Non-Separateness and the Present Moment: Two Impossibly Ordinary Ideas

by Nate Cull

The final paragraph reads:

"When we look at both science (especially the science of living systems) and what the mystics, and spirit communicators such as Stephen, say, we can see that some of the deep mysteries of the Christian faith can be simply and literally true. It's not completely within our understanding, but it's not completely outside it either. There seem to be ways in which the human personality can overlap in multiple times and spaces, how groups of people can share a common bond of identity (in the literal, philosophical, 'A is A', sense), and how ultimately, perhaps, 'we are all one in Christ' can be a simple statement of fact. At the moment, we're not quite able to see this in all its glory. But one day we will." 

When studying mystical writings (of which The Stephen Experience is a classic example), the concepts described often seem confusing because they are so far removed from our everyday existence. But are they really?

nonseparatenessNon-separateness and the Present Moment
Two of the stranger typically 'mystical' concepts which come through strongly with Stephen are 'non-separateness' (everyone and everything is to some extent part of, or identifiable with, everything else) and 'the present moment' (trusting that every moment is God's means of provision for us). Both of these concepts seem strange because the basis of our Western thinking is that everything is made of separated objects - that this thing is not that thing, I am not you, a good day is not a bad day - and that making judgements or separations between desired outcomes is what life, religion and science are all about. We believe that we are each masters of our own destiny but that our future could be bad or good, and it is up to us to choose and compete, to force our opposing desires on the world.

AynRandAyn Rand v. the mystical view is usually that of wholeness
In contrast, the mystical view as expressed by communicators like Stephen is that neither of these two concepts are in fact correct, at the most basic level. It is neither true to say that 'I am not you, this is not that', nor is it true to say that 'some moments (or people) are better, or closer to God, than others'. The mystical view is usually that of wholeness: we are all in some respects aspects or children of God, and therefore we share each others' nature - and that nature is fundamentally good and even God-like. And that this applies to the whole of the universe.

This sounds ridiculous - even, for a theologian, blasphemous - when we put it like that! If we can't make distinctions and separations between things, how can we judge the true and right from the false and wrong? How do we guide our lives? Surely separation between one thing and outcome and another is a fundamental piece of logic, on the order of 'A is A, and A is not not-A?' - as the Russian-American writer Ayn Rand liked to repeat, and on which she built her advocacy of 'heroic selfishness' and extreme capitalism, which remains hugely influential today? And in theology, doesn't belief in God (at least the monotheistic, Abrahamic God) require belief in a hard separation between Good and Evil, with 'a great gulf fixed' between them?

Actually, no. I think if we look at both (in theology) the teachings of Jesus Christ, and (in science) the structure of living systems, we notice very strongly both these apparently radical and strange ideas - non-separateness and the present moment - appearing as ordinary, common sense in our everyday world. And this observation key to understanding the apparently abstract and strange teachings of the mystics. The mystics are not saying weird and strange things about a distant realm - they are talking very sensibly about the world we live in. It's just that we've made some wrong assumptions a few thousand years back.

The Present Moment in Time

presentmomentLet's look at 'the present moment' first. This termpresentmoment1 is a bit of a shorthand for a simple but fairly radical idea. What we mean by 'living in the present moment' really is this: God is always with us. Wherever we are, whoever we are, at whatever point in our life we are, whatever has happened and in the past or may happen in the future, the full power of the universe is available to us. We are always exactly 'where we are meant to be' no matter what happens to us or what we do to others. There is a grand and good plan to our lives and the universe, and it is unfolding as it should. 'God is in charge'. Our response to this should be peace and calm awareness in all situations, knowing that we are fully loved and trusted.

liliesIf we look at the teachings of Jesus, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, we see this attitude come through very strongly. 'Blessed are the poor'. 'Consider the lilies of the field, they neither toil nor spin, and yet God clothes them'. There is a sense that Jesus lived always in this sense of awareness of the present as full of possibility, and of things outside his immediate control as arranging themselves according to a benign pattern.

It's difficult for us to accept this because we live so often with a sense of desperation and control-seeking. We feel that life is all about controlling the outcome, when in fact it is not. Really what we are doing when we feel anxious is pretending that God does not exist: that there is no intelligent and compassionate force controlling the universe. Our normal practice of science does little to give us this assurance; physics is based around the idea that the universe is mostly dead matter acted on by a tiny minority of intelligent beings. intelligentIf the mystical view is right, however, this is utterly far from the truth. The universe itself is a vast, infinite even, intelligent system, and every tiny part is coordinated somehow with the whole.

This is an idea which has been lost from our science after the Industrial Revolution, but is starting to reappear in systems thinking and especially ecology. There is still much despair in the ecological outlook, which is not consistent with the mystical view of God's immanent presence everywhere, but behind the fear of global extinction a new awareness of the linked intelligence of all things is starting to make itself manifest. Some of the more interestitransitionvideong 'green' movements such as Permaculture and the Transition Towns Initiative are based deep down on this sense of 'starting where you are' and 'things being always in the right place'.

There is great power in this view: instead of acting out of fear and trying to make huge changes because we feel we're not in the right place (which usually causes alarm and accomplishes little), starting from a sense of calm awareness and simplicity gives us the ability to make small changes, and even intangible ones like merely changing our thoughts to that of love -- but it is often the small, intangible things which people remember longest, and which in fact have the greatest effect. So there is a deep link between 'accepting the present moment', and ideas of smallness or humility or 'groundedness'.

The Present Moment in Space

If we take this idea further, and extend it from time to space, it also reminds us that not just every moment in our lives but every thing and place and person are also equally sacred, or connected to the whole. This is very plainly visible when we look at living systems - we see that organisms are created from cells and organs, that species are made of individuals, and that often a whole organism or species can be saved or recreated from just one cell - but it also has a deep resonance in mathematics and computer science.

RecursionIn mathematics, the idea that 'the part has the same power or substance as the whole' (which is really this same idea of connectedness to the whole) is called 'recursion'. Recursion is an extremely powerful idea and lies at the heart of the mathematics behind many modern computer programming languages. We also find that most biological systems exhibit recursion. Reproduction and childbirth is an example of recursion: the child forms within the mother, the frond unwraps from within the fern. One thing can become multitudes because it is somehow able to refer to or recreate itself.

ComplexityThis idea is linked very closely to self-organisation (known in mathematics as 'complexity theory'). In biological systems, cells appear to organise into living creatures without any one central commander telling them what to do. The organisation is there, but it's encoded into each individual itself. In politics, self-organisation appears as the idea of democracy. In computer science, we see it very strongly in the design of the Internet, which was deliberately created as a self-organising network of equal systems, each individually making decisions and working together for the good of the whole. Because of the open, self-organising design of the Internet, it was able to grow very rapidly.

In economics, markets exhibit  some features of this idea - they do self-organise and theoretically treat everyone as equal - but they also fail in some ways. By making hard distinctions between 'winners' and 'losers', markets actually often fail to achieve not just equality, but opportunity - they often collapse into monopolies, and exclude whole classes of people from resources. This suggests to me that we have only partly understood what the mystics can see, and what Jesus taught in his parable of the workers in the market who were all paid the same at the end of the day. We somehow need to create economic systems which recognise that all people are equal in their sacredness (as the political Left sees) and yet which self-organise without a central control (as the political Right sees).

mechanistevolutionThe current idea of mechanistic biological evolution also seems to have only partially grasped this. As with market economics, we see an emerging understanding that all species are part of a shared web of life, but there is a lack of understanding of there being an overall unfolding loving plan at a cosmic level, and a sense of gentle acceptance and each time and place being beautiful in itself. The idea of 'a species must adapt or die' still holds a lot of currency and is used to generate fear (which usually creates worse outcomes). Evolution is seen as a struggle between blind forces yielding only local gains for cunning 'selfish genes' which are not in themselves intelligent. Sometimes this leads to compassion for the natural order, sometimes it leads to exploitation. In either case, however, blind adaptation to a hostile world is not the mystical view, which sees a literal intelligent Creator guiding and unfolding all things in all times and places.

(But if the supernatural occurs constantly, can we really call it supernatural? One of the principles of the mystical worldview underlying 'the present moment' is that God is present, intelligent and trustworthy. Therefore many of the things we consider 'just laws of nature' are in fact expressions of God's love. We have inherited a false idea of the separation of 'nature' and 'supernature', and think that if God intervenes in the world it must be a strange exceptional event, worthy of disbelief because of its utter rarity, when actually it is at the heart of all life and intelligence.)

Non-separateness

The second idea, 'non-separateness', appears almost as strange. Where 'the present moment' offends our modern sense of the universe as a dead machine or battlefield (replacing it with a living whole organised by an infinite intelligence), non-separateness offends our sense of isolation and individual identity. Again, this seems to run against science and logic! Objects are objects and one object is not another! Individuals are individuals! Where does this 'I am you' madness come from? Won't it make the whole world run together into one indistinguishable lump, like runny pudding?

The surprise is, No, it won't! And we already think in terms of non-separateness. We're just not fully aware of how much we do it.

It's true that we have built much of our formal logic and science on the idea of 'reductionism': analysing systems by dividing them into components, studying the parts, studying their interrelationships, then putting the parts back together again. And this approach has been hugely successful in many fields, most particularly engineering.

However, as the 20th century ended, it became obvious that reductionism was running into very some very severe limits. It's a useful approximation which is not, however, fully correct. As complexity rises in a system - and as we start looking at biological systems - we start to notice that we reach a point where the interconnections between 'parts' of a system start to become more important than the 'parts' themselves. But even worse, we then start to notice that for very complex systems, even the word 'part' becomes inaccurate! Everything is deeply connected - perhaps ultimately connected.

frogsbreathingThe classic example is of an animal, say a frog, living in an environment, say a pond. We can look at this and say, the frog is one object and the pond is another. They are two different things. The frog has a distinct inside and outside, its skin. Case closed. QED.

But no, not quite. What about the frog's lungs? Inside the lungs are air. That air is actually part of the environment. Put the frog in a vacuum and you not only have no environment, you have no frog. The lungs are an interface point, where two 'objects' coincide. Yes, you can draw an artificial boundary - say at the mouth and nose - but that's only a little white lie to make it easy for us to think about. What's actually happening is that the frog and the air are one system, bound together. What happens in one happens in the other, because they are literally  one thing which our mind divides into two.

It's easy to make this little white lie a habit, when we're dealing with objects we pick up and touch. Touch is an easy way to seem to separate things. But when we come to ecological science, we start to realise that objects affect gaiatheir environment, and each other. Once again we come back to systems, and start to realise that there really  is  no hard difference between one thing and another, between one individual and another, one group and another. The deeds of one affect all. The whole planet can be seen as a single giant organism.

The global ecological crisis is a very powerful example of how a failure in our thinking has led to very concrete and visible bad results. We have not comprehended the idea of non-separateness, thinking that we can dump toxic waste into a river without it affecting the water we drink - because in our minds we see them as two separate things, two separate processes, two separate organisations and countries - when they are in fact one. But it is becoming more obvious.

Consequences of Non-Separateness

In ethics, Jesus' teaching to 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you' starts to make clear sense when we realise the literal truth of the mystics' vision that 'we are all one'. We do not have to 'sacrifice' our personal interests for another - rather, our life *is* that of the other, and doing good to others does good to ourselves.

nonseparateIn physics, the trend of the 20th century was toward non-separateness in special relativity (which mixes time and space and the observer into a single system) and quantum mechanics (which mixes the state of the experiment and that of the observed system into one). Physicist David Bohm speculated that there was an undivided wholeness to the universe which would explain these individual appearances. Albert Einstein and Erwin Schroedinger also saw the universe as an undivided field of force. These ideas were not completely accepted, however, with a view of 'particles' remaining which left a baffling array of particles seen as 'elementary', and gravity stubbornly refusing to integrate. The revolution in 20th century physics feels as if it is still incomplete, and the final shape is unknown. But there is a strong sense that it will move towards more wave-like integration rather than less.

wikipedia In computer science and on the Internet, a generation is growing up with a very hands-on sense of the non-separateness of people, places and things. We routinely chat to hundreds of friends, blurring notions of time and place, and participating in multiple overlapping virtual groups. The Wikipedia has created an encyclopedia constantly in motion out of a rolling argument about what exactly is knowledge, which never quite ends but is mostly 'good enough for now'. We share, remix and download music. This is causing much grief to the recording and motion picture industry, where 20th century mass production has instilled the simple but false idea that information is a commodity like steel or baked beans. Our economy is based on trade, one person gives up one thing to receive another. But information is not like that - it can exist in multiple places at once. In fact it is much harder to make information behave 'like an object' than it is to just accept the non-separateness of it.

information1Computer programmers are still wrestling with this strange quality of information - that it is hard to draw a boundary around where one item begins and another ends. Hierarchies fail to capture knowledge in 'boxes' because it leaks out. Common sense is always flexible and has exceptions, but just one exception can break a programmed rule. Graph and 'web' structures, which capture multiplicity of identity, are starting to become more important than rigid taxonomies. Search engines like Google succeed because they let us find things without knowing precisely what they are or where. Radical imprecision and overlap is something which 20th century philosophy rebelled against, but the 21st century is needing to rediscover.

This is not to say that spirituality is reducible to ecology, physics or even information. There is more to the spirit than merely the food we eat or the water we drink, or even the four-dimensional world of time and space which we seem to inhabit and which seems normally so solid and reliable. The study of psychic science is where we really come hard up against non-separateness in a very baffling way, if we are not prepared for it. (To the extent that many scientists still reject psychic phenomena as 'logically impossible' - because of their very narrow view of logic).

In the study of dreams and synchronicities, we see connected events occurring around the world to multiple people and both in 'reality' and 'imagination', combining in ways which break the hard Cartesian division between thoughts and materiality. In mind-body medicine and faith-healing, we see apparently mental or emotional events affecting the physical state of a patient's body. In remote viewing and clairvoyance, practitioners report feeling 'as if they are' a target, to the extent that this can make viewing emotionally exhausting. A similar thing occurs in mental mediumship and in Pentecostal 'words of knowledge', where one person's thoughts or pains can be felt by another as if they are their own. In precognitive dreams and in Zener card tests of ESP, events can be correlated for an observer regardless of distance in space and time, and apparently even without regard to the normal flow of causality.

The mystical view of non-separateness, as seen in communicators like Stephen, can also help us resolve some of the apparent paradoxes in Christian theology such as the Trinity and some of the classic Christian formulations of 'salvation' which make educated people cringe - such as 'let Jesus into your heart'. If we take the view, as I believe is correct, that people are more clearly minds than they are bodies, and that it is a feature of minds to overlap, then we start to see how 'I and the Father are one' can be a literal statement, as well as 'where two or three are gathered together, there am I'.

In the Christian gospel the nature of God, the universe and everything all comes down to love - and love is one of the key human experiences where this sharing of identity becomes literal, as does the present moment. In families and companionship, we see overlap, 'the two shall be one', as well as synchronicities and senses of 'everything being in the right place'. We also see many cases where this doesn't happen. It sometimes takes an act of faith to believe that love really is the true nature of the universe. But if we do, then what the mystics say holds a lot of commonsense reality.

The Eucharist demonstrates both non-separateness and the present moment very clearly. As a ritual, some variation of it is performed by Christian groups all around the world and throughout time. The core message of the Eucharist is 'we who are many are one'. It also focuses our attention both on our individual present and on a specific moment in history, and makes the statement that all these points in time can be seen as one feast - a simple meal shared between friends, but with deep resonances.

StephenWhen we look at both science (especially the science of living systems) and what the mystics, and spirit communicators such as Stephen, say, we can see that some of the deep mysteries of the Christian faith can be simply and literally true. It's not completely within our understanding, but it's not completely outside it either. There seem to be ways in which the human personality can overlap in multiple times and spaces, how groups of people can share a common bond of identity (in the literal, philosophical, 'A is A', sense), and how ultimately, perhaps, 'we are all one in Christ' can be a simple statement of fact. At the moment, we're not quite able to see this in all its glory. But one day we will.