By Michael Byrne
Originally printed in the Spring 2010 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Byrne, Michael. “Heaven Isn’t Where You Think It Is.” Quest 98. 2(Spring 2010): 50-53.
Admit it. You think you’re going to heaven. Or at least you want to go there. It’s supposed to be the reward of a lifetime, and even if we’ve committed a sin or two, most of us think we deserve that reward. With all the suffering we put up with in our lives, we certainly should get something! And heaven is supposed to be that something.
But where is heaven? We take it for granted that it’s someplace. If we can go there, then it must be somewhere. But is it an actual place in the universe? If so, why haven’t we located it? And if it’s not in the universe, then how would we ever get there? Even if it is some advanced state of being or “grace,” to be in this state you would still have to be located somewhere within the dimensions of reality. But where in reality does this heaven exist?
For many religions, heaven is a sacred place where God resides. It is a state that we might glimpse through meditation or prayer or attain if we live good enough lives or believe the right things. Heaven is often thought to be synonymous with the kingdom of God, or, as it is sometimes called, the kingdom of heaven. When asked about it, Jesus said that it exists right now in the present time, and also that it exists within us. “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21; sometimes this is translated as “among you” or “in your midst”). In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “The kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.” So according to Jesus, heaven exists in our immediate vicinity and in the time frame of our present selves. This ideal state where God is supposed to be is not a place we have to “go” somewhere to find. And it is not something we can only find at some time in the future. It exists in the here and now.
In Eastern religions such as Buddhism, the concept of nirvana is comparable to the Western idea of heaven. Nirvana, like heaven, is a spiritual dimension that can be attained by prayer, meditation, right thinking, and right action. Also of great importance to Eastern religions are the ideas of spiritual connectedness and unity. Polar opposites, like “up” and “down,” are seen as being part of some larger whole–the axis of verticality. Other examples are hot and cold, which are really extremes of temperature; happy and sad, which are extremes of emotions; and good and bad, which are extremes of valuation.
This nonpolar approach can reduce the amount of emotional content we attach to the world. If we see things as neither good nor bad but as neutral in value, we are more likely to maintain a positive attitude and are less likely to make attachments to “good” things or be repelled by “bad” things. After all, how do we really know if something is truly good or bad in the long run? If we perceive the world from this more detached perspective, we will find it easier to be at peace with ourselves and with everything that happens around us.
Eastern philosophies extend this nonpolar attitude to the universe as a whole. If there are no true polar opposites in the world, then all things are perceived as a single whole. But this is not just an intellectual supposition. It stems from the direct perception of this higher reality—a perception that is sometimes called enlightenment. We attain it not by gaining anything but by dropping our misconceptions about reality.
By observing reality in this advanced state of being, we can experience the world as a unified whole beyond space and time. It is experienced as a profound stillness, like a startling silence following a lifetime of noise. In this state, all things are experienced as being a part of oneself. One discovers that the world itself is loving, and all things are revealed as having a great beauty and inner light. Each thing is recognized as being of equal importance with all other things. This experience of no time and no space occurs in conjunction with such qualities as stillness, loving connectedness, and unity.
Of course, most of us haven’t experienced this state. Yet most Americans have never been to Europe or Asia, but still believe they exist. We can’t see air or sunshine, but we believe they exist. No one has ever seen the atoms that make up matter. And dogs, bats, dolphins, and elephants can all hear sounds that people can’t hear. So there are definitely parts of reality we believe in even though we have not perceived them ourselves. And there are parts of physical reality that are not experienced by ourselves. On the other hand, those who have experienced the state of enlightenment, such as Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, and Krishna, to a large extent agree about what it is like, suggesting that there is some objective validity to their descriptions.
Nevertheless, these descriptions seem to be totally at odds with our observations of physical reality. From the conventional point of view, it seems obvious that all things are separate from each other. We each go about living our separate lives every day. The seven billion people on the planet never appear to become one person. Never do we seem to be one with the trees or rocks, or with space. Nor does it seem possible that anything here on earth could be united with anything on a planet on the other side of the galaxy. In the same vein, there seems to be no way of unifying the earth of today with the earth that existed in the past or the earth that will exist in the future. Past, present, and future are all separated by time.
The dimensions of space and time are what cause objects to be separate in the physical world. Space separates people, planets, and other objects by creating distance between them. And time creates a barrier of sequence between the things of today and those of the past or future. In fact, the dimensions of space and time are what give all things their separate identities. A person is separated from all other people and things by space. And it is time that keeps us from experiencing yesterday and tomorrow at the same moment.
We perceive four dimensions in ordinary reality: objects possess height, width, and length, and appear to be moving through a single linear dimension of time. These dimensions are believed to have come into being about 14 billion years ago, with the beginning of the universe at the Big Bang. Before that point, there would have been no space or time, only an endless, eternal void. This is because eternity is not a stretch of time without end; it is actually the absence of time altogether. The same thing is true of infinity: it is not an endless tract of space but rather the lack of any space to begin with. So before the advent of space and time, there was only the eternal, infinite, primordial void. But what if the primordial void didn’t go away with the advent of space and time? What if the dimensionless void is still here with us in some form or another?
That is the basis of a new theory that I have developed. I call it “0D” (zero dimensions). Just because the world of dimensions came along doesn’t mean that the world without dimensions went away. 0D assumes that the ground state of reality is the dimensionless void. This primordial void was the state of reality that existed before the advent of the physical world of dimensions. If and when the physical universe ceases to exist, this endless void without dimensions will remain. Moreover, the familiar world of four dimensions could be seen as a simple overlay on what is fundamentally a universe without dimensions. At every point in space, there would be the regular complement of four dimensions as well as this underlying aspect of zero dimensions. Every point in the universe would have three dimensions of space and one dimension of time. In addition, each point would also have the underlying nondimensional aspect of the void.
In this situation, the universe would act as if it had two separate layers of reality–one with dimensions and one without. But it would be very difficult to notice the underlying nondimensional realm because our attention would be diverted by so many things in the ordinary world. We notice objects that have dimensions in space and time, but it is nearly impossible to perceive something that is devoid of these qualities. We would not notice “nothing”—unless we happen to be looking for some sort of nothing in the first place. We rarely do this, if only because we are usually so busy dealing with physical reality. But it would still be how things really are.
Every object exists in every possible dimension at every point it occupies. Therefore every object occupies all of the familiar four dimensions as well as the set of zero dimensions. All things that reside in the physical world thus reside equally in the void. Everything exists in the physical world and at the same time in the nonphysical world. A rock or a tree exists in both the physical world and the nonphysical world—that is, the void—at the same time. The same is true of a person. Even an expanse of empty space would occupy both of these worlds.
Because there is no space or time in this dimensionless void, there is nothing to differentiate one thing from another, one place from another, or one time from another. So in the realm of zero dimensions, all things must be experienced as one thing, even though from the perspective of the physical world they appear to be completely separate. Everything that exists in the physical world also exists in the void. And everything that exists in the void exists as one thing. Consequently, everything and everyone has the potential to experience oneness–the state of being at one with all other things.
This underlying void would thus unify all things within our universe. It would even unite us with other universes that we would not normally know about. Since there is no time in the void, it would also unite all times, past, present, and future. Its very lack of time makes it eternal, for in that realm no time exists in which it could possibly cease to be. Once we realize that the ground state of reality may be dimensionless–that reality itself could be based on a dimensionless void–all the rest follows naturally.
In this way, everything is connected to all other things through the eternal and infinite void that is the ground state of reality. The underlying infinite void encompasses all times, all places, and all things. It enables us to experience all things as one thing–to experience the nonpolar connectedness, unity, and oneness described by Eastern religions.
By connecting with the nondimensional basis of reality, we could experience being the rock, being the tree, being the person, and being the expanse of space. We could experience all things together as one thing. We could also experience unification with God as part of this one reality. We would experience omniscience, omnipresence, and eternity. The apprehension of nondimensionality, the perception of the underlying void, the direct perception of true reality, the perception of the world in nonduality–these all describe heaven or nirvana.
As Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven is here right now, within and among us, although we do not readily perceive it. This also describes the underlying nondimensional layer, the primordial void or eternal realm. It is here right now at every point in the universe. If you practice meditation and prayer and if you live a good life through right action and right thought, you may find it. But whether we perceive it or not, it has always been here and will always be here. It is eternal. It existed before the advent of time, and it will still be here when everything in the material universe has disappeared, including time itself.
You can think of this place beyond space and time either as communion with God or as entering a Godlike state in communion with all things. There is, of course, a conceptual difference between these two descriptions, but from the perspective of the void, they are the same. When we find this place that is beyond space and time, we will discover that it is one place and that we are all one entity there–where we are at one with God, the universe, and all things. One thing is simply one thing–all things existing together. There can only be one of these. And whatever that may be, and whatever we may call it, we must certainly all be talking about the same one thing.
Where is this nirvana? It is right here and right now. Where is this heaven? It is among us and within us. To be there is our birthright. It is here for us to claim as our own. But there is no need to “go” somewhere to find it because it exists in all places, wherever we are, and whenever we are. And there is no need to die to get there, although when we die we will realize that we have always been there. Even without our knowing it, the void connects us all. We need only realize that it is present for each of us to enjoy. Whether in our earthly lives or after death, we will surely find our way there. And when we do, we will have found our way home.
Michael Byrne has twenty-five years of writing experience in nonfiction and popular science, and currently works as a technical writer at Pfizer Pharmaceutical Company in Portage, Michigan. He is also the author of several scientific articles. He received a master of science degree from Michigan State University and taught environmental science while codirector of the Horticultural Center at Western Michigan University.