At-One-Ment

J. T. Coker

Once upon a time, many years ago, on a bright May afternoon I wandered a secluded arroyo and rested by a small pond. Sun gave warmth and a slight breeze cool at the pond's edge. A redwinged blackbird was enthroned on a stand of reeds at the pond's center; his liquid song had drawn me there. He and the reed danced with the breeze, singing an intense rippling joy. Sun, breeze, water, seclusion, and song worked magic — a state of reverie grew. Blackbird's liquid singing filled me, each note dancing with and echoing the water. Soul stirred, beyond thought, time, and space. Then, things began to disappear. Blackbird first. Then reed and water were gone. I disappeared. There was only Sun: singing through a form called blackbird; blowing in a form called breeze, rippling through a form called water, dancing through a form called reed, listening through a form called me. It was all Sun. Only Sun. And Sun's song swelled, being the world. But I was singing, I was that song, singing of many things: beauty, water, reed, and life dancing with breeze. And reed, water, earth, bird, and I were really one. We were Life's Spring Sun.

Time passed but measure was superfluous. Sun was farther west and shadows farther east than when I arrived. Returned to ordinary limitations, yet moved and transformed, I left that experience, making my way home. But . . . words can't convey what came home with me.

Of course that wasn't At-One-Ment in the cosmic sense. Just a "mini" version — a little taste of atonement. That is -- is, not was, for it lives in and with me still — a small moment of grace, a mystic gift. Not something worked for — or even deserved. Simply a gift.

How did it happen? I wasn't meditating, trying to become at-one.

I was just hangin' out by this pond, checkin' out this bird. I'm no saint, not holy or sanctified, that's for sure. I don't even always behave myself, so if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. But why did it happen to me? And how does it happen to anyone?

I've always felt that to be a practicing mystic one must be practical. So, what's the key to that door? What's the practice that allowed that gift to be bestowed and received? Reflection revealed I'd been relaxed, receptive, aware, open — seeking and accepting only what that moment of Life had to offer. And then . . . it was given. I felt I'd simply 'let go,' but of what? Of the experience of separateness: "I'm separate from bird, reed from water, sun from reed, etc."

If this universe is all one — what's this seeming separateness? Hindu mystics name it Maya (illusion). They say we're submerged in, live and breathe, illusion. And the greatest illusion is separateness, for all is divine and divinity is one, and though each aspect of the one is different from every other, none is separate.

If the one universal song, singing through that blackbird, had been strained through the normal human conception of music — made up rules: harmony, melody, rhythm, in the limited way we humans produce and understand them, in other words, the familiar way we've learned to accept as real -- then my perception of that song would have been limited by my preconceived notions of what music is and isn't. Our conception of music is of a strictly human endeavor: animals and wind might make nice sounds but real music? Hardly! Fortune, or karma, smiled that day, for my life's bent and training had led me to explore and appreciate all expressions of music my ears could take in — symphonies, blues, whales, crickets, wind, and sea. Some I personally liked better than others; that's natural. But to be unable to hear the divine singing through Beethoven's or Penderecki's symphonies or the glory of a morning raga sending the rising sun's serenade back in human voice, or the purrs and growls of down-home blues as the divine sings to Itself in Its sorrow, or Eskimo and Pygmy throat chants as the divine innocently amusing Itself with song — would be an inestimable loss.

Since being consciously part of that song I hear, if I listen beyond my limitations, actual music in rain. Not just a poetic metaphor, but actual symphonies — sirens, wind, sea, traffic noise, a room of chattering people, dogs barking, babies crying.

Several years ago I had the privilege of hearing the great Indian vocalist Lakshmi Shankar sing ragas to the morning. I've always aspired to that quality of beauty. I felt that if I did something that beautiful, just once, I could die happy. Well, it happened again. One second sitting in the audience listening, the next second gloriously singing with no separation of male/female, young/old, eastern/western, Hindi/English. There was only song and I was singing it. The realization struck: no matter where song is in the world, or who or what's singing it — I am! I just can't (or is it won't?) usually perceive it. Mystics say that history's great sages and seers are not separate from us. We are the great love of Jesus, the peace of Buddha, the wisdom of Lao-Tzu, if we allow it, for we are not separate. It's one and we are one with It. We're just not usually conscious of that oneness.

If self-reflective perception of oneness is a gift and can't be forced, can it be invited and prepared for? The ego can't become God (though it sure likes to think so). How can we let go of our sense of separateness, of our need to control life? Through time people have prayed, meditated, performed rituals, engaged in ceremonies, danced, sung, drummed, taken drugs, practiced devotion and austerities, or just sat. Different strokes for different folks. But, the bottom line is: just say, Yes! — with an accepting awareness; seeking what is different from me and embracing what I can of it. It comes down to one simple, overworked word — love. Or, if you prefer, the mystic formula: love, devotion, surrender.

There was a universe of experience in the blackbird's song: hunger stirring; territoriality; the mating urge (it was that time of year); flux of electromagnetic currents through the earth; insects buzzing (as musical complement and as a possible snack); stars dancing their courses — interconnected Life experiencing Itself through one of Its manifestations.

Try it sometime: sit by a stream, see minnows flashing enjoyment in dappled sunlight playing through water on self, rocks, and sand. Feel graceful power of your being flex and release rhythmically in such harmony and rightness as approaches perfect wholeness. Another thrust of joy and . . . sudden! pain, confusion, panic. A crayfish, ridiculously small and harmless to your human self, is now a giant predator whose claws grip your flesh, devouring it alive.

Here's the rub: Life — Divinity — isn't just sweetness and joy. It's also pain and sorrow. Life isn't always what we desire it to be. It simply is.

Sure, we all want to be at-one with birds singing joy, minnows flashing freedom, divine music pouring forth. That's the divinity we had in mind. Perhaps the problem is mind's conceptual dissecting and separating. Mind is an aspect of the divine, as all Maya is, but we hang up on it, feeling that what mind thinks is real — especially when it's connected to our desires. But what do we desire? Not Life as it is but only the parts of it we like. The peace, love, beauty, et cetera.

Is this universe those things? Yes. Is it only those things? No.

"Life is suffering," said the Buddha. But no one wants to suffer. How do we avoid it? Mystics say "let go the illusion of self and become at-one." Clinging to our narrowness is the self-made mortar cementing the bricks of our perceptual prison. Buddha said that the way to cessation of suffering is to let our sense of separate self go. He didn't say there would be no pain or problems, but that there would be no suffering because of them.

But can we stay at-one with the minnow and die in that form, or be at-one with the predator seeking its life? Can we go beyond to be atone with Life, which informs them both? When the blackbird leaves the reed, can we deal with the hunger of Life as he gobbles insects, or is moved to mate? We cherish tender feelings about home and parenthood, but how about Life's passions and lusts? Are we repelled into locking ourselves in the narrow, illusory limitations of being only who and what we think we are or desire to be? It's relatively easy to be atone when what you're being at-one with is 'nice.' How about when it's not? How far does our desire for understanding and at-oneness go? Are we stuck in an artificial Pollyanna world of uplift, light, joy, and goodness that excludes the tragic, dark, painful parts of life? That's understandable but . . . that would be at-two, not at-one. Being at-one means to be so with every hurt and unkindness as well as every act of compassion and song of joy. If I'm doing these things then I'm responsible for them. All of them. It's too easy to ignore wholeness and merely seek our own concept of perfection.

Then there's the question of how the One becomes the many. It seems, in one way, to be nonsense. The One simply is. It depends on how we, in our seeming separateness, look at It; which aspects we see and identify, or disidentify, with. Like light being wave and particle at the same time, depending on how we choose to measure it. But what is light, really? There's only one way to find out: drop our exclusive insistence on measuring it (thereby separating it from everything else) and become light itself — seeking to understand its quality, rather than explicating only its quantities. It is one Being, being all things, displaying Its infinite aspects that seem separate to us. We can take all imaginable measurements of a being — a person, blackbird, pond, or planet — but we'll still not know the qualities of universal experience embodied in the wholeness of that being — for here measurement is superfluous. Sure, my toe is different from my ear — you can even measure the differences — but they're both integral parts of the wholeness that I am, and if those parts fail to perceive, if not the actual wholeness, at least their own relationship to and responsibility for the well-being of the whole they'll begin to behave independently, rather than interdependently, as units rather than as unity. Each would seek its own narrow self-interest and damage the whole on which its well-being depends — even if it isn't conscious of that dependence.

If conscious atonement is our goal, we need to let perceptual barriers dissolve, in spite of the inbuilt cultural fear of losing control that Western people nurture. Our desire to control is an ego attribute, a pronounced modern characteristic which rationalizes our fear of necessary spontaneity, even to the point of denying the validity of universally accepted practices and experiences. Can we stop clinging to our mistaken translation of differences into separateness? Can we find ways to look outside our narrow personal, cultural and even human bonds that limit us to what we think we desire? Samsara and Nirvana are different states — but, according to the Buddha, they are not separate. Business and political perceptions are different from spiritual and religious perceptions, but they are not, and cannot be, separate. A good example of the separate/different illusion may be something so common we often overlook it. A mother cradles her child, gazing with adoring love and bathing in the love beaming back to her — they're definitely different from one another though, because of the recently shared intimacy of residing in the same body, perhaps less so than the child and anyone else. So, they're two different beings yet . . . separate? No way! Look and you'll see.

Can we disentangle ourselves from our illusory web of desires and concepts — such as right, just, fair, control, good, and evil — and try to deal with Life in Its wholeness? For It is divinity singing (and crying) in the infinite plenitude of eternal Now - not contained by our concepts, limited by our minds, or even restricted to what we, personally, want It to be. It contains, and is, all. How much of It can we embrace? Better yet, how much of It will we consciously allow to embrace us?

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, June/July 1994. Copyright © 1994 by Theosophical University Press)


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