In The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Alan Watts tells a story that he characterizes as a myth for children. God gets bored, he says, and when God gets bored he plays games to entertain himself. God’s favorite game is hide-and-seek. Because God – who is not really a “he” nor a “she” – is the only thing that exists, God has to hide from himself.
When God plays hide-and-seek, he goes to sleep and dreams a universe into existence. He dreams planets and stars, oceans, mountains, trees and stones, birds, fish, animals of all shapes and sizes – and humans.
God dreams he is all of these things. In fact, all of these things can only be God, because only God exists. And God plays hide-and-seek so well, he forgets that he is dreaming. He forgets that he is God. When he dreams of a man, he thinks he is that man. When he dreams of a woman, he thinks he is that woman. When he dreams of a deer, a tiger, a fish, he believes he is all of those creatures. God dreams everything and has the experience of being everyone, all at the same time. Such is the way that God plays.
God plays so well, he forgets it’s all a game. But because it is a game, and games are played to be won, God is at the same time everywhere trying to wake up. Such is the nature of the game. It goes on and on and on. God hiding so well he forgets that he is playing, and God dreaming he is everyone and everything, trying to wake up.
Watts tells this story as a children’s myth, but it actually comes from the Upanishads and is a vital creation myth in ancient Indian Vedanta. As with all myths, it is part truth, part metaphor. You don’t have to take it literally to unearth its kernel of truth.
The truth of this particular myth – I think of it as the first metaphysical truth, because it is so foundational – is that God is the Self of the world.
God is the Self of the World
Such is the peculiar predicament of human beings: We possess a unique capacity for self-consciousness. We are conscious of our bodies, our thoughts, our feelings. We can reflect endlessly on our inner experience. Yet we don’t realize that we are dreaming.
I sincerely believe that I am a 55-year-old man named Johnny who was born in California, has lived around the world, and is married to a woman named Dominique. I believe that I am an individual man, separate and distinct from other individual men, women, and entities. And in a certain respect, all that is true. The dream is a real experience. But what’s also true, the bigger picture, is that I am not only part of a greater whole, I am in fact nothing but that greater whole.
Across the world’s mystic traditions, as long as such things have been recorded, the great realizers have all said similar things. In effect: I am God, You are God, All is One.
Gautama the Buddha: “We live in illusion and the appearance of things. There is a reality. We are that reality. When you understand this, you see that you are nothing, and being nothing, you are everything. That is all.”
Paramahansa Yogananda: “You do not have to struggle to reach God, but you do have to struggle to tear away the self-created veil that hides him from you”
Also Paramahansa Yogananda: “The lord is not a person with sense organs, but consciousness itself… God is consciousness. There is essentially nothing in the universe but mind or consciousness.”
Ramana Maharshi: “If you hold this feeling of ‘I’ long enough and strongly enough, the false ‘I’ will vanish leaving only the unbroken awareness of the real, immanent ‘I’, consciousness itself.”
Papa Ramdas: “The ego is an obsession, a shadow, an illusion; all life is One, and that One is yourself.”
Also Papa Ramdas: “The ego or the sense of separation is false. There is only one limitless ocean of joy at once moving and still. There is one light, one power, one consciousness, one existence, one sole Reality, that is eternal and infinite.”
All religions tend to personify God as something resembling human form, to give “him” a face. But realizers in all traditions arrive at similar revelations: God is an invisible force whose form is the form of the universe itself, a divine consciousness which permeates and manifests through all things.
Jesus of Nazareth: “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”
God is the Heart of all Religions
Understanding that God is the Self of the world can transform the way we experience life. We can appreciate the beauty of the natural world not just as extraordinary, or even miraculous, but as a literal manifestation of God himself. We can come to appreciate that every single person in our life is an expression of God-Consciousness. And we can come to appreciate that the primordial impulse at the heart of every single one of the world’s religions is God seeking to know himself.
In 2011, shortly after moving to Southeast Asia, I spent the night in a Malaysian suburb outside of Kuala Lumpur. It was my first time traveling in a Muslim country. Sometime around 5 a.m. I was roused from a deep sleep by a lone voice singing through a loudspeaker. It was the morning call to prayer coming from the neighborhood mosque. I lay in bed, in a half-dream state, and listened. It was the most spiritual singing I’d ever heard in my life.
I went to 12 years of Catholic school and am very familiar with the Judaeo-Christian traditions. I’ve been a student in an Indian guru lineage since my early 20s. I’ve studied all of the major Eastern religions. But I’d never taken much of an interest in Islam, aside from the occasional book by a Sufi master. Islam had always seemed so rigidly fundamentalist to me, much in the way of the Old Testament. I couldn’t understand its appeal.
But when I heard that voice, the longing in the call to prayer, I heard something ancient in it, and I understood that it was the very heart of the religious impulse. I understood something about Islam in that instant, as well as the inherent beauty of all religions. The deep, deep longing in that voice. That is the longing of God yearning to know his veiled self. A longing that leads to the heart of all things.
How to Play Hide-and-Seek
It’s one thing to understand intellectually, through study, that God is the Self of the world. It’s yet another to understand it intuitively (intuition being the unconscious wisdom of God), which can lead one to the spiritual path. But the aim of the spiritual path is to have a direct, tacit experience of the reality of God, and to learn to return to that experience again and again. To wake up from the dream and to remain in a state of awakening.
But how do we start where we are, once we have an intuitive understanding, or even just an intellectual one?
Back in the late 90s I attended a Sunday sesshin and dharma talk at the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center in Northern California. The monk giving the talk told a story of a Zen master who said to one of his students, “Your mistake is that you think you are sitting on the mountain. The mountain is sitting you!”
This story struck a chord in me and has continued to inform my practice life. When I am doing mantra, or chanting, and especially during sitting meditation, I try to remember that it is not I who is doing, it is God doing me. When I play close attention, I sense God moving in me, imperceptibly, with subterranean power. I invite the mountain to sit me, and I try to surrender to that force.
As beginners, we can proceed by knowing and trusting that there is something in us, however buried, that is trying to wake up, and that it is our truest nature. We can invite God to seek himself through us, and we can align ourselves with that which seeks. Through prayer, self-observation, and meditation, we can become sensitive to that which is our ego-mind and that which is the mountain sitting us. We can start with a simple intention to see, to know, to glimpse the face of God, and then keep that intention alive through a life of practice.
Holding intention, learning to keep it alive, like tending a small fire, is the beginning of the path. And it is our good fortune that the path comes with a map. The key to decoding that map is the first metaphysical truth, from which all other truths follow. Once you understand that God is the Self of the world, things begin to make sense.