The opposite of oneness of course is “duality”.
Our daily life is made up of opposites: happy or sad, black or white, up or down, light or heavy, boy or girl. But in the idea of oneness (and this surfaces in every religion in the world), points to a state beyond such duality.
Imagine a pendulum. The more we are mired in duality, the wider the swing between opposite emotional states. I’ve been there myself, so I know what I’m talking about here. Waking up not knowing how you’re going to feel, on a continuum that stretches from wild euphoria to abject despair. And having seemingly no control over it.
Now that’s all changed, and mood swings on that scale are so far in my past I can barely remember them. It’s a move from a state of being sucked into opposites to a state which encompasses both and sees a natural balance.
So the idea of oneness isn’t some vague hippy concept we can all smoke along to, it’s a journey. Because as you progress – however slowly – from duality to oneness, the swings become far less pronounced.
Take my example.The first time I ever got crucified online my reaction was panicky, wide-eyed, desperately trying to dig myself out of a hole. Now, 5 years later, if these things happen I barely notice.
So what’s happened? Is it just a case of getting used to things? Not really, because there are people who are capable of being hurt over and over again, with never-decreasing intensity. It’s more about taking a step upwards, to a point where, like a satellite, you look down on these things with increasing distance. Your mother’s little jibes, your friend’s snide remark, your partner’s complaint, your teenage daughter’s offhand sting. None of it matters so much, because you’ve moved, quite literally, “beyond” that stuff.
And as you move up, as you “satellise” (to coin a word), the extremes of reaction get ever so slightly less wide. Until you take in your stride things that would once have knocked you for six.
Just like a rail track, which appears wide beneath your feet, but disappears at the horizon into a single point. Similarly, a satellite floating in orbit sees both day and night at the same time.
That’s where we’re trying to head. And no, not in the depths of meditation, but on a Wednesday morning, right here in real life.
The opposite of oneness of course is “duality”.
We began to touch, before the break, on the idea of “oneness”. As I’ve mentioned before, the word “yoga” itself means “union”, and the whole point of all these postures and breathing techniques is not in fact fitness or even flexibility, but alignment with the energies of the cosmos itself. At least in its original form, as it was first conceived of millennia ago.
And that idea oneness is of course reflected in every world religion – an idea to which we’ll return.
But rather than a belief of course, oneness is an experience. I can remember having tiny glimpses of this all the way back to my childhood – a feeling of being united with everyone around me. Those experiences stand out – I had it in Chicago airport once, and on a fairly frequent basis since becoming more aware that it was a thing.
Is this something you’ve ever felt? A sudden dissolution of boundaries – a feeling of encompassing not only the person in front of you but the entire world?
We talked yesterday about the notion of being boundless, which we described as an innate longing built into our very DNA.
The danger is that this can begin to get all ethereal, floating off into the stratosphere.
Let’s bring it back down to earth. The way we know a thing is a thing is because it has given boundaries. We know where a table begins and ends, right? And we define where WE begin and end by our physical shape.
But nevertheless there is that part of us longing to be more. What else does falling in love mean than wanting to include another person as part of our essence, our existence?
Beyond just the person we love lies the whole world. And those who have reached far greater heights of consciousness understand what it is to feel that sense of inclusion about not just another favourite being, but all of existence.
Hence the idea of “Make me one with everything”, as the Dalai Lama famously said to the pizza guy.
That’s what happens when we begin to dissolve our sense of personal identity, intellect and memory, and perceive all of existence, and all other people, even our “enemies”, as part of ourselves.
Again, certainly not something we’re taught to do. Almost alien to our Western individualistic culture, but nonetheless essential if we are to grow.
I’m sitting as I write this in the vehicle licensing centre in Barcelona. Surrounded by crowds of people I’ve never met. All ages, men and women, a dozen different ethnicities and a smattering of languages.
So can I feel them as part of me? Can I dissolve the boundaries? Yes of course. And not just the boundaries between people but between me and the uncomfortable plastic chair, and the fluorescent strip lighting,.
It begins, as we’ve seen, as a concept. But with practice it becomes a reality, something we feel in our bones.
Now for the whole of next week I will be away (more about that tomorrow) but when I get back we will begin to piece all this together: how do we move towards this sense of oneness? What mental or physical techniques or practices can help us get there?
And perhaps above all, what actual changes will all that make in my daily life, as I put the bins out, or drink my coffee?
In other words, why bother?
I think you’ll find it’s worth it…
We saw last week how our body and our minds are essentially accumulations of food and impressions. And that living a fuller life at least to some extent, lies in moving beyond our body and mind to experience a state that’s less confined: one that’s not narrowly tied to a single person, or a single identity. It’s the state the Indian tradition has long described as “chitta”.
So in fact we’re in search of the boundless. Of freedom.
What lies beyond the physical is of course spiritual.
Imagine you were locked in a 5mx5m cell for a week, then taken to a cell that was10mx10m. Initially you’d feel freer, but then you’d soon became aware of the limits again. Even if the cell was doubled, or the walls flattened, but a barbed-wire fence stood in the distance, you’d start to feel imprisoned once more.
And this applies to everyone on the planet.
The only difference is that most people long unconsciously for that freedom, and seek all kinds of solutions to provide it, from shopping to drinking and from sex to drugs.
We, on the other hand, are making it a conscious pursuit.
Towards the end of last week, we discovered the separateness of the body and the mind from ourselves.
As we’ve said, this begins as a concept, the kind of thing you can nod at, and grasp, if only intellectually. It takes time for it to seep into your blood, your bones, your way of being. But it can happen.
Traditionally, when people sit down to meditate, they have to strain not to think. It’s a bit like when someone says to you “Do NOT think of a purple elephant” and you can think of nothing else. When you try to stifle the mind, it keeps fighting back. Mystics down the ages have talked of the “monkey mind” because of its capacity to keep generating new thoughts, ideas, and images when you’re trying your hardest not to think of anything.
But realising that the mind is not you puts an end to the struggle. The mind can go on thinking – that’s what it does. But by creating a little space between you and it, it’s as if you’re putting it in a big jam jar, like a bee, and firmly screwing the lid on. Then taking that jam jar into a forest and hurling it into a thicket. It’s still buzzing, but you’re a long way away. Then put your body in another jar and leave it behind.
The “mantra” ‘I am not the body, I am not even the mind’ might just help anchor that and help the idea on its journey from assent to assimilation, from endorsement to embodiment.
Imagine what’s left as a quiet clearing, full of light.
Now why not return to this week’s challenge and see if you can do it in this new light?
Somewhat cryptically, I wrote yesterday that “We have a mind, we have a body. They are not us.”
Let’s unpack this a little.
First of all, in linguistic or existential terms, if we talk about “my mind” or “my body”, much as we would also say “my phone” or “my shoes”, who or what is it that they belong to? Who or what is the mysterious possessor of both these tools?
This suggests an essential self, an abstract entity that is actually distinct from both those possessions. A thing cannot belong to itself, right? My shoe can have laces, but it cannot have a shoe.
(Hope your eyes aren’t beginning to glaze over or cross at this point).
In yogic thought, both your body and your mind are seen as “accumulations”.
Basically you’re born as a tiny tot, and you accumulate and grow your body by eating food. Whatever you ingest, from jelly beans to potatoes and from bananas to ice cream, the miracle that is your body has the knowledge and memory to turn it into more human body, whereas a cow could eat the same things and become more of a cow, not more of a human. Your body, far from being the essential you, is in fact just a heap of gathered food.
In similar vein, your mind is essentially an accumulation of memories, impressions, perceptions, inherited ideas, and the like. It starts off pretty unpopulated, but then you keep adding bits and pieces you pick up over the years, like a palimpsest, until it becomes an incredibly detailed map of your past, rather than of the future. It is 100% made up of your own experience, your own reading, your own learning. Once again, it’s just a heap of input.
So now you have two heaps: a heap of food and a heap of input. They are yours, but they are not you. The you is the part that is able to look from a distance at the pair of them.
Once you begin to perceive that simple but fundamental distinction, the idea of working with these two tools becomes a whole lot clearer.