Timothy DeChenne, Ph.D. 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, during the course of the essay I’ll have a bit to say about mysticism. And about physics. But first let me first spell out what I won’t be talking about. The notion of “wholeness” or “oneness” explored here will not be a paean to complex interaction. 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 falling onto fertile ground, then acres of trees springing up, gently nurtured over the years by sunlight and by rain, then swept into a stream of human events—farmers and truckers and such—that converge to bring you the fruit. Marvelous. Awe inspiring. But not the point. The point, rather, is an unbroken oneness right now, right this instant, even without the interaction of parts. It is sensing the illusion of the parts themselves. And so it begins. Whoever approaches this subject with words does so at their peril. By their nature, words divide. They separate. 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 discernable 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, but it’s clarified at least somewhat in a passage from Alan Watts. 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 has features and it is a unified whole. So how is this experienced? Once again the ever lucid Watts: “It is not that the outlines and shapes which we call things and use to delineate things disappear into some sort of luminous void. It simply becomes obvious that although they may be used for divisions they do not really divide.” 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 more frequently than the rest of us. But note: just like some of the rest of us, the feeling comes and goes for them as well. 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”, 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, in this practice 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 literally 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 using the words of that rascal 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 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.