Unitive Consciousness

Religion remained a blank slate for me for a long time in my youth and short encounters left no impression and I wasn’t confirmed either. When I joined the army, I was already looking for a means to leave England, which I found to be restrictive – at least for me. But because the army wasn’t the best place to break out of restrictions, I soon had difficulties, but I had learnt German in school and after making a fool of myself trying to speak the language, I was able to make friends and finally settled there, marrying a local girl. This is when I came back to the church and had a first real conversation with a Pastor. I then bought a Bible and, perhaps curiously, started reading Erich Fromm. In To Have or To Be, Fromm spoke of Marx, Christ, and Buddha, which made me go looking for further reading material. The Bible was a difficult read, and after a while I read more about the Bible than in the book itself.

In the 1980s Alan Watts was the source I needed to conduct more expansive research of what religion is, and he also introduced me to further sources. It was his way of explaining things that had enraptured audiences in America as long as he lived, and this popularity continued through his books and his tapes after his untimely death at 58. I remember passing that age thinking, how much this man had achieved in such a short time. His access to the traditions that were even more foreign to people in the West then was extraordinary, and his ability to explain the variance of perspective was very special.

He explained, “…to get into the unitive world underneath, underlying, and supporting the everyday practical world, there have to be certain alterations in one’s common sense. There are certain ideas—and beyond these ideas, certain feelings—that are difficult to get across not because they’re intellectually complicated—not at all because of that—but because they’re unfamiliar. They’re strange. We haven’t been brought up to accommodate them.” This was especially true of a young man from Britain who had been through a number of schools, unable to settle down to learn, and joined the army in desperation to get out into the world that he had glimpsed in his childhood.

By the time I was 25, after catching up at night school, and having a grand hunger for books, Watts made sense to me, because I had noticed how much convention and habit dominated the way people thought about things. Especially living in Germany by then, speaking a different language, you start to notice things about your own culture that you had seen differently. How much more foreign then, would you encounter culture as foreign to us as in past Asian cultures? Watts explained the differences in ways that everyone could follow, and it echoed several conversations I had with a philologist regarding ancient Hebrew and Greek. It became clear to me that I had been missing a great deal indeed.

One statement caught my attention and changed the way I think considerably: “… there is, here—what I’m trying to explain—a new idea that most people don’t assimilate, and that is the idea of the total interdependence of everything in the world. The Buddhists in Japan call it jiji muge (事事无碍): meaning ‘Between thing and thing, between event and event, there is no block.’ And they represent this, imagistically, as a network.”

He continued, “Imagine a multidimensional spiderweb covered in dew in the morning, and every single drop of dew on this web contains in it the reflections of all the other drops of dew. And, of course, in turn, in every drop of dew that one drop reflects, there is the reflection of all the others again. And they use this image to represent the interdependence of everything in the world.”

I read this after joining a pietistic group devoted to Bible reading, which had taught me much, although I was clearly going through a phase. I had also trained as a nurse, and my experiences with dying patients on a geriatric ward contributed to the multitude of new insights that flooded into my mind. My teacher in nursing school had told me that I was on a journey and that nursing would probably not be enough to satisfy my fascination, but it brought a whole new perspective on life and death. The mingling of these impressions caused a lot of confusion, and internal conflict.

However, the idea of interdependence flooded the biblical world I had occupied for a while, demolishing the idea of a lineal development suggested by the narrative of the Bible, and looking at the meaning between the lines. It also caused me to open up to other traditions and one fascinating read was the exposition of D.T. Suzuki of Genesis 1+2. Meditation and other contemplative practices opened up other venues of thought for me, and soon I was using techniques from traditions that taught unitive awareness and gave me a completely different idea of God. I was listening more than praying to God, trying to open myself to the awareness of unity, to the peace that could also be called love of God, and drop all of those things that prevented that. I tried to discuss these things with people on a discussion forum and found several people who gave me a lot of input.

A misfortune came when I was promoted and became assistant nursing manager in the home where I had started as a trainee, and my loyalty to my way was put to the test. Eventually, I changed employers but became a nursing supervisor myself after my further training, which continued the difficulties I had with loyalty to my staff and responsibilities as a manager, but I did what I could. On top of that, I had become an elder in the local church and became involved in a conflict that hurt my soul. What I had been told earlier that I was on a journey, a spiritual journey was true, and the strife in the institutions I was involved with ran counter to that.

It led to a sudden jolt and effectively a reset for my life, which was difficult for many people around me to understand. I started orientating myself away from conventional Christianity, towards the perennial wisdom of the ages, egged on by authors who seemed to have made a similar discovery. In comparative studies, a shadow started to appear that became clearer as time went on, and it became apparent to me that despite the clear cultural differences of the traditions, there was an underlying commonality. It didn’t make any difference whether there was one God or many gods in the traditions, they were reaching beyond themselves, beyond the metaphors, beyond the symbols that were necessary to fill the ineffable gap that arose when confronted with the ground of being.

As Alan Watts had once quoted, the teacher points to the moon and the student stares at the finger. Zen teachers often say that the teachings are like a finger pointing at the moon. The finger is useful because of what it points us toward, not as an object of study for its own sake. Watts also quoted the Buddha who compared his Dharma (teachings, practices) as a raft to help get us to the far shore, there to be abandoned. Jesus said, “I did one work, and you all marvel at it … Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do…” He was also pointing beyond himself, but the church gazes at him.

Much later I came across a young man who connected the world of science with a metaphysical worldview: Bernado Kastrup. He showed in his books that he was far from being the first to discover what he had discovered, but because of the lack of unified language, it was not considered as a unifying theory. In his books[i][ii][iii] he attacked the materialism that had been the common stand and still is and stated that consciousness does not arise from matter. He had hit upon this when, as a computer scientist, he considered the possibility of a conscious artificial intelligence and concluded that there was no way to create an artificial intelligence that could be as conscious as a human being. Therefore, as a consequence, consciousness must be the basis of all that is and not material. He showed how many people had come to a similar conclusion, despite the rejection by the scientific community.

Suddenly the idea of unitive awareness came flooding back, the common denominator of the world traditions. It was when I was reading Mark Vernon’s A Secret History of Christianity[iv] that I thought, yes there is something in what he was saying that could point what we have discovered in unitive awareness in Christ. He writes about the “Oxford Inkling”, Owen Barfield, who realized that the human experience of life shifts fundamentally over periods of cultural time. Our awareness of things evolves even in a lifetime and human consciousness changes dramatically across history. He proposed that it happens in three phases:

  1. Original Participation
  2. Withdrawal of participation
  3. Reciprocal participation.

Original participation is the experience of humanity at a time when it was caught up in the drama of existence, living at the level of the collective, with little distinction between inside and outside, experience and perception, and a with a continuous flow between what is “me” and “not me”. “Early man did not observe nature in our detached way,” Barfield writes. “He participated mentally and physically in her inner and outer processes.” Vernon concludes, “It’s in the waves of emotion that sweep across a crowd as, then, there’s a temporary dissolution of the boundaries between the individual and others. It’s an experience that’s akin to stepping back in time.”

Another way of putting that is to say that, is when a state of unitive awareness is achieved, the ‘I’ is transcended, and a sense of consciousness is created in which no such dichotomies are present. In other words, unitive awareness is non-dual consciousness which transcends any sense of individuality, and that is at one with the universe. As examples of such an original participation, which I would also see as remnants of non-duality Vernon says, “Consider the words “wind” and “spirit.” It turns out that in ancient Greek, as in many other old languages, there is a single word that means both “wind” and “spirit.” [The Hebrew word ruach means “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit.”] It is pneuma in Greek and it’s a relic from previous times. It’s a linguistic fossil from the undifferentiated consciousness of original participation because back then, the material world mingled with the immaterial; outer with inner; mortal with immortal; wind with spirit.”

Iain McGilchrist in his book The Matter With Things[v] suggests that when humanity hadn’t yet developed its left-brain hemisphere, it lived much like the animals with the right hemisphere immersed in the wider picture, on the alert primarily for danger or food. The left hemisphere was employed to differentiate possible threats or food sources[vi], which gave the right hemisphere the information needed for the next course of action. This relationship he said was between a “master and his emissary”. This seems a lot like original participation, in which human beings were immersed in their experience and myths, which were the same to them, because the left hemisphere hadn’t taken on the role that would develop.

In contrast, in most areas of human consciousness today, any person is thinking about themselves and their relationship with the world, their spirituality and the wider universe, there is a dichotomy between the person and everything else, and in many Western religions, you have heaven and hell, good and evil, or sin and grace. This seems to me to point to the fact that many people are in the second phase that Barfield was speaking of, that is the “withdrawal of participation.” It’s the period during which quasi-scientific ideas about the cosmos began to be formed.

To begin with only some humans turned away from an exclusive reliance on myths as their interests changed from sharing in life to explaining life. Vernon says, “It was a troubling time, though, with the withdrawal of participation came an astonishing gain. The concentration of inner life that the separation from outer life brought came hand in hand with an intensification of the sense of being an individual, and with that came all manner of novel possibilities. Moral responsibility emerged, as did new relationships with deities. In the West, this moment is identified with the birth of philosophy in ancient Greece and the emergence of new religious imperatives from the Hebrew prophets.”

Of course, this isn’t a one off, linear development. Iain McGilchrist points out that there have often been waves of varying awareness, which he sees as a variation between the dominance of either the right brain hemisphere or the left. He says that when we habitually allow the left hemisphere to take over and thereby neglect the right hemisphere, a detachment takes place that resembles the left hemispheric dominance and loses the broader inclusivity of what Barfield calls original participation, and which tends to lose the aesthetical appreciation of the world, which is largely a right hemisphere issue.

But we probably can’t clearly make a clear divide but must notice the wave-like movement of history. For example, unitive awareness or non-dualism (or original participation) is present in some aspects of Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, to name but two traditions. You find examples of it in some Christian mystics, and the same can be said of some minor Jewish sects, as well, but it is also apparent that this thinking was marginalised. However, the prevalence of Greek philosophy, which was in a large way due to its preservation by monasteries where texts were copied, has continued to have an influence on modern thinking, which of course is not all negative. Terminology, techniques, and categories developed in ancient Greece became the standards by which later philosophical discourse was conducted. As a result, virtually all questions of truth, ethics, worldview, and morality are still discussed using the basic principles of Greek philosophy.

I found that the books I have mentioned were popularising in their own way the re-discovery of unitive awareness which, following many before us like marginalised groups such as the mystics, is what Barfield termed as “reciprocal participation,” in which the individual is able to reflect the inner life of nature and even be taken back by the realisation that all is one after all. It isn’t a return to original participation, but a synthesis born out of original participation and the withdrawal of participation, which McGilchrist sees as the healthy functioning of our brains: the original participatory observation of the right hemisphere is passed to the withdrawn left hemisphere, which analyses everything, gives it a name and passes it back to the right hemisphere, which is now capable of reciprocal participation. The awareness of participating in life still involves shared rites and ceremonies, but these are undertaken freely and consensually, not simply because of convention, and an “inwardness” as we know it is born.

Vernon says, “Spiritual freedom, though, is the liberty to realize what is truest in us, to see the “human form divine,” to use William Blake’s phrase – the twoness, which Blake said enables “double vision.” It is the freedom to move from an involuntary, often conflicted embroilment with the powers and principalities of original participation to a conscious, active union with God under reciprocal participation. “There is a spirit in the soul, untouched by time and flesh, flowing from the Spirit, remaining in the Spirit, itself wholly spiritual. In this principle is God, ever verdant, ever flowering in all the joy and glory of his actual Self,” as Meister Eckhart saw it.

But as McGilchrist observes, the development is not linear, and Clement of Alexandria wrote in the second century, “The Word of God became a man so that from a man you might learn how to become a god.” Here we have a return to dualism as an interpretation of the non-dualistic statements of Christ that, “I And My Father Are One!” Jesus was accused of blasphemy and Clement is trying to avoid the same accusation, although coming close to what he said.

By dwelling in one, the Word dwelt in all,” discerned Cyril of Alexandria in the third century, which came closer, but in the fourth century, Athanasius of Alexandria returned to “The Son of God became man so that we might become God.” I see the struggle with the non-duality of Christ’s realisation that he is one with God as an influence of the left hemisphere, or withdrawal from participation, which stays in the analysis and the rhetoric, and fails to grasp the reciprocal participation of oneness. This may be due to a feeling that can arise sooner or later with anyone who experiences Oneness, that they also feel that there is no real point or purpose to life. The reciprocity of the experience eludes them.

I have sometimes had the feeling in my own experience that while the practice of non-duality can smooth out life and give us calmness, composure, and serenity, it can sometimes be an excuse for escapism or a reason to remain detached from life. Some use the phrase to “be in the world, but not of it,” but it’s also easy to unknowingly cross a thin line where we’re no longer in the world – we have moved to withdrawal of participation without realising it. Reciprocal participation, on the other hand, is about the “double vision” of Blake, indicating that mere simple sense perception is not enough for reliable interpretation of the meaning of the world. As Northrop Frye says in his book The Double Vision, language and meaning in religion, “the conscious subject is not really perceiving until it recognizes itself as part of what it perceives.”

Our society tends to be kept in the withdrawal of participation by the structures it has created, by the deputation of aspects of life, and by the fascination with analysis and rhetoric. The entire media landscape is geared to disseminating opinions and statements to which others are obliged to respond. It is geared to provoke reactions, be they emotional or physical, and yet has nothing to do with real participation because it is superficial and is not engaged in securing the continued existence of society in the wider picture (right hemisphere).

Perhaps Watts, Kastrup, Vernon and McGilchrist are doing what they can to make us aware of what we are missing.


[i] https://www.amazon.de/Why-Materialism-Baloney-Skeptics-Everything-ebook/dp/B00IXUXDE4/ref=sr_1_1?__mk_de_DE=%C3%85M%C3%85%C5%BD%C3%95%C3%91&crid=D6R5ZC7JUGWT&keywords=bernardo+kastrup&qid=1661276862&sprefix=bernardo+kastrup%2Caps%2C528&sr=8-1

[ii] https://www.amazon.de/More-than-Allegory-Religious-Belief/dp/B096W9RP38/ref=sr_1_3?__mk_de_DE=%C3%85M%C3%85%C5%BD%C3%95%C3%91&crid=D6R5ZC7JUGWT&keywords=bernardo+kastrup&qid=1661276899&sprefix=bernardo+kastrup%2Caps%2C528&sr=8-3

[iii] https://www.amazon.de/Decoding-Jungs-Metaphysics-Archetypal-Experiential-ebook/dp/B08RHCDFVC/ref=sr_1_6?__mk_de_DE=%C3%85M%C3%85%C5%BD%C3%95%C3%91&crid=D6R5ZC7JUGWT&keywords=bernardo+kastrup&qid=1661276899&sprefix=bernardo+kastrup%2Caps%2C528&sr=8-6

[iv] https://www.amazon.de/Secret-History-Christianity-Evolution-Consciousness-ebook/dp/B07W6GFPZK/ref=sr_1_2?__mk_de_DE=%C3%85M%C3%85%C5%BD%C3%95%C3%91&crid=2ZLKCEFR4OV9J&keywords=Mark+Vernon&qid=1661277088&sprefix=mark+vernon%2Caps%2C97&sr=8-2

[v] https://www.amazon.de/Matter-Things-Brains-Delusions-Unmaking/dp/1914568060/ref=sr_1_1?__mk_de_DE=%C3%85M%C3%85%C5%BD%C3%95%C3%91&crid=3TKIP4UWLP091&keywords=iain+mcgilchrist&qid=1661277318&sprefix=iain+mcgilchrist%2Caps%2C89&sr=8-1

[vi] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFs9WO2B8uI

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