I’ve never been to Burning Man, but I have a lot of friends who have, and every year I hear about how meaningful these annual gatherings are for them. A time to engage deeply, connect with their “tribe,” be challenged and stimulated beyond their usual life experience.
I recognize this experience, having just come back from my own “Burning Man”: the annual North American Systemic Constellations Conference. We get together every two years, and this year we met in Virginia Beach last week. Some of you may remember that I was the co-director for the last one in 2015 in San Diego, and so it was a joy to return once again as a participant. A time to engage deeply, connect with my tribe, and be challenged beyond my day-to-day life experience.
Every year is incredibly stimulating, and this year left me chewing on “Oneness” and its pros and cons. Thomas Hübl was with us, and he talked about Field Coherence: the experience of being in a coherent experience with the world around us. This accords with what psychologists are teaching about Attachment Theory, and how we learn (or don’t learn) to resonate with the people and experiences around us.
There is no learning “all by ourselves” as children. We are learning through and with others all of the time. It’s through coherence and incoherence (connecting and disconnecting) that we learn how to connect, grow, and experience ourselves as whole. Mirroring is at the center of this learning.
“Non-duality” is a popular teaching these days: the idea that beyond duality and separateness is a Oneness that transcends difference. It is incontestable that there is an essential oneness and connectedness to everything, but there are some dangers that lurk in this teaching.
A child that cannot experience difference in positive ways does not learn, grow, or experience themselves as a person. It is the positive, stimulating and even challenging engagement with the world – discovering mother and father are not extensions of ourselves, but actually are full human beings in their own right – is what makes joyful and productive adult life possible. Think of a pearl – it grows in an oyster as a result of the oyster’s response to irritation. We’re like that: we grow by repeated, largely positive (but even some negative), “rubbing up” against each other.
I am nervous about some talk about “nonduality” because too much of an emphasis on oneness removes difference, and in that instance, who’s oneness are we talking about? Well, probably the “oneness” of the ones in charge. This is what we call “normalization”: the conviction that who we are is the norm, and others are, well, “others.” In certain circles it can lead to a “spiritual bypass” of wonderful love that runs roughshod over those who are different and the discomforts that difference creates.
But it’s not just about discomforts, right? As the French say “Vive la différence!” This is a motto that describes the joy in heterosexual (male/female) sexual connection, but it can apply to any intimacy, because we are all different, no matter how similar we are in some ways. Difference actually makes intimacy possible. And art, and music, and delight in nature, and the simple pleasure of petting your cat (or dog – more difference!).
This is all to say, there is no getting around it, human life is a “field phenomenon.” Which requires a field, and elements in the field, for us to connect and resonate with. The Oneness may be the Field itself (whatever that is) but it’s only a Field by virtue of the multiplicity that resonates and hums within it.
“Ubuntu” is a South African word meaning “a person is a person through other people.” The danger of too much focus on Oneness becomes a loss of this sense, of what Martin Buber called the “I/Thou.” Our brains reflect this. Solitary confinement usually leads to loss of brain function; a growing child needs positive human interaction; as adults, our limbic systems need this field of connection to stay healthy.
This can be a huge challenge to those of us with any kind of attachment disorder. Intimacy can feel both desirable and dangerous. We can push away what we love, need and want. Oneness may seem like a wonderful alternative to this confusion, pain, and challenge.
But constellations, along with many other frameworks, philosophies, science and modalities, teaches us that there is no human life without this multiplicity, and that recovering its essential goodness is necessary. And not only for personal thriving, but for social thriving, too – where we are challenged by racism, sexism, homophobia, disable-ism, and so much more. We need to re-learn the delight, joy, and ultimate safety of connection across difference. Even great difference.
This may seem impossible, especially when we take into account the biological driver of tribalism (which is where I started this article). There’s ample reason why we cohere with those with whom we already belong, and contract from those with whom we do not. Loyalty systems, as Hellinger and others have taught, are powerful for good evolutionary reasons.
But even within tribes, there is engagement with difference. Historically, clans would make marriages with other clans to increase genetic diversity; trade across peoples improved sustainability and grew wealth; gender expressions beyond binary ones brought in expanded sources of wisdom and nurture. Sameness would, eventually, lead to poverty and death. Diversity was strength and possibility.
It is a great good to see the commonness in humanity, and through empathy to see our sameness. And sometimes, on the other hand, it is a great good to say “I don’t know your experience. I really don’t. Tell me.” Difference and separation are not fundamentally a problem, although (especially when it comes to the death of loved ones) it inevitably includes great pain. But without difference, we can’t love, and for now, I will take love, with its pain.
What is your experience of multiplicity and nonduality? We all grow when we share our stories. And, I am really supported when people who connect with my writing share it so that others can see it. If you have a response, to please share it below. Thank you!