The universe appears to us as a big, complex, beautiful and terrifying thing and, in a nontrivial way, we are as much a part of that universe as anything else. Black holes, falling stars, dark matter, homo sapiens, maple leaves and house flies. We are made of the same material obeying the same laws. It’s just that we are composed – are patterned – in such a way so as not to be giant suns or cyclones or apple blossoms but rather self-reflexive bipedal primates with a serious gift for languaging.
We are not typically aware of the atoms that comprise us. We see a hand, not the atomic and subatomic particles that when put together just so make a hand. So saying that we and the universe are one is sort of intellectual shorthand. It’s equivalent to saying, if we could see all the way to atomic and subatomic levels, then we’d see that there’s not really a “we” there. It’s just matter mattering.
But at the macro-levels where we do our living and loving and languaging, separation and distinction are very much the order of experience. And that is not a problem! It’s inherent in the perceptual and cognitive abilities of the human observer that we are (or appear as). It’s not a problem to be fixed or an illusion to deny. It’s how things are for things like us. That’s all.
Still, plenty of folks do have actual encounters with oneness that are effectively transformational. These encounters are relatively consistent across time and cultures. Extended meditation, fasting, partaking of certain flora, digging deeply into the afore-mentioned reflexivity or just getting lucky . . . clearly, there are ways for us to not only know intellectually that we are one but also to experience it the way we experience swimming, baking bread and making love.
The thing is, this oneness – especially in its more transformational modes – can be hard both to notice and, once noticed, hard to hold on to in a sustained way. Our ordinary state of mind and experience is premised on separation – that we are a discrete body, moving about amidst other discrete bodies, in a world that is basically endless separate objects like flowers, roads, fire hydrants, dogs, sweatshirts, black beans and hurricanes.
Our sense of being a distinct separate entity is a kind of user-generated illusion. It’s functional and pragmatic and consistent with our humanness but it’s hardly dispositive. It’s not a yardstick for truth or reality.
The appearance of a separate functional self is persistent, even when brought to light by scientists, philosophers, saints, prophets, salespeople and so forth. It is not itself destructive, save for the way that we tend to double down on it – as if we really are separate beings, with separate interests that need defending and protecting, and that justify all sorts of aggressive, greedy and destructive behavior against ourselves and others. If I’m atoms and you’re atoms (scientific shorthand for ‘”we” is actually “one”‘ – then what’s the big deal? Hugging it out is less painful. Compromise is easier.
But you have to see through the appearance. You have to know the appearance as an appearance – as a user-generated interface – even as you make use of it, even as you do your living and loving and languaging in it.
Apparently just knowing these facts, while not unhelpful, is not itself curative. We have to have an experience of wholeness or oneness. We need to see it in a clear way – taste it on the tongue like a rain drop – not as an abstraction but in an embodied way, like making love or eating bread or climbing a mountain.
One way of doing this is to give attention to our experience in a gentle, nonjudgmental and sustained way. Often, when we do this, everything that we need to know is revealed, often by making clear what to read next, write next, study next, pray on next and so forth. And then, over time, after enough of this attentiveness, there is a soft but intense realization that separation is not real.
In the wake of that realization, we realize that it’s okay to be calm, let things go, et cetera. We become gentler – with ourselves and with others. We’re able, in that space, to attend to life with less drama. We exercise a little, eat a little, stay close to those upon whom we depend and who in turn depend on us. We do good, which is not as abstract or vague as it sounds. We aren’t perfect at any of this, but it’s cool because perfection doesn’t matter, unless you are willing to define “perfection” as “exactly the way things are right now.”