The many and the one

Alan Watts, in his book The Wisdom of Insecurity, wrote:

The sense of unity with the “All” is not… a nebulous state of mind, a sort of trance, in which all form and distinction is abolished, as if man and the universe merged into a luminous mist of pale mauve. Just as process and form, energy and matter, myself and experience, are names for, and ways of looking at, the same thing – so one and many, unity and multiplicity, identity and difference, are not mutually exclusive opposites: they are each other, much as the body is its various organs. To discover that the many are the one, and that the one is the many, is to realize that both are words and noises representing what is at once obvious to sense and feeling, and an enigma to logic and description.

Previous to reading this, I had been looking for an experience of reality underlying all my perceptions of it. Now, I wonder if my perceptions are that reality – if not in essence, then in being.

For example, my heart is me, in the sense that if I lost my heart, I would perish. My life and my heart are synonymous. But my heart is not what you read in these sentences. The personality you read is a reality more uniquely me than any physical part. This intangible me, in one sense, is distinct from the physical; this can lead me to see the two selves as utterly different, sometimes at odds with each other. Yet, I have never had an experience of life other than a bodily one, which means that my body is as much me as my soul – at this point in my experience of life. The two depend on each other. This creates a unity from the two, which is what people think of as “John”. Since no one can see my soul, that is not “John”; and if my body were laid under the ground, that also would not be me. My reality is neither one, but the unity of the whole. The many are the one.

It might be said that what is most real is what can endure death. In the scheme of my separate parts, this is certainly true. But the part of me that does survive cannot become what it will without the part it leaves behind. Without this mortal, physical life, my soul would be a very different soul. Thus, in the scheme of my being, there is no part more real than another. To call the physical experience unreal would imply that what my soul has learned here is unreal; yet if I suddenly undid the whole experience, the being that I am – who has learned all these things – would also vanish.

The ultimate reality, then, of which all my perceptions are but shades of glimpses, is also what I perceive of it. Because without those perceptions, there would be no “thing perceived”. “It” might still continue, but it would no longer be an “it”, any more than a thing unexperienced can ever be real to anyone but itself. In the scheme of the many, what is truly real may forever outreach me; but in terms of our unity, how I perceive it is very much a part of what it is.

For example: everyone reads a poem differently. There is the author’s intent, which no one can truly understand but him; and there are all the opinions people have of that poem. It could be said the author’s intent is more real, because his intention is what created the poem. Without him, there would be nothing to read. Other people’s views did not bring the poem into being. But are they less real? In the sense of unity, those opinions are also the reality of the poem. It is both what the author intended, and what other people read into it. If they never read it, it would not be a poem. It would rather be a nameless experience shared between the author and himself. To call it a “poem” would mean no more than calling it by any other name. It becomes a “poem” only when there is an audience to hear it. It’s reality, then, is both in itself – separate from the reader and nameless – and in the reader, in the form of a synergistic whole we call “a poem”.

All of this, of course, relates to our connection with the One Who created us. In the sense of being separate, I could no more say, “I am God”, than a cell of my body could claim to bear my identity. But in the sense of the-whole-in-the-parts, we are very much “God”, for without a creation He would not be a Creator. His essence would still endure, but He would no longer be “He” without us. “His name, the Creator, presupposeth a creation, even as His title, the Lord of Men, must involve the existence of a servant.”

To use another example: Every father was also a son. As a man, the father is separate from the son, but as a father, he is linked. Without the son, he would not be a father; without the father, there would be no son. Father and son are thus two sides of a single being: a greater unity made up of the two. Take either away, and both disappear. They are each other. Separate in one sense, but of one being (“fatherhood”) in another.

So when I look up at the sun or the clouds, I am more than the eyes that see them, or my sight of them. I am something which includes me as the seer, and the sky as the seen. We cannot be separated without destroying the two – nor can we be merged. We must be distinct even as we must be one, just as the moments of my life make up the unity of who I am, without any moment ever being the duplicate of another. Even unity and distinction are parts of a whole, for if there were no distinction, there would be no unity.

All of this completely changes my view of what is “real”. There is no underneath, anymore. There might still be, in the existential sense, but not in the experiential sense; because although I can never know the essence of reality – how to see without perception? – I am always part of it by my role in the greater unity. I am what I seek, as the son is the reality of the father. It is not the world which makes me feel apart, but my seeking to be united with it! It is a goal which, because it’s already met, cannot be satisfied if one doesn’t believe it. It would be like seeing a person who should be happy, but isn’t. What can you do? It’s not the circumstances that need changing, but their basic relationship to life. How that happens, I think, is the next step along this path…

Meditate on what the poet hath written: “Wonder not, if my Best-Beloved be closer to me than mine own self; wonder at this, that I, despite such nearness, should still be so far from Him.”…