Having written a well-received book called "Return to the One," I've obviously thought a lot about oneness. My views have changed considerably since I wrote the book.
I used to believe that the goal of a spiritual or self-realized life was to merge the soul's immaterial consciousness with universal consciousness, which often is termed God or The One.
Now, I've got another view of oneness. A simpler one. A more easily achieved one. A considerably more scientific one.
What I am, what we all are, what everything in the universe is -- its the stuff of physics. Julian Baggini puts it this way in his book that I'm re-reading, "The Ego Trick." (See my previous blog post.)
To these we can add the third truth: that there is no stuff in the universe other than the stuff of physics. Not so long ago, you could have put that same basic thought in simpler terms and it would probably have been more perusasive: there is nothing in the universe apart from matter.
That formulation has become both less persuasive and less accurate, since developments in physics have changed the way we think about the fundamental constituents of the universe. The best simplification we can now come up with is that the universe is at root comprised of energy, but at the smallest, quantum level, this energy is so weird and mysterious it's difficult to know how to describe it in ways that aren't contentious and question-begging.
...So we have these three facts: thoughts and feelings are real, they are not describable in purely physical terms, but the universe has within it only the physical things described by the equations of physicists. It seems the only way to make sense of this is that mental events emerge from physical ones, without being strictly identical with them.
As the neurologist Todd E. Feinberg puts it, "your life is not a pack of cells; your life is what yuor particular pack of cells collectively do, though I cannot observe such a thing as your life, touch it, put it under a microscope, or keep it on a bottle on a shelf."
Thought and feeling are what matter does, when it is arranged in the remarkably complex ways that brains are. Matter is all that is needed for them to exist, but they are not themselves lumps of matter. In this sense, "I" is a verb dressed as a noun.
...There is nothing about the very concept of the psychological that requires us to think of it as being separate or separable from the physical.
In one sense, what Baggini says is so obvious, it hardly needs saying. But actually, it does.
Because what he calls the "ego trick" is so strong, so compelling, so intuitively attractive, we humans find it easy to believe that our essential being is some sort of immaterial consciousness floating somewhere behind our eyes, inside our head.
In reality, says Baggini:
This helps us to understand how the Ego Trick works. It is able to create something which has a strong sense of unity and singleness from what is actually a messy, fragmented sequence of experiences and memories, because all mental experience emerges from a messy, fragmented and hugely complicated set of processes in the brain.
We do not yet fully understand how this trick works, but we know that it does. Those who hold on to the idea that something other than a functioning brain is required to create persons with a sense of self are simply not looking the evidence in the face.
Just because some mysteries remain, that does not mean that everthing is a mystery, and it certainly doesn't mean we are justified in appealing to other mysteries, like souls, to plug the gaps in our understanding. On the question of whether we are physical beings or not, the case should be closed.
OK. I agree. The case is closed. We are physical beings.
So if we want to continue to use the word "spiritual" to mean a pursuit of the most refined nature of our humanity, this search will be pursued through the physical. Namely, the body. Our bodies. My body. Your body. The body every living entity is.
Note: I didn't say "The body every living entity inhabits." I'll admit that this word popped into my mind as I was composing the last sentence in the preceding paragraph, because old habits die hard.
For me, they die happily.
The more I'm able to not only intellectually realize that I am physical body (not immaterial soul or spirit), but to feel this in the depth of my being as an intuitive truth about my true nature, the more joyous I feel.
Most of my life I've been searching for The One, for unity, for the single reality behind appearances. After looking in the wrong place -- somewhere distant from the here-and-now of this world -- I've come to understand that the one I've been looking for is what I've always been.
Matter. Energy. The stuff of physics. The body that is me. I'm no different from everything else in the universe. It and me, we're one. Always have been. Always will be.
Yes, the material form called "me" will pass away, change form, disintegrate, be reconstituted into other material forms. I never was separate from everything. Everything just temporarily came together into a form with the capacity for consciousness -- me.
I hope you can see how beautiful this is. If not, that's fine. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.