Unity: It’s What’s for Dinner

Practice Instructions for
Revealing the Unity of Self & Other

Yes, the all rushes in and illuminates the self;
The self rushes out and illuminates the all;
Neither entirely different nor identical,
Both are all-pervading cohesion.
To enter either fully is to
Drop them both

Samadhi is the term used in early and middle Buddhism for meditation or concentration. Just like sati, it isn’t an accurate translation. Etymologically, Samadhi means unification, cohesion, coherence, or togetherness.

So, samma samadhi means something like skillful unification or cohesion—not meditation or concentration. Words are important, they unconsciously shape the way we view the world, thus the way we take part in the world and the Way (not-two).

For the first few hundred years Buddhism was around, sitting meant focusing on something until you merged with it, became one with it.

So, the instructions in something like the Satipatthana Sutta (focusing on the body, feelings, etc.) didn’t mean just watching them as an outsider, but being the body and being the feelings. Uniting consciousness with the objects of consciousness including the teachings themselves.

It isn’t enough to just focus on something and know it by being apart from it, observing it from the outside. Samma samadhi means becoming intimately one with whatever it is we’re focusing on and observing it from its own side.

This is the case whether we’re practicing fixed-attention meditation or open monitoring. If you aren’t trying to merge with whatever it is you’re experiencing, then you aren’t practicing skillful samadhi and won’t be guaranteed any of the more enduring benefits of practice.

Beneath all the window dressings, all the great religions and mystical paths of the world are really just about union, and union is a feeling.

It’s a Zen monk focusing on the breath; it’s a Christian contemplative trying to know God; it’s the humanitarian who volunteers at the local homeless shelter each Saturday; it’s the lady who puts out food for stray cats; it’s the two lovers having sex; it’s the parent guiding the child in the ways of the world; it’s the addict who melts into tranquilizerility; it’s the serial killer who stalks and tortures his prey; it’s the nation who wages war on another over land and ideology; it’s the dude who buys a plate of cookies for his co-workers.

All day long, our actions involve reaching, grasping, and making things part of us in a literal way. We eat, drink, smoke. We read, we watch movies, we play video games. All acts of assimilation and immersion.

What we crave is some kind of lasting unity. When what we’ve grasped doesn’t fulfill that desire, we suffer. The afterglow of concentrating on the breath, the thrill of everyone singing along at the concert, and the euphoric ease of post-coital bliss all fade.

It’s almost like we’re all striving to get back to the moments before the Big Bang, when all was a singularity; all matter compressed into a single spot. It’s like we all want back in the womb, back when we were physically connected to another human being.

When samadhi is skillful, it can become synonymous with day-to-day life. When it isn’t, we can be consumed by things rather than being equal to them. We can be overcome by our experiences. This can muddy the mind, and lure us into trying to find unity in dysfunctional, harmful ways. Since that samadhi is unskillful, it’s also impossible to maintain.

The poem at the beginning is a step by step practice guide to skillful cohesion.

Yes, the all rushes in and illuminates the self;

There are different flavors of samadhi, and an infinite amount of degrees in each. Here we’ll just call them allocentric and egocentric samadhi. Our ordinary consciousness is a blend of self-consciousness and other-consciousness; we’re aware of our minds and bodies being separate from “the environment,” from the sights, sounds, smells, etc. around us.

In allocentric samadhi, the egocentric aspects of consciousness drop away so that the mind and body are experienced as part of the environment, the two become equal. Researchers are discovering that two different neural pathways are correlated  with consciousness.

One of them processes information involving the mind and body; the other processes info from the environment. In ordinary functioning (what the Buddha would call “delusional”), both neural pathways function at the same time, creating the blend of self vs. other. During Zen kenshos and satoris (awakenings), the parts that process the mind and body go dormant, so, “The all rushes in and illuminates the self.”

In this experience, the self can seem to fade, grow smaller, or empty out. This is typical of Buddhist schools that focus on anatta, emptiness, and the early phases of the mind-only teachings. This experience is tasted in light degrees each time we’re transfixed by an experience, like watching the sunset or hearing a beautiful piece of music. We forget ourselves for a moment, and this allows peace, warmth, and gratitude to rise up along with an elusive sense of quiet profundity.

Along with this, there’s a sense of familiarity and life-longness; that things have always been this way. That’s empirically true from a biological perspective. That allocentric part of consciousness has always been active, just rarely in isolation.

This experience can prompt a lot of rationalizations and they seem to validate the emptiness and Prajnaparamita teachings one has learned. It’s possible that it does just that. It’s also possible that it’s just a brain-thing. I think that both interpretations should be allowed in Zen. This would help, “Take it to the streets,” the same way the Vipassana Movement did to Theravada.

Whether I think it’s all just the brain or whether there’s indeed something far more subtle at work isn’t important here, though it is a lot easier to access this state of mind if you do feel that there’s something at work beyond biology. That’s because our views influence our experiences, triggering different parts of the brain.

The self rushes out and illuminates the all;

This describes another nondual experience that’s also common. In fact, this experience is the foundation of Advaita Vedanta and other panentheistic Vedic schools. This is also common among Christian mystics and it’s usually interpreted as realizing that one is one with God. Some non-theists could interpret it as being the universe itself. You can find it in Buddha-nature, Vajrayana, Zen, and later mind-only schools as well.

The article I referenced doesn’t mention this experience, but I’d venture that the opposite thing happens here: the part of the brain related to other stops functioning and only the part related to the self continues.

This experience can make you feel like you’re expanding to include the entirety of time and space. It’s often marked by extreme rapture and bliss. Just like with the allocentric experience, there’s the impression that this has, “Always been so.”

Just like with allocentric samadhi, it’s possible these experiences point to something non-physical, to a fundamental truth that’s just out of reach of concepts. It’s also possible that it’s a quirk of neurology. If the brain is found to be the root of all these experiences, that doesn’t take away from their value in the slightest.

Neither entirely different nor identical,

Both complete egocentric consciousness and total allocentric consciousness amount to samadhi, to a nondual experience, but they aren’t exactly the same. The two experiences have different flavors, and they conjure up a different buzz of views and conclusions in their wakes.

Neither is better or worse than the other. I don’t really want to say that since, via Buddhism, I’ve been taught that egocentricism is to be avoided. But samadhi is samadhi, a breakthrough is a breakthrough. I’ve experience both allocentric and egocentric samadhis and I refuse to craft a preference.

Both are all-pervading cohesion.

Both experiences give a sense of total unity between the mind and what’s being minded, between consciousness and conscious-of (subject and object). The only difference is that, in an egocentric samadhi, all is subject; in an allocentric state, all is object.

To enter either fully is to
Drop them both

This where a lot of practitioners from all walks of life tend to get stuck. For togetherness and union to be utterly pervasive, there can’t be a trace left of the schemas “self” and “other.”

Until we get fathoms and fathoms deep into this, there are still echoes of the self in otherness, and flashes of other in selfhood. This is because meta-cognition is still rolling; there’s still that “awareness of awareness” going on that allows us to remark on the situation.

Once that evaporates as well, then there’s just the experiencing without any perception of there being or ever having been an experiencer or something experienced.

At this point, it doesn’t really matter which path you took to get here. All baggage is forgotten, all causes extinguished. There are no tracks, no traces left behind of one’s progress. The, “Stink of Zen,” has lifted and the manic holier-than-thou-ness of the True Self has vanished.

Here, the perceptions of “self” and “other” are both realized to exist only as concepts or appearances; as “name-only.” This is the ultimate peace and satisfaction. But even this traceless samadhi isn’t permanent; the past stirs and the flow into the future begins again.

Views and concepts that aren’t this state but about it can come to obscure the experience itself or even tangle one in so much dogma as to prevent it from ever happening again. Just be aware of conceptual proliferation; that’s all. I recommend not buying into your own particular brand of bullshit and instead taking these experiences at face value: as simple experience of unity.

Union is union, it need not be any more complicated than that.

I’ve found the little poem at the beginning a helpful mindfulness tool while sitting. Sometimes I just think, “The all rushes in and illuminates the self,” over and over in a relaxed way for awhile and things start to, well, happen.

The most important takeaway from all of this is the fact that both of these aspects of the brain are functioning in day-to-day life, right now. Hence why all beings “have” Buddha-nature.

These moments of egocentric or allocentric consciousness are always present, they’re just mixed up with each other. By taking the mix up for granted, we cling and crave things in order to become one with them. But this unity has been active from the start, it isn’t sitting passive in the background, it isn’t subconscious.

It’s right here.


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