The notion of oneness can mean many things. Here I wish to advance one particular Buddhist significance of the term.
Eka means one. Ekagata thus means to go singly. In the Rhinoceros Discourse, the Buddha says, "The wise person, valuing freedom, goes alone.” We should, therefore, enquire what is meant by true aloneness.
In asserting the importance of ekagata the Buddha is challenging the common way of relating to the world as a being-dependent-upon-others. Of course, in certain important senses, one is dependent upon others: for food, for protection and so on. Nonetheless, in order to pursue the spiritual life, it is necessary to become psychologically liberated from the kind of co-dependent existence that commonly rules the life of the ordinary person. Indeed, the spiritual life is such a liberation. The spiritual person relates to an "unconditioned" that lies beyond.
This essay examines the common dependency by drawing out the connections between self-consciousness, co-dependency, and the process by which an ego-complex is built through the cathexis of our images of significant others. It makes clear the distinction between being alone in the Buddhist sense and being one’s ego, which is really a dependent way of relating. Having distinguished the kind of spiritual and psychological aloneness that Buddha is advocating the essay then goes on to examine how ekagata plays out in the teacher-disciple relationship, in psychotherapy, in spiritual practice and in communities. Ekagata is here presented as fundamental to the Buddhist life and faith, or to any true spiritual path. The faith to truly take refuge in Buddha is also the faith to be alone in the world of conditions. Detaching from conditions and having faith in what is beyond are two sides of the same coin.
To make sense of this subject we have to consider both literal aloneness, in the forest or the mountains, say, and psychological or spiritual aloneness, in which one has no interest vested in maintaining a particular reputation or sense of personal identity. Buddha praises both. The literal can be a template for the psychological. The psychological can sometimes express itself as the literal, but it also functions meaningfully in society.
The Buddha praised solitude and what we can learn from it. For instance, he recommended going into the forest alone in order to overcome fear and dread. In this modern age, when the planet is so densely populated and many people are addicted to their mobile devices to such an extent that they rarely pass half an hour in real solitude, we perhaps need to heed his words even more than in previous epochs of history.
Leonardo da Vinci also spoke highly of the importance of going out alone and studying the forms of nature. In other words, to be alone, yet not self-preoccupied. People nowadays often talk about “having time for me”, and when a person is first alone the habit of self-preoccupation is likely to continue running for an initial period as the person seeks forms of self-indulgence. Gradually, however, this becomes boring and drops away. Time for me might actually be time away from the me-maintenance project.
These days I pass much of my time in solitude. Living in my hermitage, remote in the countryside, I commune with the flowers and the changing seasons. As soon as I set foot in the place I feel tension drop away. The land is holy and air is divine. My time is occupied with many practical tasks, collecting firewood, attending to the land and buildings, as well as with reflection upon the great scheme of nature within which I and even the planet Earth are but tiny smidgens.
Then, going forth from my retreat, I go amongst people.They want to know who one is and how they should treat you. You have to present some kind of face to the world. This can easily turn into self-preoccupation and, if it does, then that very self-consciousness can become an obstacle. The sense of self arises on the back of the encounter with others.
Self-preoccupation is substantially a function of our effort to navigate social situations. The seeming paradox here is that the more we spend our time in endless chatter with others the more self-preoccupied we tend to become, whereas when there is nobody present who might judge us, we tend to lose the obsession with self-presentation, self-assessment and self-judgement.To be in the presence of somebody confident that that person really makes no judgement is a rare experience. Such a person might make a good therapist or guide, but more on that later.
A large proportion of social chat has nothing to do with the exchange of information, nor with rational discussion. It is, rather, a form of mutual grooming by which the participants seek to adjust each other and themselves into socially approved modes of thought and conduct so as to present themselves in an acceptable light.
Buddha called such self-preoccupation conceit and he often designated such conceit as the root problem and the core obstacle to liberation. Thus Buddhism is not a matter of returning to the common norm. While we are trying to be normal and appear to be this or that, we are not seeing what is actually there nor what is actually going on. He called this “not seeing” avidya. It is the first link in the chain of dependent origination that leads to self-creation.
Thus, liberation in Buddhism really means liberation from our own internal ego-complex, and the ego-complex owes its existence to the self-conscious way we relate to others. It is a way of positioning oneself, especially vis-a-vis those others who become significant in one’s life. This then develops into an obsession with building, maintaining and perfecting a sense of self. This is a never ending task since the goal of a creating a coherent self-entity can never be achieved when its component parts are all aspects of the shifting influences of social life.
In solitude the urgency of this obsession diminishes as it is not being constantly stirred up and reinforced. Insofar as it continues under its own pre-established momentum, it soon becomes boring, and is more readily displaced by reality factors and the demands of existential life. The trees and birds, the rivers and the sky, do not force self-consciousness upon us. Rather they draw us out of ourselves in wonderment, in curiosity, and sometimes by making practical demands. If one is out in the wilderness one has to get on with the tasks of survival. This is why going out into nature can be a cure for many psychological ailments.
There is much to learn from literal solitude. However, the liberated person lives ekagata even when in company. To live as if alone means that one is not constantly haunted by a judging audience of internalised others. One is not posing for, nor performing to them. One is simply getting on with life.
This is just as much a foundational principle of Taoism as of Buddhism. While Buddha was pronouncing the Rhinoceros Discourse in India, the old sages of Taoism were coining the maxim “Wei wu wei" which literally means "Act without acting." This is a play upon the double meaning of acting (wei) as meaning, on the one hand, to do something, and, on the other hand, to perform a contrived part, as on the stage. Self-consciousness is the second wei, it is to have a virtual audience in mind so that either one is artificially putting on airs and pretending to be something that one is not, or one is hampering one's ability to do anything by considerations of how it might possibly be judged by others - a kind of stage fright.
This self-consciousness builds the ego. The ego is a complex of delusion that imagines a stable enduring self - a "me” - that is good or bad, admirable or shameful, and never really alone.
Many Buddhist exercises seek to deconstruct this "me”. These exercises include (a) reflecting upon one’s continuity with the physical elements of earth, air, water and fire (b) deconstructing the psycho-physical being into its skandha elements or into “eighteen bases” (dhatu) being the six senses, their powers and objects (c) reflecting on the stages of decay of the body after death (d) reflecting upon karmic process and conditioning that show how nothing constant endures; and so on.
There is no "real me". To think that there is a real me is conceit. Physically there is a bag of skin containing a diversity of sticky fluids, organs and bones, that moves about in the world feeding, sleeping, procreating, defecating and eventually dying. Psychologically there are processes that go on that are a continuously shifting matrix of adaptation to changing conditions. There is no true or enduring self to be found
Other Buddhist approaches do not employ deconstruction, but rather tend in the direction of saying "None of this matters." These approaches fall into two categories that are not really separate. One emphasises emptiness. The other puts us in relation to the sambhogakya realm of all Buddhas. The former is a negative, apophatic approach, and the latter a kataphatic or positively framed approach. Both take us in the direction of reaching beyond mundane conditioned existence. The apophatic path of emptiness is more intellectual and kataphatic one of devotion more emotional. Such are the skilful means of Buddhism.
To act without acting is to not manipulate. Manipulation is a kind of covert psychological trade. A party by implication offers something that the other wants in return for a like consideration. In effect, one says to the other, "I will affirm your illusions if you will affirm mine." To engage in such a trade one has to be in the condition of inwardly believing in what one hopes to obtain thereby. When none of this matters, the temptation evaporates.
PERFORMING WITHOUT BEING HIJACKED
Living in complex social situations we have to perform and to maintain some constancy of appearance. To do this, we take on roles. These roles are transitory and one moves from one to another according to the situation, now a mother, now an employees, now a daughter, now a customer, now a friend, and so on. In order to navigate such complexity we put pressure on one another to present in a coherent way and humans go through a long socialisation process in which we learn how to do this. It is as if we build up a social passport that legitimises our participation in the social system that protects and feeds us.
So how does a person of ekagata manage to participate in society? Basically, by not being taken in by their own performance. There is a considerable difference between consciously taking on a role while knowing that this is simply a skilful means by which to get something done and coming to believe that such a role is oneself or one's true nature. Even what we think of as fundamental identities, like being a parent, are really only performances. They each have a context and a time. When that time is past, they have passed.
Everything depends upon conditions. The “empty nest syndrome” occurs when people who have spent twenty or thirty years performing as a parent suddenly find there are no longer any children at home. The role has lost its condition and the time has passed. However, for many people, they have bought into the role to such an extent that they then find it difficult to imagine themselves as anything else. This can give rise to palpable distress and the person now feels that “I don’t know who I am any more.” They are faced with reinventing themselves.
Self is an invention, a figment of fancy, constructed as a means to respond to particular conditions and to sustain a degree of consistency through difficulties. Buddha advises us not to be taken in by the fancy even when it is appropriate or expedient to occupy the role. This, therefore, is also a counsel of flexibility. The bodhisattva is willing to be whatever the situation requires, but does not invest in such transient identity. It is only “being for the time being”, which Master Dogen calls uji. To put it in technical psychological terms, it is a matter of having no cathexis in self-identities, recognising them as ephemeral and contingent, and so avoids attachment to an ego complex.
Ekagata is to live without being hijacked by one’s internalised others. We have all internalised - cathected - significant others who have shaped our life. We have, in part, identified with them and built a self in imitation of them, and, in part, adopted the counter-part role (daughter to mother, pupil to teacher, etc) and attached our self-identity to that, thus making oneself psychologically dependent. Such dependency continues even when the counter-part is absent. One may still feel oneself to be the little child long after the parent has died and one is actually a mature adult, for instance. These are the attachments that Buddha would wish to release us from. They all spring in one way or another from basic survival instincts and attempts to keep ourselves safe. Thus it takes a lot of faith, or, perhaps one should more precisely say, a concentration of faith, to dare to let them go. So faith, shraddha, often presented as the first step on the Buddhist path, has a crucial function in being the condition that releases other conditions. When one can proceed in faith, one can let go of a lot of conditioning. It takes such faith to be ekagata.
The notion of ekagata gives us some understanding of what happens in a liberating encounter. There are many vignettes of such encounters in the Buddhist literature. The sutras report many occasions when the Buddha has encounters with enquirers, and the lineage records of the transmission in different lines of succession show that most of the great masters became liberated in the course of or as a direct result of such an encounter. When one first reads such accounts one might easily be confused and not see what is really happening. What is the common thread between Joshu’s “Mu” and Shakyamuni holding up a flower, or Marpa telling Milarepa to build a house in an impossible location and Huai Jang asking Matsu if he can polish a tile into a mirror? It can all seem arbitrary and eccentric. It is certainly unusual in not following any conventional pattern. What these stories all have in common is ekagata. The teacher in each case is somebody who is not caught in defending a self. There is no pomposity. The Dharma cannot be caught in a formula, such as that all sentient beings have Buddha nature, it is as simple as a flower. We are all lost in trying to build our house in impossible conditions and this is no different from polishing a tile to make a mirror. These are all instances in which the listener has got caught up in subverting the Dharma teachings into props for ego identity. The teacher has no such investment. It is not so much that what the teacher says is a clever teaching and more that he simply does not buy into what people commonly do.
These stories also illustrate how all-consuming the ego is. The Dharma teachings are marvellous, but even they get subverted into becoming props for the ego performance. We tend to take the teachings and weave them into our repertoire of ways of impressing others or reassuring ourselves that we are superior or, alternatively, condemning ourselves and making ourselves into a special case in a negative fashion. We then go on to talk about Dharma in the same way that we chat about social fashions, reassuring one another that we are the right people. None of this is ekayana - it is co-dependency.
We can also apply this as Dharma therapy. There is no difference between Dharma and true therapy. If there is a difference, then the therapy is no good. There is a lot of bad therapy around that feeds the client’s ego rather than liberating him or her, but that is not real therapy. When therapy of that kind goes on it does so because the therapist is also wrapped up in ego. The therapist wants to preen him or herself and clients often readily enter into this game of mutual manipulation. Therapist and client are then bolstering each other’s delusions, buying into each other’s games. This quickly becomes a form of co-dependency and so is not ekagata and, hence, not good therapy either. Ekagata means avoiding co-dependency and its associated manipulations. Given that we are all deluded beings steeped in decades of socialisation, this is not easy to do. Consequently there are not many good therapists and even those who do exist are not spot on all the time. Typically what happens in therapy is that client and therapist get entangled in some such co-dependency and then have to find their way out again. Success depends on them doing so.
However, we can say some things about what a therapeutic encounter characterised by ekagata might look like. The client will unwittingly perform the kinds of social strategies that he or she is used to and habituated in. The therapist, unlike an ordinary member of the public, will not buy into the counter-part role, or, if they do so provisionally, will soon disrupt it. This will generate an intimacy and emotional intensity in the encounter. There will be a sense of realness because both parties are now in virgin territory. Established scripts will not serve. All that there is is what is, with no overlay of social niceness or knowingness to smooth out the feelings or avoid risk of embarrassment. Yet the therapist is not embarrassed, the therapist is not hastening to tidy the situation, is not trying to allay anxiety, lift depressed mood, nor sweeten bald facts, and is not involved in trying to be clever, nor in charge. In a way that is easier to see than to describe, the two people are alone yet together, neither making any demand, yet that very absence of demand creating the freedom that enables them to go further than conventional discourse ever permits. This is a liberation in itself.
A client comes to see a therapist. Perhaps the client is anxious. Perhaps the client talks about being oppressed by their sense of anxiety and impeded in doing things that they need to do in life by the anxiety. Perhaps the client even talks about having been anxious about coming to see the therapist. The common sense response to this is to see the anxiety as a disease to be eliminated and the task of the therapist as being somewhat like that of a doctor finding a cure for the disease and administering an appropriate treatment. However, if we consider this situation in a more fundamental manner - if we apply prajña - we can say that at this stage the therapist has no way of knowing what is right for the client. Perhaps the client’s anxiety is appropriate or necessary or an important phase in his spiritual path. Can the therapist simply be with the anxious client without trying to manipulate him into being something other than what he is at this moment? Can the therapist help the client explore the reality of his life without tampering with it, or, at least, only doing so in the most minimal fashion? Can they together discover what the meaning of it may be, or, at least, reach a way of being such that whatever it is that is at work in the client may be able to find its own way to whatever resolution or consummation it is implicitly seeking? These are important reflections. Good therapy is not a matter of tidying people up and fitting them back into the business-as-usual world. It is a matter of creating the condition in which the spiritual process in the client is able to live, flower and seed in its own way, and that condition is the ekagata of the therapist.
The term ekagata occurs in the descriptions of the dhyanas. The dhyanas are states of rapture that are taken to be aspects of samadhi, concentration. This is commonly seen as part of the methodology of meditation. I am, however, inclined to take from it a rather broader meaning. This is not just about what one does when sitting cross-legged under a tree. The latter was a training for it, but what was intended was something more pervasive of the whole of life. In the narrow sense, ekagata may get translated as single-pointedness of mind. What is surely implied, however, is not so much that one is concentrated upon one object and more that one is in a condition of psychological aloneness, freed from co-dependency with one’s internalised others. Such a state is dhyana in itself. One might be focussed upon a single object, as in the first dhyana, or one might have entered a transcendent objectless rapture, as in a higher dhyana, or one might be with another person in a condition of complete acceptance and unconditionality, such as might occur in the best moments of psychotherapy or of guru-disciple encounter, or one might be praising the Buddha, completely acceptant of grace. Any of these could be dhyana. It is liberation. One could be sitting in a prison cell yet unoppressed by one’s own mind. When the philosopher Sartre said “We were most free when we were most oppressed,” thinking about the time of being in France during the Nazi occupation, he was thinking of the fact that in making life and death decisions on an almost daily basis, one experienced being truly alone and most completely alive. So I take ekagata to refer to such a way of life, not merely to a methodology to be employed during a formal sitting practice. When one is alone in that way, one can "go into the market place with bliss bestowing hands”. It is not that one has something called bliss that one dispenses, it is that by one’s way of being one liberates others. A simple meaning of the vow to liberate all beings is that we gradually come to liberate them from the trips that we used to lay upon them.
The quality of such being together without invading or plundering one another, with neither manipulation nor demand, is something very special. It is unconditional love and only a person who manifests ekagata can come anywhere near it. Generally what we practise is clinging love and social relations soured by tinges of passive aggression. The critical mind poisons all relations, yet if one lives in ekagata there is no felt need to criticise self or other in such a way. Recognition of one’s own weaknesses is not a basis for condemnation because there is no judge and humility about oneself provides no ground for criticism of others. Only one who is at peace alone is truly able to be with others in a spirit of real respect.
In a team, members rely upon one another. If one is climbing a mountain, one depends upon the person on the other end of the rope. However, what is vital is that each person takes full responsibility for their own part. Things are apt to go wrong when people start feeling only partially responsible. There is a well known scenario in which if one person sees a third party doing something wrong they are more likely to intervene than if they know that several other people have observed the same misdemeanour. This is because none of the observers feels fully responsible for doing something, whereas when one is alone one knows that it is up to oneself and that if one does not act nothing will happen.
As in teams, so in communities. When each person takes full responsibility there is not so much need for rules and rotas, there is a surplus of goodwill that enables things to get done. Taking responsibility for one’s own part is the obverse of respecting others. If we are all able to rely upon one another there can be great respect. Only when there is such respect can there be harmony in communities. Thus community is just as much grounded in ekagata as is the ability to live alone and relish it.
Many contemporary presentations of Buddhism take interdependence as their starting point and may even go as far as to deny the possibility of separation completely. It may be asserted that enlightenment is a realisation of non-separateness. This, however, overlooks fundamental teaching by Shakyamuni Buddha who clearly saw the ability to be alone, both literally and inwardly, to be an essential basis for the spiritual life. This is a matter of learning to respect the other as other. Even those closest to us and upon whom we may have depended for a long time have their own good reasons for being the way they are and doing the things that they do and there is no automatic reason why they should adopt our way of understanding situations nor why we should adopt theirs. Our mothers and fathers were moulded by a different world from ourselves and our children will also go their own ways. If we can appreciate and respect these differences we shall be greatly enriched. If we spend our life struggling against them we shall be spiritually paralysed and impoverished.
Ekagata is fundamental to Buddhist practice. It is not a technique. It is not really a belief. It is a form of naturalness, though to accord with it requires a good deal of unlearning. All the major Buddhist teachings point back to it. The skandhas and dependent origination tell us how we depart from it. The four truths for noble ones tell us how it re-emerges and takes form as the eightfold path and the three wisdoms tell us about how restraint and reflection lead us to realise it as the wisdom that penetrates below the surface gloss of artificial conventional life. If we only master one thing in Buddha Dharma, if that one thing is ekagata we shall have grasped the essential. The Buddhas shall smile upon us and we shall greet them cordially.