The experience of Oneness:

overcoming the illusion of separateness


The year before I went to live at the Benedictine monastery of Prinknash Abbey when I was 19, I had a conversation with the then Abbot, Aldhelm Cameron-Brown, which (though it took some years to realise) profoundly influenced the direction of my life.

The Abbot said very little, but he was an excellent teacher who taught as much by his gentle presence and the silences between his words.

We were walking in the Abbey grounds and I rather nervously tried to say something about what was happening in my life. Before this time, I really had no one to speak to about what I was experiencing, which was at the same time utterly irresistible and profoundly disorientating. I hadn’t been brought up in a religious family. I had no grammar to speak about what I was experiencing.  And any attempt to speak about this with my friends left them completely non-plussed.

Alongside texts from the Christian contemplative tradition, I’d been studying texts from other traditions, particularly those of Zen Buddhism, Hindu Advaita Vedanta and Sufi Islam. After a few minutes hesitation, I told the Abbot that it seemed as if a single voice and teaching was shining through everything I was reading.

I can still remember the great excitement and relief I felt when he just smiled and quietly said, “Yes.”

We continued walking and, feeling a little more confident, I told the Abbot how I imagined people of different faiths and none, speaking different languages, wearing different clothes, coming together to practice silent meditation. They sit and in their shared silence glimpse the silent ground of who they are, the oneness that perceives “not Jew or Greek, nor slave or free, not male or female for [we] are all one in Christ.”[1]

When they return to where words have beginnings and ending again,[2] they are still speaking their different languages and wearing their different clothes. But something has changed.

To someone looking on, not a great deal may seem to have happened.

They might notice how comfortable people are with each other. They might notice how content they are to speak or not speak, to laugh or simply enjoy each other’s company and a cup of tea together in silence.

They will almost certainly notice the deep atmosphere of peace.

Abbot Aldhelm smiled again and said, “I think so too” – and I felt another great wave of excitement and relief.

When Jesus was asked which is the first among all the commandments,[3] he answered that the first is to hear (to know) that God is one and to love this One with our whole being.

He completed his teaching by joining a second commandment to the first – that we must love our neighbour as ourself, saying there is no other commandment greater than these.

Knowing the oneness of God, of Reality, cannot be separated from manifesting this oneness through love. To paraphrase St. Augustine, all those who see and love the light of oneness are one.[4]

The journey of meditation leads us beyond words, beyond images, to the depths of our being. The simple practice helps loosen the glue of conditioning and habit that keeps our attention stuck to whatever is happening in the ever-changing foreground of our life, so we can perceive the unchanging background of our life, the oneness in which “we live and move and have our being.”[5]

The illusion of separateness from God and from each other is overcome in the experience of oneness. All talk of the differences between people is radically qualified in its loving light. The basis for relationship is infinitely enlarged.

The ancient metaphor of a wheel can help us in thinking about our journey.

Imagine a wheel and that you are one of the spokes.

Our journey begins where the spoke meets the outer rim of the wheel. When you look out from here, you appear to be separate from all the other spokes. There appears to be a distance between you.

Now, imagine you’re travelling down your spoke towards the hub, to the centre. This is the journey of meditation.

Each time you look out on your journey, you notice that the other spokes appear to be getting closer to you.

When you come to the hub, you see that you and all the other spokes are rooted in this one centre and radiate from it.

From the perspective of the centre (from God’s perspective), nothing has changed. Everything is just as it has always been.

From our perspective, everything seems to have changed.

The illusion of separateness has been overcome.

We have found our common home.

It’s not enough to rely on what any teacher might say about this, however uplifting this may sound (and I hope it does).

We are invited to journey to the heart of who we are, to discover the heart of everything.

We are invited to know this oneness in our own experience, to taste it and manifest it in how we live our lives together.

The closer we come to the Centre, the closer we come to each other and all creation.

[1] Galatians 3:28.

[2] See Book 9 of St. Augustine’s Confessions.

[3] Mark 12:28-34.

[4] St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 10.

[5] Acts 17:28.

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