“Where Do We Come From What Are We Where Are We Going” is the title of a Paul Gauguin painting.
D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous. The inscription the artist wrote on his canvas has no question mark, no dash, and all words are capitalized. In the upper right corner he signed and dated the painting: P. Gauguin / 1897
He had a plan to kill himself after he finished this painting, considering it to be his masterpiece. His plan failed.
John Kent summarized the core questions in the Richard Rose teachings as:
- Who am I (ultimately)?
- Where did I come from (before birth)?
- Where am I going (after death)?
Richard Rose is the one whose teachings I have found most useful on my spiritual path.
But the questions, these big questions are the perennial questions for us self-conscious beings – humans. They are the existential questions.
Gauguin’s painting, which is read from right to left, goes from an image of a baby to an old woman, with life in between. An image of a life, any life, you could say. Each life is but a variation on a theme, the theme of life and death.
The Tibetan Buddhists have been making images addressing this same idea for centuries. They are called Thangkas.
The Wheel of Life, Tibetan Thangka
Before literacy was common, images were the main method of sharing ideas.
All children, I suspect, ask questions about where they came from. We tell them that they come from their mothers belly. That is true in a sense, the relative sense. Biological beings come from biological beings. Minds come from minds. Spirit comes from spirit. These are the three dimensions of a human.
The pressing question for a child is about where they came from but for an older person it becomes about where we are going.
My three year old granddaughter has copped on to the fact that I am her mothers mother. She recently asked me if I had a mother too. I showed her a photo of my mother. She stood staring at it. I could see her mind trying to take in the fact that even grandmothers have mothers. Of course she couldn’t ask or even think, where did the first mother come but I’m sure that the seed of some question like that was being planted in her little mind?
She did ask where is my mother now and I said “she died” knowing full well that “She” did not die, only her body died.
So, over the course of a reflective human life, our question of where do we come from changes from “where did I biologically come from?” to “where does the world, all creation come from?”. There are many lovely mythological stories about the origin of the world or the universe, all based on the assumption that the world is out there.
Spiritual teachings say otherwise. As Jesus said “The kingdom of heaven is within”, within us.Spiritual work is about finding what is within us and what we really are at core.
The question, where do I come from, takes on a different perspective. We look for the source of ourselves within ourselves by removing what is blinding us from this.
The child’s version of the question is based on the assumption that what we are is a biological being. This assumption is not often questioned later on. Sure, we have a biological aspect but it’s not the whole story. Later on most of us become more identified with our mental/emotional aspect. We try to figure out the answer to our questions, in an effort to heal our emotional discontent or insecurities. This very effort to figure out is the giveaway that we are identified with our mind. We’re operating from the assumption that the mind can understand life ( consciousness). This would mean that life was of a lesser order than the mind. The opposite is true.
Assuming that what we are is a mind/emotional being, we are not conscious of the fact that there is the underlying assumption. The hypnotic belief in the mind/emotional dimension is very convincing but it is also not the whole story. In spiritual literature this operating on unconscious assumptions and being hypnotically under the spell of beliefs is referred to as “being identified with”.
The mind can never figure out where we come from since it also comes from the same place -the mind trying to figure itself out. It’s a closed self-reflective circular loop. But, we can observe and examine our own mind and become aware of its underlying assumptions. It is this quality of self-reflection that leads to our mis-identification and consequent suffering.
This process of examining the mind and uncovering the assumptions, which are the root cause of the various floating (mis)identifications, leads to a dissolution of the assumptions.
In this process we become less fooled by the mind and something else comes into our consciousness. The hypnotic spell cast by the underlying beliefs and assumptions begins to lift. We gradually come to see and trust that there is another dimension beyond the mind.
So, our once childish question of where do I come from takes on a different meaning. Where do I come from, before birth? Where does creation come from? What is the backdrop to my being? What are we? Who am I?
What am I, ultimately?
This question cannot be answered by the mind, but it can be answered experientially by a change that happens in us. This change happens as the false identifications and assumptions fall away and another aspect comes into view. This other aspect or dimension is what we call spirit. Consciousness of our spiritual dimension gradually replaces our roving and changing identities. This is often referred to being present. Spirit is not changing but is a stable, permanent consciousness against which all changes take place. It is the unchanging nature of spirit that causes us to overlook or ignore it. A time can come when complete identification with this aspect of ourselves replaces the roving identifications of our biological and mental/emotional dimensions but it does not delete them. They continue to function as a necessary aspect of our existence in the world, until such a time as they are no longer useful – with death of the body.
This shift in identification is what is known as Christ consciousness, Enlightenment or Self-realisation.