This piece concerns a feeling.
Just a feeling, but a rather unusual one: a visceral sense of unity beneath the world’s innumerable things.
As you might expect, I’ll be addressing several aspects of mysticism and philosophy. But first let me explain what I won't be addressing. The notion of “oneness” explored here will not focus on complex interaction or interdependence.
To illustrate what I mean by that, consider the humble apple. Muse for a moment on the wondrously complex interplay giving rise to it. Seeds dispersed with the help of the hungry, widely scattered onto fertile ground. Tiny shoots poking up their heads, drawing nutrients from the soil below. And the young trees gradually taking shape, crafted for years by sunlight and rain, until finally the fruit bursts forth.
This interplay is an example of what many Buddhists call "emptiness". What that term refers to is the notion that all things, including our apple, are "empty" of a separate, indivisible essence. Nothing stands alone. Rather, everything arises and passes away as a complex interaction, or interdependence, of other things.
This wisdom is something most people can understand. The world is one because it is woven together by interdependence, because every single thing arises from the interaction of other things. We might call this particular thing an apple, but in a real sense it is also sunlight, rain, and soil.
For those who continue this line of thought, going on to consider in turn how the sunlight, rain, and soil arose, their conclusion might be that everything, in a sense, contains everything.
This is a beautiful and engaging bit of wisdom. I suspect at least something like this is what many people have in mind when they hear references to the oneness of existence. But it is not exactly the focus here. Here I'm concerned with a related bit of wisdom, but one that approaches the subject in a different way. A way that is more direct, but ironically less accessible. This way is emphasized by some Buddhists, but also by those in other traditions.
This way is the felt wisdom of an unbroken oneness right now--right this instant--even without the interaction of things. It is a feeling of seamless unity lying beneath the interplay of parts. It is an immediate, compelling, visceral sense that all the parts are in fact the same one thing.
Whatever that might be.
And so it begins. Whoever approaches this subject with words does so at their peril. By their nature, words divide. Any effort to capture “oneness” in a net of words is both paradoxical and, perhaps, ill-fated. Over the centuries, and in a variety of playful ways, Taoists and Zen Buddhists have taken mischievous delight in repeatedly pointing that out.
But of course they also use words. It’s just that they use them as fingers pointing toward the moon, not the moon itself. Words as ambiguous suggestions, poetic intimations. Words that chase themselves in circles until collapsing into silence.
And that is all for the best, since silence is the origin of the feeling. The sense of oneness may be preceded or followed by a phalanx of words, but the feeling itself is just that, a feeling “in the bones”, separate from thought.
Not that the thoughts and words on the subject haven’t been beautiful. One thinks of the theoretical physicist David Bohm, who famously suggested the universe was not merely empty space housing bits of matter, but rather one completely unified field, without a division anywhere. Space, he proposed, is full rather than empty. It is actually just one undivided background of energy. And matter? “. . . Matter as we know it is a small, ‘quantized’ wavelike excitation on the top of this background, rather like a tiny ripple on a vast sea.”
But of course it is the various Eastern religious traditions that have produced the most poetic and memorable images of unity. One very versatile metaphor is the frequent portrayal of the universe as a stream, a stream with many eddies. These eddies include all discernible features—-you, me, those clouds in the sky—-but whatever we call them they are all just swirls, never separate from the water itself.
Or there is this pronouncement in one of the Upanishads: “That Art Thou”. For some this reflects a feeling that the world has become one’s body, that one is, well, everything else that exists. That probably has an odd ring. The popular writer Alan Watts tried to clarify it. He suggested that for someone in the midst of this experience “it is not that he loses his identity to the point of feeling that he actually looks out through all other eyes . . . but rather that his individual consciousness and existence is a point of view temporarily adopted by something immeasurably greater than himself.”
Or there are Zen Buddhists suggesting that “all things are neither the same nor different”. They mean, of course, to suspend us in the middle of that paradox. Not just to shut down discursive thought (although for that too), but also to keep our feet on the ground. After all, the observable world has many features. It both has features and is an undivided whole.
Now there are many ways to stumble on this feeling—meditation, certain substances, sheer luck—but it is always a matter of stumbling. The feeling cannot be hunted down and captured with regularity or certainty. Trying to do so only chases it away.
But it is also probably true that various meditation practices, when done over a stretch of years, tend to set up the mindset from which such an experience can arise. Meditation masters, those who have devoted their lives to the practice, seem to have such experiences much more frequently than the rest of us. But even for them the feeling comes and goes. As one teacher put it, there are no awakened persons, just persons at various stages of awakening.
Over the 25 years of my own sitting practice, I’ve often reflected on what factors dispose meditators to the visceral sense of unity. During the practice some call “choiceless awareness” (see my collection of essays entitled "Mindfulness", also on this site), the meditator is merely a calm and accepting observer of all experience: all the senses including sights, sounds, and body sensations, as well as thoughts and feelings. When done skillfully over long periods, this practice does a couple of things that seem relevant to the topic at hand.
First, when doing this practice skillfully one does not think; rather, one just passively observes thoughts, letting them come and go as they will. This puts a subtle wedge between you and one mainstay of your identity, that is, your thoughts. You come to identify with them less. Second, and at the same time, all other sensations arise and pass away on an equal footing with your thoughts. Over the long run this “equal footing”, this equivalence if you will, can slip toward a sense of no separation. Sometimes.
But there is more than one way in. Sometimes just reading is enough to do it. Who knows, maybe over the course of this little essay you yourself have spotted it in your peripheral vision.
Regardless of the origin of the feeling, and regardless of its many nuances as experienced by different people, it does have some philosophical implications that tend to apply consistently across persons.
First, although the experience need not suggest the presence of a god, it does not necessarily rule out that feeling either. What it does rule out however, more or less by definition, is the sense of a supernatural god, a god that stands apart from nature. As might be evident, the feeling of underlying unity, in its essence, is the sense that nothing stands apart from anything. Such a feeling can be compatible, however, with certain kinds of pantheism, such as Spinoza’s notion of god as the laws of nature.
Second, the experience doesn’t sit well with Cartesian dualism, the notion that mind and matter are fundamentally different things. The feeling discussed here, once again, is the sense that no two things are fundamentally different. Adopting Bohm’s terminology, we might say both thoughts and things arise from the same underlying, unified field of energy. Or in the words of Bertrand Russell, “. . .there is only one kind of stuff out of which the world is made, and this stuff is called mental in one arrangement, physical in another.”
Third, this sense of unity does not suggest much in the way of specific ethical injunctions. But I think it is fair to say that those who have the experience, at least once in a while, tend to lean away from harming others. That aversion just seems to arise on its own. It is difficult to harm others in an intentional or prolonged manner when, at some level or at least at some times, one senses both self and other as features of an underlying sameness.
Finally, the experience, both in the moment and to some extent on later reflection, tends to muffle the quest for “meaning”. As we use it today, the phrase “the meaning of life”, or more modestly “the meaning of my life”, tends to circle around notions of purpose and significance. But deciding on purpose requires a comparison of separate things; for example, a comparison of where I am now with where I want to be.
When the feeling of a truly unified whole becomes salient, however, one settles at least briefly into a motionless now. Start and finish are revealed as the same thing; they cannot be split apart. When there are no true divisions, the meaning of meaning is moot.