Unity: As Concept or Experience
Dr. Stephen Fulder
In Psalm 133 we read: “See: how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.” The sense of unity is one of the greatest and most lovely of experiences that we can have. Usually it is restricted to moments, and also to specific situations, such as a moment of complete togetherness and intimacy with someone we love... a moment of breathless unity at the top of the mountain or swimming under the waves of the sea. It is also experienced only as long as there is no fear and insecurity. For example, we may feel a sense of unity in ‘our’ group or nation or belief, as long as ‘the others’ are kept safely away. This is an illusion of unity, dependent on certain conditions or boundaries that we set up. It is more of a feeling of comfort than a feeling of unity. But imagine how it would feel if those moments were extended to become part of our daily life? Imagine how it would feel if the unity was not just with a chosen few but with all life, if the word ‘brothers’ in the Psalm implied partners, participators, with all living beings with whom we dwell together in this world? Imagine if the sense of unity was not only with all life but with the basis and ground of life itself, namely the sense of the sacred, the divine, that holds us all?
The sense of unity is a wonderful feeling, but why is it so occasional, so dependent on certain conditions? It is because the dominant sense in our consciousness is that of separation, of being locked in to a rather lonely and self-centred ego, or self, from which we look out at the world. This is the human condition, that begins more or less at birth. We are born as an integral part of the world, and then gradually learn to survive in it by being a separate self, an identity, very occupied with looking after ourselves. The experiences of unity, such as falling in love, come as a very strong breakthrough, or memory, of how things can be without this separation. They are all the more wonderful because of the relaxation of these boundaries, this breach in the walls of the personal prison from which we run our lives. Moments of unity can be all the more ecstatic because of the contrast. I remember some sublime moments of unity in the peace dialogues and workshops we did between Israelis and Palestinians. Moments in which there was a silent joining of hearts and a look of love in the eyes. The joy rose because of the sense of togetherness felt between people who are usually so tragically separate. Those moments felt like ‘brothers dwelling together in unity’.
We feel these experiences so rarely, and long for them so much, that it is small wonder that it is something constantly in the back of our minds and in our hearts. It is a deep longing for completion or one-ness that is channelled into thoughts, philosophies, art, rituals, worship, etc. But we have to be very aware that the experience of unity is not the same as thoughts about it. When we think, or talk about the One, or one-ness, or unity, it does feel that there is an ultimate truth in it, though often hard to grasp, but it is still in the territory of concept. Spiritual teachers can talk about it from morning to night but this may never get through as an experience to those that listen. I remember Swami Shyams, in the Himalayas, talking to my 11 year old daughter about unity. My daughter turned to him and said ‘how on earth can this nail be in one-ness with the wood it nails. They are two?’
As a concept it is something that we have, or form, in our minds. In other words, there is us, and there is the concept of unity. Two things. Duality. Unity gone. More than that, as a concept, we somehow feel we possess it. We can’t help it. Many go around talking about unity as if it belongs to them, though he or she often lives in quite the opposite way. A recent study by an Israeli researcher on those taking part in a New Age event, found that they were at least as busy with who is the ‘in-group’ and who is the ‘out group’, as the average person.
A potent example that illustrates the contrast between concept and experience is the primary statement of unity in the Jewish faith: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad. ‘Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One’. Most Jews emphasise ‘The Lord is One’ as a key statement of faith in unity. But it implies possession (‘our God’). It implies that God is one but we are separate, and stating the fact. The way to the experience of unity would not regard ‘One’ or ‘God’ as the most important word in the sentence but ‘Hear!’ ‘Wake up!’ ‘Listen!’ By waking up, deeply attending to our moment by moment life in the world, we practice unity, we meet the divine that includes both us and the world.
So how do we go about seeking a real experience and full understanding of unity. There are of course multitudes of ways which people have explored to realise their sense of belonging and intimacy with the whole. There is intensive dancing, prayer, music, yoga, meditation, and the thousand ways to open the heart to the world. Yoga incidentally means union or unity in Sanskrit. And there are the non-dual teachings such as Advaita Vedanta in which there is no seeking for unity as something ‘over there’, but a dropping into it right here. But in all these ways, we have to be serious and committed. Prayer, for example, is the commonest way, but mostly it is far from unity – we pray to some other (deity or saint) for some benefit to ourselves or our group. Only if the prayer is so intensive that we are absorbed and released from our boundaries, would it bring us to unity. In meditation, one of the best ways is to simply pay attention to what is coming in to us through the senses. If continuously present, we become more and more of a participant and less an observer, and gradually grow towards enduring experiences that the world and ourselves are one.
What tends to happen is that we first feel the painful sense of our separation (us from them, us from ourselves, us from the world, us from God). This may seem far from unity, but it is actually the first step. Before we can get out of prison we need to notice that we are in one, and then to see where are the walls....and then where is the door. It needs great humility, and also persistence and patience. Only then we may get hints of its opposite, of what is not separate. There is an ancient Indian riddle that asks: what is the spiritual journey? It is like ants eating a cube of sugar. We would immediately assume that the sugar is the sweet spiritual experience and the ants are us that consume it. Wrong. It is the other way round. We are the cube of sugar, and the ants are the spiritual experiences that gradually consume our separate self until we are ‘eaten up’ and disappear into the world.