plenitude to seek in the future. To this extent age can be defeated, for the adventures of age are in themselves unique and rich in their own way. Made what they are by the years that have gone before, they are something that could not have been in the past. The man who stays alive in himself, no matter how aged he may become, will still live for the new and unexplored zest of the day that lies ahead. It will be like no other day that he has lived, and its plenitude will be a new plenitude.

 

In the West, mysticism has been mainly defined as the ability to receive knowledge, visions, and inspiration from divine and supernatural realms. But when reality is seen as wholly natural, the mystical experience is interpreted as the state of total openness and response to the world. Mysticism is the state of fullness of being. The self becomes the echo-chamber of the world. The person is so aware of being a creature in and of the natural world that he has no sense of separation between himself and the balance of nature. Whereas the traditional mystic seeks to achieve oneness with God, the naturalistic mystic seeks to know his actual and living oneness with nature and with humanity.

 

The mystic's elation proceeds from his inner resonance to outward events. In the merging of the self with the world, the world enters and becomes one with his being; he is enlarged by the universe. What in less responsive and comprehensive times seems to be a separation between himself and the world, of an inner and an outer world, ceases to exist. He becomes part of a fluid continuum of being that encompasses the universe. The individual is one impulse, one ray, in a total field of energy and light and being. This has been described as the "oceanic experience.” This is the plenitude of being in its most inclusive extent. In the quality of his experience, in his sense of being, the individual becomes as infinite and eternal as the universe is infinite and eternal. But his is a quality of his experience, and furnishes no evidence for believing that the individual consciousness persists beyond death. It is man the brief and tragic visitor to the world that knows this magnificence of awareness and being. This is the paradox and agony of life, to be limitless and universal in one's being, and still to be an earthbound and puny creature enduring the poignant brevity of one's escaping years.

 

We cannot arrest any event, any ecstasy, and condition of self-development. We must move on to new experiences, new achievement, or we will begin to lose what we already have and are. Each new day must have its new problems, its new justification, its new and unexplored horizon. No achievement is finally satisfactory, in that we can say, "I have come this far; I need to go no farther.” For man is a state or a condition of achieving, and he is fully alive only while he is in a process of development. The fullness of being is an unintentional bonus that he receives from the dedication and industry of his daily and continuous labors.

 

As one grows older, the plenitude of being develops from childish and innocent delight into a state of wisdom. The accrual of many years of learning, of insight and contemplation, of reasoning, enlarge the self and the extent and depth of comprehension. We learn to proportion our needs and expectancies in relation to the realities we have come to know and to adjust our hopes to what is possible. We discover the outlines and dimension of the self and its needs within the scope of what is attainable in the natural world. We strive to make the measurement and expectancy of our lives into a perfect adjustment with reality as we know it. This is nothing static or passing, since our knowledge of the world is constantly growing, and the world itself is in growth and evolution even as we are.

 

When we, in our later wisdom, see ourselves as creatures of this world, we also more fully understand how it supports us, how our dreams are native and possible within it. These dreams need to be limited only to the ways and dimensions of nature, to become alive and full of confidence and expectancy.

 

There is a sense of plenitude of being that arises from the conviction that we have used our own resources close to their maximum capacity, that we have extended our wits, our intelligence, as far as they were able to see and comprehend. We have a fullness of intellect and of integrity in dealing with what knowledge has come to us, and in sharing it with others. If we have made our fullest response to life, we escape those guilty feelings of being niggardly, fearful and cheating in ourselves and in our relations with the world. It takes courage to make the full response, and a willingness to receive pain, disappointment, and ultimate tragedy. The doctor must give himself wholly to every patient, even though he knows that in the end he will lose every case. And we must reach out to receive all of experience, the full beauty and brutality of the human scene, even though we know that the hand we are having within it is only a brief gesture in the expanse of history past and future. One who fears to be, who shields himself from the impact of the world and life, warding off the immensity, catastrophe, the loss and death, will also shut himself off from the incomprehensible vastness of his own being, when it finds its unity and identity with all of the surrounding world. Fear and denial may curtain us off from some hurt, although it but effect another and worse hurt, but its main fault is that it shuts out the good, the abundance of life, even as it seeks to shut out the tragedy. The tragedy cannot be avoided at the last. The only protection against it is to accept it, live with it, and receive it as part of our native condition, without resentment or blame.

 

Love is the fullness of two beings having come into conjunction. It is but the joining of whatever the individuals have known apart, and they bring only what they are and have. Love wanes when the plenitude of being in the two or more persons wanes. But to know the plenitude of being, not just as a personal and private condition, but in fellowship, in community, in love, this is for man his abundance of abundance.

 

The plenitude of being is an intensity and power that can be measured in serenity as well as in activity and stress. At times it is something left after all of the heat of days, a clear, cool ecstasy, a pure insight. The world is seen in clarity and peace, in a soft light as in the evening. For the moment striving and tensions are gone. The world as seen has the aura of a recollection, as if we were engaged in it no longer. Then we know a placeless and selfless belonging.

 

The plenitude is not always peaceful, perhaps seldom so. Peace is not what is sought, but plenitude of being. But out of a fullness of response and labor there also issues a fullness of repose, of self-justification in the deepest sense. And only the man who has achieved his plenitude of being will be rewarded in those gracious moments of calm, with his plenitude of peace.