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Eternal Oneness of Being

"How present human experience can be eternal divine life"

Sea of Faith in Australia (SoFiA) Melbourne: ZOOM meeting: Saturday 28 November 2020

Thanks for fitting my bit from the Perennial Philosophy into this series of talks on Gnostic religions.

My topic for today is a single big idea, which is common to both traditions, namely, that the universe is alive and aware of itself – not least of all in our awareness of it – and that knowing the divine Consciousness of the universe is the salvation of eternal life. While I'm writing a book on the idea, here are its main elements.

Perennial Philosophy is the shared wisdom at the heart of all spiritual traditions. Its ultimate goal is to know our true divine nature and to be united with God in the present lifetime. To know ourselves and to find God is the salvation of eternal life. As Gnostic religions have the same aim of self-knowledge and God-realisation, they're often included in the general fold of Perennialism. This paper explores the possibility of discovering eternal life before we die.

Broadly speaking, Perennialism and Gnosticism are based on three interrelated axioms: 1) everything has a spiritual dimension, or divine reality of Oneness; 2) since we are part of everything, we have a divine reality, which is the unity of our spiritual soul; and 3) to know the spiritual dimension of divine Oneness in ourselves and everything else is the salvation of eternal life. The unity or Oneness in us and all things is variously called the Logos, or Pleroma; it's the Spirit or Mind of Oneness that overflows from the ultimate unity of God the One. This essay explains the divine unity of the Logos in terms of the eternal "Oneness of Being".

Needless to say, the divine reality of Oneness doesn't feature highly in the analyses of everyday human experience as provided by conservative faith and conventional philosophy. Indeed, popular religion and common sense prioritize plurality and separation over unity and connection. In Church we're taught that as creatures we are separate from the Creator; in Academia we're taught that as subjects we are separate from objects. In that way, we're conditioned to accept as normal a feeling of alienation and dissatisfaction with life in the present world. We're told that any hope of relief from suffering, to find lasting happiness, is to be postponed until after we're dead, if not forsaken altogether. My search for a present life alternative to disenchantment led me to the discovery of the eternal Oneness of Being.

What I call the divine "Oneness of Being" isn't new. It's an old idea, just seen in a new light. Discovering the Oneness is the culmination of the timeless religious and spiritual quest to find meaning in this life that endures into the next life. The Wisdom traditions of Perennial Philosophy (including Gnostic religion) have long told that the way to the everlasting life of the Oneness is by transcending the dualities, unity/plurality, subject/object, and all the rest.

Indeed, the English noun "religion" derives from the Latin verb religare, meaning "to tie-back to", or reconnect with, the ultimate unity of God the One. All unease and suffering due to separation from the primordial Oneness are rectified by reintegrating with the Oneness.

Both Perennialism and Gnosticism see the metaphysical landscape synoptically; they have an integrated vision of reality, the soul and salvation. In their single scope on this life and the next, the realms aren't divided by a perceptual veil, but united by one intelligible reality.

The ground of connection is the Logos, or Oneness of Being, that is present in all things, as all things are present in it. The Logos is all that knows and is known. In human beings, it is similar to, or identical with, our spiritual soul. Since the divine reality of our soul was never born, it will never die; hence gnosis, or knowing the divine reality of Oneness, is eternal life.

The Greek term gnosis (wisdom) is etymologically related to the Sanskrit jnana, and to the English knowing. Gnosis, jnana, is knowing the spiritual reality of divine Oneness underlying the appearance of physical multiplicity. To know the metaphysical unity of divine reality is psychologically transformative for the knower, and constitutes liberation from the manifold human condition. Through gnosis, says Hans Jonas (The Gnostic Religion, p.165), 'the self, while still in the body, might attain the Absolute as an immanent, if temporary, condition.' For the duration of knowing the Oneness, our individual life is one with eternal divine life.

This gnosis is characteristic of the schools of Christian and Jewish Gnosticism that flourished in the early centuries CE (Common Era). Yet, a similar (or the same) knowing of the unity of divine Being occurs widely outside that particular flowering in late Western Antiquity.

Intuitive knowledge of the Oneness of Being is found in Christianity from St. Paul to Meister Eckhart, in Neoplatonism from Philo Judaeus of Alexandria to St. Denys, and in esoterics like George Fox, Thomas Taylor, G.W.F. Hegel, Emmanuel Swedenborg, William Blake, Walt Whitman, W. B. Yeats, Carl Jung, and Franz Kafka, as well as the Freemasons, Theosophical Society, and Christian Science. The Western stream of sophia perennis (or eternal wisdom) has its Eastern equivalents in the Hindu sanathana dharma and Islamic al-hikmat al-kalida.

Thoughtful and mystical people in all times and places have been 'gnostic' in their arts and their lives. Indeed, gnosis isn't just an historical curiosity: it's a recurring psychological state of transcending the dualities, that arises in contemplative spaces, such as the Yoga mat, the prayer cushion, the garden kneeler, and the walking trail.

Gnosis, direct knowledge of divine unity, dispels the common human delusion of separate existence. To know the Oneness is to be united with God the One whose Oneness it is, and in that divine unity there is no duality.

To clarify the delusion of the everyday human world, it's that things are separate from one another and that we are separate from them. That's a delusion because our limited senses don't see literally everything, such as the air and microbes and atoms and light and gravity and nuclear forces and cosmic background radiation and dark matter and energy that fill the space between things. If we saw the invisible connections between visible things (everything as stardust, from the explosively expanding Primordial Singularity!) we'd know All is One.

Indeed, that view of the interconnection of everything into one thing is a prime attractor of young minds to explanations of the quantum universe as a single field of living and aware energy. In her recent novel Summer (2020, Random House), Ali Smith paraphrases Albert Einstein to say: 'the only real religion humans can have is the matter of freeing ourselves from the delusion that we are separate from each other and that we're separate from the universe; and the only peace of mind we'll ever get is trying to overcome that delusion.'

Anyway, among the Christian gnostics, my favourite is Valentinus (c.100-160) who was runner-up in an election for Pope. He was a charismatic RE teacher who ended his days in Egypt, where he influenced significant Church figures such as St. Clement of Alexandria and Origin. In his Fragment 4, Valentinus says: 'From the beginning you have been immortal, and you are children of eternal life.' That line is noteworthy for its echo of the famous phrase from the Biblical Creation stories at the start of Genesis and John ("In the beginning..."), and also in that Valentinus speaks directly to our true spiritual nature as eternal beings, right here right now.

We may think we are simply our fleeting empirical ego. With initiation into the wisdom of gnosis, however, we know our true self to be the divine reality of Oneness that is present in us and all things and lives and minds. The Gnostic knows that all minds have a subconscious connection to the one infinite Intelligence. Indeed, all that exists is made of, located in, and dependent on the one divine Mind (Excerpta 8). And our true identity is forever united with that mind of God, or Logos (Excerpta 6), that is veiled in the back of our finite human mind.

Gnosis is the wisdom of knowing the subliminal Intelligence, the Logos, that is the Oneness of Being and our true divine nature. With sustained practices of spiritual development, the soul bypasses the veils between human reason and divine reality. Once we identify with the intrinsic Oneness of our true divine nature, our soul attains the prerequisite for union with God. But we can't know God if we don't know ourselves, for God is more real than we are.

Valentinus' successor, Theodotus says (Excerpta 78): gnosis is the wisdom of knowing 'who we were, what we have become, where we were, into what place we have been thrown, whither we are hastening, from what we are redeemed; what birth is, what re-birth is.' In that way, gnosis is the wisdom of knowing ourselves; it is the insight of recognising our true divine nature; and such self-knowledge is the eternal salvation of being one with God.

The arc of self-knowledge crosses the threshold between history and eternity, body and soul, creature and Creator, this life and the next. As Huxley (p.21) says: 'It is because we don't know Who we are, because we are unaware that the Kingdom of Heaven is within us, that we [suffer unease in ordinary life]. We are saved, we are liberated and enlightened, by perceiving the hitherto unperceived good that is already within us, by returning to our eternal Ground and remaining where, without knowing it, we have always been.'

In The Perennial Philosophy, Huxley's most quoted luminary, the C.13th monk and mystic Meister Eckhart, says: 'Our being here is our eternal being. Many people imagine here to have creaturely being, and divine being to be yonder. It is a popular delusion.'[i] Wittgenstein (Tractatus, 6.4311) agrees: 'eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.' Thich Nhat Hanh adds: to keep our appointment with the present, 'the place is here, the time is now.'

So, if we've been living here in eternal life from the beginning, how come we don't know it? T. S. Eliot offers a key to unlocking an intelligible explanation; he says: 'Humankind cannot bear too much reality.' Our finite human mind just can't comprehend infinite divine unity. St. Paul tells of having his mind blown by seeing Christ the Logos on the road to Damascus. Hence, we need to identify with our divine soul, for it can cope with knowing divine reality.

To be one with all things in the eternal Logos is our original estate, "from the beginning", as Valentinus calls it. As a survival tactic for our fleeting empirical ego, however, we look away from the Oneness – by dividing and so multiplying it – because its unity is too much to bear.

In consequence, instead of seeing spiritual Oneness, we see a physical multiplicity; and yet, the physical world is what spiritual reality looks like when glimpsed through human eyes. Thus, Jesus says (Gospel of Thomas 113): 'The kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it'. Lao Tzu ( Tao Te Ching 14) concurs: 'We look at [the Tao] and do not see it. We listen to it and do not hear it. We touch it and do not find it.' Plotinus (Enneads VI.5.12) agrees also: 'We seek without finding, for looking elsewhere, we do not see what stands there before us.'

Lex Hixon's Zen Oxherding commentary explains our ordinary predicament: 'Having turned [our] back on True Nature, [we] cannot see it. Because of [our] deluding senses [we have] lost sight of it. Yet, True Nature has never really gone astray.'[ii] The simple and partless unity of divine Being is ever-present, but it is rendered invisible by the dualizing mind, which is in thrall to the plurality of phenomena and unable to detect the intrinsic unity of the Oneness.

Hence, common sense reasoning simply looks right through divine unity, without seeing it at all. Yet, Lao Tzu consoles us: 'You can't know it, but you can be it, at ease in your own life.'

To find the partless reality of divine Oneness, Plotinus (I. 6. 9) says: 'We must close our eyes and invoke a different manner of seeing, a wakefulness that is the birth-right of us all, though few put it to use.' The Fox gives similar advice to Saint-Exupéry's Little Prince: 'It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.'

To apprehend our Oneness of Being in the divine Logos, we must open the inner spiritual eye of our heart (or soul) and see with the intuitive vision of Knowing. It is only that higher, more unitary state of consciousness that can access the deeper, undivided levels of reality – and we do it daily, in recalling the past, dreaming of the future, and imagining alternatives.

So, let's imagine the Oneness with Native American Lakota Chief, Luther Standing Bear, who says: 'From Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, there came a great unifying life force that flowed in and through all things – the flowers of the plains, blowing winds, rocks, trees, birds, animals – and was the same force that had been breathed into the first man. Thus, all things were kindred, and were brought together by the same Great Spirit.' We can imagine that the unifying and animating Oneness is in us, and that we're part of it, as are all things and lives and minds. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas points in that unitary direction, when he writes of how: 'The force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my green age.'

Ralph Waldo Emerson describes such a connected experience of Oneness (Nature, 1836): 'Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am a part or particle of God.'

In the experience of Oneness, there is no separation; rather, everything is connected to everything else, including us. We're part of the whole, and there's only one of them. For a visual image, we might imagine the Tree of Life, with its trunk and branches, and see every leaf on it, and feel the whole life of the tree flowing through the experience of each individual leaf, which isn't separate but part of the whole that is one.

As Meister Eckhart deftly describes it (Blakney, Meister Eckhart, p.173): 'The whole scattered world of lower things is gathered up to oneness when the soul climbs up to that life in which there are no opposites.' That ascent of the soul to a higher state of consciousness is gnosis (i.e. knowing) the deeper level of reality where poles and dualities are resolved in the Oneness of Being. The higher and deeper life of undivided Oneness is the Logos, the eternal divine ground that we glimpse in our passing human experience, for fifty or a hundred years if we're lucky. In that Oneness of Being, we're part of everything and everything is one thing. We aren't separate from anything else in the Oneness – but the moment we start to think and talk about it, we introduce the distinctions and separations that belong to dualistic discourse.

What I'm proposing is that the divine Oneness of Being is the constant accompaniment to every human experience. It's the invisible dimension of visible things, like the unseen inner side and hidden reverse side of everything that we can see. It's the subtle nature by which obvious things are known, like the awareness that notices our perceptions. The Oneness is the unchanging nature of everything that changes. It's the constant background that unites each passing moment. It's the reality signified, but untouched, by those verbal descriptions.

The Oneness isn't a physical object; rather, it's an experience of transcendence in ordinary life itself. Because the Oneness is unique to itself, it has a distinctive quality that can assist in identifying it. As Suzanne Vega sings: 'It's a one-time thing/ it just happens/ a lot.' We can notice the Oneness when we are one with it – immersed in the ocean of Being – but to think or say anything about it is to fall out of the immediacy of it. The Oneness is a participatory experience that we can enjoy, but it eludes objectivization in discursive thought and talk.

Hence, Clement advises (Stromaties Book 1): 'it is the mind which is the appropriate faculty for knowing' the Oneness of Being, since 'the Best of Beings cannot be apprehended except by the mind alone.' But if the mind uses dualistic categories of thought, the Oneness remains unseen, as it's located in the "blind spot" of dualism, where the binaries intersect each other.

Thus, intuitive gnosisof divine unity is often said to be "secret". The Gospel of Thomas (1:1) begins: 'These are the secret sayings of the living Jesus; whoever finds their meaning will not know death.' Later, the Gnostic Jesus (Thomas 22) gives a clue to unlock the secret path to salvation through transcending and uniting the opposites: 'When you make the two into one and when you make the inner as the outer, ...then you will enter [the kingdom of Heaven].' In the salvation of knowing the Oneness, the inside and the outside are one and the same.

The Tibetan Hevajra Tantra (Tr. D. L. Snellgrove) similarly begins with a declaration of secrecy: 'Greatly to be revered is this most secret of all secret things,' it says, which is the experience of the Void (sunyata) of Buddha-nature. It, too, goes on to affirm the union of opposites as the way to the Oneness of liberation: 'As it is outside,' says Sri Hevajra (HVT, 53), 'so it is within.'

Yet, given its secret nature, we can't be told what the Oneness is – we must work it out for ourselves – just as a taste can be described in words, but is only truly known in experience.

That said, let's do our best to imagine how the two can be one. Let's approach the Oneness via the duality of self and Cosmos, by juxtaposing inner life and outer world. We know it's within ordinary experience to be aware of things in the world and to be aware of thoughts in our mind. Since we can be aware of outer objects and of inner ideas, somewhere in our awareness there must be a threshold where both the outside and inside intersect as one.

That point of intersection isn't only the union of the inner and the outer, it's the unity of all conceptual opposites that are based on the initial duality of the self and the Cosmos. The Oneness inhabits that dimensionless point of simultaneous and undivided awareness of all the polarities, wherein 'the darkness and the light are both alike to Thee' (Psalm139:12).

The Logos, Pleroma, or Oneness of Being, is the true nature of all things and lives and minds, including us. The Oneness is our ever-present natural estate, and we're more familiar with it than we are with anything else. And in the Logos, things aren't separate but partial realisations of the undivided Oneness of All. Yet, except exceptionally, we don't notice the Oneness; rather, we forget to remember it, we so take it for granted that we're often unconscious of it, as we are of the beating of our heart, the breathing of our lungs, and of our own subliminal thoughts.

Since the ordinary dualizing mind thrives on plurality, so it can't bear too much Oneness. Hence, the need for spiritual exercises to calm the body, quiet the mind, and still the soul so we can detect and identify with the undivided Oneness of our true divine nature. Otherwise, as the C.7th St. Isaac of Syria might say: God is love and radiates only love; yet, not everyone can accept the divine Oneness of God's love – and those who refuse it, turn it into hellfire.

To accept the Oneness of Being in our own experience, we must be at ease in our own life.

Unease and suffering arise from tension between inner consciousness and outer existence. Mostly, we see ourselves from the inside, but see everything else from the outside. And we connect to ourselves without thinking about it, but we're distantiated from everything else.

Due to that lopsided and partial view of Being, we wrongly believe that subject and object, self and Cosmos, are separate. Yet, the delusion of separation only appears when we are already divided from the Oneness. When we have a single scope on ourselves and all things – if we believe the Gnostics – then the consequence of belief is seeing that all dualities are resolved in the gnosis of knowing that we and the universe aren't really two separate things, just different viewpoints that see different sides of the same thing, the Oneness of Being.

What we experience as consciousness is the eternal inner life of the Oneness of Being, and what we experience as existence is the temporary outer look of the Oneness of Being. And Jesus counsels us to unite the two (Thomas, 70): 'If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.' We're saved by knowing the eternal Oneness of the Being we already are.

Occasionally, in reflective spaces (bushwalking, gardening, prayer, contemplation, dadirri), we're blessed to notice moments of transcendence, when our inner life meshes seamlessly with the outer world. We find ourselves entirely relieved of effort, inhabiting only the peace and grace and joy of participating in the undivided Oneness of Being and all beings. In gnosis (the "knowing" before thought and beyond words), our actual experience is the infinite and eternal beauty, love and intelligence of the Logos, the overflowing Oneness of God the One.

For as long as our experience of knowing the Oneness lasts, we know we are that part of ourselves that doesn't believe in death, and we know that part will never die. Being in tune with the Oneness doesn't have to be a Damascus Road epiphany. At ease in our own life, the Oneness can present as a unique and recurring experience of connection, where we rest in peace without any doubt that our present human experience is already eternal divine life.


[i] Meister Eckhart, quoted in Rudolf Otto (1932) Mysticism: East and West; p.211 – https://ia801603.us.archive.org/21/items/in.ernet.dli.2015.281152/2015.281152.Mysticism-East.pdf

[ii] Lex Hixon, "Ox Herding pictures?, in John White (Ed) (1984) What is Enlightenment? Aquarian Press: UK