On Ideas, Authentic Encounters, Unity, and Diversity


Ideas are models, which accurately reflect to a greater or lesser degree the realities they aim to represent. Some ideas are purely imaginative, that is, they reflect nothing in the physical universe at all (which does not mean they are not valuable!).

All ideas/models are provisional, fallible, incomplete, and subject to change in light of new information/experience. Therefore, it is wise to hold our models lightly instead of attempting to desperately cling to them. This goes for everything from ideas about human experience to ideas about the ultimate reality and even to scientific theories. Today’s obviously accurate theory is tomorrow’s blatant falsehood.

Ideas about People

On a more personal level, this applies to our ideas about other people. These ideas are also models, which can be more or less accurate. Always, they are incomplete; they leave out important details and facets of the person because we do not have access to every experience they have ever had, each of which has shaped them. We do not know everything about them, we do not have full access to their inner lives.

Often, people act in ways that surprise us; in these cases, they show themselves to be greater than our models of them, to include more. So, we expand our ideas about them and think things like “ah… I thought she was inconsiderate, but then I saw how she helped that woman who dropped her groceries…”

Therefore, it is wise to also loosely hold our ideas about other people and leave them quite open. The reality is always greater than the idea. We should be careful to relate to the reality itself and not confuse it with the idea; when you talk, I need to listen to you and not my idea of who you are. When I am with you, I need to be with *you* and not my idea of you. The reality is more valuable than the idea.

Authentic Encounters

The most meaningful moments in our lives happen when we meet whatever we are encountering with the fullness of our being and the fullness of its being. This means relating to the flower as everything it is, beyond my ideas of what it is. This is Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” relation. In these moments, we put down the model and encounter the reality directly. When I meet you in this way, I do not meet you as just a name attached to an image and a concept of you; I relate to you in the fullness of who you are at every level of you. This is not a meeting between a subject and an objectified person seen through the lens of ideas about them; rather, it is an authentic meeting of real beings.

Unity and Diversity

The lived universe appears as a single unitary reality in a borderless field of awareness. There is nothing dividing the awareness from the universe that appears within it; the universe is in the awareness and the awareness is in the universe. They are not separate.

The same is true for the beings in the I-Thou relationship, for you and I when we meet each other in the fullness of who we are rather than through our ideas about each other. Ideas model only discrete parts of reality because it is in this way that they become useful. If all of our ideas included all of the universe, what good would they be? How could I determine how hot to heat my oven when cooking a pie if my ideas of ‘oven,’ ‘pie,’ and ‘heat’ each included the whole universe? They would be not only useless, but redundant; every idea would contain the same content, namely everything. Therefore, our brains model discrete sections of reality rather than the whole of it. And these models are ideas.

However, the apparent boundaries imposed in the process of forming models or ideas are conceptual, not actual. The maple tree appears seamlessly one with the meadow and the sky and the clouds above it and the leaves and branches and the picnickers beneath it. It all appears together in awareness and you are aware of the whole scene. Yet, in your thinking, you can differentiate between the tree and Roger eating a sandwich beneath it. Even though, in fact, the maple and Roger are not separate, but the same reality, you can think about them distinctly. Thus, we can have distinct models of different aspects of the universe even though these aspects are not ontologically separate.

So, you and I can have ideas about each other that conceptually mark us off as distinct beings, even though, prior to thinking, we are part of the same seamlessly one reality. We appear distinct and can be thought about distinctly even though we exist together; we inter-are. When we meet each other as real, living beings, rather than as ‘subjects’ separate from objectified others, we are aware of this non-separateness. However, non-separateness does not negate individuality. We are unique individuals, yes indeed; however, we have our individuality only within a cosmic web of interbeing, a web of interconnections at every level of existence, a web of seamlessly interlocked interdependencies. The individual’s existence depends on all that is distinct from the individual. Diverse appearances depend on a singular reality.

To put the matter more briefly: we are one in our being (ontological unity), but appear distinct and diverse (phenomenological distinctness). Conceiving of anything as non-separate from the community of interbeing is valuable as is conceiving of anything on its individual merits. We can think of reality in its seamless wholeness (as, for instance, the water of the ocean), or in its collective groupings (for instance, the ocean as a whole or its sub-ecosystems), or in its individual aspects (e.g. the waves and currents within the ocean or the plankton, fish, plants, and other organisms in the ecosystems). All are valuable and real. The unity does not negate the diversity, nor does the diversity negate the unity. The unity is diverse and the diversity is one.


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