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Naturalism and the Idea of One Mind

(cc) Lefty LeMur.

(cc) Lefty LeMur.

“The Self is the ear of the ear, the eye of the eye.  It is the mind of the mind, the speech of speech, and the life of life.  Not clinging to any of the senses, not attach to any thought in the mind, the wise become one with the deathless Self.”  (from the Upanishads)

“Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One.”  Emerson, from the essay The Over-Soul

The idea that there is the “eternal One,” Self, or Universal Mind, of which all individual minds are a part, is an idea that is present in many, perhaps all, of the world’s great spiritual traditions.  An early articulation of the idea is found in the Upanishads, which is eloquently restated in the Bhagavad Gita.  It is present in Buddhism, where it is termed “Buddhanature,” in Zen Buddhism where it is called “original mind,” and in Taoism, where it is called “the uncarved block.”

The idea is also present in the West, though not as commonly as in the East.  It is found in Neoplatonism and in Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart, where the term is “God,” understood as immanent in the world.  Eckhart writes: “In this impulse I receive such vast wealth that I can’t be satisfied with God, as he is “God,” or with all his divine works; for in this return, what I receive is that I and God are one.”  Stated thus, this is certainly skating close to Christian heresy.  One finds statements similar to Eckhart’s in Islam, particularly among the Sufis.

In more modern times, we find this idea in America, particularly in the Transcendentalist strain of Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman.   Emerson’s essay The Over-Soul could be called the American Upanishad, it so well captures and modernizes the idea first presented in the Hindu texts.  The key to understanding Whitman’s great poem Song to Myself, I believe, is to recognize that the narrator of the poem is not the individual, Walt Whitman, but the Universal Self that resides in every person as it resides in the poet.  The great multitude of people that appear in the poem all share this Self in common.

In his book of the same name, Aldous Huxley calls the idea “the perennial philosophy,” and claims that this experience of the One Mind is a universal experience.  The so-called Traditionalist School, a group of twentieth century theologians and religious writers that included Frithjof Schuon, Marco Pallis, Rene Guenon, Ananda Coomaraswamy and Huston Smith, included this experience as part of what they called “the perennial wisdom.”

The idea is also present in a lot of New Age writings, but for the purposes here I am only interested in pointing to some of the more eloquent and insightful examples.

Compatible with Naturalism?
To the extent that the Naturalistic approach deals with it at all, “mind” is considered to be a phenomenon that takes place in and is caused by a neural system, particularly the brain.  Since there are many individual brains, and no noticeable physical connection among these brains, the idea of One Mind would seem to be incompatible with a naturalistic world view.  Here I wish to dig below the surface and see if there are ways to interpret the idea of One Mind that are compatible with Naturalism.

The idea of One Mind, the various traditions that present the idea insist, is a description of an experience.  The experience is everything, the idea only a vague way of pointing others toward the experience.  In Zen Buddhism this differentiation of the experience and the words used to describe it is compared to a finger pointing to the moon – the moon represents the experience and the finger the words.  “Don’t mistake the finger for the moon,” the Zen masters admonish.   In-and-of itself, a genuine experience can never be incompatible with Naturalism, though the interpretation of that experience can conflict with Naturalism.  So first we need to explore the nature of this experience.

The experience of One Mind has been reported by many people in many different circumstances.  Most commonly, it is described as a highly charged emotional experience that is akin to intense love, where the boundaries between the lover and beloved are dissolved.  Descriptions of this emotional experience often emphasis the fullness of the experience.  Highly charged emotions, alas, are by their nature ephemeral, so too this experience is ephemeral, though the memory of the experience, many attest, can last a life time.

In the meditative traditions, however, there is a different approach to this experience — a reductive path where the experience is articulated with the idea of emptiness rather than fullness. This path has been termed the via negativa.  On the negative path, the contemplative works to eliminate everything in his or her experience that can be eliminated until finally arriving at that which cannot be taken away.  Perceptions, emotions, appetites and satisfactions, ideas and imaginings, all these things come and go in the mind.  But what is left when all of these are gone?  What is it in the conscious mind that cannot be taken away while one still retains consciousness?  Only awareness itself; all the rest are “objects” that come and go within the mind’s field of awareness.

At the end of this meditative reduction, there is no longer an awareness attending to the multiple objects of attention; in this experience awareness itself is both the subject that is aware and the object of that awareness.  The non-duality of subject and object is perhaps the most common descriptive of this experience.  I think it reasonable to suggest that there is only one possible experience where subject and object are identical, and thus I think the claim can be made that this is a singular experience.

At this point, a skeptical person might ask “even if I accept that this singular experience is possible, what value does it have for me or anyone else?” All the traditions make great claims for its value.  I will not repeat those claims here, some of which I think are overblown, but only argue for one.  If as claimed, this is an experience of that which is the most fundamental aspect of our experience, then it provides the deepest foundation for self-knowledge.   This idea was formulated in the Upanishads in the statement “Thou Art That”; “That” being this most fundamental element of awareness.  To know what “thou art,” the Upanishads imply, you must know “That.”

Above we stated the obvious objection to the One Mind idea: all we see is unconnected individual brains, no One Mind.  Brains, in naturalism, are a kind of mechanism, made ultimately of matter.  Naturalism does not allow of any kind of entity that is not in some sense material.  Information, for instance, is not in itself material, but it always resides in a material substrate.  Thus music, a kind of information, played by an orchestra might go from a sheet of paper into a brain then into air waves and then onto a vinyl medium and later onto a digital one – it is something more than any particular kind of matter — but it never exists free of some kind of material medium.  Many of the interpretations of the experience we are calling One Mind contain the idea of some utterly nonmaterial entity.  That interpretation is properly rejected by Naturalism.   But such an entity is not required.  Below we explore an interpretation of this experience that requires no such entity.

Commonalities of the Brain
A writer on consciousness, emphasizing the mechanistic nature of the brain, made the statement that the brain excretes awareness like the liver excretes bile.  I am not sure of the aptness of that analogy, but if we think of it in that way, we can see that though brains are multiple, the awareness that brains create should have somewhat the same characteristic in each brain.  Just as one person’s bile and another’s have pretty much identical chemical makeup, so would one brain’s awareness have pretty much the identical property of another’s.  So while the statement that all minds are one mind is not justified from a naturalistic position, the statement that all healthy human brains have essentially the same make up is.  And, since from the naturalistic perspective the mind and its awareness is a result of the brain’s make up, it follows that all minds have essentially the same characteristics.  Thus to experience what is most fundamental in one’s mind, as a conscious being, is also to experience something that is common to all.

Emerson writes of “that great nature in which we rest as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other….”  As stated, the “Over-Soul” would appear to be some non-material entity existing outside of natural law.  But if we interpret “Over-Soul” as that within each person’s particular being that is the same in all persons, i.e. the fundamental workings of the brain and the awareness that it produces, then the spiritual and moral implications of this notion of “Over-Soul” can be carried into a naturalistic perspective.

The writer Joseph Campbell provides a rather interesting analogy of the idea of One Mind as interpreted here.  He imagines a power plant with the electric wires connecting all the various light bulbs of a city.  These light bulbs might be covered with various shades that give a distinct or individual cast to the light, but the light itself is always of the same substance, i.e. electromagnetic energy.  In Campbell’s analogy, pure awareness is like pure light; the objects of thought are like the shades that give individual cast to each light.  Light bulbs burn out and are replaced.  This is like the death of the individual.  But light itself goes on beyond the burning out of the individual bulbs, as awareness continues to exist beyond the death of any individual.  The spiritual implication is if we identify with our individuality, death is our inevitable conclusion.  If we identify with the light, i.e. that which is most fundamental to our being, then we identify with that which goes on within us and without us; we identify with that which endures – Thou art That.

If we substitute the sun for the power plant in Campbell’s analogy, I think this idea gets even more interesting.  Some used to think that there must be some special force of life, an élan vital as it was called.  We now know that there is no such force, that electromagnetic energy is the force of life.  The circulation of this force starts with the sun, the photons from which and are collected by the leaves of plants and through photosynthesis turned into food. When we eat food we release those photons in the process of metabolism.  The warmth we feel in our body is produced by the same photons that warmed the summer days when leaves had gathered the sun’s rays.   Brain activity is also dependent on metabolism and is accompanied by patterns of change in small electrical voltages.

What is the relationship between our inner awareness and these electrical voltages of the brain?  Clearly there is one, but nobody knows for sure what it is.  We have learned from relativity that photons traveling through space travel at the speed of time.  We have learned from quantum mechanics that light travels as both a particle and a wave; and that as it travels from point A to point B, the paths of the photons are indeterminate; these are only a few of the marvels of electromagnetic energy.  Is it possible that one further marvel of electromagnetic energy is the ability to become subjectivity aware?  It is an interesting question, but I’m not sure how one would answer it.  But for those who cringe at the idea of reducing the wonders of the mind to the interactions of mere matter, I point to the marvels of electromagnetic energy and its little angel-like photons and say “there is nothing ‘mere’ about matter.”

One could delve into all of this much deeper, but the only point I want to emphasize is that the person who accepts the naturalistic description of the world, but also seeks spiritual experience, need not shun the great body of spiritual writing describing the experience of the “One Mind” in its various forms.  Recognizing that the experience pointed to in these writings has been translated in terms of the cultural background of the writers, one can simply re-translate these writings as that of each individual person experiencing what is most basic to his or her being.  The experience described in these writings, and the deepest implications of that experience, does not require belief in anything supernatural.


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  1. Great article, Thomas. I especially love the line “There is nothing ‘mere’ about matter.”

    >The spiritual implication is if we identify with our individuality, death is our inevitable conclusion. If we identify with the light, i.e. that which is most fundamental to our being, then we identify with that which goes on within us and without us; we identify with that which endures – Thou art That.

    Ultimately, I like to go even further than the idea of fundamental consciousness into fundamental unconsciousness, i.e. the way that 99.99% of all matter appears to exist. It is a marvel to me that when I die, the atoms of my body do not; rather, they disperse and recombine to form new and wonderful forms of existence. Moreover, that is actually happening all the time, as little bits of hair and skin and whatever else float off to become something new. The line between me and the rest of the cosmos is ultimately blurry indeed, and that gives me strength. 🙂

  2. You write ” The non-duality of subject and object is perhaps the most common descriptive of this experience”
    I agree. And further, I think this experience of, or insight into, non-duality is where science and spirituality can thrive together. The ‘hard problem’ of consciousness is hard because of our tendency to fall into dualism. The perplexity in understanding how there can be consciousness is all about this duality which is so hard to escape.
    Thanks for setting this in context.

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