The Illusion of Separateness
Updated: Jul 17
My Guest Column in Los Angeles Free Press, July 2020
The Los Angeles Free Press recently posted Marc Jacobs fifty-year-old review of Alan Watts’ book Does It Matter? I had read these essays in the early 70s when I seriously and earnestly wanted to find out how to bring about peace in the world and within myself. The timing of the post is especially meaningful for me because it was three years ago this week that my brother John decided he had enough of his life.
The ravages of diabetes had taken their toll on John to the point that he required dialysis every other day. For the previous five years, his quality of life had been steadily declining, he had to move to an assisted living facility, he was angry and depressed. As siblings, John and I had shared a profound childhood loss when our father unexpectedly passed away. I was eight years of age and John was fourteen. From then on our relationship was, by and large, antagonistic. That is how our grief was expressed. Given the family lore about our outwardly divided behavior, it came as a surprise to some when John and I announced he would be moving from the assisted living facility into my home.
All the arrangements were carefully put in place and the move was made. I became intimately acquainted with the difficulties of John’s life as I turned into the project manager of a stream of in-home healthcare workers, almost all of whom were people of color. In this new hands-on role, I was astonished to observe the virulent racism my brother openly showed toward his caregivers. I knew our parents would never have stood for this. Yet there it was, unmasked. Where did this come from? Eastern thinkers, such as Watts, would explain to my Western mind that both the high and lofty Declaration of Independence and the evils of slavery are part of our collective consciousness. That outer dissensions in a society are the dissensions within the individual. The world is me and I am the world.
As the weeks passed, John spoke more and more of his awareness that there was no hope for his physical improvement, there would be only decline. He said he was worn out and was considering that dialysis was prolonging his death rather than his life. He wanted to talk about stopping dialysis with his family and physicians. I watched his solemn vulnerability and courage as he did so.
At the beginning of July, John decided July 4th would be his last day of dialysis. During the twelve days that followed, I cooked all of the favorite family meals he hadn’t been able to enjoy for so long. We loudly played his favorite songs from his favorite bands and heartily sang along. We openly shared our long-held childhood grief. While he slept, I cried ancient tears. We held hands and talked every day, neutrally observing our shared experiences and our differences. And in this timeless time of releasing the narratives we had built around our memories, there came the sweet perfume of “the entirely undefinable something which is everything.” as Watts put it.
As the days passed and nature took its course, John slept more and more. He told me of his dreams in which clouds of people were gathering around him. In the quiet days and nights as his body functions began shutting down, the family kept a bedside vigil. It was, again, a time of neutral observation, when the process of the intellect comes to an end, and there is an opening to the unknown. Call it Love, Absolute Consciousness, God, a peace that passes understanding — whatever one chooses – there was a sense of well-being, a transcendence. And as Watts suggested, that also is part of our collective consciousness, "the total energy system of the universe."
When John’s body life came peacefully to an end, it was clear that while he and I had distinctly different perceptions and personalities we were, as the Human Genome Project proved, of the same source. Everything is interconnected. In moments such as these - the birth of a child, the passing of a loved one, psychedelics, meditation - we move from the known to the unknown and see beyond the veil. These moments of radical transformation of our consciousness are integrated with life, everyday life.
Fifty years ago Eastern philosophy awakened me to how Western culture constructs the world as a collection of disparate “things.” In Does it Matter? Watts describes how we have been hallucinated into seeing the world in this way. It is this illusion of separateness that is at the root of the ineffective ways in which we relate to politics, business, and each other. As we observe the crisis of the day - social inequality, political polarization, the environment, all of it – we are observing a crisis in consciousness.
I had a long career in nonprofits, working to bring change to transform the world for the better. Today I see all of society is myself in action. My consciousness is the consciousness of my neighbor. Do I then feel a responsibility for the salvation of our collective consciousness? Yes. As a great teacher once said, “If you want to make the world a better place, at least don’t contribute to its misery.” As the consciousness of the individual is transformed, social goodness follows.