Let’s define what we mean by God. In the very first paragraph of Spinoza’s masterpiece ‘The Ethics’, he says the essence of God is existence. By essence he means the thing that defines God. Now many people feel they know God in their own way, and it isn’t for anyone to judge that. What we are doing here is putting the notion of knowing God on an experiential footing. To know something, you must be exposed to it in some way. This simple definition of Spinoza’s gives us the mechanism by which we can do this. If the word God offends then drop it – for the purpose of this article at least it can be replaced by the word existence.
Existence is the strangest of all things. If you want to experience the mystical, then you need only meditate on the fact of existence. Philosophers and scientists often ask why there is something instead of nothing, and why is it that we can share in this experience of existence. Oddly enough most of us are blind to this thing that is right in front of our noses, and spend most of our time dealing with stuff – work, relationships, interests, TV, holidays, and so on. As such we are asleep to the fact of existence, because existence precedes stuff. If it didn’t precede stuff it wouldn’t be a property common to everything. To be asleep to existence is to be asleep to God.
Western religious traditions tend to promote the idea of an anthropomorphic God – one with human qualities. As such he/she/it is capable of emotions and purpose. This is a very demeaning thing to do to God – to reduce him to the qualities possessed by human beings. The jealous, angry, loving, revengeful God of the Old Testament is not a particularly attractive character, although He is much loved by people who want to impose their views on others. And so this God of emotions and intent is not a God that is in the least bit relevant to our discussion here.
If you want to know God, then you have to experience existence. This can only be done by experiencing the existence of things that exist – including oneself, and particularly oneself. It isn’t the things that are important, but the sense of acknowledging their existence – the awareness of existence, that is important.
Later in The Ethics, Spinoza proclaims that knowing the eternal and infinite essence of God is a fairly straightforward matter. In proposition 47 of part 2 he states:
The human mind has ideas, from which it perceives itself and its own body and external bodies as actually existing; therefore it has an adequate knowledge of the eternal and infinite essence of God (i.e. existence).
Note the words “… as actually existing …” – this is the key to understanding this statement. He further goes on to say in the same proposition that “… we may form that third kind of knowledge ..”. Spinoza says that we know God through this third kind of knowledge, which he also calls intuition. Reason alone does not allow us to know God, only the direct perception of existence allows us to do this.
So the obvious question is how do we use this knowledge in our daily lives. There are several practices which can be adopted, and Spinoza alludes to some of them in part 5 of The Ethics. Various meditation exercises can be practiced, and particularly the sensing of the body. This has the advantage of stilling the mind, so we are not distracted, and providing direct experience of our existence. In short we move the attention slowly around the body – a foot, lower leg, thigh, buttocks, back, abdomen, chest, hands, lower arm, upper arm, neck etc. We should dwell on each part of the body for at least 20 seconds, and the whole exercise can last between 20 minutes and a few hours if desired. We can also consciously sense the things around us. The pen that is on my desk is not something I have particularly looked at before. But on observation I see how light is reflected from it, some words etched into it – and so on. The pen is not really the important thing, but the effort of attention needed to see it fully – to be more aware of its existence. There are many methods that can be used, and I will probably write more about them in another article.
In part 5 of The Ethics, Spinoza spends some time elaborating how we can consciously refer our sensations and thoughts (since thoughts are things too) to the idea of God (existence). Proposition 14 gives a summary by saying:
The mind can bring it about, that all bodily modifications (sensations) or images of things may be referred to the idea of God (existence).
And so all we need to do to know God (existence) is to place our attention on it, rather than be fascinated with things themselves. This requires effort, since our natural state is that of being continually distracted. It is not humanly possible to be aware of existence all the time, but some portion of the day should be dedicated to it. In this way we make God knowable.