Some Thoughts on Oneness, pt.1

Subjective Versus Objective

In many spiritual circles the attainment of the experience of oneness is held to be very important. It is usually cultivated by meditation (although it can be spurred by other things than meditation). It is sometimes understood subjectively and psychologically in terms of how it affects the mind, and sometimes objectively as an experience which reveals empirical truths about reality.

An example of the subjective approach is in early Buddhism, where the mind is intentionally unified on a single object. The reason for doing so, as is explicitly stated in the Pali scriptures, is because when the mind is in a state of unification (samadhi, jhana) it experiences pleasure, rapture, tranquility, equanimity, and other positive mental emotions/activities, and is temporarily freed from emotions/activities perceived as harmful (greed, anxiety, aversion, sloth, etc.).  This activation of positive aspects of the mind empowers insight and self-transformation. Another mental activity that is calmed in samadhi is the normal construction of self identity by the mind. In early Buddhism this was understood to be tactically important as the Buddha had argued that the activity of self-construction needed to be calmed in order for the insights and changes he valued to emerge. In other traditions (and in most later forms of Buddhism) the calming of self-construction was valued less as a tactic and more as itself uncovering an objective truth: that the constructed self does not exist. This brings us to the second way that states of mental unification are valued: as revealing reality.

To continue with the question of the self for a moment: in later Buddhism the experience of calming the construction of a self was valued because it was interpreted to reveal the hidden truth that there is no self (the Buddha himself rejected the teaching “there is no self” as harmful and dogmatic, but that was forgotten by the later Buddhist scholar-practitioners who developed the “no self” doctrine). Other traditions interpreted the experience of the calming of self-construction differently. In some streams of Hindu thought, along a certain Upanishadic/Yogic/Tantric/Vedantic continuum, the calming of self-making was seen to reveal “the true person” (purusha, Yogasutras) or the “true Self” (atman, Upanishads). According to this interpretation the experience of unified, simplified, blissful being is identified as the true identity of the person (as opposed to the constructed intellectual/psychological identity of everyday life). Our true being is satchidananda, “being, consciousness and bliss”.

Another bifurcation in interpretation exists over the relationship between this “true Self” and the rest of the world. Some assert that the true Self is actually ontologically and inherently separate from the universe, as in the Yogasutras where the attainment of “the true person” is called “kaivalya” (aloneness). Buddhist nirvana, though it is not interpreted as a self, is similar in that it is interpreted as a reality that transcends the world. The Buddha is quite explicit that Nirvana is not “the ground of being” or a unity with the whole. What gives it value is the very fact that it is beyond all phenomena (dhammas) and transcends the suffering cosmos ( it is lokuttara), which goes the same for Patanjali (author of the Yogasutras).

Other traditions differ on this, however, and see the True Self as united with the Whole and indistinguishable from the ground of being from which everything arises (eg. the Upanisadic “atman is brahman”). Sometimes this is predicated on the assertion that all multiplicity is itself an illusion (jagad mithya, satyam brahma, “the world is an illusion, brahman alone is real”) and only the ground of being which underlies both the self and the world is real. Sometimes the world is seen not as an illusion but as an emanation (as in some forms of Shaivism and Tantrism), so that the self and the world emanate from the creative power of the ground of being and are part of it’s play of self-concealment and self-revelation. Hopefully you are getting my point by now: the state of meditative unification is subject to different interpretations. Each one of these traditions claims that their interpretation of what it means is the natural, obvious one. Even in terms of the psychological and ethical implications of oneness there is a diversity of opinions.

Everyone agrees that generally the experience of oneness has positive effects on those who experience it. There is a small subset of people who are mentally unhinged by it, unfortunately, as calming their habitual mental constructions actually seems to destabilize their mind.  The majority of people, however, claim that it makes them happier and kinder. Where the interpretations come in is why it makes them happier and kinder.

Happiness

The Buddha claimed that it has a tendency to produce these effects because it promotes mental clarity. The Buddha taught that calmer, happier mental states produce better thinking. Also taking a break from your habitual mental horizon can produce insight in the same way that traveling can help you see things differently when you return home. The same effect can sometimes be produced by forgetting your troubles watching a movie, but cultivating the ability to vacate your mind at will has a value that I think most people can intuitively grasp.

The Hindu traditions cited above tend to argue that the benefit of these states comes from the insight into the nature of reality that the state itself gives us. If, for instance, we realize that our true Self is not our psychological, constructed self but is rather the calm, blissful awareness/being that transcends it, or if we realize that our oneness with the ground of being is our true identity, than the ups and downs of life as experienced by the psychological self will not cause us suffering.    

Scientific studies affirm that many average people (not committed meditators) who stumble into states of oneness report experiencing love, peace, and a host of other positive emotions associated with it. Many of them believe they have experienced God and there is a strong tendency to feel comforted and inspired by the experience. Many report a reduction or elimination of their fear of death and an inspiration to be kinder, more loving people. There seems to be a general sense that the ultimate nature of reality is good, and this has profound and positive effects. Nevertheless, there is also a diversity of interpretation here. Not everyone interprets it as an experience of God, and it also does not impact all people equally profoundly, nor does it produce the same kind or degree of actual behavioral changes in the people who experience it.

Kindness

Some mystical literature claims that the experience of oneness is ethically transformative, making people more compassionate and other-regarding. The argument usually goes that once one realizes that “we are all one”, or that other selves are my self, one will care about other people as oneself.

It is not necessarily so, however. Certainly some mystics have interpreted their experiences this way in all religions, but again here there is diversity. Ramana Maharshi, who claimed to continuously experience his true self as one with the ground of all being, was indeed compassionate to those who came to live in his mountain ashram, and treated all equally regardless of class or even of species. When asked why he did not ally himself with social justice causes and try to help other people in the broader community, he replied, “Because there are no others.” This can strike you as either brilliant or just as brilliantly evasive, dependent on your cast of thought. Notably it is exactly the opposite of the effect mentioned above: here my oneness with others is the reason I don’t do anything for them. I have heard similar statements from many other nondualist teachers.

Many of Maharshi’s students were in fact solitaries, even those considered enlightened, avoiding contact with society as much as possible, and historically that is the majority reaction to Vedantic enlightenment. Most texts advise avoiding others, and most sages have either avoided other people or limited their interaction to purely spiritual matters (i.e. helping other people experience their True Self). There is a plethora of stories not only depicting sages as being reluctant to teach and interact with others but valorizing that disposition. The pleasures of absorption in the unified state are greater than those of interacting with others and with the world of multiplicity, and so these meditators are not inclined to.

There is also the radical nondualist interpretation of one-ness which holds that since selves and multiplicity are an illusion, so is morality. In traditional Tantra this was known pejoratively as the “left hand path”, but it has always had adherents and continues to have them today. Some Tantric texts praise the way of svecchara, or radical willing, where one does whatever one pleases unfettered by dualistic notions of “good and bad”. These same texts sometimes advise the use of black and magic and breaking social taboos (for instance eating meat, drinking and taking hallucinogens, and having illicit sex, including orgies, rape and incest). As a result of this tradition the yogi was sometimes seen as a bogeyman in Indian culture, and children were warned that if they were not good “the yogi would steal them”. The Buddha himself warned against this kind of radical nondualism, over a thousand years before it became significantly popular.

In recent times we have the example of teachers like Papaji, who taught the same thing as Ramana Maharshi but interpreted it as giving him moral license to act spontaneously and in an almost toddler like fashion. He would lie habitually, change his decisions on a whim, and do things like marry a young woman as his second wife and have a child with her than lose interest and abandon them both. Despite this behaviour many of Ramana Maharshi’s disciples consider him enlightened and he was the guru of some popular contemporary nondualists like Mooji and Gangaji.   

I tend to favor the Buddhist interpretation of states of oneness as being healing and promoting well-being and clarity, but I am cautious about what ontological, religious or philosophical lessons we learn from them. I am not saying that I don’t think we should draw such lessons from them, I am saying that we should think carefully about the lessons we draw. What I have written above is a relatively superficial account of the different interpretations and effects states of one-ness have on people (one could go into a lot more detail, and I haven’t touched on, for example, Sufi or Christian interpretations of these states). What I hope it demonstrates is that states of one-ness do not “self-interpret”. The assumptions we bring to them, and the clarity and depth of thought we apply to them afterwards, affect the meaning we find in them.

The other point I want to make about them is that I don’t think some of the interpretations applied to them are that compelling, an idea I hope to discuss in a follow-up post.  

The Book of Esther As A Manual of The Resistance

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In the Book of Esther, the Persian empire is ruled by a foolish, narcissistic King with neither principle nor empathy. While drunk at a party he summons his Queen, Vashti, to dance naked before the guests, and when she refuses he has her banished and makes plans to replace her (“You’re fired”, he might have said). Ahasuerus searches among all the young girls of the empire like pastries in a display case and chooses a Jewish virgin, Hadassah- Esther (Ishtar) in Persian, the story explains, the adopted daughter of Mordecai. Ahasuerus has an advisor named Haman who becomes enraged one day when Mordecai refuses to bow down to him, or, one might say, refuses to put obeisance to the state above his own conscience and his own minority identity within the Empire. Mordecai is a loyal Persian citizen, something he has proven by reporting traitorous activity and possibly saving Ahasuerus’ life. Nevertheless, Haman convinces Ahasuerus to eliminate Persia’s Jews, presenting them as a dangerous fifth column within the glorious nation.

The parallels should be all too obvious. Trump fits the model of Ahasuerus all too closely, consistently showing a marked lack of empathy for others and concern for no principles outside of his own self-aggrandizement. Like Ahasuerus, his commitments are fickle and turn with the wind. Yesterday Trump announced who his chief strategist and senior counsellor would be: Stephen Bannon,  the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement, previously the senior editor of Breitbart, the alt-right mouthpiece that under his tutelage became the nest for the iron birds of nationalism, white supremacism, misogyny and anti-Semitism. What will Bannon-Haman be whispering in the ears of King Trump?

What policy Trump will take towards Jews is unclear, and so far he seems far more dangerous as an enabler of anti-Semites. I am not suggesting that the Trump-Bannon team is chiefly a concern for Jews, however, not by a longshot. They are clearly a threat to every vulnerable group in the US- Muslims, LGBQT, women, African-Americans, refugees, immigrants, and more. What can we learn from the book of Esther about how to resist the insane malice and ignorance of Trump’s white house?

    1. Don’t bow. Mordecai does not sacrifice his conscience before the demands of the Persian government. At this time we must not budge and inch in demanding decency, rational discourse, ethical probity, and protection for the vulnerable whether we are American or, like me, we are a close neighbour concerned about the global spread of the “emotional plague” of Trumpism.
    2. Mourn Publically. When Mordecai heard of the Kings decree, he put on sack cloth and ashes and walked the streets of the city wailing loudly. Jews all throughout the provinces joined him (Esther 4:1-3). So far in the week since Trump’s election, Jews have joined protests, sat shiva in synagogues, and penned group letters expressing solidarity with vulnerable minorities. Major Jewish publications like Tablet and The Forward have been aggressively watchful and critical of Trump. This is all good, and it must continue relentlessly, especially when the Trump government begins making actual law and policy.But what of the Jewish Republicans? We turn to that next.
    3. The Lessons of Esther. I’m sure the association of Esther with Jewish Republicans will make some people very unhappy, and understandingly so. A more natural choice might be Ivanka. Whether she will play a role in standing up to Trump behind the scenes remains to be seen, and one can always hope. Ivanka aside, the Jewish Republicans are the Jews in Esther’s seat, sitting in the house of power. The Book of Esther has prophetic words for them: “Mordecai has this message delivered to Esther: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the King’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis (Esther 4:13-14).”
    4. The Lesson of The Happy/Unhappy Ending of Esther Ultimately Esther and Mordecai together turn the tables on Haman, and he is humiliated and defeated. Fickle Ahasuerus is turned again to favour the Jews, and he allows them to arm themselves and fight the hordes who descend on them on their appointed Kristallnacht. The Jews route their attackers and kill thousands of them. This is in one sense a happy ending- the Jews live, and after all the ones they kill are genocidal maniacs bent on the murder of innocent men, women and children.  On the other hand, the fact that the crisis wrought by Ahasuerus and Haman is solved by a bloody civil war between different people groups is hardly something for unalloyed joy. This is exactly the danger America, and countries throughout the world, are in danger of. If White America rises up to vent its frustrations on Muslims, Jews, African-Americans, etc., then the “minor” violence of the anti-Trump protests and the post-election hate crimes may escalate into more serious, and more bloody conflict. Now is the time for us to forge inter-communal ties, and advocate for fierce non-violence. May the Compassionate One have mercy on us all and inspire us with endurance, discernment, and love.

Memories of The Flood

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“Forty days and forty nights I held my head and cried….”

-Muddy Waters ( American blues musician, 1913-1983)

We know the story, but here’s a quick review. God brings a flood on the earth, warning and saving only Noah and his family. The world is destroyed, in Hebrew, because of  hamas:  violence,  thievery, injustice.  Noah, his family, and seed pairs of all the creatures of the earth are saved to repopulate the earth. Noah and the other survivors are aboard the ark for for forty days and forty nights. The Talmud points out that this echoes the time it takes to grow a human child in the womb (40 weeks) and the time Moses was on Mt Sinai receiving the Torah; it is a time of death, transformation and rebirth. God makes a covenant with Noah that He will not again destroy the earth- a fortunate thing for us since the earth has been filled with hamas for much of the time between Noah and now.

Yoram Hazony, in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, argues that the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) has to be understood as a form of reasoning through narrative. The Tanakh is not less philosophical than The Republic or The Nicomachean Ethics. Unlike those seminal texts of the Graeco-roman world, however, the Tanakh presents its arguments and reasonings by way of narratives.  We can extend Yoram Hazony’s argument to the mythologies of the ancient world. By examining different constructions of the primordial flood, for instance, we can perceive arguments about what is important in life, about the structure of the cosmos, and about what we should value and how we should act. Arguably Flood narratives have a particular relevance for us today as we face the threat of ecological chaos.

What is truly incredible is the ubiquitous nature of flood myths in the ancient world- a search online finds  stories from ancient Europe, Asia, Africa, the Near East, the Americas, the Pacific Islands, and Australia, ie, everywhere. Aside from the suggestion that human mythology remembers a primordial flood, reading these stories as history seems to miss the point. The narratives are educational tales. Here I will look at those of India and of Indigenous Western Canada (where I live), as these flood narratives form interesting and enlightening contrasts to the Biblical one.

India

Flood myths from India are manifold and intriguing. The hero of the flood myths is Manu, who in some versions is simply an ancient man, and in some versions is more of a demi-god, a quasi-divine being born of the gods or the primordial sages. Manu is asked by a small fish to protect him against the bigger fishes and he does. He moves the fish to bigger and bigger bodies of water until the fish is very large. The fish then tells Manu that a flood is coming to destroy the earth. In what are apparently the oldest versions no reason is given for the flood- it is a natural occurrence or it is connected to the end of the yuga, the cosmic age. In later versions, possibly dating from after exposure to Islam and its Koranic version of the Genesis story, it is said that the earth has become corrupted because a demon has stolen the holy books which guide humankind or simply because humans are behaving badly. Manu either builds a boat or ties himself to the fish and survives the flood with its protection until he can be deposited on a mountain. Later stories identify the fish as an incarnation of Brahma or Vishnu. Manu offers a sacrifice (as does the surviving hero in Genesis and the MIddle Eastern narratives of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis). In one version a woman rises magically from the fire and her and Manu repopulate the Earth. In another Manu had taken a woman and all the animals onto a boat (this is probably post-Islamic) and in another Manu and his sister were on the boat and God (here Rama) allows them to marry and repopulate the Earth. Interestingly, here a surprising addition has Rama/God angry at the fish for having told Manu of the flood and cuts out its tongue, thus explaining why fishes have been tongueless since then.

The narrative contains interesting and unique details. In all versions Manu is saved by his compassion for the fish, by his wish to save it from the violent cycle of nature in which the strong prey on the weak. This element reflects the preoccupation in Indian spiritual culture with the virtue of ahimsa, or nonviolence. In older versions the flood is a natural occurrence, not brought on by God or a god- this is a detail shared with many other flood narratives all over the world. In most versions Manu is saved by divine intervention, although in some versions it seems to be a natural result of his compassionate piety alone (ie., his good karma). It is also interesting to note that in at least one version the flood is brought by God/Rama who resents Manu’s survival. The idea here seems to be that it is the divinely ordered way of things that humans perish at the end of the yuga, ie. that they be subject to nature including death. Manu’s survival overcomes the natural, as does his saving of the fish: neither is here envisioned as the will of Rama/God. In the Indian version the evil that threatens is the violent structure of the cosmos itself, an idea consonant with Jain, Buddhist and Yogic worldviews. The lesson is that compassionate nonviolence overcomes the natural order, and even God Himself.

British Columbia, Canada

In the haunting version of the Haida, a strange woman in an unusual fur cape one day comes to their Island. The children notice that along her spine she has strange protuberances like growing plants and jeer at her, despite the censure of their Elders. She sits by the water and it comes up to her feet, and she gradually moves back further and further. Each time the water follows her until the Island is inundated. The people build canoes and the survivors are scattered all over, which gives rise different tribes. In this story the sin of the people seems to be to jeer at a stranger, or perhaps to disrespect a spirit woman. The people survive purely by their own efforts.

The Tsimshian story says the flood was born by a god who was annoyed by the noise of boys at play. The people again survive by their own efforts, and again are scattered into various tribes. An echo here of the Haida story is that again the flood is caused by children. This may suggest a theme: that of the importance of disciplining children and teaching them virtues whose absence brings chaos (the flood) to the world.

The Kwakiutl myth simply states that a flood came and submerged all but three mountains. A man, woman and dog were the only survivors, and the Bella-bella (presumably another tribe they didn’t like much?) are descended from the woman and the dog. The Kootenay version is notably different. In this myth a woman is seized and raped by a monster. The woman’s husband shoots the monster with an arrow and either the monster’s blood causes the flood or the woman pulls out the arrow and unleashes a flood. Here it seems like crimes of passion bring on the flood- it is the disrespect of the woman’s sexuality, the husband, and the marital bond which causes the eruption of chaos.

In a Squamish tale the elders of the tribe discern that a flood is coming and decide to build a giant canoe, which they do. They then put in all of the babies and their mothers, along with the bravest young men of the tribe. The survivors are stoic and “do not cry as everyone else drowns”. Eventually they come aground on Mt Baker in Washington State. This tale seems remarkable for its celebration of self-sufficiency and stoic detachment.

A Bella Coola myth is interesting for its unique positing of a god as playing a purely salvific role. In their story a god who is the creator of human beings sees the flood coming and ties the earth to the sun so it will not drown, thus saving some human beings (those able to survive the ensuing storm in boats). The survivors are scattered and this scattering gives rise to the diversity of languages. The flood here is again a result of natural causes, but God acts as a compassionate saviour figure.

The Indian and Canadian narratives shows the protean nature of the flood story. Is there a hero or just a general struggle for survival? Is the hero a human or a demi-god? Are the survivors warned by God, by a god, or by a magical or semi-divine creature? Do they survive by climbing to a high place or by building a boat? Is there one survivor, one family who survives, or scattered members of a community? If the flood is brought by God or a god, does the Divine agent both bring the flood and cause it to cease, or just act as a saviour? Does the flood come because of natural causes or divine caprice? Does it come because of divine hostility? Or because of humanity’s sin? If it is sin, is the sin violence and injustice, lack of discipline, sexual passion, or disrespect for the spirit world?

The Canadian Indigenous tales often see the flood as a result of a breach in social or spiritual mores which unleashes chaos. This breach might be dishonouring a spirit, sexuality without boundaries, or failing to discipline children. In most of the tales human beings survive the flood through their own ingenuity, clearly teaching the great importance of cultivating ingenuity and skill.  The Bella Coola story stands out here for teaching a reliance on grace, on the divine being, as key. The Indian version argues that suffering and death are a natural part of the violent cycles of nature. Human beings can be saved from this by acts of compassion, and according to a majority view this receives God’s blessing.

In the Biblical story God destroys the earth through a flood due to human beings betraying the purpose of their creation, which was to embody the image of God on earth. The assumption of the story is that this entails acting with nonviolence and justice towards each other. When humans stray into mass ethical corruption God regrets their existence and wipes them out except for Noah who is saved not through ingenuity and skill but because of his righteousness, a position closest to the Indian tales who see Manu as saved because of his compassion. A new human race descends from Noah, carrying God’s hopes for a more righteous humanity with them. The lesson here is that social injustice and violence are extreme dangers, as they offend God. If human beings are not righteous, they betray their very being, and risk corrupting nature and courting destruction. Only a commitment to personal righteousness saves, and that righteousness will provoke a grace which will save and give one the honour of carrying forward the true mission and future of humanity.

All of these stories teach important human values, and chart a path away from chaos towards human survival, whether the means is righteousness, compassion, ingenuity, or cunning.  Today it doesn’t take prophecy to see the flood coming. Pope Francis spoke well to the ethical tradition of the Bible in his Encyclical on Climate Change (Laudato Sii), where he argues that climate change is inherently both a matter of our being truant to our purpose as stewards of the Earth and a matter of social injustice and violence. Means of production which are truly ecologically responsible also tend to be more economically just and to promote long term, healthy, empowered communities. The behaviour of the resource industry over the last few centuries has been brutal to both the earth and to people, especially the poor, and it continues to be so.

The Indian flood narratives teach us that we need to be more than mere consumers or passive spectators- we need to actively care for the earth and be compassionate actors. The Indigenous narratives speak to us about the need for human ingenuity. Innovators all over the earth, many of whom increasingly take their inspiration from studying the wisdom of nature herself, are coming up with creative solutions to the crisis we are in. These are the modern day canoe builders who will ferry us above the waters. The Indigenous tales also speak of the importance of discipline and boundaries, as well as a respect for the mysterious and strange. When we lumber into the natural world without a sense of caution and reverence we are much like the Haida children who jeered at the strange woman. The Indigenous tales also echo the Genesis narrative in seeing the need for grace, for a humble calling out to Creator for help and guidance.

One could argue that today we are experiencing a flood in slow motion. Species are going extinct by the dozens every day. The water is slowly rising. I’m sure many more ancient myths could counsel us on what we will need to get through. This small sample has pointed towards social justice, compassion towards all creatures, ingenuity, discipline and respect for the mysterious and the stranger as virtues our various ancestors would recommend.

Bibliography

Hazony, Yoram. The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Isaak, Mark. Flood Narratives From Around The World. 2002. (http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html. Accessed Dec 1 2015)