Are we One or are we Separate?

Are we one? Or are we separate?

I used to think that these were important questions and that one could be either right or wrong with respect to them. I still they are important questions, mostly because of their potential to prompt helpful dialogues that in turn can clarify our thinking about life and self and others and so forth.

But I am less invested in being right or wrong about them. It’s not that I don’t think folks can’t be confused, but that more and more it’s clear that people are just where they are with this material and all you can do is give attention and not be a jerk. There’s always something new to learn.

chickens at the barn door
chickens at the barn door

So this post is not an argument but more of a chance to point out a basic way in which we perhaps are one. It is relatively straightforward and uncontroversial, I hope.

That “way” is the medium of language. But before we talk about that, we need to digress for a moment into food.

In general, we experience life in terms of an apparent subjective unity that is called the self. For example, hunger shows up in this body and this body has to eat in order to ameliorate that hunger. Moreover, my embodied thoughts and actions (I’m hungry, I should make a sandwich, the bread’s in the cupboard) are what ensure that food goes from “out there” to “in here.”

If I’m hungry and I feed you, then maybe I’ve done a good deed and you’re grateful but I’ll still be hungry. If I’m hungry and instead of preparing a meal I write a poem about a meal, then I’ve maybe made some good art but I’m still hungry.

We could take it a step further. We could say that I subjectively experience preferences for certain kinds of food – fried clams, vanilla rice pudding, lemon bread, tomato and onion salad with feta, kale smoothies. You might share some of those preferences but you also have your own, some of which would nauseate me. After all, there are people in the world who actually crave blood sausage.

And dropping down yet another layer, I have specific memories and stories associated with food that are very much not yours. For example, home-baked bread is so intimate for me that I literally cannot explain why without crying. It’s a whole story involving four generations of women, an Irish Setter named Bridget, sex, a secret obsession with reading cookbooks as a child, and a meditation workshop I took at the Vermont Zen Center in late winter of 1991. Oh, and also a maroon poncho.

Lots of people love bread, bake their own bread, have memories of how they came to the joy and work of bread-baking, and that love and labor and remembering may comprise moving and complex narratives but I am quite confident that they do not replicate mine.

All of this is just to show a way in which we are clearly undeniably separate and it’s no big deal. I have to feed myself, not you, when I am hungry. My food preferences and your food preferences are different in varying ways. And my deep-rooted history of food informs a relationship with eating and cooking that is distinctly “mine” and not yours.

Is that clear? We are having this subjective experience and not another one. Others are having other ones. We’re having this one.

But as I said earlier, there is a way in which this very singular subjective experience – this “my” experience that “I” have – is perhaps not the whole story. That is, there are ways in which the apparently obvious and undeniable borders that separate us from one another and the world actually blur and become less definitive.

One way to see this is to think a little about language. You and I have a shared language here, right? It is English. But more than that, it is also English at a certain level of sophistication – a five-year-old would struggle with this essay. A PhD candidate would not.

Also our shared language here includes some abstract concepts – self, language, hunger, stories, sex, right, wrong, oneness. I didn’t have to explain or define any of those words to you; you got them already. They are probably in part why you’re here.

And dropping down yet another layer, all of those concepts and the basic building blocks through which they are expressed (words, sentences, paragraphs, supporting examples, et cetera) together constitute a kind of broad spiritual inquiry, the terms and conditions of which are also effectively implied. Up to now, I haven’t said a word about them.

That language – in all its richness and depth – isn’t just in my head and it isn’t just in yours: it’s shared. It’s mutual. It’s true that the act of Sean writing and you reading are separate acts but they are also co-dependent and thus together constitute an act of communication, of sharing meaning, of caring enough – about the human condition, locally and otherwise – to do so.

And, essential to our understanding, that constituted act yields effects. Subtle effects to be sure, but effects nonetheless. Our ideas change, our behavior changes, our relationships change . . . subtly, subtly but still. There are actual effects.

One way to to think of it is to imagine that this communication (this writing and reading and all it entails) is a kind of pattern in the pattern that is Sean which spins off and becomes a kind of pattern in the pattern that you are.

This patterning did not begin with me. Nor does it end with you. It is more accurate to think of it as a continuation or extension – a subtle modification – of something preexisting, ongoing. This particular language pattern you are reading is a distillation – a kind of collage – of the many language patterns that I’ve read, each of which was an act of communication with someone else. Some of those influences are obvious, others not so much. Some are so subtle that I don’t even remember them.

But they are there, and they effect me, and in that sense, those writers and I are one. We are ripples partaking of the same pool of water.

I don’t mean this metaphorically. I mean this literally.

the sky through a diamond-shaped hole
Gazing at the sky through a diamond-shaped hole . . .

All this patterning literally changes us. It literally shifts all the patterns – the patterns that we are, the patterns of our families, the individual patterns of the many members, the communities those families comprise, the larger communities comprised by communities . . . On and on it goes. Ideas are clarified, thinking is invigorated, new modes of communication arise, psychological inclinations are affirmed or denied, behavioral patterns adjust . . .

These are subtle subtle effects but they are also nontrivial. Indeed, they are literally our world. Whatever is going on around you – the building you are in, the device you are reading these words on, the love you will make later, the meal you will eat, the conversations you will have, the bed you will sleep on – all of it is simply patterns repatterning.

When one is clear about this, the question of “are we one or are we separate” blurs. One can begin to see how answering that question in any way requires making decisions about boundaries that are not forbidden by any means – that are even helpful – but are also arbitary. We tend to make them without thinking, according to familial, cultural, biological inclinations but still. They could literally go anywhere.

So that is a way of starting with language and noticing how it points to a way that separation blurs. It is hardly the only way. Gardening and raising (or hunting) animals for food is another way that the porous nature of the boundaries of self/world/other reveals itself.

All we really need to do is be attentive and honest, such as we are able. Give attention, don’t resist what shows up, don’t fret about what doesn’t show up, and don’t rush through what shows up. Nothing is hidden (but some stuff does remain apparently mysterious (which should not be read as an invitation to invent mysterious answers)). What is one knows itself and more than that, knows what to do with what is – or seems to be – separate from itself.

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