Sunday, September 27, 2009

I Am the Other: The Implications of Oneness in Moral Thinking

The discussion about oneness which I had in a previous post contained a statement which is worthy of further elucidation. It contains a moral paradox, of types- one of the several paradoxes inherent in the idea of "oneness". I have heard it said that a paradox is a truth standing on its head to get our attention- and I think this is a good way of seeing situations like this. Oneness is a beautiful idea, and an expression of reality itself; but it sometimes requires careful thought.

People tend to shy away from what they perceive as difficulties in thinking, preferring ease- but ease may not serve in every situation to give us real guidance. The effort we make to examine what we call "paradoxes" can yield great, life-changing treasures.

How does oneness beg us to act in every life-situation? How can it be realistic, when we must harm someone or something in a situation?

I stated:

"Why oneness? Why hold up "being the Land" as such an important perspective? Because when you are the land, you do not harm it. When you are others, you do not harm them. When others are you, you do not harm yourself; in all cases or circumstances, you help. You protect and preserve. You do not take; you exchange and cooperate. You do not leave the company of life; you move around in it, forever. Each situation in life calls for either measured or spontaneous action in accordance with these principles; each situation and the response to the situation being somewhat different, but the deep call to the principles remains the same."

That statement "breaks down" to the following principles:

Principles or statements about self, world and other

1. I am the Land
2. I am others
3. Others are me.
4. I do not leave the company of life, but shift around within it.

Principles or influences of those statements on life-activities

1. I do not harm the Land
2. I do not harm others
3. I do not harm myself
4. I help, protect, and preserve; I exchange and cooperate.

The original statement goes on to say:

"Each situation in life calls for either measured or spontaneous action in accordance with these principles; each situation and the response to the situation being somewhat different, but the deep call to the principles remains the same."

In any situation that calls for an action, we will either have an opportunity to consider what we should do (a measured action) or we will simply act without thinking (spontaneous action). Each situation is different, no matter how similar they may seem on the surface, and the response that is best for each situation may change, again, no matter how similar they may seem.

You can't know all the facts until you are "in" each situation. But whatever the situation, and whatever the character of your activity (measured or spontaneous), "the deep call to the principles remains the same." In other words, if you can measure your actions, you should measure them by the principles. If your actions are spontaneous, they still call to the principles, or are informed by them, whether or not you realize it.

Example 1: A bear attacks a cave that a woman and her child are living in. She reacts by grabbing a spear and stabbing the bear.

In this case, assume the woman's defense was spontaneous. Her spontaneous and natural act calls to the principle that states "Others are me"- her child is her- and "I am others"- she is her child. She "helped, protected, and preserved" spontaneously, based on her oneness with her child.

But what of her oneness with the bear? Why did her spontaneous action not take that into account, and allow the bear to eat her child? If "she is the bear" and "the bear is she", why stab it with a spear?

I do not deny that the woman has the oneness relationship with the bear. In the situation presented (a spontaneous reaction) the woman's actions were informed by her sense of oneness with her child more than that of the bear, and she didn't choose for her actions to be so informed. She simply reacted in that way. It may not be easy to explain why, or perhaps the answer is very obvious.

If pressed for an explanation for something like this that (I think) defies perfect explanation, I would state that there is a stronger instinctive or unconscious connection between parents and offspring, between kin, or indeed, a stronger instinctive, unconscious connection between beings of the same or similar caliber. "Oneness", in the broad stretch of reality, also contains lesser or greater degrees of closeness or similarity- a human would likely try to save another human who was in danger of becoming dinner to a pack of wolves with much more vigor than he might try to save a rabbit who was in the same danger.

I don't think this "closeness" or "similarity" consideration changes the fact of "oneness" for things at all; it is merely an observation of an obvious fact of behavior and thinking. Closeness or perceived similarity will affect a person's measured or spontaneous decisions in any situation, and this does not affect the deeper reality of oneness.

Now, returning to my example- if the woman in the cave with the child had time to think about her response, I think she would still pick up the spear and kill the bear, for the reasons I just stated. But if she had the time and opportunity, she also might measure it so that she takes her child and escapes the cave, thus sparing her life, the child's, and the bear's. This measured response would "calling to the principles" as well. Instead of just protecting and preserving herself and her child, she also helps the bear by not harming it.

Example 2: A hungry man, after much consideration and preparation, carefully and stealthily stalks a deer and shoots it dead, takes it home, cooks it and eats it.

It's undeniable that, from the perspective of oneness, the man is the deer, and the deer is the man. It is equally as undeniable that from that perspective, one should not harm self or other, since they come together as one the same. Yet, the man intentionally stalks and slays the deer, to satisfy his own hunger. A similar example could have been used for a man who intentionally destroys the life of a carrot by yanking it from the ground and cooking it and eating it, for the same reasons of hunger.

Beforehand, we examined the "closeness" or "similarity" consideration; now I must introduce the sustenance consideration. It is clear that life must consume life, or should I say, it is clear that life's communion includes not just communication and the mingling or cross-fertilization of various forces, but the absorption and transformation of other forces. This is an important aspect of the oneness in which we live, and is not optional.

And this harder fact of oneness (from the perspective of most modern people) does not deny oneness, either. If anything, the absorption and transformation of force is a blatant and elegant demonstration of oneness. When one living being eats another, they become one in a new perceptual manner. When the life of one is saved because it gets the food it needs, the life of all is saved, for this is a reality of oneness.

Because this sustenance consideration is an unavoidable, deep-seated thing, it will shape both measured and spontaneous decisions for any creature, human or non-human. Because it represents such an important and un-chosen aspect of living in the world, one cannot say that the killing of another living being- plant or animal- to satisfy true need of hunger or survival is "harm" in the same way that "harm" exists when we stab another person to satisfy a need for vengeance or to steal their money.

You could make a case that they were both categories of "harm", by virtue of the fact that flesh is rended, and blood is shed- but the true moral quality of any activity is decided by far more than just its outward form.

For the moral quality of an activity to be known, we must look to motivation, among other things. When I am motivated to kill an animal or a plant to spare my life or the lives of others, this is a form of transformative communion by necessity, not merely "harm". When I am motivated to kill an animal or a plant for my own amusement, or for reasons of greed, boredom, curiosity, or the like, then I am entered into a new category of immorality and unwisdom.

When I am motivated to kill an animal or a plant to spare my life or the lives of others, this is a means of helping, protecting, and preserving- both on my part and the part of the creature that died at my hands, for, again, this is taking place within a context of oneness, a "one life" that we all share. The creature does not leave the company of life because of its death; it shifts around within it.

It is clear from these notes that "Evil" in activity- real harm- only ever comes from failing to measure our responses to situations by the principles born of oneness, bearing in mind our special considerations for similarity and sustenance, and our sense of motivation.

People often bring up the controversial issue of euthanasia in conjunction with this conversation, but from the perspective of oneness, the "controversy" is shallow, indeed. If I am the suffering other, and the suffering other is me, then my duty is to help end suffering, however I can- if I find myself in the proper situation wherein I am called upon to help. Clearly, curing or healing the "suffering other" is the first line of effort. If this is truly not possible, then helping to end their suffering in another manner is- even if that manner leads somehow to their death and transformation. This line of thinking, I believe, arises from the depths of the one life.


  1. I think the original question still remains unanswered: why oneness? You offer reasons for thinking we should adopt a perspective of oneness; but is oneness "the way of things" or just a way that we can "think" of things? This seems to matter a great deal. If it is "the way of things" then we cannot avoid it; so why worry with it? We will always act in accord with it, right? If it is a practical way of "looking" at things, I'm not convinced that it is the best way. Saying that "I am the bear" or "I am the deer" leaves us with no practical room, since (as an example) when I kill the deer I am perforce killing myself; and yet there I remain after to consume the deer I've slain (which is, curiously, me consuming myself). Why not simply advocate (since we could adopt many other positions) an identification with the land, the bear, the deer, the child that is a recognition of its autonomy (which is anti-oneness) insofar as we conceive ourselves as autonomous? In this way, we cultivate respect for these various things and thus engage in actions that exemplify that attitude of respect for their autonomy... but, just as importantly, we can recognize also a dependence upon these "others" for not only my own sustenance, but for the recognition of my own autonomy vis a vis some "other" -- in this way we generate an "ethical" bond that could not ever be generated in oneness, and it is only from this ethical bond that I can act rightly or wrongly, well or badly, nobly or shamefully, etc. Thus, rather than oneness, I see a "dependence" that makes possible an "autonomy" vis-a-vis an "other" that makes possible the "ethical" as such.

  2. I would say that oneness was the way of things. I would say that we think of oneness in terms of many-ness, but this is due to our inability to be comfortable with oneness, to realize that what we experience as many is really and most substantially one. Of course, I see no reason why people should have to "change their minds" and give up on the perception of many or the belief in many- in fact, I don't think it works that way.

    I think that oneness and many-ness exist side-by-side for human beings, and perhaps other sentient beings. Perhaps it has always been this way. We are all part of a oneness, but exist in such a way that we perceive life and our world as "many." You might consider it a difference between relative perception and ultimate truth. If we lose that relative perception, we lose our "selves"- our existence as beings which is based on perception of many-ness, and those knowledges which are born based on the same thing. But we can have an intuitive or mystical experience of the underlying, ultimate oneness, and I think that this is the keynote of the mystical experience from many countries. In that experience, we revise how we go on "experiencing as many"- we have a new basis for a new morality and ethics.

    Your idea is well taken- that we should just cultivate a respectful autonomy; but in the Historical Pagan and primal Christian traditions of Britain, there is a notion of the oneness of the Sovereign and his Land, which acts as a model and inspiration for my thinking- thinking as I do that the notion of the "sovereign" of the past must be replaced by a sovereign will in each individual, and we must all revise and re-embrace our sacral relationship with the Land, which includes other people and non-human persons.

    So while your suggestion is fine and well, and would achieve the respectful sort of approach to life I'm advocating, it does fall a bit outside of my unchosen spiritual aesthetic here. I am operating from within certain constraints, as you see- while it is true "we" COULD adopt other positions, "I" cannot. So I have to hammer this out.

    And I have no problem with the idea of spiritually and literally consuming myself while consuming a deer- in fact, this is part and parcel of the sacramental relationship that I'm talking about- the one life. An indestructible life, despite the appearance of death.