The Intimacy of the Many and the One

F E B R U A R Y   2 0 1 9

When I was a young traveler on the spiritual path I longed to be one with the One. I imagined there was an end to this journey, a final Homecoming into Divine Light when my little self would vanish into God’s Self. The Sufi invocation, “Toward the One!” was my heart’s prayer, my marching orders, and I took it literally.

balletOf course I delighted in, and was mesmerized by, the world of the senses, but my metaphysical view was that this world of Manyness, however beguiling, was a weight around my spirit’s ankles; I thought spiritual freedom would be achieved when the beguiling world no longer held me down.

Maybe by the grace of growing older, that view has changed. It no longer feels like a matter of “here” and “there” — that our lives are like attendance in a school of Manyness where we’re prepared for graduation into Oneness.

I’ve come to sense that it’s much more subtle, and more magical, than that. Manyness and Oneness are not two, even though they’re not the same. They are intimate and simultaneous, like wetness is to water or the dance is to the dancer.

The Oneness I thought I was going toward is not far away — it’s not waiting for me to be enlightened or to join it after I die. It’s just as present as the paper on which I write these words. The sensations of my body and the feelings and thoughts that flow through are expressions of ever-present Oneness. Even to say they are “expressions” of Oneness is a little misleading, since that word implies some separation in both space and time between that which expresses and the expression itself.

Trying to understand this intellectually is not so important, although it can be fun if you enjoy metaphysical speculation. What has been more important for me is to absorb this mystery into my moment-to-moment experience.

I will try to explain how this happens for me, as briefly and as simply as I can, in the hope that it may also be helpful to you.

Looking directly at my moment-to-moment experience, I recognize that inseparable from this moment is my awareness of it and my presence with it. My aware presence is not outside of this moment. It’s right here. In fact, I can’t really claim it’s “my” aware presence — whatever is unique to me as a human being — my personality, feelings, thoughts, memories — are contained within this mystery of aware presence.

When I look for what aware presence actually is, I don’t find anything definable in the way things that appear in the world are definable. Aware presence doesn’t show up like that — and yet whatever it is, it’s obvious and self-evident: aware presence is always right here. The things I perceive keep changing while this aware presence neither moves nor stays still — it’s simply not in the dimension of space or time in which things move or are static.

If you’re still with me, you may already intuit that what I’m calling “aware presence”— this indefinable yet utterly obvious field in which everything appears — is identical with the Oneness I longed for as a young seeker. The “One” I wished to move toward is not waiting at the end of the spiritual quest. It’s here, intimately present in the ever-changing display of phenomena. And it doesn’t require us to abandon this world of Manyness to perceive it. We are it.

Let me quickly add the obvious: we’re not only the Oneness revealed through our aware presence, we’re also creatures of Manyness — each of us so unique and particular, each of us appearing as this living changingness, moment to moment, each of us impermanent and dear.

This may seem like a contradiction — our experience as impermanent and personal beings (the Many) and our recognition that we are beyond personality (the One) — but are these two really in opposition? Are they even in some kind of “relationship?” As Yeats famously asked, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

There’s always the risk, when talking like this, of getting lost in abstraction. As I mentioned above, what has been most important for me is to absorb this mystery into my moment-to-moment experience, opening to its intimate revelation again and again throughout my days.

It’s always surprising, always fresh. The dance of the One and the Many, of aware presence and ever-changing experience, is not an abstract exercise — not at all. It’s the most intimate and loving play we can experience, right here and right now.