I find it helpful to distinguish between “distinctness” and “separation.” “Separate” means that two things are completely apart from one another; they are utterly self-existent and exist independently. “Distinct” means that things appear in such a way that they can be distinguished, but yet, are still united in their being.
For instance, two arms on a person are ‘distinct,’ but they are not ‘separate’; they are part of one and the same body.
Similarly, everything that appears in awareness appears ‘distinct,’ but is a mode of one and the same reality (Brahman).
Thus, though things have unique natures and characteristics (a tree has different properties from say, a fish), they cannot be called separate because they do not stand alone; they exist only in a web of interdependent relationships, contingent on many other conditions for their being. They inter-are with other things. Thus, though they have distinct appearances and natures, they are ontologically part of a seamless unity, not separately existing.
Separateness requires duality; distinctness does not. Separateness is ontological; distinctness can be understood as phenomenological. All of the content of daily life appears distinct, but all of the distinct appearances are interconnected, interdependent, and one in their being; their nature is ultimately nondual, though we can distinguish between them.
Separateness is illusion; distinctness is the nondual reality’s mode of appearance to itself.
Q: But is distinctness, like separation, simply maya, simply an illusion that obscures the nondual nature of reality?
A: There was a stage in which I rejected even distinctness as illusion and false. I was suspicious of it, thinking duality might be hiding there, and therefore, illusion. However, though I affirmed nonduality, I was still caught in a subtle duality of Self conceived of as awareness vs. all of the things in the universe, conceived of as false illusions, maya.
Only later, did I wake up to the realization that awareness is in the universe and the universe is in awareness; the apparently two are really one continuous reality. The tree in my yard, with all of its unique characteristics and features is perfectly distinct and real and valuable… and it is none other than Brahman in the same way as awareness is none other than Brahman.
When I saw that distinctness is not separateness, that distinct appearance does not mean duality, that Brahman takes all forms in order to encounter itself in every possible way, I woke up to the true value of diversity as distinctness. Brahman is One and appears infinitely distinct. Maya is not distinctness, but the illusion of separateness; it has a feeling component, a thought component, and a perception component shaped by the affective and cognitive components. Distinctness is real; maya is an illusion of separation where none is to be found.
Those who do not see that distinctness is Brahman’s way of showing itself and Being to itself and reject it have no way of, for instance, promoting biodiversity and campaigning against the endangerment and extinction of species. Once we see that all distinct species and their distinct members are unique modes of Brahman’s embodiment, we in turn see that each is immeasurably valuable, even sacred. To preserve them and attempt to guarantee their right to flourish and exist in a state of well-being is, therefore, part of our dharma, our sacred duty.
The insight into distinctness as real allows us to see the true value of the particular. In the old viewpoint, particulars were deemed suspicious since they seemed to suggest duality, but now we see that particulars are not separate, but distinct. They remain united in their being, while retaining their distinct natures. Thus, we can see the value of a particular park, of a particular tree, of a particular rock, of a particular mountain, of a particular person. We can see the value of place, not only of space.
To the eyes of right understanding, distinctness and nonduality do not stand in opposition, but in mutually reflecting harmony. The nondual exists in the mode of distinctness; distinctness is the mode of appearance of the nondual. The universe of distinct appearances exists in awareness; awareness is present within the universe of distinct appearances. This is a seamless reality, one without a second, and yet real in its multitudinous distinct appearances, Being in beings and beings in Being.
Q: Physically speaking, even matter itself is simply high-state energy. Perhaps I misunderstand you, but does this not suggest that distinctness as a matter of physics is illusory?
A: Reality can be considered from many different perspectives and on many different levels. In order to be specific, we therefore need to contextualize our statements.
On the relative level, distinctness is a reality. Separation as a matter of physics remains illusory, but distinctness is a fundamental assumption of physics, without which there is no way to distinguish between leptons, positrons, neutrons, quarks, forces, etc. Even though these quantum units are all modes of high-state energy, they still have distinct appearances and distinct properties.
All science takes the reality of some conception of distinctness as a basic axiom, this is true whether you are studying distinct chemical compounds or distinct astronomical bodies.