Interview with Ravi Ravindra and Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, with Philip Cousineau
Published in Light of Consciousness Journal.
Oneness is not a concept; it’s not an idea. It’s a living reality, a presence, which you can experience inwardly. For the Sufis this is within the heart—in the heart of hearts—where you find that extraordinary reality that they call the Beloved.
HOST PHILIP COUSINEAU: We’ve invited two extraordinary people who bring quite different backgrounds and perspectives to this exploration. Dr. Ravi Ravindra is a scientist, a professor and a widely published author. Dr. Ravindra’s spiritual search has involved him in the teachings of Krishnamurti, Gurdjieff and Zen Buddhism. Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee has been trained as a Naqshbandi Sufi sheikh. He lectures throughout the world on the spiritual journey, on dream work and on Jungian psychology. They have both written and spoken a great deal about this concept of Oneness. And yet the word and the concept itself confuses a great many people today. Can you describe it for us? What is Oneness? Ravi?
RAVI RAVINDRA: From the scientific side, more and more there is recognition that everything in the universe is connected with everything else. Also there is essentially a driving force in the history of physics to search for one single theory that will include all the other theories, or all the other forces, to find one force or one law. So we get words like unified field theory or theory of everything. But practically all the great sages in India have, at one stage or the other, come to this realization about the Oneness of all there is. In fact, one might almost say that in the general Indian traditions, this is the definition of a sage, and to the degree it is a fact for them, to that degree they are a greater sage.
LLEWELLYN VAUGHAN-LEE: For me, Oneness is actually a living presence, a manifestation of the Divine, and the Divine is one. The Sufis say, “In the name of He who has no name, but who appears by whatever name you call Him.” Oneness is not a concept; it’s not an idea. It’s a living reality, a presence, which you can experience inwardly. For the Sufis this is within the heart—in the heart of hearts—where you find that extraordinary reality that they call the Beloved. Or you can experience that living presence in the outer world, in creation, in all the extraordinary manifestations of life, which yet are one. It is this multiplicity and unity, and unity and multiplicity, that is a living expression of the Divine.
HOST: Is this a universal longing?
RAVI: Yes, but we should not imagine that this longing is necessarily easily fulfilled or easily manifested. Because there is a very strong opposing force, which is “me, me, me.” I am the one that matters, so my concern becomes more or less exclusively for my own benefit, for my own advancement, or for my own glory. Sometimes we expand this to include my family, my religion or my country.
LLEWELLYN: The Sufis say, “Take one step away from yourself and behold the path.” You can’t begin unless you take that step. It is this sigh in the soul, this primal longing for God, to return back to the source, to return from separation back to union. And as Ravi says, there are all these forces, whether belonging to the ego or to society, which stand in the way.
Sufis call these “the veils” that separate us from that union within the heart. And love is the longing, the power, which takes us from this world that appears to be separate. Of course it isn’t separate because everything is both interconnected and also an expression of Divine oneness.
RAVI: The force that takes us away from the center is selfishness. But this other force, of love, takes us toward the center. Selfishness isolates us; love connects us. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the very last canto reads, “There my will and my desire were one with love, the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Now that’s a love of a very high order, a great universal force. That is what holds the sun and the stars together.
HOST: Poets are mystics, mystics are poets. By definition, a mystical experience is rather ineffable, beyond words, and yet we’re human and we have to try. Are you willing to try to describe a direct personal experience you’ve had?
LLEWELLYN: Mystical experiences take you by surprise. They are not the way you thought. I love to spend hours in meditation, so I always presumed that my experiences with Oneness would come through meditation. And of course the complete opposite happened. It was almost twenty years ago. I was in California and spent a lot of time walking in the beautiful hills along the coast. And suddenly I saw that everything was One. I looked around me and saw all the flowers, all the trees, all the leaves of all the trees, all the plants, the clouds—they were all One. It was an incredible experience, like a living presence of Oneness.
It wasn’t an idea; it was there. And then I went into the supermarket and I saw that everything in the supermarket was One. I could step back and see all the different sorts of breakfast cereals, but it was all One. The Sufis call it the opening of the eye of the heart. I think it’s also in St. Luke: “When thine eye is single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” That experience has stayed with me; it gets deeper and deeper and more permanent. That individuality is a unique expression of the Divine, and at the same time everything is One. It means you are really living in that presence.
HOST: Beautiful! Ravi, are you willing to describe a unitive experience?
RAVI: I was a post-doctorate fellow in Princeton and I sat in on a class on the general theory of relativity. It was in that class I suddenly had this deep experience. I was outside myself—in ecstasy—as if the equations of the general theory of relativity were arising from me or in me. Now, these are the equations that Robert Oppenheimer described as “paralyzingly beautiful.” To somehow feel that they were mine—not mine in any possessive sense—I could almost say that I was its. But that full feeling, enormously a sense of belonging to this mathematical order in the universe.
LLEWELLYN: That’s the key: to be taken out of the ego, taken out of what you think you are, into this bigger panorama, into this bigger dimension all around us.
HOST: Can these sacred states be cultivated and developed? Or is this sense of Oneness visited upon us; is it bestowed like grace?
LLEWELLYN: Both. The practices are important, but as far as I know, it is always an act of grace. The Beloved looks at you with fondness at that moment and reveals a little bit of His incredible beauty, or nearness, or oneness, or tenderness, or all the many attributes of God.
HOST: But what about the rest of us? Why is it so difficult for modern people to gain access to these experiences?
RAVI: Part of this goes back at least to the 16th century, the whole idea that nature is like a big machine and we can study it like a machine. That is a separation of ourselves from what we study, which separates the knower from what is known.
LLEWELLYN: In a way, it is also the product of a patriarchal culture that says God is in Heaven and the Earth is a province of human beings who are its lords, to do with the Earth what they will. And this has caused a devastation, not just an ecological devastation but also a devastation to the soul. We have wreaked havoc in the outer world, polluted it, laid waste to it. And we have also polluted the inner world of the soul, without even knowing what we are doing. Life is something extraordinarily sacred and we no longer honor the sacredness of everyday things that connected us to life.
RAVI: It is actually said in India, “Brahman [the Absolute] is not in everything, it is everything.” My father once read something to me from the Bhagavad Gita. I was just simply standing there, purely out of politeness—but it still left a very great mark on my psyche. In this verse Krishna actually says that, “At the end of many lives, a wise person comes to me”—realizing that all there is, is Krishna, all there is, is God. And then he goes on, “Such a person is a great soul, but very rare.”
And so my father reads this out in Sanskrit—I can even now hardly recall this without getting moist-eyed—and here is a very distinguished lawyer, a person highly regarded in society, and of course for us young boys he was practically a godlike figure, and he says, “You know, Ravi, I could tell you the words of what it says, but I can’t tell you the reality behind this. I don’t know it.” And then he said, “I wish for you that in your life you will meet people and teachings that will help you to know the essence of this verse.” All there is, is Krishna. And this has really been for me a lifelong project.
LLEWELLYN: That’s beautiful. Everything is He. Wheresoever you turn, there is the face of God. The Sufis call it baqa. On the Sufi journey there is the stage of fana, which is the dying to the ego, the separate self. And then you awaken in this state of baqa, which is abiding in God. And in that state you are in the living presence of God, not as some separate entity, not as some being in the sky, not as an idea, but as a living presence that is in everything, around everything, beyond everything.
For the Sufis, He is our Beloved, so it is a love affair. It is a relationship of love with everything that is. The Sufis say you cannot know God in His essence. They say He is beyond even your idea of the beyond. So for the mystic, this creation is a way to know God. It is a way to play with God, to be with God, to be alive with God. And that is really the purpose of life; it is this hide and seek with the Divine.
HOST: It seems then that this journey to Oneness is a paradox: on one hand, it’s as natural as breathing; on the other hand, we’re humans, so it’s an ordeal. What role, then, do meditation, prayer and yoga play in this journey?
RAVI: Actually, breathing is a very good example. We are breathing all the time, but if you actually become aware of this fact, it changes the quality of your breathing—it deepens and becomes more harmonious, or smoother. Transformation of being has to do with a qualitative shift, not a quantitative shift. A new consciousness requires a new body. And a new body is partly generated by a different quality of breathing.
Whatever I pay attention to changes in its quality. Breathing is a good example of this, but that’s the most obvious example. If I begin to pay attention to my soul, the quality of my soul will change. So you see, attention is the power of transformation.
LLEWELLYN: The wisdom of the scientist and the mystic should come together because really we are seeing the same reality from different perspectives and we each have something to give. We can’t lose the fruits of science: there are too many people on the planet. We need the fruits of science, but we need to use them in a holistic way, in an understanding of all the interconnectedness and wisdom that a mystical appreciation of Oneness can give.
RAVI: Neils Bohr, a very great physicist of the 20th century, made this comment: it is wrong to think that physics speaks of nature; physics speaks of what we can say about nature.
LLEWELLYN: Do you feel that science has cut us off from direct experience?
LLEWELLYN: Because from a mystical point of view, direct experience is what life is all about. In shamanic tradition, there was a time when they learned their wisdom, their knowledge, their science, from direct experience, from Oneness. For example, the shaman learned the properties of plants through being one with the plant, and the plant actually communicating its healing properties. That is a tradition of a science that belongs to Oneness, and maybe science can grow past this view of everything having to be separate and isolated.
RAVI: This is a very important point. We have to have a certain amount of faith that there is some order to be discovered; otherwise we would never get around to doing any science. So science and faith are not opposed to each other. Nobody could actually proceed with any scientific research without a kind of a conviction or a trust that there is an order in the universe.
HOST: Every religion has its own way of achieving the experience of Oneness. And paraphrasing the great Spanish poet Machado, “Everyone has to make their own path. There is no way or path.” What do you think?
LLEWELLYN: I think it is fundamental to realize that deep within each of us, we have a yearning for Oneness. And then you begin to make this journey and some people take it more seriously, make it more intensely, than others. The Sufis call it simply the journey home, the journey back to God, back to the Source, back to Oneness. And the beautiful thing is, really all of humanity, in fact the whole of creation, is longing for Oneness and wants to make that journey, either consciously or unconsciously. You can go in meditation to a certain plane of consciousness where you see that everything is One and everything is interconnected. And the fact is that any individual, anywhere in the world, can plug in and they’re immediately connected to this web of interconnectivity. The mystics have always understood that real evolution is the evolution of consciousness. The internet is actually a vehicle of consciousness. It isn’t so much one person connecting to somebody else; it’s the consciousness of the world coming together in a new way.
RAVI: I think a whole revolution is going to be brought about and is being brought about by the internet. But as in every other force, we have to be very careful because it can be misused. The important realization is that if we even gradually allow this possibility in our minds, it becomes part of our hearts. The Spirit takes on a body for some purpose. We think that the body is primary and then somehow it evolved and has the Spirit. Actually, it’s the other way around.
LLEWELLYN: Traditionally the mystics went into the desert or into hermitages in the mountains, but now we’re needed in the marketplace of life, because life is dying. Because this crazy culture of exploitation, greed, consumerism and commercialism is destroying the fabric of life, the fabric of the soul.
RAVI: We need to love our world. This is our world and we are responsible for it. At the birth of each one of us, there is such agreement from subtle forces and laws—some of which we know, some almost certainly we don’t know anything about—that are all playing in there. Which means that I have not somehow crashed this cosmological party. I belong here. This recognition is very necessary: that I could not possibly be here without the agreement of these higher forces. Therefore I am a wanted child of the universe.
Precisely because of that, it is a family business. I belong here and need to take care of this. A sense of responsibility naturally arises if I recognize that I belong. In fact, if I seriously recognize this, then it takes away all fear of death. I say this quite seriously. People are afraid of death because they somehow have a feeling they have crashed this party and they’ll be found out and kicked out. If I realize that I’m a wanted, needed, loved child of the cosmos, therefore I also am responsible.
HOST: Wonderful, thank you. Llewellyn, as a mystic, where are we going as a species? Have you had a glimpse or a vision of where we’re going?
LLEWELLYN: Yes, I have been given a glimpse of what is possible for humanity, that Oneness is really a quality, a way of being. But, as Ravi said, we have to make this step away from our self, away from our self-interest. It is a very simple step to embrace the whole, and yet for some reason it seems to be the most difficult step that human beings are able to make.
HOST: Ravi, as a scientist, what does the future hold?
RAVI: Generally I’m quite optimistic, but not stupidly. I think there are grave dangers. The catastrophe needs to loom ahead of us in order to see that we could live otherwise. If we see the terror of the situation, then something else is looked for. And I don’t think we need to go very far to see signs of terrible things. Could be economic disasters, certainly ecological disasters. Global warming is a good illustration of the disasters looming.
This kind of looming catastrophe is itself going to give us pause. But I am very much in harmony with Llewellyn: ultimately it is all in the hands of God. Even then, we should do our part. Without God it cannot be done—without human beings it will not be done. So we need to do our part, but unless we have a connection with God, nothing will be done.
HOST: Beautiful! To cite a wonderful metaphor in your writing, Ravi, “We’re all pilgrims walking up the mountain slope and sometimes we do need each other.” So imagine the two of you as pilgrims walking up that mountain slope, seeing each other on your own personal quests. What do you say to each other?
LLEWELLYN: That these two quests are different and yet the same. And to me that is a real celebration of Oneness in the deepest sense.
RAVI: And another thing: we pilgrims can ask each other, “Did you run into some crevices or glaciers that I need to be careful about?” This is actually the kind of exchange that pilgrims can have, and need to have.
LLEWELLYN: But deeper than that, there is what I would call the celebration of Oneness. You see, you think we are two separate people who have met. From a perspective of Oneness, we are just aspects of Oneness at a moment in time where all of us have come together.
Watch two video clips from this interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmE30eL_Vvo
© CEM/Link MMXII. This article is abridged from The Journey Towards Oneness, a Global Spirit program produced and directed by Stephen Olsson and co-produced by CEM Productions and Link Media. Global Spirit is presenting many new programs in its second season on PBS in 2016. For additional information please visit http://www.cemproductions.org/globalspirit/the-journey-towards-oneness/