The One and the Many
We spend our lives seeking the one or the many. The one person who will complete us, or the many passionate relationship to consume us. The one glorious career, or the many jobs that lead us to fortune. And so on. But the truth is that we don’t often find fulfillment this way. Not in the one or in the many.
Why not? Because we are seeking an illusion.
In my last diary entry, I meditated on being. Some of you raised the question: when I say “everythingness”, do I simply mean monism? No. Let’s leave aside the confusion of monism— is it oneness of stuff, essence, origination? Whatever it is, its central point is: all things are believed to made of, composed from, originated through, one. You are you and I am I, but we are made from, of, or in the same stuff. Maybe we are distinct, but we are not different.
In contrast to the one are the many. Dualist philosophies give rise to manyness. Once there is separation, division, then there is the necessity of many. You are you, I am I, and we are individual, whole, distinct. There is nothing between us, shared, held in common. Whether we are people or essences or galaxies, we are many.
On this spectrum of the One to the Many stands the entirety of Western philosophy. From the days of Parmenides to Aristotle to Leibniz to Heidegger it has wrestled with, and bounced back and forth between, the polarities of the one and the many. And so too now does everything else, including our lives, which are spent chasing The One (career, love, passion) or The Many (relationships, jobs, dollars).
And that is precisely the problem. Do you see it yet? It is both so subtle and so obvious that it is almost invisible.
What if there is not just one, nor many, but zero? When the Buddha spoke of emptiness, or void, that is what he was trying to express. He was asking a more fundamental question than monism still.
Think about it clearly. Monism still presupposes that being is made of things, right? You and I, for instance. We may be made of the same things, or we may in fact be the same things, whether they are monads or bits in a computer simulation. But they are still things. Separate, divided, distinct.
But what if there are no things at all?
The Buddha’s question, which was the question of all the great mystics, from Rumi to Hafiz to Krishnamurti, was more fundamental than the One or the Many. They were wise enough to go to the root, the first principle, beyond the one or the many. Are there “things” at all? Even the supposed units, “ones”, from which we are all made? What if even they are artificial? What if reality is even purer than that?
If it is, then being isn’t made of one or many, but of zero. When the Buddha said that being is “empty”, that existence is “void”, that is exactly what he meant. Let us call that idea “zeroness”, what he called emptiness or void, simply the idea that there are no things. Not even “ones”, like little fundamental particles. If there are no things, there is only everything. What is reality made of? Reality is one or zero, depending on your perspective.
From outside being, there is oneness. Just one thing, of which there are many facets, like a jewel, or an ocean, in which we are ripples. From outside being, you see “one”: the jewel, the ocean. From inside being, there is zeroness. If we are in the ocean, we cannot even see the ripples. If we are inside the jewel, we cannot see the facets. What do you see? There is just the water, the light.
We are inside being. So to us there is not even “one” thing. There are zero things. The ocean cannot say it is the ocean unless there is a sky, right? Otherwise it simply is. Numberless, empty, just being. To be self-conscious is not to be able to count yourself, do a checksum, and know that you are “one”. That is an illusion. How do you know that? Only an external observer can define you so. To be self-conscious is to be able to recognize that you are not separated “things”. It is the inner experience not of one, but of zero. I don’t constantly say to myself, “does the one known as Umair want this?”. I simply act. I am not an external observer to myself, so there is no “one” that I count and check with — there is emptiness, zeroness, and that defines my self-consciousness. Now the challenge is to extend zeroness beyond ourselves, and know that just as there are no separated, divided “things” inside us, so there are no “things” outside us.
I am a drop of water looking at another drop of water, but there is just the ocean, which is looking through me, at itself. My awareness then depends on whether I experience being the drop — or the ocean.
It doesn’t really matter what we call it, so let us simply call this idea unity for now: that there are no things, just being. How are we to know unity? We can prove it in a quantum physics lab. But that doesn’t get you and I any closer to it. We are still trapped inside the jewel, the ocean, and cannot see what is real.
If we meditate, when we love, we can experience unity. Because we lose ourselves. The veil of selfhood vanishes, and we experience a glimmer of being unveiled. It is suddenly obvious, clear, plain. We see through the ocean, and the ripples glimmer. We see through the jewel, and the facets shine. There are no things, after all. But now we know they are just ripples, facets, and what is real the jewel, the ocean.
So what to “call” unity depends on your perspective. If you are speaking descriptively, as I am, then you can call being “oneness” — you see, from the outside, a single unbroken being. If you are seeking from inside the experience of being as it truly is, then you should better call it zeroness. You are a drop inside the ocean, still seeking to see through the waves, to what reality is. But it is just being, which is empty of things, form, objects, subjects.
The paradox is: there are no things at all. That is why it is so hard to grasp all this from the inside. If we are a drop in the ocean, we see foam and water everywhere around us, and imagine they are things, separations, divisions. If we are in the jewel, we see sparks and glimmers as things. But they are just illusions. Reality is zeroness, emptiness, void: there are no things. Not even the drops, or the glimmers. There is just the ocean or the jewel.
The fundamental conceptual difficulty that we have dealing with reality is zeroness. “No things” is not just difficult to grasp. It’s impossible to grasp mentally. The cognizing mind can’t hold it. That is why we must meditate upon it, love, forgive, rebel, grow, and experience it. The mind needs the anchor of things upon which to cognize. It cannot contain the idea of zero just as it contain the idea of infinity.
Western thought is built on the spectrum of the one to the many. And it is stuck there. That is exactly why and how it overlooked entirely the possibility of zeroness. That there is something more fundamental to reality than the one thing or the many things — that there are no things. Which is exactly what both thought and evidence tell us now is true.
And that is really why we struggle so. We look for happiness and meaning and purpose in the one and the many. In one great relationship, or many mediocre ones, or in making one great fortune, or in having many tedious jobs. And still fulfillment eludes us. Why? We are still seeking the one thing or the many things, are we not? The one person to make us whole, or the many passionate relationships, the one glorious career, or the many millions, and so on.
The pursuit of the one or the many defines our lives. But we don’t find the fulfilmment we seek often. And so in our confusion and despair we often bounce back, from the one, to the many, and back again. The rebound, the career change, and so on. This pattern defines our live s— but we are somehow just as unfulfilled as before. We don’t find fulfillment in the one or the many. Why not?
We aren’t experiencing reality, but walking through an illusion. The fulfillment we seek is found in unity. In experiencing the nonexistence of things, separation, division, which is the reality of being. We can do it through true love, meditation, selfless passion. When we struggle by struggle, heartbreak by heartbreak, we are born into our true selves, which no longer see things, but the reality of everythingness.
If that sounds abstract, let me assure you. It is the most natural thing in the world. Every time that you look at your lover’s face, or into a child’s eyes, you are inexplicably alive. Because you have let go of things at last. And become no thing at all. Just being. You are not the drop, but the ocean, looking at itself. Which is all that ever is or was.