Unique or Separate–The Integration of Eastern and Western Enlightenment
An Excerpt from Your Unique Self: The Radical Path to Personal Enlightenment by Dr. Marc Gafni
PERHAPS the greatest mistake in the evolution of human spirituality was the failure to properly distinguish between separateness and uniqueness. This simple statement is the result of many years of meditation on Unique Self and the reading of countless classic and popular texts that all confused separateness and uniqueness, each in its own way. Once this realization dawned on me, I could see that one of the great intractable problems standing in the face of human evolution could be resolved. The knotted contradiction between the major types of human spirituality are easily unraveled, opening the door to a higher integral embrace of enlightenment. This acknowledgment of the difference between separate and unique in turn allows us to move one vital step closer toward the emergence of a genuine translineage dharma and world spirituality.
The core contradiction lies between the dominant motifs and moods of eastern and Western spirituality.
Each suggests a different path — paths that are, to a large extent, mutually exclusive. Both are right and both are wrong. Or to put it another way, each one has a piece of the story, but each thinks its respective piece is actually the whole story. When a part pretends to be a whole, pathology of some form is invariably produced. Moreover, eastern and Western spirituality each make a critical mistake based on an essential confusion between separateness and uniqueness.
Each side in this dharma combat, which has spanned the generations, is motivated by pure and holy motives. Each, with its teachings and practices, seeks the highest expression and flowering of human love and goodness. Each, with its teachings and practices, wishes to end suffering. Yet each made the same mistake, in the opposite manner.
The Insight and Mistake of the East
Eastern spirituality by and large rightly sees the separate self as an illusion. The realization of this illusion comes from profound spiritual practices like meditation, which work to open the eye of the spirit. Not only is the separate self exposed as an illusion, it is also the root source of most human suffering. Fear, death, terror, and cruelty in virtually all of its forms can ultimately be traced back to the illusion of the separate self. It is for this most powerful and compelling of reasons that the east devoted an enormous amount of energy to dispelling the illusion of the separate ego self.
In realizing that the separate self is an illusion, the East made a mistake: it confused separateness and uniqueness. The axiomatic assumption in many eastern teachings — both ancient and modern — is that to transcend the separate self, you must leave behind not only the illusion of separation, but also the apparent experience of uniqueness.
Much effort was directed to demonstrating that what seemed to be unique and particular was in fact common and universal, and what seemed to be personal was actually impersonal. There was great truth in some of this teaching, and it clearly brought immense spiritual depth and some measure of peace to many.
Yet the core teaching did not take root among the masses. The problem was not simply that the masses were lazy, stupid, or in lower states of consciousness, as some teachers told us. The deeper problem was that the masses felt that the teaching violated their basic sense of the necessity, desirability, and dignity of uniqueness. The problem was — and is — that uniqueness will just not go away. The majority of people correctly feel that to surrender their uniqueness would be to surrender their life force, as well as their personal value and dignity. The personal is, by its very nature, unique. The dignity and value of the personal derive directly from its uniqueness.
You can have a powerful and authentic experience of your own specialness even after the dissolution of your ego. Many eastern teachings try valiantly to explain this away by telling you in many different ways that your lingering experience of uniqueness or specialness is merely evidence that you have not yet evolved beyond ego.
But you, and many like you, know in your deepest place that this is simply not true. You experience the reality of your specialness and uniqueness not as an expression of ego, but as a glorious expression of your truest nature. You understand that the seamless coat of the Universe is indeed seamless, but not featureless. You understand that your uniqueness is the highest expression of God looking out from behind your eyes and taking in your uniquely gorgeous perspective and insight. You must move beyond your separate self, even as you must embrace and affirm your uniqueness beyond ego. Because the east demands that you throw out your uniqueness as part of dispelling the illusion of the ego or the separate self, you correctly rebel against this dharma. You intuitively affirm the value of the personal. To you, impersonality feels like a violation of the very quality of humanness that you hold most dear.
You feel your uniqueness as a deep truth. So you reject the dharma of the east, and while trying to salvage your uniqueness, you cling to your separate self. Ironically, the failure of virtually all Eastern approaches to spirituality to make this essential distinction between uniqueness and separateness undermines the ability of the discerning heart and mind to receive the great dharma of the east. It is for this reason that the Eastern teachings that have been disseminated throughout the Western world have ultimately failed to break out of a very small and elite audience, and have not had a genuinely transformative impact upon mainstream culture.
Of course the east is half right. The illusion of an isolated ego, the separate self, really is the source of virtually all suffering. The confusion between separateness and uniqueness in eastern teaching has paradoxically caused the rejection of eastern teaching in the West. The West has essentially ignored the Eastern call to evolve beyond separate-self ego, and most of humanity has remained stuck with ego and all of its attendant horrors.
The Insight and Mistake of the West
Conventional Western spirituality, like the spirituality of the east, is motivated by love and the desire to end suffering. However, the West came to essentially opposite conclusions about how to achieve this same result. The West saw the affirmation of human individuality as the greatest good of the human spirit. Western spirituality asserted that our rights and relationships are rooted in the dignity of the separate self. It is the separate self that is in relationship not only with others but also with God. Communion with the divine rather than absorption into the One becomes the good of spiritual practice.
It is the great divine gift to affirm human adequacy and dignity through the very encounter between humans and God. For humans to be addressed in this encounter, their distinct otherness as a separate self apart from God must be affirmed and supported. In other words, our relationship with God requires some degree of separation. Two parties can only meet in love and mutuality if they are separate. We are both overwhelmed by the presence and at the same time affirmed by the presence as a separate other. In the revelation of the infinite, the finite is held in love, nourished and challenged at the same time. Our individuality becomes the source of our dignity. Moreover, it is in our individuality that we find our ability to love, to act in compassion, and to take responsibility for our destiny.
For one who is wholly merged with the infinite, there is no encounter. If there is no encounter, then there is no love, no dignity, and no responsibility. If there is no other, then we cease to be a moral agent and a lover. With the total annihilation of the personal comes the end of personal responsibility. If human beings are not separate selves with individual rights and responsibilities, then there is neither good nor evil. it becomes virtually impossible to distinguish between what is below and what is beyond. Good and evil imply relationship. When there is an identity of subjects, when humans and God are one, when we are truly submerged in a condition of tat tvam asi (“Thou art That”), there can be no relationship. Where there is no relationship, there is no love, no good, and no evil.
The miracle of We comes only from the union of I and Thou. What is love without an I and a Thou? Ethics, goodness, and judgment are meaningful only in the realm of the personal. They have no place in a Universe of no-selves.
For all of these very noble reasons, the West insisted on the reality of the separate self. However, Western spirituality made the same great mistake as the east, but in the opposite direction. The West essentially confused separateness and uniqueness. Western teachers wrongly assumed that all the virtues of love and relationship required the dignity of individuality in the form of a separate self. This is simply not true. All the goods and virtues of love, relationship, compassion, responsibility, and all the rest can be had through the Unique Self. There is absolutely no need for the separate self. The Unique Self, as we have shown, emerges in its full splendor only after the separate self has been trance-ended. You can experience the full dignity, responsibility, and joy of individuality by recognizing your uniqueness. Uniqueness does not require separateness.
The result of this colossal mistake in Western spirituality has been that your intuitive spiritual desire to evolve beyond exclusive identification with your ego — to transcend your separate self — has been thwarted and even ridiculed by Western spiritual teaching. Your desire to reach for the transpersonal was stymied because it seemed like you needed to reject the personal to get there. The Western deification of the personal blocked the gateways necessary for your enlightenment. Your heart knew this was wrong. You knew you needed to transcend your separate self, but you did not know how to do it without losing the critical moral and relational virtues of the personal. So you remained stuck in the personal, unable to find a path beyond yourself.
For both East and West, drawing a correct distinction between separateness and uniqueness allows for a powerful evolution of their respective teachings. This crucial dharmic distinction allows for a higher and integral embrace of these seemingly disparate teachings, which split the world of spirit into two warring camps.
The Unique Self is the pivot point for this translineage spiritual breakthrough, which allows for the evolutionary integration of these two teachings.
For the West, the Unique Self is the source of human dignity, love, obligation, and destiny. At the deepest level, you know that your Unique Self is not your separate self. Your separate self is an illusion, though you remain a unique strand in the seamless coat of the Universe. Spiritual practice moves you to realize your essential enmeshment with the larger reality, even as you retain the dignity of your distinction. Uniqueness is the source of this dignity, as well as your sense of intimacy.
For the East, the realization of Unique Self is equally critical. it is precisely the recognition of the Unique Self that allows for the transcendence of the illusion of separate self without the wholesale rejection of individual specialness and uniqueness. You are able to fully embrace the call to evolve beyond separate self and ego, even as you affirm and embrace your Unique Self that emerges from your Buddha nature.
For both the East and the West, higher translineage integration can be achieved. A genuine evolution of spirit can be accomplished. The full glory of meditative realization and classic enlightenment is redeemed and recognized as the first major step. In the second step, the full glory of individual dignity is realized in the postegoic Unique Self.