The Ocean Analogy – There Is No “Separate” Life
We humans are 2 things. We are The Divine, one with Pure Awareness, The Absolute Reality, literally not separate from That. And we are unique, individual beings who experience themselves as separate from and different from everything outside ourselves – rocks, trees, other beings, and even God.
That feeling of being separate comes from our minds + conditioning. As pre-cognizant babies, we still experience ourselves as one with the Whole, but through time and the conditioning all around us – basically a world filled with people who’ve decided they are separate from (and possibly in competition with) each other – we absorb that in our growing minds, and by 2 or 3, we’re pretty convinced that we too are separate and in competition with everybody & everything else, for love, attention and the basic needs of life. This core misidentification, and our consequent inability to experience ourselves as one with the Whole, run our lives from that point on. I will do anything to protect & survive my “separate” body-mind-ego, to protect the “separate” bodies of my loved ones, and to enjoy my own “separate” experience of a fulfilling life, filled with my own good times & pleasures…not yours!
Thich Nhat Hahn’s brilliantly simple sentence framing life’s purpose says “We are here to Awaken from the illusion of separateness.” And indeed, the belief that we are separate from each other or anything in the Universe is completely illusory. There is only One, and there is no way for One to be separate from itself or anything else, ’cause there is nothing else. Only if One manifested itself into many, millions, a myriad of forms, worlds & beings could the One be separate from anything. But it didn’t. It only seems like it manifested itself into a limitless bounty of distinct forms, to our limited mental perception. While seeming to take on the disguises of the many, the One is still just One. But our brains can’t comprehend how something could be One and Many, and not separate from any, at the same time – it’s simply not within the scope of our tiny minds to understand that. A fish can’t understand what water is, it can only be in water, immersed in it both outside and inside it’s body.
Here’s a useful analogy that can help us get a feeling of how we are both Pure Awareness and unique, “separate” beings:
Picture yourself looking at the vast ocean. Here in California, I often walk the beach & cliffsides, but if you don’t have an ocean nearby, just visualize it.
The ocean is an endless body of heaving, swaying water with untold, unknowable depths, glorious in it’s completeness & majesty. Now focus on some of the waves & white-tops cresting, rolling, then being reabsorbed in the vast ocean. Are the waves one with the ocean? Are they never not part of the ocean? They are always part of the blue ocean, but when they stick up as white-tops we call them waves, and for a moment they appear to be something slightly different from the ocean mass itself. Each one has a unique shape & form; no two waves are ever alike. So each one is unique and has its own unique contribution to make to the overall look & feel of the ocean. Then they disappear back into the vast blue.
For the analogy, we’ll pretend these waves have self-awareness, and notice that they are unique, different from any other wave, offering there own special form & foam to the universe. At the same time, they do not think, “OK, I want to stay up here, stay separate from the ocean and not get re-absorbed, stay individual and keep expressing that individuality.” You could say that the reason they wouldn’t think this is because they aren’t separate long enough to build an ego, a “sense” of their own individuality…whereas we do. By the time we’re out of toddlerhood we have felt “separate” and unique from the rest of the world and other beings long enough, that we do build a protective, self-absorbed, self-striving ego around each of us. The world requires it. It would be difficult-to-impossible for us to function in the world if, for example, while I was working at my office in New York, I felt no individuality from my brother who driving at high-speed down an L.A. highway. I create and maintain my “own life,” as does he, so I don’t drive through my office or kiss his wife and he doesn’t pay for my kids or work on architectural plans in the middle of oncoming traffic. Good thing!
But that separateness is only a temporary illusion. Very temporary, to be sure. Even if we live to be 100, our “separate” bodies & minds & egos disappear in the blink of an eye, like that wave that appears and then rolls back into the ocean in a few seconds. 75 or 90 or 100 years is nothing in the universal scheme of things. If you laid all of “time” against a 24-hour clock, that 100-year life-span wouldn’t even amount to a blip on the clock; not just our current lives, but the entire history of the human race, would come & go between 11:59:59 and 12-midnight.
So although we feel “separate” for what might seem like a real stretch of “time,” we are very much like those ocean waves. We rise, then get re-absorbed very quickly.
What’s important to realize is that we are not separate from the One, and we are “separate” and unique, simultaneously. To say we are only One, or to say we are only separate beings, are both limited. Many meditators on the non-dual path insist everything is One, and thereby deny their unique humanity. And of course, those who insist we are separate beings go to war with each other to protect their own “separate” survival, and cause so much of their own and others’ suffering.
We are both. The One, Pure Awareness, revels in experiencing this apparent “created reality” through us, it’s “branches,” and through our unique experiences. Indeed, you could say this is “why” Awareness “created” us and manifested whole universes of form & experiences. At the same time, we are never not Pure Awareness, just like those waves were never not the ocean. They were always just one water, in a slightly different temporary form.
In that sense, perhaps the most evolved standpoint we can dwell in & function from, is that of moving fluidly between the two, with no attachment to either. As you are doing your work or loving your spouse, one moment you are in “separate” consciousness, celebrating what your unique body-mind-ego expression is contributing to the world around you; the next moment, you look down at your spouse or lift your head up from your work and take in the surrounding world, and fall into a deep state of Oneness with everything, with your personal identity & agenda totally absorbed in the flow of all Life. This is the state of the Awakened soul, the description of how it feels to be Enlightened.