No Human Being is an Island

A human being… experiences himself… as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness… Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature — Albert Einstein

I found this lovely banner on the website of IMERE, the Insitute for Mystical Experience Research and Education (www.imere.org). This is the US equivalent of the British RERC, Religious Experience Research Centre founded by Sir Alister Hardy, an Oxford Professor of Marine Biology. (www.studyspiritualexperiences.org). I’ve been involved with RERC for more than thirty years and studied for the Master’s degree that was established by the Centre at the University of Wales. RERC have digitised their enormous archive of spirtual experiences, available online at www.uwtsd.ac.uk/library/alister-hardy-religious-experience-research-centre/online-archive.

If you have had a profound spiritual experience, IMERE invites you to contribute to research by submitting a questionnaire. There are some beautiful examples of mystical experience on their website. I recommend reports from astronaut Edgar Mitchell and Jane Goodall, famous for research into chimpanzees – both scientists, it should be noted!

I discovered the IMERE banner when I was hunting for information about brain states, but I got distracted because the image, and especially Einstein’s remarks, prompted me to write this blog.

A human being… experiences himself… as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness… Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature – Albert Einstein

The mission of all meditation teachers is to encourage everyone to experience a sense of connection – with the whole human family, with the whole planet, with the whole cosmos! As Einstein says, this is a collective task, to free ourselves from the mind manacles that keep us feeling separate from one another. He describes this feeling as an ‘optical delusion’.

Many people know the famous poem by John Donne that begins: no man is an island. Donne describes how we are part of the same landscape:

Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.

He points out that the death of any other person diminishes us all, and closes with another famous line:

never send to know for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for thee.

Less well known is a bleak poem by Matthew Arnold, To Marguerite, in which the poet describes how we have lost our mystical connection. Arnold uses the identical image as Donne, of being an island –  with echoing straits between us thrown. He complains that we million mortals live alone. When we experience the beauty of the world, such as starry nights, springtime, the sound of the nightingales, we long for something we have lost – because surely, once we were parts of a single continent. He wonders why we should have this longing, but still be separated? Arnold’s poem ends on a bitter note: he complains that it must have been a god who made the rule that we should be separate beings, living as islands kept apart by the unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea.

I was especially taken by Arnold’s description of the sea between the islands as unplumbed – so deep we cannot hope to fathom its depth. This mysterious sea makes us strangers to each other. But I don’t believe in a ‘god’ who wants to keep us separate. We can choose. Our consciousness is like a deep ocean, and we can explore its depths. We don’t have to be estranged.  We can experience different levels of our own inner landscape and discover the underlying contintent.

We do have a sense of being separate, individual people, with timelines from birth to death, and identities based on name, gender, familial relationships, tribe, nationhood, and so on. That separate ‘island’ of our being is what we mostly spend time living in. But, much deeper, if we take time to plumb the ocean of consciousness, we will get a sense of being part of a single continent. That continent is often experienced as a land of light, where we feeled loved, protected and reassured. I call this Divine Source.

Meditation is your gateway to the Land of Light, which is your birthright.

Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature.