Monday, January 23, 2006

All is One, and One is All

The way we define and delimit the self is arbitrary. We can place it between our ears and have it looking out from our eyes, or we can widen it to include the air we breathe, or at other moments we can cast its boundaries farther to include the oxygen giving trees and plankton, our external lungs, and beyond them the web of life in which they are sustained.
--Joanna Macy, World As Lover, World As Self

Alan Watts used to say that the fundamental insight is that all is one and one is all. In other words, every thing and event in existence implies and therefore ultimately IS the unified totality of all existence. A grain of sand is the universe because it exists how, when, and where it does only because the entire universe exists how, when, and where it does, and, conversely, the universe would not exist precisely in the way that it does if not for that single grain of sand.

If this is true of the universe and a single grain of sand, it is also true of the universe and a human being. Watts used to say that if you take all of the qualities or activities of human beings and examine them carefully enough, you’ll see that they all depend on the environment outside the human organism. For instance, human beings breathe; yet, they couldn’t do this without air. They walk; yet, they couldn’t do it without a ground to walk on. They see; yet, they couldn’t do this without external objects to see and light by which to see them. They eat; yet, they couldn’t do it without food sources. They think; yet, they couldn’t do this without things in the outside world to think about.

And, thus, when you look closely enough at the human being and the qualities that make him a human being, you understand that his existence and nature depend as much on what’s outside the skin as on what’s inside it. And this means that if what’s inside the skin is part of what a human being is, so is what’s outside it. That is, human beings are what Watts called “organism-environment fields,” and because every immediate environment of a particular human being depends for its existence on an ever-widening circle of environments until there is no wider environment to encompass it, a human being is ultimately an organism-universe field.

I used to understand the universe as largely a physical domain—an incomprehensibly vast expanse of space and time in which matter and energy form stars, planets, life, and consciousness. Actually, I still have trouble understanding it any other way. It still seems to me that consciousness is a product of matter and energy and not its cause or “ground.” But sages such as Ken Wilber seem to be saying otherwise. I understand them to say that consciousness or Spirit is the ultimate “Ground of Being,” the formless expanse or field in which matter and energy are born and take perceptible form. And personal consciousness and the human “ego” or sense of “I” is also said to take root in this formless domain. I don’t really understand this yet, much less know if it’s true. But I believe that reason and experience does lead me to the insight that all is one and one is all somehow, that Joanna Marcy is correct in what she says above, and that religion worthy of the name should be focused on empowering us to understand and feel the truth of this in the marrow of our bones.

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