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.