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Avatar: Pandora Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted: 01/25/10 05:48 PM ET

Noted spiritual teacher Ram Dass, a former Harvard professor of psychology and early spokesperson for the possible spiritual benefits of using LSD and other psychedelic drugs, tells the following story: He was approached by a professional, scientific group, and asked to comment on various photos, presumably related to drug use. One of them depicted a man, lying on the kitchen floor, gazing at a puddle of spilled Coke. Ram Dass said that the picture gave him pause, for it brought to mind the many hours he himself had spent in just such a position, staring in awe at puddles of spilled Coke or something equally and allegedly "mundane."

News reports have appeared lately speaking of people who see Avatar and subsequently fall into a deep depression at their inability to access a world in reality as beautiful, entrancing and spiritual as Pandora, the mythical planet depicted in the film. But before you join a Post Avatar Depression Syndrome (PADS) support group, consider the lesson of the spilled Coke, or really, one of the lessons of LSD. Yes, it is a drug-induced state, and yet, for the time that it lasts, the habitual filters through which we ordinarily view existence are removed, revealing a magical universe residing in the very spot that we would have dubbed "mundane" and passed by without a second glance in our non-altered state.

Such eye-opening revelations of the deeper mystery of everything, animate and inanimate, can occur not only through ingesting a possibly dangerous chemical (I can attest to that part), but via intentional practices as well as random circumstances -- death or great loss, "Acts of God," the birth of a child and so forth. Virtually anything, if the timing is right, can temporarily jolt us out of our blind slumber and awaken our inner vision to a grander vista.

Ram Dass eventually realized that no matter how much or how often he took LSD, he would always "come down" to ordinary reality, and be left with, like the Pandora-smitten viewers of Avatar, a powerful hunger to live in those deeper realms all the time. Thus, he proclaimed at one point, "The spiritual path is not about 'getting high,' it's about 'being high,'" and that, he explained, requires discipline, long hours of spiritual practice, and Grace.

Another contemporary spiritual teacher, Adyashanti, has shared that he noticed at some point in his development that no matter how far out his experiences sometimes were, no matter how blissful, insightful and other-worldly, or how terrible, he always seemed to return to "this." Just this ordinary, regular moment.

There is really not much use in continuously revisiting artificially induced states if it is at the expense of doing the actual work required to integrate the teachings from those selfsame states into one's life in a meaningful and less transient manner. Philosopher and Zen practitioner Alan Watts compared it to a scientist in a lab who discovers something under the microscope; she doesn't just keep on repeating the experiment and staring at the result; she takes new actions informed by her discovery. Or, switching metaphors, Watts also said, "When you get the message, hang up the phone."

Because it only takes one such mind-shattering epiphany to recognize that William James was indeed onto something when he declared in The Varieties of Religious Experience that.

"Our normal waking consciousness ... is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different."

A single glimpse of this truth upends our entire world-view, and reality is never quite the same. We are suddenly launched, for better or worse, onto a path that is fueled by our yearning to part the veils that shield our eyes from seeing a puddle of spilled coke as anything less than a fantastical, mystical, miraculous and mysterious appearance in the midst of an inexplicable infinite universe! And the same for every blade of grass, our little finger, and all of our fellow creatures. Our earth -- Gaia -- like Pandora, is teeming with life, every quark connected to every other and all linked to the whole through the vast web of Indra's net. Sneeze in Kentucky, and a cockroach in Calcutta moves a little to the left.

The alluring world of Pandora is not "out there." It surrounds us every moment, it is the very atmosphere in which we live and move and have our being. Hell and heaven are separated only by an infinitesimal turn of the mind and inner view. The longing to live on Pandora is our deepest soul cry to be who we really are and see life as it really is.

The late guru Adi Da Samraj used to find it interesting that people would gaze up at the night sky, hoping to see a shooting star, as if the sky itself, just as it is, isn't already completely mysterious and beautiful. It just wasn't quite enough; people needed just a little more to be properly bewildered and awestruck!

Marcel Proust wrote:

"The only real voyage of discovery ... consists not of seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes."

And William Blake:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

He could just as easily have written, were he alive today,

To see a World in a Puddle of Coke.