The Illusion of Separateness

I wonder if you remember the story of the first astronauts who went into space to see the stars but were most deeply impacted by seeing the earth. It was, however, what they didn’t see that was even more surprising to them. No matter how hard they looked they were unable to see national, ethnic, racial, socio-economic, or religious boundaries. All they could see was a single undivided earth.

Fundamentally, we are one. We have always been one. And we will always be one. But despite the fact that we seem to all be born within a state of undifferentiated oneness, most of us quickly lose all memory of this reality of our existence.

The Problem

The result is what Ken Wilber calls the great optical illusion of separateness. Our sense of being not just unique but separate from everyone else is so deep and compelling that the very suggestion that we are fundamentally one with everyone and everything seems absurd. But the mystics and indigenous people of the world see through this illusion. They tell us that our sense of being separate is a profound misperception that has profound spiritual consequences.

Perhaps our failure to recognize our essential oneness is at least part of the reason why humans are so prone to hostility and mistrust. If we believe that we are isolated beings alone in a threatening universe of course we will live with suspicion and fear. But the problem is that when we look at other people all we see is their otherness rather than our oneness. We fail to realize that we are all part of the same larger whole – a larger whole that I name as Christ.

The failure to recognize our deep and fundamental kinship and solidarity is not only damaging to us as individuals but also to society. In his book, The Ascent of Humanity: Civilization and the Human Sense of Self (2007), Charles Eisenstein argued that the illusion of separateness is the major cause of the breakdown of world order – a breakdown that is even more apparent now than it was when he published this book. I am convinced that the profound misrepresentation of reality that results from the illusion of separateness lies at the core of the most important global crises we currently face.

The Solution

The central message of the world’s major religions is our fundamental oneness. Jesus taught that he and the Father were one and prayed that we might know this same oneness. The Hindu scriptures tell us that we are the “sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters to each other, with no rooted difference between us”. We find the same teaching in Judaism, the prophet Malachi asking “Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us? Why then do we deal treacherously every man against his brother?” And in Islam, the Hadith declares, “All creatures are the family of God.”

The truth is that although I am not you, I am not fundamentally separate from or other than you. And although you are not me, you are not fundamentally separate from or other than me. Our sense of separateness is the lie that forms the core of our dysfunction as individuals, communities, civilizations and humanity.  

We are like leaves on a tree that is connected to all other trees in the forest by a shared root system, and to everything else in the cosmos by a deep web of interdependence. Each leaf, each branch and each tree is unique. But none is separate. The deepest truth of our existence is that we are one.  All that is missing is our awareness and response to the reality of this truth.

In a letter to a friend in 1950, Albert Einstein said:

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe . . . He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion.

Einstein is right. Religion does have a potential role to play in helping us see this illusion for what it is. But the route to that freedom is not beliefs or personal devotion but participation in spiritual communities that themselves are grounded in the truth of our oneness. 

Spiritual communities that support transformational unfolding are ones that do not function simply as tribal communities but ones that facilitate knowing what it means to belong to the human community – and beyond this, to the community of all creatures of the Creator. To build these sorts of communities it is essential that we recover the wisdom that has been lived by our indigenous brothers and sisters. They were the womb out of which the world’s great religions were born and better than anyone else, they know how to see and live in the light of the truth of the fundamental interconnectedness of everyone and everything. 

We are unique, but not separate. We are one with the Transcendent One who resides at the depths of our souls and who holds us, everyone and everything in existence within Divine Oneness. Seeing through the eyes of our awakened hearts and coming to know this truth is the beginning of wisdom.

2019 ©Dr. David G. Benner