The Unity of Being

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 soul 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.”…

Two sides of a coin

If I seek pleasure, and reject pain, I lose what both are a part of: my depth of feeling. But to an artist, depth of feeling is all. If pain and pleasure both contribute to it, how can either be shunned? It depends on what one seeks: feelings of pleasure – which must diminish in the absence of contrast – or a greater depth of feeling itself.

The interplay of opposites hones awareness. Nothing makes a meal taste better than hunger. Anyone who has fasted knows the sublime taste of water at the end of the day. What could compare to it? But it needs a day of toil to reach that moment of perfection; a day of loss to feel the beauty of the gain.

Always moving from opposite to opposite, what is the point? Perhaps it is the unity these two are a part of: consciousness. Repetition of one state leads to familiarity, which breeds forgetfulness. They say, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Our fondness for life would diminish without its trials, just as our amazement at the sunrise would lessen without the endless monotony of physical existence. Between extremes we are shaped, formed, and bred to a higher state of being: an awareness of the reality pointed to by those extremes. That is, not just a keener sense of pain, or of pleasure, but “the marrow of life”: the depths we reach by the interplay of the two.

In the book Zen and the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel talks about his experience learning archery from a Zen teacher. At one point, the teacher talked about how the archer and the target are two parts of one thing. In one sense, the archer shoots an arrow at the target; in the other, the target draws the arrow from the archer. They are not contending opposites, but two parts of a single thing: Archery. When the archer acts as if he were apart from it, he is not able to manifest “Archery” by his actions. He can only do it if he gives himself up to what he wishes to be a part of. At that moment, Archery comes into being. It cannot be said where it begins or where it ends. It is the man, the bow, the arrow, the target, all of it. To say it begins at the bow, and ends at the target, only divides it again. As Archery, it is one, indivisible; as separate parts, they each have their role.

Sometimes, when Eugen would allow Archery to appear by his actions, the teacher would stop and bow, saying “It” had shot. If Eugen thought he had done it – as if the man alone were Archery – the teacher would tell him all their practice was for nothing. He was not learning to shoot a bow, but to become a part of Archery, until there could be no distinction between himself and the target, or any other part. There is only Archery, if the archer allows himself to participate, and to share that reality with all the other parts.

This is my understanding of what the book was saying; I’m paraphrasing because the book is in storage, but it seemed also to be saying: the many and the one are the same; we only go wrong is by disbelieving this.

I am going to put these thoughts to the test by seeing if I can participate in the systems of life. I’m accustomed to thinking that I’m essentially separate from them, which means I do not easily accept my role. What would happen if my foot rejected playing its part in the operation of my body? But I do something similar when I separate myself from the unities I am a part of. Let’s see what happens if I yield, and stop trying so hard to establish “myself” as apart…

The movement of being

Both pleasure and pain are equal parts of a unity which might be called “the being of feeling”. This being includes pain, pleasure, the feeler, the object producing the feeling, and the setting in which it occurs. It is all of these things.

But this only pictures that unity within a single moment of time. The being of feeling also includes the movement of feeling, which is the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure. All that “pain” means is, “a feeling we seek to avoid.” It is “pain” because of our aversion, and “pleasure” because of our attraction.

So to avoid pain is also the being of feeling; it is part of the drama that makes up feeling. The attractive nature of pleasure would not be as sweet if there were not other feelings to repel us just as strongly. Pulled between like and dislike, these opposites become part of another being, perhaps “the being of desire”. Without attraction and repulsion, the being of feeling would be disconnected from the being of desire.

The critical difference lies in whether we love the being of feeling as a unity, or only some of its parts. Take for example the contrast between good and evil: A being arises which is both good and evil, as well as the movement of championing good and battling against evil. However, without evil – though we seek to defeat it – the greater unity of which they’re a part would not be (in the sense of becoming a being of consciousness). The champion of good, whose true love is this greater being, will honor evil even as he defeats it for the role it plays toward that being.

Another example: Illness and health are, together, the being of life, which is a constant movement from birth to decay. A doctor who serves the being of life, plays his role by championing health and fighting disease. However, it is critical to the being of life that he not succeed completely. If a doctor were able to eliminate all illness from birth, he would leave the patient incapable of facing other, unknown illnesses that also exist in the world. By granting perfect health, the patient would cease to be robust, and thus real health a would be impossible.

For a genuinely healthy person must face illness. It is never desirable to seek to become ill – part of the movement of the being of life is that we encourage health and promote illness – but without facing illness, a person could not be hardy. A doctor who strives for the being of life will champion health, but also honor illness for the role it plays in that being. It is because we fall ill at times, that we are healthy the rest of the time. In this way, as a unity, the being of life is able to be.

The same with pleasure and pain. If we desire to feel deeply, we musta seek out pleasure and avoid pain, but also honor pain when it comes, because it must come if we are to really feel. If we grow too comfortable with pleasure, to the point of feeling nothing at all, we (or God) must push us from our confinement to seek other pleasures, an activity which carries the risk of encountering other pains. To be truly alive – a lover of life – we must embrace all the parts of experience, honoring them for their role, even if the function of those roles seems contradictory.

I am not saying pain and pleasure are equal, or to be regarded equally. Such an identity would end the very being I refer to! The idea is that all parts – even those whose roles are diametrically opposed – are together that being. The movement of being means relating both to the parts (avoiding pain and preferring pleasure) and the whole (appreciating that both pain and pleasure are the life of feeling). In this way we honor injustice even as we strive to defeat it; we honor illness even as we develop medicines to counter it; we honor pain even as we take steps to avoid it. In fact, if we did not seek to avoid pain, we would be denying its role in the fuller aspect of its being! If everything were pleasant, feeling would start to diminish. So the love of being is a love of all its parts, even if some of the roles of those parts demand that we fight against them.

(On a mystical level, I believe one can develop a deeper appreciation of pain and pleasure so that, despite avoidance and attraction, we bear a deep appreciation for both. When pain must come, we cherish it even as we avoid it; and when pleasure comes, we cherish it similarly even as we revel in it. This is when the soul relates directly to the being of the two, while the body relates to one or the other part).

Since some of the parts of unity require the behavior of opposition, we see how necessary it is to being that we fail at times. Without imperfection, there could not be a consciousness of the higher being of which imperfection and perfection are both a part. That is, it may be the role of imperfection that I constantly seek to improve it, but it is also necessary to that greater being that sometimes I fail at this task. If ever I were to perfect my elimination of imperfection, I would also eliminate the unity I seek, since it is by imperfection that its being becomes known to me.

This does not mean that I will not continue, for the rest of my life, to seek perfection. The movement of the greater being of perfection and imperfection is that I struggle from one to the other. But it does mean that I will honor imperfection, even love it for the role it plays in making me conscious of my goal – even if that love is expressed by my seeking to undo imperfection; for by seeking to undo imperfection, I play my role in the movement of being.

This is fundamentally a philosophy of love, where even hate is loved because both hate and love together – and the lover, the beloved, and all the other parts – make up the greater unity to which this philosophy addresses itself. The being of true love could not be known without hateful things to test it (see “The steed of pain”, below). Thus, what is hateful is also loved, because its role in the being of love is that love will seek to overcome hatred with itself.

This is a world-view in which destruction and upbuilding are both one being. It does not matter that building destroys destruction, or that destruction lays the foundation for building. The two principles are, in their separateness, opposed; but as parts of a higher unity, they are interdependent. The two are intimately bound; just as with the Yin-Yang, they are two, but two aspects of one symbol, two sides of a single coin. They depend on each other, even though that dependence requires the giving way of each to the rise of the other.

As separate parts this could never make sense. The parts describe a universe fundamentally at odds with itself, an unresolvable paradox. But as members of a common unity, the parts are shown to serve the being of something more than themselves – which is also themselves. Through their opposition, the many in fact fulfill the being of the One.

It requires such a higher unity to resolve these warring parts, or else the paradox would never end. If creation and destruction are always at odds, as they must be, how can there ever be harmony? It is in the higher unity – the being of which these two are a part, and which they express by their conflict – that resolution is found. If that be the case, it argues for a resolution of all the manyness and inexplicability of life in a greater unity encompassing them all: a unity that includes temporality, limitation and finitude, as well as eternity, boundlessness and the infinite. Whatever that being is, it is what all this chaos and paradox refers to, in which they must all find their fulfillment.