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May 28, 2023

Simplicity Beyond Complexity: The Question Is the Answer (A Reponse to Suffering) by Marc Gafni

By Marc Gafni

Part I: The Question

One of the great teachings of the Integral Consciousness, which informs the emergent World Spirituality, is that frameworks matter.

The old world of the great traditions understood this very well. The framework is the meta-narrative, the big picture or worldview, the Great Story through which we interpret our experience.

To date in history, there have been three primary Great Stories. The pre-modern story was the story of simplicity, what I would call first simplicity. In terms of depth and interior enlightenment, this story was anything but simple in the simple-minded sense of things. It was the greatest interior view of the depths of kosmos, ever disclosed by the great human faculty of perception—the eye of the spirit. It was nonetheless, simplicity, because in large part[1], it claimed to have clear-cut answers to many of the great questions of Who we are, Why we are here, and Where we are going. Particularly, it claimed to offer clear and simple explanations of why human beings suffer or, said slightly differently, why bad things happen to good people. The Story was painful but simple. Suffering was a direct and clear part of the divine plan which human beings—if they looked deeply enough—were capable of understanding.

The Great Story of the old traditions was rejected by modernity and post-modernity. The profound simplicities were undermined and human kind found itself living in vast complexity. First Simplicity was replaced by a new complexity.

Modernity rejected the first simplicity pre-modern story because it overreached claiming to know more than it did. Particularly, it claimed absolute “simple” knowledge in all four quadrants instead of where it truly has profound knowing, in the upper left quadrant of the interior consciousness. For example, the great traditions made claims about physiology that were falsified by dissections of the human cadaver of the renaissance, claims about astronomy that were falsified by Galileo’s peering through his telescope, and claims about politics that were falsified by the evolution of consciousness that produced democracy and universal human rights. Post-modernity rejected the great story of first simplicity because it claimed that it was unconsciously “context bound.” The old truth claims said post-modernity was refracted through cultural, historical, social, psychological and political contexts or prism. Look through red glasses and your will see red, but if you do not know you are looking through red glasses, you will think you are seeing the world as it is. Post-modernity also pointed out that more than a few of the old historical contexts, which produced religious dogma, were driven not by spirit, but by power and domination. As Foucault famously wrote, behind every truth claim, there is often a power grab.

Complexity itself, however, over-reached. Scientism overreached no less the great traditions, which it replaced. The shadow move of complexity was the de-storying of the uni-verse. There is No Story said the purveyors of complexity. There is no grand narrative. There is no worldview or big picture within which we can and must live. The Uni-verse shrank to the universe. Scientism claimed that the only language of the real was the language of the controlled experiment of science. We tended to believe scientism because science produced astonishing breakthroughs of knowledge in the knowing of science and mathematics, which together birthed the industrial and technological wonders of modernity and post-modernity. But Scientism overreached what it actually knew and disqualified as unreal, all knowing in the arenas of meaning, values, ultimate issues, love, and depth. All these stories were rejected as being mere imaginings with no ground in the real.

But complexity is not the end of the story. Beyond complexity lies what I will refer to as Second Simplicity. In this movement of spirit seeking to manifest in our time, The Great Story is recovered, reclaimed and evolved at a higher level of consciousness. This is the Second Simplicity of Integral Consciousness.

Integral consciousness fully accepts the critiques of the great traditions leveled by modernity and post-modernity. At the same time, Integral consciousness re-turns to the great traditions to receive and evolve the dazzlingly subtle and profound frameworks of knowing that emerged from perhaps the greatest set of subtle, speculative, and enlightened minds and hearts that ever lived. These hearts and minds collectively produced a context of meaning and framework for living the fullness and depth of every dimension of life that desperately needs to be both recovered and evolved for our time[2]. These frameworks are the basis of the Second Simplicity. They are simple–not in the sense of beings black and white, clear answers to the great questions of meaning. Rather, they are simple in the depth and profundity of the frameworks of meaning, which they disclose, invite, and even obligate the human being to live within. It is our job today to transcend and include all of the complexity of modernity and post-modernity, even as we reach for Second Simplicity.

In this blog we will engage in one small but critical part of the reconstructive project, which seeks the evolutionary recovery of Second Simplicity. Stated clearly, the Second Simplicity of Integral consciousness both emerges from the great traditions even as it includes the best insights of the new great forms of knowing disclosed by modernity and post-modernity in all four quadrants. This is the core intention in our commitment to the articulation of a World Spirituality based on Integral principles.

Part Two:

The topic I will engage today presses on every thinking feeling being who is even the slightest bit awake. The topic is how do we engage tragedy and human suffering, both of the man-made variety (Auschwitz and the Rwandan genocide) and of the ostensibly natural variety (the earthquake in Japan) without losing our hope, optimism, what we might even call faith, in the essential loving and good nature of All-That-Is.

In engaging this topic, I will seek to reclaim a highly subtle and evolved framework for engaging the great question of suffering. It is a framework for Second Simplicity, which transcends and includes both the first simplicity and the complexity.

Like many of us, I have been deep in thought on all of this once again because of the very recent and ongoing tragedy in Japan. It not only overwhelms us with the magnitude of the suffering going on there, it brings us to a huge question, a question that demands deep contemplation and cries out not for an answer that ends the question but for a profound spiritual framework of interpretation in which the great question can be held.

The question is simple. And overwhelming. How do I live from a place of joy and goodness believing in a universe that is not only friendly but loving, in the face of a world filled with both evil and suffering?

In Integral consciousness, the consciousness of second simplicity, the answer does not nullify the question. In the old traditions answers were given–called a theodicy–whose intent was to “explain” suffering based in theological and spiritual terms. This was the consciousness of first simplicity. In much of modern and post-modern thought, from scientism to existentialism, the question was felt to be so impossible to answer that God was declared dead and the world reduced to a one story flatland universe, ostensibly devoid of the pulsating love intelligence and love beauty of spirit. Humankind was said to live in the hopeless complexity of what Lewis Mumford called a dis-qualified universe. The eye of the spirit atrophied, dominated by the eyes of the flesh and the mind which produced modern science and mathematics. In post-post-modern Integral consciousness of Second Simplicity, we know that there is no answer which can ever nullify the pain of the great question of human suffering. At the same time, we have trance-ended the blindness of modern and post-modern scientism and re-activated the great faculty of human knowing–the Eye of the Spirit.

From an Integral perspective of second simplicity, there is no simple answer to why people suffer, but there is a profound Response of Spirit to suffering. In this short conversation, we will offer one part of that response.

The response does not answer or nullify the question. Rather, it appears as a form of Integral reality consideration that probes the inner nature of our relationship to suffering in order to elicit a framework of realization and meaning within which to hold the question. Our certainty lies not in an answer, but in the dignity and depth of the framework. One final note: Philosopher Charles Taylor reminds us that we live in “inescapable frameworks.” There is no life lived out of the context of a big picture lens or worldview through which all reality is refracted and interpreted. In pre-modernity that framework was an un-self-consciously sure of it’s absolute correctness. Tragically for most moderns and post-moderns, that framework is the unconscious assumption that the world is ultimately meaningless in any ultimate sense. This is the deadened hope of hopeless complexity that drives post-modern man to close his heart and radically narrow her circles of caring. It is in response to that unconscious modern and post assumption of flatland vacuousness that Integral consciousness steps into the void with its great goal of reconstruction and the evolutionary recovery of frameworks of meaning. Second Simplicity.

It is with all that in mind that we will offer a first reality consideration, what the Buddhists might call an analytic meditation on the great problem of pain and suffering. Again, not to the metaphysical answer to the Why of suffering, but rather a Response to the What and How do we live as alive lovers, incarnating the good, being evolutionary co-catalysts of healing and transformation, in a seemingly hopeless world filled with radical and constant suffering and pain. Just read the news; every single day, an unbearable dose of suffering and pain discloses itself to your consciousness. How do you respond without being overwhelmed, losing hope, or shutting down?

Part Three: The Response

The response begins by realizing and remembering that in the teaching of some of the great traditions, this question is addressed not only to God, not only to the universe itself, but also to each and every one of us.

To God the question is: How do you, as the just divine source and love intelligence of All That Is, how do you permit suffering? This question is addressed to the God of second person who knows my name and loves me. How do you God allow for human suffering of such horror, intensity, and magnitude? Why do you not actively support the consistent manifestation of your nature as the good, the true, and the beautiful?

To us the question is: What are you/we willing to do for the sake of the good, the true, and the beautiful? What are you willing to do to end the suffering?

In the western mystical tradition of Kabbalah, there was a profound recognition, and a mandate. The mandate of the western mystical consciousness, especially of the biblical consciousness that underlies the western traditions of ethics is this: a demand that the human being enter into partnership with God in the task of perfecting the world. The classical expression of this in the lineage of Kabbalah is the obligation of Tikkun. Tikkun means not merely to heal or to fix as it is usually translated. In the best reading of the original kabbalistic texts, Tikkun means to be co-creative evolutionary partners with the divine.

This evolutionary mandate to co-create and to heal the world with and as divinity emerges, paradoxically, not out of answers but out of questions. The fact that the human being can challenge God and that God accepts the human challenge implies a covenantal partnership between the human being and God. Both the human being and God share an understanding of the good, and thus God can turn to the human being and say: ‘I invite you, nay, I demand that you be my partner, my co-creator in the perfection of the world. I began the process of creation; I established the moral fabric of the world. It is up to you to take that cloth and to weave it fully. It is up to you to complete the tapestry, it is up to you to risk to grow and to create a world in which good, love, justice and human dignity flourish and are affirmed.’ A human being who cannot be trusted enough to challenge evil can also not be a partner in fostering the good.

It is true that God very often seems silent in response to our challenge. Yet kabbalistic mystical consciousness, expressed through sacred text and lineage tradition, affirms that God accepts the validity of the question. In doing so God affirms our role as God’s incarnate partner in history. If I am able to recognize evil for what it is, then I am ipso facto obligated in tikkun olam—the obligation to act for and with God in the healing of the world. Man is the language of God. We are God’s adjectives, God’s adverbs, God’s nouns, and sometimes even God’s dangling modifiers. We are God’s vocabulary in the world. When I love, when I am able to be truly vulnerable and intimate with another human being, when I am able to share the pain of another and to rejoice in their deep joy, I am acting for God. I become God’s chariot in the world.

More than this: if I can wrestle with God, if I can express my uncertainty with God in the intimacy of challenging relationship, then paradoxically, I convert my doubt into the core certainty of divine relationship and even incarnation. The Question itself becomes the answer or at least response, as it is the question itself, which implies the intimacy of relationship with the source of goodness, with the love intelligence of All-That-Is.

The authentic existential question shouted out from the depth of being implies—paradoxically—intimacy, relationship, and even potential dialogue.

It is to this paradox that we will now turn. We dance in the paradox of certainty and uncertainty. An event like the tsunami is of a different order than the human-made suffering of war and oppression, of a Rwanda or a Bosnia or even a Libya. It’s a natural event; the result of earth processes which don’t take account of the human, but which have their own validity. Nonetheless, when there is death and destruction and social disorder on this scale, it is natural and right and necessary to ask the question:

Where are you, God? Where are you within me and within the world? And here is the great and sacred paradox of realization: Within the very recesses of the uncertainty of the question itself is a powerful experience of certainty and intimate knowing. Knowing of relationship and of the non-dual realization of I Am. It is in I Am, when I experience the core certainty of self, and therefore of my divinity–of my being loved by God. This experience is not only not in contradiction to the question; it wells up from the question itself. In the question is God. The question is the answer.

Two 19th Century Russians

Nachman and Dostoyevsky

It is this paradox that Dostoyevsky in Brothers Karamazov does not fully grasp. He does not understand that the rage of Ivan is the rage of “heresy that is faith.” Ivan, responding to Alyosha’s certainty of belief, has just described to him the brutal murder of a child torn apart by dogs for sport. Ivan’s uncertainty burns with the fiery anger of faith.

Although the passage is longer than what one would usually expect in a quoted text, it is so germane to our theme and so compelling that I did not shorten it. Thus I invite my dear reader to experience the truth and power of Ivan’s plea. He needs to be read as a modern echo of Abraham’s cry “Will the judge of the entire world not do justice?”

I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself. I have believed in it. I want to see it, and if I am dead by then, let me rise again, for if it all happens without me, it will be too unfair. Surely I haven’t suffered, simply that I, my crimes and my sufferings, may manure the soil of the future harmony for somebody else.

I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer.

But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That’s a question I can’t answer. For the hundredth time I repeat, there are numbers of questions, but I’ve only taken the children, because in their case what I mean is so answerably clear. Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? I understand solidarity in sin among men. I understand solidarity in retribution too, but there can be no such solidarity with children. And if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their father’s crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension.

Some jester will say, perhaps, that the child would have grown up and have sinned, but you see he didn’t grow up; he was torn to pieces by the dogs, at eight years old. Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be, when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’ When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear.

But what pulls me up here is that I can’t accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ But I don’t want to cry aloud then. While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether.

It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.

I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony?

Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.

A 3,500-year-old text anticipates Ivan. Moses says to God who in the text offers an “explanation of suffering”–”You have promised to redeem the people in the future–that’s not good enough–for how does that help the babies brutally killed and buried in the mortar of Egyptian brick?” It is the same with biblical Abraham who demands divine accountability when he cries out, “Will the Judge of the Whole World Not Do Justice?”

The outraged existential challenge, which Ivan, Moses, and Abraham hurl against God, is also God’s highest embrace. When we rage like Ivan, we affirm the dignity and validity of our rage. We recognize that the rage is holy, welling as it does from the deepest recesses of our being. We refuse to invalidate our core certainty of self and capitulate to the indifference of dogma that denies the uncertainty of evil. We refuse to deny our rage, and in so doing we affirm the holiness of our moral intuitions. In giving voice to our deepest uncertainties, we paradoxically confirm our inner certainty of the divinity in ourselves. Dostoyevsky’s mistake was only that he thought Ivan’s speech to be heresy.

Where Is God?

R. Nachman of Bratzlav in a profound and daring teaching reveals the light shimmering in Alyosha’s speech. It is a teaching on the word Ayeh. Ayeh in Hebrew means where, in the sense of “where is God?”

Ayeh encapsulates in one word Alyosha’s entire oration. I want to share with you R. Nachman’s teaching directly, in my trans-interpretation of the original Hebrew text. The bracketed words are my additions:

‘When one follows the path of intellect—(certainty)
one may encounter
multiple mistakes and pitfalls
There are many who fell
and who caused the world to fall
and all through their intellect (false certainty)

….. when you fall into uncertainty
the fall perse
and the descent
are the ultimate ascent.
For all of creation…
derives sustenance
from the ten revealed utterances of creation(certainty)
but the place of the fall
derives sustenance
from the hidden utterance. (uncertainty)
(which is keter)
…in the place of the fall
certainty can give no nourishment
there only the hidden utterance—uncertainty
gives nourishment.
When a person says ‘Ayeh’–where is the place of his glory
when he realizes how distant he is
how deeply he has fallen into uncertainty
this—itself is his fixing

Nachman teaches that in the depth of uncertainty is certainty- the experience of worth, value, and being loved. In the anger at evil is the profound intuition that our rage matters–and that it is holy.

Certainty of Rage

Said differently, by holding uncertainty and not settling for explanations of suffering that our soul intuitively rejects, we reach a higher certainty—the certainty of rage. It may well be that in a century that has seen one hundred million people brutally killed, the only path back to God is the certainty of rage.

For our rage and pain is the rage and pain of the divine. Those who deny the holiness of our anger deny God.

Babies are part of our core certainty. They remind us of all that is pure. They somehow cut though our posturing and touch something deep inside us. Have you ever seen a baby brought into an office—no matter how serious the office—grown men and women almost immediately revert to baby talk—to goo goo gaga. Babies cry out for our protection. They call us to rise to our highest selves.

Babies being ripped apart–which was my mother’s youthful vision from the depths of depravity that was the kingdom of the night of Holocaust—Babies being ripped apart destroy that core certainty. “Where Is God?” writes Weisel. “He is hanging on the gallows”…. in the body of a young boy. Incarnation is reversed in the horror of suffering. God becomes human and dies on the gallows. In the reversal is the death of God about which some post-holocaust theologians wrote with such pathos.

The Biblical mystical response is different. Evolutionary Mystical men and women work their way back to God, not through pious imprecations justifying God, nor through pathos-filled announcements of God’s demise, but certainty of realization, which affirms the sacred character, the divine character of our very pain and rage.

The question itself–Where is God?–in all of it’s power, becomes the answer itself. Or at least the response. It is in the intimacy of relationship and realization that is implicit in the full living of the question that the Second Simplicity is achieved. Second Simplicity is not an answer to a metaphysical Why, to an affirmation of the Who. Who am I? I Am. Who am I? I am a child of a Uni-verse in which my question matters, and therefore, I am never alone and never abandoned even in the face of unanswerable mystery. Everywhere I fall, I fall into God’s hands. I am in every moment held by the love intelligence and love beauty and love goodness of All-That-Is. This is felt knowing implicit in the question itself. This is all paradoxically implicit in the certainty that my anger and even raging against all suffering is no less then a fractal of the voice of God.


[1] In large part but not entirely. Within the pre-modern great traditions there were always voices of spirit, which reached beyond the pre-modern simplicity and offered significant post-post-modern ideas of spirit, which we need to recover, reconstruct and evolve as the foundation of an evolutionary world spirituality.

[2] On the post metaphysical nature of that evolution, we will devote a separate discussion in a future blog post. See Wilber, Integral Spirituality, Appendix Two to begin the conversation.

Dr. Marc Gafni holds his doctorate from Oxford University and has direct lineage in Kabbalah. He is a Rabbi, spiritual artist, teacher, and a leading visionary in the emerging World Spirituality movement. He is a co-founder of iEvolve: The Center for World Spirituality, a scholar at the Integral Institute, and the director of the Integral Spiritual Experience, as well as a lecturer at John F. Kennedy University. The author of seven books, including the national bestseller Soul Prints and Mystery of Love, Gafni’s teaching is marked by a deep transmission of open heart, love and leading edge provocative wisdom. Gafni is considered by many to be a visionary voice in the founding of a new World Spirituality and one of the great mind/heart teachers of the generation.

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