Beyond Oneness

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October 31, 2009

Nonduality is the oneness before the number one.—Rabbi David Aaron

All is one! Everything is God! These have been the rallying-cries for decades of American spirituality. And with them, in quintessential postmodern-American fashion, a desire for an experience of that reality: a unitive experience in which the boundaries of self seem to melt away, in which there is a sense of merging with, of melting into, the Infinite. For one hundred years, such experiences have been said to be at the heart of mysticism both sacred and profane (to paraphrase R.C. Zaehner), from Hasidic devekut to entheogenic union, Christian unio mystica to Hindu shaktipat or even enlightenment itself.

Yet in most nondual paths, whether “Eastern” or “Western,” unitive experience is not the ultimate. Perhaps the most mysterious, misunderstood, yet also the most revolutionary aspect of nonduality is that it stands not just for “all is one” but, rather, that it stands for “all is one,” “all is two,” and, for good measure, “all is zero” as well. To understand this “unity of union and duality” is, in such systems, the highest attainment, even though it seems to be made of paradox. It is not paradox. Let’s take a look.

We can envision it this way. By the age of two, all functional human beings have understood the difference between inside and outside, between self and world. It is the ?rst essential stage in human development—and most of us spend the great majority of our lives there. Our lives are comprised of dualities, binaries, and boundaries. Things to do, people we like and don’t like, stuff we want more or less of.

Jay Michaelson

A further stage is possible: unitive consciousness which returns to the predifferentiation of infancy. At ?rst, it only occurs at certain peak moments—lovemaking, abject terror, encounters with the numinous. But gradually, it is possible to extend the light of the Ein Sof into everything, in the words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, to be in unitary consciousness more and more of the time. As Rabbi David Cooper has written:

As nothing can be separated from it [Ein Sof], everything is interconnected in a Oneness, a unity, that cannot be divided. Things that in relative reality appear to be polar opposites—light and dark, hot and cold, male and female, determinism and free will, heaven and earth, good and evil, and so forth—are in absolute terms inevitably contained in the Oneness of Boundlessness.

The knowledge of this oneness is conveyed, it is said, in unitive experiences. Rarely do any of us enjoy such experiences for more than a fraction of our lives—and yet they are reservoirs of wisdom and compassion, comfort and joy. Such peak experiences give a glimpse of that which cannot be communicated. They impart a kind of knowingness that is more certain than everyday knowing; that is to say, mystical experience is not less sure than ordinary experience, but more so. William James, for example, describes his mystical experience this way in his Varieties of Religious Experience:

There came upon me a sense of exultation, of immense joyfulness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Among other things, I did not merely come to believe, I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence … that the foundation principle of the world, of all the worlds, is what we call love, and that the happiness of each and all is in the long run absolutely certain … I knew that what the vision showed was true. I had attained to a point of view from which I saw that it must be true.

For many years, I was fascinated by these accounts, and determined to see if I could have such experiences myself. And so I did, many times, and in many different mystical contexts. And indeed, from my own experience, I can attest that if you follow the instructions of meditative, contemplative, and spiritual practices, the promised results do indeed occur: a dissolving of the sense of self; rapture in concentrated joy; transient feelings of immense bliss; and, for religious souls like me, a certainty that one is held and loved and engulfed by the Divine. It is worth the effort.

Yet even these exalted experiences represent but an intermediate phase. That “all is one” is exactly half of the picture. What about our experience of twoness? Is it merely illusion? Or is it not the case that, if the Infinite is really Infinite, it is present when we are experiencing unity, and when we are not? That is, isn’t whatever is happening now, with whatever emotional valences or intellectual components, just as much an experience of God (if you like that term) as the highest spiritual ecstasy? If God is Ein Sof, infinite, isn’t God in the toilet as well as the tabernacle?

In other words, at a certain point, the mystic moved beyond unitive experience to return to the experience of duality while maintaining the consciousness of unity. This is what David Loy calls the “nonduality of duality and nonduality.” And it is what the Zen masters mean when they say “in the beginning, mountains are mountains. During zazen, mountains are not mountains. Afterward, mountains are once again mountains.” That is to say: in the initial dualistic consciousness, mountains are experienced as mountains. In unitive consciousness, the mountains disappear as separate entities and are only motes on the sunbeam of consciousness. In nondual consciousness, the mountains are both: both everything and nothing, both existent and nonexistent.

Jay Michaelson

Rabbi Aharon of Staroselye, a great but little-known nondual Jewish sage whose work I have explored in some detail in my new book Everything is God, calls this seeing from “our point of view” and “God’s point of view.” Both points of view are of the same reality—they are just different points of view. Ours sees objects, people, and things. God’s sees only Godself. The object is to see both as two sides of the same coin. Neti-neti, the Vedantists say: not-this, not-that. Neither twoness nor oneness, neither yesh nor ayin, but both, and thus neither. It’s not quite paradox—it’s enlightenment.

I’d like to return to a symbol I refer to often: that of the two triangles of the Jewish star. The downward pointing triangle represents the “?rst stage,” the world of ordinary experience, in which there is self and other, ?gure and ground. This is the view of aretz, of earth, of all of us, with our histories and loves and heartbreaks and joy. The upward-pointing triangle represents the “second stage” of unitary consciousness, in which there is no self, no other, no ?gure, and only the one Ground of Being. This is the view of shamayim, of heaven, of ultimate reality, the way things actually are. The star together is the “third stage” of nonduality: of both-and and neither-nor. It is the Ein Sof that is both Many and One, hidden God and manifest Shechinah, and in being both, is Naught, or ayin. Here it is on one enormous chart (with apologies for many foreign terms): 2 1 2 = 1 = 0 dualistic unitive nondual immanent transcendent both aretz shamayim both yesh ayin both corporeal incorporeal both living in yesh bittul ha-yesh both self no-self Self relative absolute both form emptiness emptiness is form everything nothing both manifestation essence both expression realization both ordinary mind no-mind “ordinary mind” mochin d’katnut mochin d’gadlut ratzo v’shov tzimtzum shefa v’atzilut ratzo v’shov hitlabshut hitpashtut ratzo v’shov yeridah aliyah ratzo v’shov memaleh (?lling) sovev (surrounding) both plurality unity union of unity and plurality materialization annihilation both our point of view God’s point of view both confusion enlightenment confusion is enlightenment samsara nirvana nirvana is samsara apparent real both many one both and neither the “real” the “ideal” both good and bad no good and bad both good and evil all is God/perfect both self and other all is one/no other I/Thou (Buber, Levinas) God or no God God-beyond-God both I’m here, God’s there all is God God and me return prayer, myth, ritual contemplation both sacred and profane all holy both ethics no ethics nondual ethics problems perfection both tikkun olam all is perfect all is perfect, but you make it better pursuit of justice acceptance both yang; action yin; nonaction both farq (separation) jam’ al-jam’ (union) al-farqath-thani (return->separation) passion dispassion compassion movement stillness both seeking nonseeking seeking, sort of path no path path hope without hope hoping without clinging particular universal both conditioned unconditioned both damaged undamaged integrated human being human being eros thanatos both diversity union both mountains no mountains mountains existence consciousness both in the world apart from world return to world kadosh baruch hu shechinah union se?rot ayin Ein Sof presence absence absence in presence (Derrida) thesis antithesis synthesis earth heaven heaven on earth

The list could go on, but the point, I hope, is clear. Nonduality is not only oneness. It is oneness-in-twoness, the extraordinary in the ordinary. Is it a mere coincidence that so many of the symbols of the world’s religions are based upon this co-incidence of opposites? The cross of heaven and earth, the six-pointed star, the yin and the yang. To what does their joining gesture? This is why so many nondual sages say that the only thing keeping you from enlightenment is searching for it. If only you’d stop trying to see yourself through your own eyes! You, with your neuroses and shadows and wounds—tat tvam asi, “you are that.” This moment of your experience is God masquerading as you.

As a lived phenomenon, the experience of the chart is one of ratzo v’shov, running and returning. This experience is not one of an Aristotelian golden mean, or some vacuous sense of “balance,” but rather of transcending binarisms to include both sides of them. Sometimes we experience life as the ego tells us we must: as a separate self, with boundaries to be defended and needs to be met. Other times, we see this ego as being like a computer program, running according to causes and conditions, just like the trillion miraculous programs executing all around us at every moment. Or consider nonduality from the perspective of earthbased spirituality: sometimes, we feel at one with all, part of the great cosmic dance, the cycle of birth and death—and other times, we revel in our own uniqueness, our individuality, our humanity and sex and joys. Along such a path, we do not seek a midway point, somewhat godly and somewhat human, but rather a vibrant oscillation between the poles of everything and nothing, separation and union.

Of course, most of us spend the overwhelming majority of our lives at “stage one,” experiencing ourselves as selves sandwiched between our ears—and we su?er as a result. So, for most of us, just getting to “stage two,” in which the ego melts away for a blessed moment or two, remains the primary work. Besides, stage two is wonderful: spend time in the presence of enlightened masters, and see for yourself the palpable stillness of no-mind, the great compassion that emerges naturally from wisdom. Know that you can become such a person yourself. Please, do not rush to integrate too quickly. Gradually, though, the mind states of spirituality, even the most lofty, will become less and less urgent, as God becomes more and more transparent. Slowly, not only may you see in?nity in a flower, you may not even need to. The flower, having become in?nite, may now be but a bloom—and wholly Divine in being so. Both-and, neither-nor, all of it, the emptiness and the form, yielding and wrestling. Duality and nonduality are the ultimate nonduality. As the nondual sage Nisargadatta said, “Love says ‘I am everything.’ Wisdom says ‘I am nothing.’ Between the two, my life flows.”

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