According to common sense, we and the world are two things. There is us, that is, our bodies, minds, feelings, and sensations, and then there is an external world of hard, solid objects. This is a standard, culturally accepted way of looking at things. In spiritual language, this is the subject-object split, or the gap between ourselves and the universe.
It is also entirely wrong.
Advaita Vedanta is often called “The Direct Path.” I call it the “Direct Experience Path,” since most of its modern techniques rely on how we directly experience the world. The modern sages of Advaita, much like the Zen masters of old, ask “What is this separation?”
Looking in direct experience, we see six basic things: visual colors, sounds, touch sensations, and their internal counterparts, mental images, sounds, and feelings. If you and I are talking, I get a visual of your face and body (along with a blurred image of the room behind you), I get audio of your voice, I may reach out and touch you. If I like you, I will have pleasant inner feelings. If I don’t, I will have unpleasant inner feelings. There may be mental images/sounds that cross my mind when you talk. But this is how I experience you.
What I do not experience, in direct experience, is any separation at all. This is not to say that you and I are identical. In fact, thinking that unity means everything is identical is a mental trap, at least at a certain stage on the path. What I actually experience is a cluster of colors that I say is my body, and a cluster of colors I say is your body.
Take the body. We generally agree that the body is a single unit. This is not to say the hand is equal to the foot, or the arm to the leg. These different parts come together. They are one.
Now let’s examine a few definitions of separation and see if it holds to direct experience:
1. Objects are separated by physical space.
We know this isn’t true due to the body example. The foot and hand and separated by space, but still form a unit in the body.
2. Objects that are out of your attention cannot be a part of you.
The so-called physical world comes and goes. I am in my living room at one point, and in my bedroom at another. Surely, this is due to separation. But let’s examine that. Our thoughts come and go, but we consider them “our” thoughts. My appendix is outside my attention, but is still a part of my body. In fact, different parts of the body come and go into attention: I may forget about my big toe until I stub it, and then there it is in all its painful glory.
3. I cannot control objects, so they must not be a part of me.
This doesn’t work either. Consider your thoughts once again. Anyone who has tried to meditate quickly finds that their thoughts are not under control. If they were, as Francis Lucille points out, then you could fill your mind with happy, pleasant thoughts all the time. Additionally, when I say a word, say “boat”, your mind immediately conjures forth an image. You do not choose the image, you did not make a conscious decision whether it would be a word or a picture. If a word, you do not choose the size, type, or font. If a picture, you don’t draw it from scratch. It pops in, fully formed without any help from you.
Consider parts of your body you don’t control, at least not all the time. Blinking, breathing, the heart, digestion--- all of these proceed without our control as well. Anyone who has tried to learn a new physical skill will also clearly find the limits of their physical control.
4. I can’t feel objects, but I can feel my hand.
You can feel some parts of your body, some of the time. Few people can feel their tailbone without a lot of training. Or your cells. Your hair follicles. Many of our thoughts pass in our minds without arousing a significant feeling tone. On the other hand, if you see a child get injured, you may wince. If you see a dreary house on a rainy day, you may feel a little sad. The external world causes us feelings and sensations all the time.
5. The external world is constantly changing, so it can’t be me. My body changes much slower, and I see it all the time.
This doesn’t hold, either. If you cultivate sufficient attention through the day, you will find that you are always changing. Your mood, thoughts, habits all change. Talk to a spouse, significant other, or person of the opposite sex you are interested in. Now talk to a family member. Talk to a co-worker. You will find that you are much different in these situations.
The body changes, albeit slowly. Anyone who is old enough to read this can think back when their body was smaller. Everything changes. Thoughts change quickly. The body more slowly. The external world may change quickly or slowly. None of this indicates a separation.
6. Unified things share something in common. There is no link between my inner thoughts and a coffee cup.
There is a link. Awareness is the web in which all things exist. The thoughts appear in awareness, as does the coffee cup.
So what, then, is separation? It is an illusion imposed by the mind on your direct experience. In Advaita, they call this a “superimposition.” It is like cartoon cells. On one clear cell, you might draw the background. On a second one that overlays the first, you may draw a fish. The fish is imposed on the background. Likewise, you overlay your direct experience with concepts such as “me” and “you” “body” and “objects” and so forth.
In our lives, we have been told, directly or indirectly, that the world is made up of little independent objects. This is a lie that is placed on our direct experience. In reality, we experience a vast world of color, sounds, feelings and sensations. We just tell ourselves that some of these is an “I” and some of them are a “you.”
Now just realizing this intellectually is not enough. We have to keep seeing it, in direct experience, until the superimposition dissolves. These thought patterns are rooted habits, or sankaras, that can require time to erode.