Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)

According to historian Fay Bound Alberti, the word “loneliness” did not exist in the English language until 1800 or so. The closet approximation was the word “oneliness,” meaning the state of being alone. The term is now archaic, but it occurs to me it may have other uses. We have a word for being alone (solitude), but not really for the state of being one, as in being one with God or with the universe.

Both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions have developed techniques for realizing oneliness, although it goes by different names in different traditions. Theosis, or divinization, is the term used in the Eastern Orthodox for the process of finding union with God. Advaita in the Hindu tradition, refers to non-duality (literally “not-two” in Sanskrit). In both Hinduism and Buddhism, samadhi is a meditative state in which one achieves union with the divine.

In an exchange of letters with his friend Sigmund Freud, the Nobel-Prize-winning novelist Romain Rollard wrote he was never without “a sensation of 'eternity,' a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded—as it were, 'oceanic.'” Freud, an atheist, dismissed his friend’s “oceanic feeling” as a "restoration of limitless narcissism" characteristic of infants who had not yet developed ego boundaries to separate themselves from the external world.” Freud acknowledged that he had never had such an experience himself and was frankly puzzled by it. But in surmising it might be rooted in an infantile state of consciousness, he was not far off the mark. We assume the self is the bedrock of our existence, but in fact it is built on what developmental psychologist Jean Piaget refers to as the “protoplasmic consciousness” that greets us as newborns, before we develop ego boundaries and before our world is bifurcated into “me” and “not-me.”

Just as Freud viewed oneliness as an immature state, mystics tend to view it as a higher form of consciousness. Strictly speaking, it is neither. You could call it our natural state, since the world does not cease to be unitary, even if we see it in dualistic terms. But the self has its uses, if only to warn us to get out of the way when a runaway truck is bearing down upon us. Good old-fashioned self-preservation is nature’s way of ensuring that we will survive to reproduce – and, not incidentally, also enables us to explore “higher” states of consciousness like oneliness.

Fay Bound Alberti, “One Is the Loneliest Number: The History of a Western Problem,” Aeon,
September 12, 2018

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