We have ideas about what life should feel like and look like and these ideas guide our behavior. These ideas are not our own; we acquire them from the culture in which we find ourselves. We think that spiritual people are peaceful vegans or celibate monks or scholarly ascetics. And we act accordingly, and our acting never manages to meet the ideal, and so we have to keep going.
In this way, dissatisfaction perpetuates itself. We never get beyond spiritual ideals and concepts. Our living remains haunted – sometimes intensely, sometimes dimly – but always there is a sense that something is missing and that when we find it or reach it then at last we will know the peace that surpasses understanding.
Ideals are like rainbows. They are beautiful and alluring. But we can never reach them. We can walk for miles and never reach the rainbow in the distance. We can hone our behavior for years and never reach the spiritual ideal.
But there is a way out, and that way is simply to see that the spiritual ideal is not the problem but rather a symptom of the problem. And the problem is the belief that we are discrete entities responsible for our survival living in a hostile world. That is, our spiritual quest arises as a response to the belief that we are separate and responsible for our own living. So long as we don’t address the underlying belief, the spiritual search will go on without ever being satisfied.
So what is interesting is to give attention to the underlying belief – the sense that we are separated and individual and personally responsible for what happens. Does this belief hold up to questioning? To scrutiny?
Looking into this belief system – giving attention to it – is an exercise of common sense. It is inherent in us. It is innate to our structure as sentient human beings. Giving attention is natural; we can’t not do it. So we just do it intentionally. We noticing noticing, direct it this way or that, and see what happens as we do.
What is missing? What nags at us, implying that we’d be better off if we acquired this or felt that? Followed this diet or that exercise regimen? Slept with somebody new? Prayed a different prayer? Our natural intelligence and wisdom allows us to notice what is missing and then to keep looking into it. Will being a vegetarian really fulfill us? Will A Course in Miracles really bring to pass what all those other spiritual practices have not? Have those sorts of changes helped in the past?
At some point we might see that because these external changes don’t help, and have never helped except temporarily, that the problem isn’t finding the right external shift in behavior but rather asking a new question. That is, rather than ask what will fill the apparent interior gap or hole, we can ask if that gap or hole is actually there. What is we’re wrong altogether about that? What if we’re not separate?
In other words, what if the problem is the way we are looking at our living, rather than something in the actual living itself? And what if the way to correct this “wrong” seeing is already inherent in us in the form of common sense and natural intelligence?
Saint Teresa of Avila said that every bird knows what God’s will for a wing is. Her wisdom and clarity are breath-taking. God’s will is what comes forth naturally, effortlessly. It’s what is. For example, we don’t have to will a flower into existence in order to admire its beauty or succor bees. We don’t have to will beauty into existence. Or bees. The next breath comes of an accord other than our own.
The deeper we go into this, the more we see that peace and joy and love are brought forth naturally, like bees and birds’ wings and beauty. The less the apparently discrete self does, the more peace and joy and love appear. We can trust that because that is God’s will. And soon enough, we see that we, too, are brought forth in this way. We, too, in the simple essence of our being, our living, are God’s will. Life sustains life; we are the sustained, not the sustainer.
Thus, the problem is not to solve the many apparent problems that arise, but to see the fundamental belief system out of which they arise, and then to question the integrity and coherence of that system. The way we look and question will vary; it might appear scholarly or meditative tone or therapeutic according to the peculiarities of our structure but the basic premise is the same: look and question, look and question. Give attention.
What is a helpful way for us to think about the question of what is real and what is an illusion? What light can direct experience – giving attention to our experience of living – shed on this question?
I remember an ACIM study group many years ago. A woman arrived late and as she prepared to sit down, a chorus of voices cried out “don’t do it! The chair is an illusion!”
Obligatory laughter ensued.
Variations of that joke abound in ACIM and nondual circles. They reflect an awareness of the fact that those spiritual traditions teach students that the objective material world – the one we sense with our bodies – is an illusion.
There is no world! This is the central thought the course attempts to teach (W-pI.132.6:2-3).
In order to get the joke – to be in on it – you have to be aware that this teaching runs directly contrary to our human experience. The joke is funny because we aren’t sure how to navigate this proposed divide between what’s real and what is not.
The suggestion I make in this essay is that denying experience is a form of violence and that there is a better way.
Look again at the proposed or apparent divide. Someone is about to sit down. If the chair is not real, they’re going to fall and hurt themselves. If the chair is real then either we are confused about what our spiritual tradition is teaching us or our spiritual tradition is wrong.
Experience speaks to us clearly and emphatically: here is a chair. It has both form and function. We know what to do with it. It is wholly helpfully integrated into our experience of living in the world.
And then A Course in Miracles comes along and says don’t pay any attention to your senses or your thinking about what those senses are showing you. They don’t have the slightest idea what’s going on.
This becomes a conflict: what do you believe? Your senses that show you a world that is predictable and reliable? Or the spiritual tradition that says there is no world?
If we are only talking about a chair, then maybe it’s not such a big deal. But what if we are talking about people? What if I walk past a homeless person who is cold and hungry and my response is to shrug off her misery because she’s just an illusory appearance in an illusory world?
Or this: if race is an illusion, then racism can’t be a real wrong worth addressing, right?
Intuitively, most of us don’t want to go there. It’s funny to think about a chair being unreal. It’s harder to ignore the suffering of another being. And it’s unloving to think that dismissing an entire class of people is justified because the world and its contents aren’t real.
A lot of folks who get squirmy at this juncture tend to argue that even if the world isn’t materially real, it still has some purpose. It’s a dream, yes, but it’s our dream, and so it’s filled with learning opportunities and other tools by which to awaken.
That is not an unhelpful way to think about the conflict, in the sense that it attempts to resolve it in favor of something practical and helpful. But at the same time, it’s a bit like having our cake and eating it, too. We want to sustain the spiritual tradition of A Course in Miracles– because we’re attached to it, invested in it and so forth – and we also find a way to behave in socially normative and productive ways.
Where this mode becomes problematic is that no matter how we categorize it, and no matter how we try to make it productive, the fundamental premise of denying the world is inherently violent. So we have to give attention to it.
Set aside for a moment what A Course in Miracles says, or what we think it says, or what some teacher says it says. Stay with your direct experience.
Right now – in this moment – what is the nature of that experience? Don’t gussy it up with theory. Don’t quote anybody. It’s just you being you. Nobody is going to be impressed or unimpressed with your answer.
As I write, my children are asleep upstairs. Chrisoula is not asleep but is still in bed reading. The cats are to my right, watching birds a the feeder. I am drinking Greek coffee. Out the window I can see the back yard, raspberry bushes, horse pasture and through a far bare copse of trees the river, on the far bank of which cows graze.
These images are imbued with meaning. They have names, provenances, purposes. Some I like better than others. My brain takes this welter of sensory data and categorizes and organizes in ways that work for the organism. This is the world; this is living in the world. And it includes – naturally and without effort – a sense of intimacy. It is “my” experience; “I” am living it.
Moreover, there is apparently no way out of this intimate subjective experience. Even knowing that there’s more to the world than this coffee, this family, this landscape – a city named Paris, say, or Bob Dylan songs – shows up in this subjective experience.
There is nothing special about seeing this clearly. It is simply a fact available to all of us when we let common sense have its say. Intimate subjectivity is at least in part what it means to be a human observer. This is what it feels like to be you. No more, no less. And no big deal.
Often when I talk to people about this, they want to interject course quotes, biographical details about Ramana Maharshi, the importance of opening your heart chakra, and so forth. I want to do that too, sometimes. There’s nothing wrong with that but none of it undermines – or improves upon – the basic fact that our living and our world all appear within the container of subjective experience.
The suggestion is that we give attention to the rich vibrancy of subjective experience and become familiar with it. Familiar and comfortable.
Seeing this clearly – grounding ourselves in the fact of experience – matters because it is from that foundation that we can begin to explore in a sustainable way what is real and what is illusory or whether those distinctions are helpful in any instance and if so, how. More to the point, we can do so in a way that is coherent, not violent.
Why do I use the word “violent” here?
When someone is having experience X and we call it Y we are doing violence to them. In essence, we are denying them their fundamental right to exist. If someone says “I have cancer” and we say “cancer is an illusion” we invalidate them.
If I go out into the pasture to feed the horses and simultaneously deny that the horses are there, then I am going to make myself insane. Why? Because I am actively denying an experience that is fundamentally present and inviting response. To refuse to respond – or to degrade my response – is to violate (do violence to) that experience.
If you visit my home and I say over and over that you are an illusion, a projection, and not real, then that is a denial of your experience of yourself as real. And it is a denial of my experience of you as real. The violence adheres to us both.
Does that make sense? We cannot simultaneously accept something as real and deny it is real. It hurts too much. It’s a form of lovelessness.
Again, I am not suggesting one analyze this or dress it up. I am simply suggesting one notice the way that the world is here, and the self, and other selves (including dogs, horses, dandelions and so forth), and our living in this world invites response and mutuality, and that denying this hurts.
So that is the basic problem, and again, all that is suggested here is to just see the tension clearly, as an experiential fact, not a big idea about metaphysics or ACIM or what-have-you.
When we see it clearly, one thing that happens is that maybe our inclination to deny experience – to write it off as illusory – subsides a little. Rather than insist this is or isn’t real, we can just let it be what it is. We can give attention to it.
I say that all the time: give attention. The richness of experience – what it is to be you, what you are about – is so vivid and alive it is almost too sweet to bear. This is true! A few weeks ago a bee landed on the clothesline near where I was reading Lorine Niedecker poems. And it was so beautiful, so exquisite – the sounds it make, the color of it, the ideas that it incited about honey and love and the complexity of bee culture and bee bodies . . .
This is what Emily Dickinson was getting at when she wrote I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed.
I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!
Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro’ endless summer days –
From inns of molten Blue –
When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door –
When Butterflies – renounce their “drams” –
I shall but drink the more!
Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats –
And Saints – to windows run –
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun!
This insight is hardly unique to Dickinson. Her genius was not that she experienced life differently than you and I, but rather in her willingness to see it so clearly and then write about it. The “liquor never brewed” is given to all of us; the question is really in our willingness to recognize it and to sustain the recognition.
Again, no arguments are being made here about truth is. No metaphysics are being discussed. We are just looking clearly into our experience, seeing its nature, and letting it be what it is.
And as we experience it – as we sip those heavenly drams – we can begin to sense perhaps the way in which denying those drams, refusing that tankard, is a fruitless exercise at best, and a harmful one at worst.
Thus the way clears to bring forth love. And that is the why and the how of our living in the world.
What do we mean when we say “oneness?” When we use that word in a spiritual context, to what does it point? How do we expect folks with whom we are in dialogue to hear and understand that word? How do we want them to hear and understand it?
Really, those questions are variants of this one: what is your understanding of that word? If you have had an experience to which that word applies, what was the experience? Why “oneness” and not some other word, like “awakening” or “enlightenment?”
If you have not had an experience to which oneness applies, then to what future experience or state does the word apply? Why do you call that state oneness? Might another word work as well or even better? Or no words at all? Is that even possible? Can something exist that language cannot describe or name or otherwise reach?
And whatever your understanding and relationship to “oneness,” from where did this understanding/relationship come? What person or text or texts gave it to you? Where did they get it? What lexicon? What tradition? And where did that lexicon/tradition get it? How far back can we go? What happens in those deep recesses of the history of human observers observing?
This is a trickier exercise than we might realize. Our understanding of abstract concepts (like oneness or justice or love, say) tend to differ from the understanding of others. A yoga instructor from Brooklyn, a Trappist monk in Kentucky, a physicist at U.C. Berkeley and a student of Rupert Spira in Wales are all familiar with “oneness” but if we graphed their understandings, they would be significantly, even wildly, divergent.
That’s not a problem, by the way. It’s a feature of human language and cognition manifest in spiritual and religious contexts. It’s simply what happens. But it’s not all that happens. We also start subtly believing that our vision is the vision, rendering those other visions and the folks who adhere to them “wrong” or “bad” or “evil” . . .
That kind of thinking affects our behavior and that behavior can cause conflict on a scale ranging from mild annoyance to bullying to genocide.
Thus, questions of coherence and dialogue in a spiritual or religious context are nontrivial and deserve the gift of our attention. Hence this essay: what are we saying when we say “oneness?”
It seems that what is good for a fox is not good for a chicken and vice-versa. Safe chickens mean starving foxes because foxes murder chickens. Justice to a chicken is a dead or otherwise stifled fox. But chickens murder worms and bugs all the time. Are foxes allies to bugs in the war against chickens? And don’t foxes have a right to live, too?
What is justice? What is fair? Who will say? How will we know?
There are many valid questions and moving parts – there is complexity – in coming to an agreement about what a word (justice, fair, oneness, love) means. Meaning is not fixed so much as a process that is open-ended and ongoing. What you and I agree is justice will probably sound quaint and possibly barbaric to folks a thousand years hence.
You might say, well, meaning depends on the context. I wouldn’t disagree. But I would point out that if a word changes depending on context, then its meaning isn’t really one that can be “right” or “wrong” in an absolute sense. The absence of “right” and “wrong” means there is nothing to defend and so nothing to attack.
But most of us don’t believe that. We believe in right and wrong. So we attack and defend. The question is whether this is a constructive way to live.
A number of significant folks in my living are devout and disciplined Buddhists. Is their understanding of “oneness” more or less “right” than the understanding of my father, who was a devout and disciplined Catholic deacon? Was Dad’s understanding better than his son’s, which is grounded in a sort of new-age Christian quasi-scientific melange?
In some domains, like justice, say, humans basically aim for as much consent as possible and make a decision accordingly. For example, we define limited exceptions under which one person may kill another person and, when those exceptions are violated, apply consensual penalties. I stipulate that it’s a far from perfect system, but it is more functional than no system at all.
Can we do that with oneness? Get some general agreement, sketch a broadly-defined thesis, and apply it?
And yet, oneness has been a spiritual ideal for me since my late teens when somebody gave me The Gospel According to Zen by Robert Sohl and I suddenly realized that my Catholic practice and understanding was merely a way of looking at the world, not the way of looking at it, and that other ways might be just as effective, and – critically – that there were probably other filters of which I was unaware.
Oneness has always owned an intuitive appeal, not least because I – like you probably – already think of myself as an individual, as “a one” if not “the one.” This belief inheres in human observers. Here is how A Course in Miracles frames it.
The ego’s goal is quite explicitly ego autonomy. From the beginning, then, its purpose is to be separate, sufficient unto itself and independent of any power except its own (T-11.V.4:4-5).
Thus, any body which the ego claims as its own, “becomes the central figure in the dreaming of the world” (T-27.VIII.1:1).
There is no dream without it, nor does it exist without the dream in which it acts as if it were a person to be seen and be believed . . . The dreaming of the world takes many forms, because the body seeks in many ways to prove it is autonomous and real (T-27.VIII.1:2, 2:1).
One of the things that has slowly clarified for me in the past ten years – coming somewhat to a lovely, sustainable and ongoing fruition in Cambridge last year – is that the whole, as such, is closed to human observers, and so the best we can do is be as kind and helpful as possible (as happy as possible) within the confines of the experience that we are having. The balance – the ethics, the theology, the metaphysics, et cetera – are naturally addressed when our focus is on happiness.
After that, a lot of the pressure to be right or to get something or achieve something, more or less vanished. You could think of it in terms of the old Zen story: suddenly chopping wood and carrying water was just chopping wood and carrying water and it was okay. It didn’t need to be anything else; indeed, it couldn’t be anything else. Seeing that clearly meant accepting it, and accepting it meant a degree of peace that is remarkably fertile. Life goes on.
Thus, I am far less interested than I once was in hearing what folks think Nisargadatta meant by “oneness” or “the whole”, or what Sri Ramana meant or Krishnamurti or Tara Singh. Nor do I believe that any insights I claim are special or unique.
What is helpful is shifting our focus from the other – the priest, the guru, the author, the savior, the enlightened one – to what we mean by oneness. It is helpful to go very deeply into that and see what happens.
And nobody can do that for us. It is, in a sense, a lonesome valley we are called to walk on our own.
As I have pointed out (because it’s not an especially difficult insight to attain), oneness is more the case than not. Nonduality is a better description and explanation than dualism. But saying so doesn’t make it so and can sometimes even obscure it. So we have to be careful. We have to go slowly.
This summer I have been infatuated with flowers. I am always infatuated with color, especially when it is fleeting (this is one aspect of my obsession with prisms). When I look at a flower, what is going on? Where does the flower begin and Sean end? Is the flower I see an external object or is it merely an image in my brain? Or both? Or something else altogether?
Smart and thoughtful people have made cogent arguments for all those options!
So I set them aside. I don’t want to argue with smart biologists and physicists and neuroscientists. I am neither well-read enough, nor well-educated enough, to do more than listen anyway. So my approach is simply to try and understand what it going on here, in my experience, as it happens.
Is the flower separate from the soil in which it grows? From the water it consumes? The sunlight in which it is nourished? Are the eyes with which I see it separate from the image? Is the body to which the image appears itself an image?
The sun is burning out, right? In five billion years it will be gone. Yet if I look at the sun – if I consider it over the span of my life and my children’s lives and their children’s lives – it is very stable and durable. I can’t perceive the instability even though I know it’s there. I can grasp the idea in a very abstract sense, but I cannot actually perceive it, the way I can perceive a maple leaf turning or a tide rolling out.
Human observers – you and I – are bounded. We can’t breathe in the absence of oxygen. We don’t have wings. We’re relatively smart – we can built things to enable us to breathe underwater or fly across the ocean. We can build computers to do math we can’t do in our own heads. But the perceptual and cognitive limits are still there. We can expand them but not infinitely.
So the suggestion is that perhaps the concept of oneness points to something that we cannot actually perceive. We can be very peaceful and content and happy, and it is my wish that all life attain that state, but is that oneness?
Often when we say “one” or “oneness” what we mean is a set of one, and we are that set. But another way of thinking about oneness is that it is a state of equilibrium. You could imagine many guitar strings resonating harmoniously and thus making one chord.
Jimi Hendrix wanted to bring hundreds of people together will a bunch of musical instruments. Didn’t matter whether they knew how to play them or had musical training or not. Just get everyone together, give them an instrument, and start them playing. At first it would be dissonant and chaotic. But Hendrix believed that after a sufficiency of time, something beautiful and harmonious would emerge, because that was the nature of humans being together and creating together. We listen: we collaborate: we synchronize: we harmonize.
Humberto Maturana characterized this harmony as an “unexpected turn in an always / recursive dancing dance.”
Empty seems human life to be!
Yes! . . . Or rich, in the fullness
of an always changing present
of eating, playing, and kissing.
Perhaps unity is not the single body joined with others in a set of single bodies all together but rather the harmonious being that arises from those bodies in the bringing forth of love, without regard to their spatial and temporal distribution. If we look at it that way, instead of the way we are conditioned to look at it, what happens?
Salvation is a secret you have kept but from yourself. The universe proclaims it so . . . How differently you will perceive the world when this is recognized! (T-27.VIII.12:4-5, 13:1)
I speak merely to a way of living – of bringing forth love – that has been helpful for me. It is to go deeply into the questions that naturally arise as one investigates what it means to be a self among other selves in a world that seems unduly complex and conflicted. There are answers! And there is a way to live in those answer such that problems as such do not arise as obstacles but as opportunities to love, and so what remains is what always was which is love.
If we study nonduality – through the lens of A Course in Miracles, say – because we believe it’s right or true, or more right and more true than some other spiritual concept – then we are likely to end up disappointed. Nondual spiritual practice may be helpful according to the context in which we find ourselves, and that helpfulness may appear to be “right” and “true” (indeed, it sort of has to appear that way) but it’s still just an appearance.
I am saying something like this: there are many ways to get to Boston, and no one of them is “right” or “true.” They all work and are all helpful according to the one making use of them. Some people walk; some take a bus. Some people need maps, some are okay with trial and error.
You want to find the way that is most helpful in terms of getting you to Boston.
You don’t want confuse the way that is most effective for you with the “best” or “most right” or “truest” way. You want to be wary of defending your preferred way, of trying to force it on others, or of otherwise judging others’ choices. That’s a distraction that either slows you considerably or sends you down some pretty gnarly side roads that eventually dead-end.
And you really really don’t want to confuse your “way” with “Boston” itself. That delusion can mess one up for lifetimes, apparently.
The Boston analogy can be confusing because in fact our authentic spiritual practice – if one wants to call it that – isn’t actually leading us anywhere. It’s more in the nature of spit-polishing the window we already are and, in the process, reminding us that we are, in fact, windows – not landscapes, not houses, not dwellers in houses nor walkers through landscapes.
I first saw this in a clear and sustainable way in Cambridge, Massachusetts last year. There were several glimpses before but they were dramatic and self-inflating. They felt like special moments that belonged to me and nobody else. I was elated, enlightened, amazed, with the focus ever on the “I” to whom the experience seemed to be happening.
(That, by the way, is a variation of confusing one’s mode of travel for the destination).
In Cambridge I saw that the self isn’t really a discrete stable object but is more akin to (but not precisely being) an information loop – many such loops, actually, seamlessly intersecting – and that those loops extend through the body into the world (and its other bodies), the whole of which is also comprised of loops, all shimmering, unified and radically equal – and that this loopiness (which I have most effectively described as eddies in a brook), this oneness, appears simply as this life of this human observer: it is this. This this.
And it still is this.
By “clear” I mean that intellectual understanding was integrated with embodied awareness. There wasn’t an “understanding” of “something out there.” The something and the understanding were patterns in the same sea. The separation of physical / spiritual disintegrated (the one not privileging the other). You could say – adopting a Christian or ACIM motif – that Heaven wasn’t elsewhere, temporally or spatially. It was simply this.
And by “sustainable” I mean that the insight didn’t disappear after a few minutes. It didn’t run down the drain of the ego. It was more like riding a bike. At first you only get the thrill of balancing for a few yards here and there. It’s wobbly and frustrating. But then all of a sudden the whole experience comes together and you are riding a bike. And you can’t ever go back to not being able to ride again.
Often, in A Course in Miracles discussion groups and similar dialogue circles, folks will talk about how the body and the world are illusory. There is textual support for this position, of course (e.g., W-pI.132.6:2; W-pI.199.8:7-8). It has a certain appeal; it probably always will.
But it is more accurate to say that our relationship with the body and the world is illusory. The body, as such, isn’t so important. Nor is the world. It’s our identification and alliance with them as something fundamental that matters. That’s where the confusion – and the illusion – lie.
The body is more like a pair of glasses than vision or eyes. It helps see but it doesn’t bring seer, sight or seen into existence. And the world is more like a user interface than an actual external environment. It’s useful, not truthful.
If we pretend the world and the body are illusions – like mirages or a stage magician sawing somebody’s legs off – then we are deceiving our self. The body and the world are very practical and have their place. Don’t worry so much about bodies. They actually take care of themselves very nicely. Same with the world. Let it show you what it was made to show you, in the very way that it shows you.
That said, it is helpful to investigate – by whatever means are most resonant and helpful – the apparent discrete self. Who are you? What are you? These are nontrivial questions that underlie the whole religious/spiritual program that human observers have been working on for thousands and thousands of years now. There are lots of helpful curriculums and teachers, new and old. And somewhere out there are students and teachers who need your presence and insight.
For me, after Cambridge, the work was simply to keep reading and thinking and sharing about all this material, and to see what happens. I am not so concerned about the outcome of the work, per se. Strictly speaking, there are no outcomes. Just loops – loopiness – coming and going. I use the phrase “give attention” to describe what I loosely think of as a spiritual practice. There are no secrets and no mysteries, which is not to say that there’s nothing to learn. Or to remember. But the stakes are not at all what we feared they were.
One has the sense that there is a kind of permanent presence – a unified whole – that attends this experience of existing. Before anything occurs – any seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching – there is this awareness, this boundless flow in and to which all phenomena and sensation appear.
In contemporary nondual traditions that include A Course in Miracles this is often named “awareness” or “consciousness” and we are told that “we are that.” It is the great “I Am.”
For example, here are a few lines from one of Nisargadatta’s talks that are generally consistent with this theme.
Give attention to how this “I Amness” has appeared – then you will know. Accept this identification only: that you are this manifest pure beingness, the very soul of the universe, of this life that you observe, and presently you are just wearing this bodily attire.
Robert Adams, a devotee of Ramana, often shared with his students an essay he wrote entitled Confessions of Jnani, which included the following paragraph.
I am infinite, imperishable, Self-luminous, Self-existent, I am without beginning or end, I am birthless, deathless, without change or decay. I permeate and interpenetrate all things. In the myriad universes of thought and creation, I Alone Am.
I am not insisting that Nisargadatta and Adams were confused. I am asking if reading their work as if they were confused is at least as valid as reading it as if they were clear and correct.
Clearly both men came to an insight about identity that was premised on the enduring nature of the experience of “I am,” which they did not associate with temporal material processes. And one can understand that! When we make contact with this “I am,” it feels and seems both infinite and eternal.
But the way a thing feels or seems may not be the way it actually is, right? If I hold up my hand I can neatly blot the distant hill from my field of vision, but my hand is not larger than the hill. It just looks that way, given the physics and biology involved.
In the middle of a moonless night when I go out to see the horses, they appear faint and hazy, even up close. They are not actually spectral quadrupeds – it is simply how they look given the physics and biology involved.
The question is: can we extend this fact to our experience of “I Am?” Can this sense of “I Am” which Nisargadatta and Adams (and countless folks in that contemporary advaitic tradition, broadly defined), simply be how it feels to be a human observer?
What if “I am” is explicable not in grandiose spiritual terms but rather in physics and biology? This is just what it sometimes feels like to be a human observer – with these specifically human perceptual and cognitive abilities? It’s just what it is – no more and no less. This – this this.
That would strip the “I am” experience of its spiritual gloss, wouldn’t it? It would take God and Christ and Samadhi and the Buddha right out of the equation . . .
Experience is a continous whole that functions as a perspective. Experience provides an observer with a lot of phenomena – mental, emotional, physical – to observe. It owns the curious apparent paradox that it consists entirely of change and yet itself never changes.
There are ways to experience this change-that-never-changes. You might consider experience as a kind of container: everything that occurs, from the passage of ants in the garden to the ideas in your head to the moon in the sky, are contained by experience.
In this mode, you might give attention to experience: can you find anything that is not contained in it? Doesn’t everything show up in experience?
Upon perceiving this awareness in which and to which all appears – we might begin to explore the container itself. What, if anything, do we find? What does it feel like to find it? Or to not find it? Or are those misguided questions?
I do not disparage those exercises and others like them. It is important to make sustained contact with the subjective nature of experience, and the way it feels so utterly infinitely whole.
I also want to be careful about the conclusions that I draw from that experience.
The experience we have is the experience of a human observer. There is some variety built into this but in a general way it is isomorphic across the species. Importantly, we want to be clear that other observers bring forth different worlds – different cosmos – in their observation. If you and a butterfly look at a flower, you see two different objects. If you and an ant look at the sky, you see two vastly different ceilings. Who is right? And since the obvious answer is that both are right according to the particular observer they are, then can we actually draw objective conclusions about the flower or the sky?
We really are constrained from drawing conclusions, including those that sound like “there is only this” or “I am that.” The very fact of our existence as human observers means that while we can make educated guesses and estimate probabilities and so forth, and can manage varying degrees of confidence in our scholarship, the whole – at least as we have long understood it in spiritual terms – is foreclosed to us.
Seeing this clearly is often experienced as painful, especially if it arrives after we’ve had the shallow enlightenment experience of “there is only this” and “I am it” et cetera. Again, I don’t disparage those experiences or insights. They are part of the overall human experience, and they are helpful in their way. They are even delightful in their way. It is simply that we tend to be confused by them, to objectify and cling to them through the form of adoration, worship and so forth. They can subtly be cherished as accomplishments, evidence of spiritual growth, and so forth.
Really, “this is it” and “I am that” are simply ways of expressing what it feels like sometimes to be a human observer. If those phrases are helpful in terms of making us gentler, kinder, slower to judge, more helpful, less argumentative and so forth, then great. But they aren’t dispositive. They don’t end the inquiry. They are more in the nature of a sign than that which is being pointed at. That is, they’re like the sign that says “river,” rather than the river itself.
If we want the river, then we have to allow for the limitations imposed on us by virtue of being human observers. We get AN experience, not THE experience. It’s not even THE experience relative to other humans. Lots of people are happy, insightful, peaceful, helpful, generous and kind without ever having to resort to nondualism or Christianity or pop psychology.
Right now, this is how it is happening for us – this this – which is okay because it is a way of being human. It is one filter among many, all of which can be misused, confused, abused and so forth. All of which can be helpful and productive, too.
The work really is to go slower in terms of concluding. That is, we want to just let life be what it is without rushing to decide what it is or what it should be. That is a real practice! It takes time, energy, attention, commitment. Becoming the loving being that we naturally are is the work of the one life we are living.
Part of what I am saying is that a human observer is essentially a perspective, A way of seeing rather than THE way of seeing. If I am sitting by the river I am not mucking the horse pasture. I am weeding the strawberries I am not writing poetry under the apple tree. If I am gazing at a sky full of stars I am not gazing a mushrooms in the compost.
At any moment, the observation of which you are comprised is both local and partial. At the sensorimotor level it includes whatever data is allowed by the intersection of the local environment with the particular organism. At the cognitive level, it includes your vast knowing predicated on all the years of your learning to be the particular human observer you are.
For example, my perspective on cows includes my father’s relationship with cows, which was complex and lifelong, and my own history with cows, which cannot be disentangled from my father. Nobody can experience cows the way I experience cows, and I will never experience a cow apart from the specific way that I experience cows.
Right now I am writing on the back porch while it rains. The sky is soft gray like the belly of a trout. The lilac is just beginning to bloom. The grass is rich and green, like the first time I flew over Ireland. The neighbor’s sheep are bawling. I am thinking about what one does when faced with disagreement, with a particular focus on some of Hugh Gash’s ideas about spirituality in a constructivist context.
That’s Sean – or was Sean, a couple of hours ago. Who are you?
If we can see the way our observing constitutes a perspective that is biological, mental, psychological, spiritual and so forth, then we can perhaps begin to also see how this is true for all observers. You are a perspective. Your neighbor is a perspective. Robins in the backyard are a perspective. A bee is a perspective. The lilac is a perspective.
The significance of this is that it loosens our stranglehold on truth or reality. It eases up our conviction that there is a 1:1 correspondence between our experience as observers and an external cosmos. There isn’t the Way, the Truth, and the Life. There are many ways and many truths constituting many expressions of Life. This is disconcerting at first, given our particular investment in being special separate selves, but as we come back to it over and over, its potential for peace becomes clear.
If there are only many perspectives – as opposed to a singular truth that can be known – then we don’t need to argue as much. Disagreements arise but they needn’t devolve into estrangement or worse. Of course someone has a different view than us. They also have a pair of feet that aren’t ours. Are we going to get bent out of shape over that, too?
So we relax a little and see a way in which to build a world in which it is easier for people to be good, forgiving, gentle, patient. A world in which it is easier to be loving. And we can build it together. That is the real work of being human – to build together a world in love.
Too often, we perceive differences as signals to defend ourselves or prove others wrong. It becomes a way of deciding who is valuable and deserving and who is not as worthy. That is a world in which love is constrained and denied its full expression.
When we appreciate that differences arise naturally as a fundament of the human observer, then some space opens up in which we are quieter, gentler, kinder and more nurturing. After all, this other could be me. To see that clearly is love. To let it be is love.
Perhaps we might consider the difference between oneness and one, and see the way the observing organism has a tendency to translate the former into the latter, and then to forget its translation, and – inevitably – defend against any effort to instigate remembering.
(The fragment longs to be whole. The human desires union – sexual, dialogic, communal, spiritual. Poetically, the jagged shard dreams of the clay pot of which it was once a part. Yet, any return to that state necessarily ends the fragment’s discrete existence. And any “whole” that subsequently emerges will have seams and cracks that recall its fragmentation).
How can we think about this? And how can our thinking inform our living?
First, we can say that “oneness” reflects a state of equilibrium. Picture a town hall full of citizens carefully listening to a speaker make the case for passage of a certain article, or a church in which the faithful attend the deacon’s homily. All are present, all are giving attention, all are committed to the shared nature of the experience, observing the rules which facilitate mutuality.
We might say that this state or condition of mutual attendance is one of harmony, in which the part neither regrets its “a-partness,” in the sense of needing to solve or amend or undo it, nor longs to aggrandize any apparent whole. That is, the citizen or church-goer is neither wishing they were elsewhere or otherwise (regretting their apparent separation) nor trying to colonize the shared experience in order to possess it as her “own.”
Yet obviously that regret and that colonization happen. Why? How? How does the simple harmony of “oneness” become the rude invader named “one?”
Here we might consider that “one” is a set. It is a bounded unit that includes itself and, by definition, excludes others. If we look again at the image of the town hall or the church, the “oneness” is composed of parts that are balanced. Yet any one part can take “oneness” and declare it “mine.” Our sensorimotor subjectivity allows for just this way of being. Separation is easy to perceive and, once seen, easy to identify with and, once identified with, easy to defend (including through aggression).
Can you see this in your own experience? The way you can be a singular you? Pitted against the world? Can you feel the sense of fear and guilt that naturally correspond to this separation? Can you see what you have done account of this fear and guilt? Can you imagine what you would do? Or could do, if pushed just so?
And can you see how if you shift your attention, even a little, this experience of “one” merges into something less threatening? It is happening right now – in this shared experience of language. You reading what another wrote, and understanding it, and responding to it, in whatever way – slight, dramatic, affirmative, doubtful – you respond.
It is always the other who reminds us of wholeness, and who makes our return possible.
Each person has a responsibility to love one another – to look upon his fellow man only as God created him – because he has discovered there is no difference between himself and his brother.
This responsibility is yours.
To accept that responsibility
will transform your life
(Tara Singh The Future of Mankind 156)
In essence, I suggest a delicate dance. Any human observer can experience herself as singular and discrete. Her subjective experience allows her to claim oneness as “hers.” “We” peacefully coexisting is translated into one with boundaries that need defending.
Yet at any time, one can instead give attention to oneness. Most of our spiritual discipline – those of us in the tradition of A Course in Miracles and other contemporary expressions of oneness – can be understood as perceiving oneness rather than one. If you look for harmony, it will show itself. But this looking – this giving of attention – needs to be liberated from ideas of what oneness looks like, feels like, acts like, et cetera. All of that are weapons in the war of the one. Beat them into plowshares, if you will.
We overlook oneness because we see instead our presumptions about oneness. That is, rather than experience a state of equilibrium (which requires the other), we look for a personal experience that is our own – that we have, possess, commodify, et cetera. Either is possible but given a choice, why insist on pain?
When I say – as I sometimes do – “this this,” I am simply observing that we cannot simultaneously stand with both feet in the river and both feet on the bank. We cannot simultaneously be on the trail to the summit and on the summit. Our capitalist culture will sell any insight, which can appear to cheapen it, but “be here now” is truly good advice, and giving attention to it as a practice is really all one needs to do.
Thus, through the gift of attention, “one” remembers “oneness,” which includes the other, who is “not-one.” Here it is helpful to remember that “the other” does not experience herself as “other” but as “one.” And that “one” experiences us as “other.” What we call “love” is really just the realization that everything we say and do in our living is being done to, with and through others each of whom could be our own self. This realization restores awareness of equilibrium and ends the observing organism’s “detour into fear” (T-2.I.2:1).
Or so one says on a cloudy morning, writing in a reconfigured hayloft, for others one has never met, and yet meets in the sweet fields of language, which are always Love spilling and sealing the seams of us.
The situation that confronts us – to which a spiritual experience of nonduality is apparently a possible answer – is an old one. How do we know what is real? Or true?
Thousands of years ago, Xenophanes of Colophon pointed out that even if someone happened to acquire perfect knowledge of the one true world, they would never know they had done so. Why? Because in order to verify the truth of knowledge about the world, one has to compare their knowledge to the world, and we only have access to the world through our knowing.
In other words, we can never step outside of experience in order to verify that which gives rise to experience.
You can look into this for yourself. Pick a nearby object – a cup of tea, a flower, a sleepy cat. Prove that your perception of it is true – that there really is a cat “out there,” independent of your perception of it.
Every move you make to ascertain the object’s independent existence must occur within the realm of your subjective experience. You cannot ever get outside of it.
Thus, while you can surely testify that something is going on, and you can be a witness as to the nature of that something’s appearance, you cannot verify its independent existence.
How you respond to this fact determines the nature and extent of your happiness and helpfulness.
The suggestion I make is to see that this experience is simply inherent in human observers. Our perceptual and cognitive capacities operate within a given range and produce this experience. One of the aspects of this experience is that it appears dualistic but can be conceived of – on better than decent evidence, by the way – as nondualistic.
And the further suggestion I make is that this is no big deal. It’s not a spiritual mystery. It’s not a problem to be solved. It’s not a secret divulged only to the worthy. It’s merely an aspect of human experience of which it is helpful to be aware, because awareness of it tends to nurture kindness, gentleness, generosity, et cetera, which in turn nurture happiness, our own and everybody else’s.
Of course, there are other ways to frame this insight. Consider Sailor Bob Adamson, who I think is one of the clearer and more reasonable neo-advaitic teachers out there.
If you are seeking truth, reality, God or whatever you like to call it, I suggest that you start with the only reality you are absolutely certain of – that is, the fact of your own being . . . That knowing is constantly and ever with us . . .
Like most contemporary nondual traditions and teachers, Adamson points out that it is our belief in the self – the “me” or the “I” – that gives rise to literally all our problems.
Because of that enormous belief (in a ‘me’) there is this so-called human suffering. It is only a ‘me’ that can be fearful. It is only a ‘me’ that can be anxious. It is only this ‘me’ that can be angry or full of self-pity or anxiety . . . See that the ‘me’ is the cause of all my problems.
This is similar to the observation in A Course in Miracles that our one problem is our belief in separation, and once we’re clear that it’s not actually a problem, then we will realize that we have no problems and so must be at peace.
If you are willing to recognize your problems, you will recognize that you have no problems. Your one central problem has been answered, and you have no other. Therefore, you must be at peace. Salvation thus depends on recognizing this one problem, and understanding that it has been solved. One problem, one solution. Salvation is accomplished. Freedom from conflict has been given you (W-pI.80.1:1-7).
I appreciate what these teachers and traditions say. My own sense is that the way it is said can sometimes can confuse students by instilling in them a sense that a problem-free existence is possible and represents a pinnacle of spiritual wisdom. We end up chasing yet another metaphorical wild goose, when the point was to just settle down.
When we see the self for what it is – basically a recursive loop – what happen is not that problems disappear but rather that they are perceived from a new perspective. They are just happening rather than happening “to me.” Suffering in the personal sense abates. But still, if you get a cold, expect a runny nose. If you don’t get enough sleep, expect fatigue and crankiness. Just don’t expect to be so attached to the experience of fatigue or illness as “yours.”
Really, what changes is not so much the experience itself but our resistance to the experience. When you know that everything is coming and going, then the apparently isolated instances, good and bad, stop mattering so much. The need to intervene – to improve, amend, block, avoid, clutch – stops being so intense. Sometimes it rains and sometimes it doesn’t.
This state of clarity about self and the corresponding nonresistance to experience is desirable. It makes us happy and we want to be happy, at peace, et cetera. Don’t feel guilty for having this goal. It’s part of being human.
More to the point, it’s attainable. Lots of folks reach this state of inner peace, achieve fluency and efficiency with it, and are able to pass it on. Only some of those folks do so from a spiritual or religious perspective. There are many trails to the summit!
If you want an apple, walk to the orchard and pick an apple. It is not a spiritual crisis and religion does not have a monopoly on orchard maps. By all means, pray and sing hosannas as you go, but don’t confuse your hymns and prayers for walking. Don’t confuse them with the orchard. And don’t confuse them with apples.
Happiness is inherent in the human observer because we are loving animals. Remove – through clarification, contemplation and service – that which obstructs love, and love will be what remains. Happiness will be what remains.
The surest way to do this is to make others happy. Devote yourself to service and to the extent you’re worried about self-improvement, try to improve those aspects of your being that make you more helpful to others. When you do, you will discover another old truth: only by giving love away will you know love.
Yet ask: where does an object go and what does it do when it is not appearing in the unified flow of subjective experience?
When we look into nonduality – conceptually, experientially, poetically, et cetera – one of the first insights is that Being presents itself as unified to a center that is stable.
There are no gaps in experience and you are always present unto it.
For some reason, this is not instantly clear to everyone. It can take a while – giving attention, studying, practicing – to become aware of it. And then, after one has become aware of it, there seems to be a tendency to become fundamental and conservative with respect to it. That is, we consider it THE answer and protect it accordingly.
That is a simplification, of course. Lots of folks who make contact with the felt sense of unified subjective experience go on with great subtlety and care. Lots of folks recognize it as the beginning of a dialogue, rather than the solution to a problem or a mystery.
Imagine you are climbing a mountain. With great effort and skill you claw your way to the summit and . . . discover that you have reached the base at which you began. You have executed a loop rather than an ascension. You thought you were going in a line – making progress, improving, advancing, closing in on a goal – and instead you were going in a circle.
Perhaps “awakening” as such is like that. One realizes the loop. The nature of the loop is that it does not have a beginning or an end. Even calling it “the loop” betrays an intention to declare the inquiry into ongoingness over. Errors abound! For there are no mountains, no Buddhas, no angels, and no sacred texts. There isn’t even an altar on which to declare the Loop a God.
What I am calling the “Loop” here, others might call a “self.” Yet others might call it “Christ Mind.” Or “Present Moment Awareness.” Or “I Am that I Am.”
The name is not the thing that is named. But naming things is helpful because it allows us to communicate – to be in dialogue, as I like to say – and we do want to be in dialogue. We very much desire sharing. It is almost like the other exists in order that we might be known unto them, as if the collective were an infinite sea of longing forever meeting itself in salty undulation.
Give attention to this desire, this longing. What does it want? How does it make itself clear? Is it separate from what it wants? What, if anything, can you find beyond the specific objects to which it is directed – the desire for this person, this school of thought, this activity, this tradition?
At the beginning of this post (this post), I asked where objects are and what they do when they do not appear in the present unified flow of subjective experience. Maple trees, Ursa Major, the small of your lover’s back . . .
Notice that in order to ask that question, I have presupposed the existence of space and time (i.e., things wait somewhere). What is the relationship between desire and this presupposition? Is the one possible without the other? Does the one owe the other its existence? Does the one want the other?
In the spirit of dialogue, I offer a final thought with respect to those – possibly unanswerable but certainly fun and interesting – questions.
There is in experience a sense of order, and this order appears to be purposeful. Without it, I cannot bake bread, throw a baseball with my son, muck a pasture with my daughters, walk with Chrisoula through the village, or even write this sentence.
It is almost as if, in the absence of order, love would have no means to know itself or show itself.