Feeling a sense of oneness in a time of disconnect

Ming dynasty painting, source here

The lockdown has now been going on for several weeks. It has given me a feeling of disconnect, from my family in Belgium, Brazil, Malaysia, from my friends in the UK and elsewhere, and also from budding new and tentative friendships in the US. I always imagined that if some emergency came up, I could just take a plane to see family. Turns out they might as well live on Mars. Maybe it’s the same for people who have lived here for decades, but it’s bizarre and alienating living here in US suburbia, having moved here less than one year ago. It is also disconcerting to see the fragile social fabric unravel around me.

Still, the pandemic has brought into sharp view the sense that we are all connected, not just all human beings, but all creatures. Factory farming and loss of natural habitat are breeding grounds for pandemics, and weak healthcare systems and cuts to public health services impact us all.

Disconnection and connectedness go hand in hand.

The sense of oneness is a feeling, as well as a philosophical and religious position. You can read it in the joyful poems by Walt Whitman, such as in the first section of Song of myself (1892)

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

Philosophical ideas are not remote or free-floating from experience. They are borne out of wonder, existential need, exasperation, an urgent need to do something, or even a sense of powerlessness. As Eric Schliesser writes “…while one sometimes can’t philosophize on the precipice of disaster — we have other attachments, needs, and obligations — , sometimes philosophizing is also the highest and most urgent need.”

This need is not just some need of the few, of people who can afford the leisure and who have the money; it is universal. I resist the narrative that philosophy, or academic work in general, is done from the “ivory tower” and not relevant for ordinary people, or the notion that academics are, somehow, not real. Everyone occasionally has these feelings of wonder, regardless of their education or occupation.

In that sense, philosophy of religion is the most obvious philosophy, because religion, too, is the response to existential needs and wonder. For authors such as Heschel and Schleiermacher, equating religion to doctrine or ethics is a mistake. Religion is in a sense prior to all of this. It’s a more basic thing. As Schleiermacher wrote in his Speeches on religion (1799) : “Religion’s essence is neither thinking nor action, but intuition and feeling. It wishes to intuit the universe …to overhear the universe’s own manifestations & actions longs to be grasped & filled by the universe’s immediate influences in childlike passivity”.

However, what philosophy of religion and also what religions can do is to make manifest, and to articulate those feelings we have–moral feelings, feelings of awe and wonder, feelings of interconnectedness, to give them voice and to systematize them. The sense of oneness, as Philip Ivanhoe (2017) argues in his book Oneness, has been developed in many different religious and philosophical traditions. He focuses on neo-Confucianism.

Neo-Confucianism is a Chinese philosophical tradition that developed during the Tang dynasty, and rose to prominence during the Song and Ming dynasty. In Joseon dynasty Korea it became state ideology. Examples include Zhu Xi (1130–1200) and Wang Yang-ming (1472–1529).

Oneness is both a metaphysical idea, i.e., an idea about the nature of reality, namely that the universe is interconnected, and a set of ethical principles, namely what we should do given that the universe is interconnected, which is to care for our environment and other people. The neo-Confucians distinguished between two principles/things that lie at the basis of the universe:

(1) The pattern, or web of patterns (理, lǐ), a Buddhist notion that neo-Confucians imported. Everything is part of a web of interconnections, the structure of the universe

(2) The primordial stuff (氣,qì), the primordial psychophysical stuff, at first undifferentiated, that has given rise to all the things in the universe. It is differentiated into different forms (e.g., yin, yang), it is self-moving, everything has it (inc inanimate objects).

By embracing both li (pattern) and qi (psychophysical stuff) the neo-Confucians resisted the Buddhist idea that selves are an illusion (no-self). Neo-Confucians wanted to keep individual selves, because they found it important to differentiate between people and their social roles and relationships, for instance as expressed in filial piety: children have certain duties to their parents, for example. Now, through li and qi the world is connected into a big web of relationships. The world resembles an ecosystem writ large, where everything is interconnected and influences each other.

A common metaphor was the tree, where some parts of reality are hidden (the roots), others are visible (e.g., the branches), but all parts fulfill their roles. Neo-Confucian authors adopted this Buddhist idea of the world as a web of patterns, but went one step further: each thing contains within itself all the patterns of the universe. If you are deeply connected with the rest of nature, this brings also a sense of care for it.

Nowadays, western metaphysics doesn’t have qi and li. Still, it is possible to feel a sense of oneness with the universe, because we are all made of stardust. This is not just some poetic saying, it is literally true, as astrophysicist Michelle Thaller explains here:

We as individual human beings are just very brief configurations of atoms, clumped together of the matter of dead stars that came together in the solar system, and when we die, we’ll dissipate again, our matter will reconfigure into other creatures. You blink, and poof, we’re gone. We know this of course. We say things like “you can’t take it with you”. And yet, we act as if you can take it with you. What would it mean to thoroughly embrace this philosophy of brevity and connectedness with the universe?

The Daoists (who had an influence on neo-Confucian philosophy) offer a glimpse of how it would be to live with full knowledge of this. In the Zhuangzi (chapter 32), the master lies dying while his students are discussing on how to give him an elaborate burial to honor him. Zhuangzi objects:  “I shall have heaven and earth…for my coffin and its shell; the sun and moon for my two round symbols of jade; the stars and constellations for my pearls and jewels; and all things assisting as the mourners. Will not the provisions for my burial be complete? What could you add to them?” Zhuangzi does not mind, even rejoices, at the prospect of crows, vultures (above) and worms and ants (below) eating his body.

Because the universe is reflected in ourselves, this would, according to neo-Confucians, give rise to an ethical demand, one to practice benevolence (a key Confucian and Buddhist virtue) for other creatures, including non-human animals and plants.

Wang Yang-ming writes (in Questions on the Greater Learning) (all quotes are translations drawn from Readings in Later Chinese philosophy by Tiwald and Van Norden):

“Great people regard Heaven, Earth, and the myriad creatures as their own bodies. They look upon the world as one family and China as one person within it. Those who, because of the space between their own physical form and those of others, regard themselves as separate [from Heaven, Earth, etc] are petty persons.”

He then goes on to say even petty (small-minded) folk feel compassion for others. It’s automatic. He references Mengzi’s famous child at the well thought experiment. Mengzi argues that anyone who saw a child about to fall into a well would react with alarm and distress on behalf of the child. Wang Yang-ming concludes this reaction is due to a sense of oneness with the child “This is because their benevolence forms one body with the child.” Wait a minute, you might object, that’s just because the child is human, like you! It has nothing to do with oneness. No, replies Wang Yang-Ming, it is because we are one with the child, through the li and qi. Wang Yang-ming then, through a series of thought experiments, shows we are also distressed when animals, plants and even inanimate objects are harmed. The conclusion is always the same: we are one body with these things:

But when they hear the anguished cries or see the frightened appearance of birds or beasts, they cannot avoid a sense of being unable to bear it. This is because their benevolence forms one body with birds and beasts. Someone might object that this response is because birds and beasts are sentient creatures. But when they see grass or trees uprooted and torn apart, they cannot avoid feeling a sense of sympathy and distress. This is because their benevolence forms one body with grass and trees. Someone might object that this response is because grass and trees have life and vitality. But when they see tiles and stones broken and destroyed, they cannot avoid feeling a sense of concern and regret. This is because their benevolence forms one body with tiles and stones.

So if we all are endowed with this sense of oneness, which gives us an ethical demand to also care for other creatures (and in fact, we spontaneously feel care for other creatures), why don’t we behave in accordance of what this sense of oneness demands? Why are there so many small-minded people? Wang Yang-ming’s response is that we are hampered by selfishness

The minds of petty people have become cut off and constricted, and yet the benevolence that forms one body [with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad creatures] is able to be as unclouded as what Heaven originally endowed. This occurs in those times when they have not yet been moved by desires or obscured by selfishness. Once they have been moved by desires or obscured by selfishness, beset by thoughts of benefit and harm and stirred by feelings of indignation and anger, they will then attack other creatures, injure their own kind, and stop at nothing. At the extreme, they will even murder their own kin and wholly lose the benevolence that forms one body [with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad creatures]. And so, if only they are without the obscuration of selfish desires, even the minds of petty people will have the same benevolence that forms one body [with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad creatures] that great people possess.

Through selfish and short-sighted pursuit of what can profit us or harm us, we lose sight of the bigger picture (both literally and metaphorically). Neo-Confucianism draws both on Buddhism and on Confucianism. It shares with Confucianism the idea that we have an original good nature, and with Buddhism the idea that ethical training is not so much training something you’re not but rather getting rid of selfish desires, and then your original good nature will shine through.

The idea by Wang Yang-ming that there’s no intrinsic difference between good (great) and bad (petty) people is radical. You become great or petty due to circumstance, because you focus too much on fulfilling desires, or on your own profit or harm.

I think many people have the sense that something has to give.

In the UK, the NHS has been starved of funds for many years by profiteering politicians. In the US, there isn’t even a serious safety net to begin with and no public healthcare system. We get the sense again that health concerns all, and that the sickness of some people ultimately is also our concern, as is their health and wellbeing. As we slowly see the smog lift, hear the birds sing again with the humdrum of cars died down, as our plans for flights for work or pleasure are in upheaval, we feel how the Earth taking a breath from our busyness and our seeking profit. This why, in spite of the disconnect, I feel the sense of oneness more than before, and many other people do too.

The question remains: what do we do with this?

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