The Illusion of Separateness

Charles Eisenstein is a spiritual writer and modern day prophet.  His last two books – The Ascent of Humanity: Civilization and the Human Sense of Self, and Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Community in an Age of Transition – are tremendously important and have been getting a great deal of well-deserved attention.  But those who have discovered him seem to be primarily social activitists who may or may not have caught the spiritual implications of his message.

These two very different books – one focusing on the history of civilization and the other on the implications of economic assumptions and activities – share a common basic assumption.  The starting point of both is that we are living with a fundamental misconception of our identity and that this is having consequences that are quickly leading to the breakdown of world order.  Starting with the question of identity will understandably catch the attention of a psychologist but why is this important for anyone interested in spirituality?  The answer lies in his diagnosis of the fundamental illusion that lies at the core of our sense of who we are – that is, the illusion of our sense of being separate selves among other separate beings in a universe that is also separate from all of us. This story, he argues, creates our world and shapes how we relate to everything beyond what we sense to be our separate self.  And it is this profound misrepresentation of reality that he believes is at the core of the most important global crises we currently face.

I won’t attempt to restate his arguments.  His books are accessible (and freely available!) on his website, this being a response to his conviction that a return to the gift economies of earlier cultures is one important step in undoing the way in which capitalism has contributed to alienation, competition, scarcity and the destruction of community.  He has, so to speak, put his money where his mouth is – something that has challenged me to find ways to do the same.  Perhaps I’ll write more about that in a future blog, but what I am thinking about today is his core assumption that we are not as separate as we assume.

This is, of course, the message of the mystics of the world’s major religions.  The wisdom tradition of each,  Christianity certainly included, starts with this premise. Jesus taught that he and the Father were one and prayed that we might know the same to be our deepest reality.  If this is true – and I believe, and with increasing frequency, know it to be – then our sense of separateness is an illusion.  I am not the same as you – anymore than I am the same as God – but I am not separate from you in the ways in which I usually assume.  And the same is true in terms of my separateness from the world and from everything that is.  The question, “Who am I?” is, therefore, a tremendously important question.  Identity matters.  In Spirituality and the Awakening Self, I argue that the renegotiation of identity at the boundary of self and non-self is right at the center of anything worthy of being called transformation.  It is possible to know our self to be fundamentally one with God and with all that is held together in Christ.  Our sense of separateness – with all the pain that comes with this – is fundamentally an illusion.  That illusion is at the core of our dysfunction as individuals, communities, civilizations and humanity.  But the deepest reality and the truth of our existence is that we are one with God.  All that is missing is our awareness and response.

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