A common assumption of the modern world is that we live in a universe comprised almost entirely of inert matter and empty space. Regarding the universe as dead at its foundations is basic to the industrial revolution: It makes sense to exploit what appears dead for the benefit of what seems most alive -- ourselves. This assumption is now being questioned as a more ancient view is reconsidered. Plato put it this way: "The universe is a single living creature that encompasses all living creatures within it."
Is the universe alive or dead? We can explore this fundamental question by turning to both science and the world's wisdom traditions. Science now regards our universe as: 1) almost entirely invisible (96 percent of the known universe is comprised of invisible energy and matter), 2) completely unified and able to communicate with itself instantaneously in non-local ways that transcend the limits of the speed of light, 3) sustained by the flow-through of an unimaginably vast amount of energy, and 4) free at its deepest, quantum levels. While not proving the universe is alive, these and other attributes from science do point strongly in that direction.
When we turn to the world's wisdom traditions and ask how they regard the universe, we find a stunning consensus that the universe is a continuously regenerated, living presence:
"God is creating the entire universe, fully and totally, in this present now. Everything God created ...God creates now all at once."
-- Meister Eckhart, Christian mystic
"My solemn proclamation is that a new universe is created every moment."
-- D.T. Suzuki, Zen teacher
"The Tao is the sustaining Life-force and the mother of all things; from it, all things rise and fall without cease."
-- Tao Te Ching, Taoism
"God keeps a firm hold on heavens and earth, preventing them from vanishing away."
-- Islam, Koran
"Evolution presupposes creation ...creation is an everlasting process -- a creation continua."
-- Pope John Paul II
These quotes just begin to describe the profound aliveness of the universe as seen through the lens of the world's wisdom traditions.
What difference does it make if the universe is dead or alive at its foundations? When children are starving, climate is destabilizing, oil is dwindling, and population is growing, why put our attention here? Here are a few reasons why aliveness makes a profound difference:
Consumerism or Simplicity? Materialism is a rational response to living in a dead universe. In a material universe, consumerism offers a source of identity and a measure of significance and accomplishment. Where do I find pleasure in a non-living universe? In material things. How do I know that I amount to anything? By how many things I have accumulated. How should I relate to the world? By taking advantage of that which is dead on behalf of the living. Consumerism and exploitation are natural outcomes of a dead universe perspective. However, if we view the foundations of the universe as being intensely alive, then it makes sense to minimize material clutter and needless busyness and develop the areas where we feel most alive -- in nurturing relationships, caring communities, creative expressions, time in nature, and service to others.
Indifferent or Welcoming? If we regard the universe as dead at its foundations, then feelings of existential alienation, anxiety, dread, and fear are understandable. Why seek communion with the cold indifference of lifeless matter and empty space? If we relax, we will simply sink into existential despair. However in a living universe feelings of subtle connection, curiosity, and gratitude are understandable. We see ourselves as participants in a cosmic garden of life that has been patiently developing over billions of years. A living universe perspective invites us to shift from indifference, fear, and cynicism to curiosity, love, and awe.
Biological or Bio-Cosmic? Are we no more than a bundle of chemical and neurological interactions? If so, the boundaries of our being are defined by the extent of our physical body. However, in a living universe, our physical existence is permeated and sustained by an aliveness that is inseparable from the larger universe. Seeing ourselves as part of the unbroken fabric of creation awakens our sense of connection with, and compassion for, the totality of life. We recognize our bodies as precious, biodegradable vehicles for acquiring ever-deepening experiences of aliveness.
Separate or Inter-Connected? If we are no more than biological entities, then it makes sense to see ourselves as disconnected from the suffering of other living beings. However, if we are all swimming in the same ocean of subtle aliveness, then it makes sense that we would each have a direct experience of communion with, and concern for, the well-being of others. If we share the same matrix of existence, then the rest of life already touches me, co-creating the field of aliveness within which I exist.
Pull Apart or Pull Together? If we see the universe as mostly barren and devoid of life, then it is natural to see our time on earth as primarily a struggle for material existence, and it makes sense that we humans would pull apart in conflict. However, if we see the universe as intensely alive and our journey here as one of discovery and learning, then it makes sense that we would pull together in cooperation in order to realize this magnificent potential.
Our view of the universe as either dead or alive creates the context within which we understand who we are and where we are going. Where a dead-universe perspective generates alienation, environmental destruction, and despair, a living-universe perspective generates feelings of communion, stewardship, and the promise of a higher pathway for humanity. Although the idea of a living universe has ancient roots in human experience, it is now radically new as the frontiers of modern science cut away superstition and reveal the authentic mystery, subtlety, and aliveness of our cosmic home.