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.
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.
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.