What am I?

What am I?

In 2014, I enrolled in a Yoga Therapy training program. Medical problems prevented me from completing the training, but I remained involved by providing the program with a series of lectures and videos about human biology. The Director began the first session with a famous saying from the Hindu scriptures: “That Thou Art”. According to legend, a father said these words to help his son connect with Brahman (aka the Ground of Being). We were assigned to write about the phrase, and the essay below is a lightly edited version of what I submitted.
I’ve been grappling with the question of what “I” am on a deep level since at least 1987. That’s when 12-step programs encouraged me to seek a ‘higher power’. As the son of a convinced (and convincing) atheist, I felt uncomfortable with language about God. On the other hand, I was determined to recover from my addictions. That same year I moved to New York and settled—serendipitously—just four blocks from the Quaker Meeting House in lower Manhattan. Since my maternal ancestors had been Quakers, I decided to give their worship a try. What I encountered struck me as more meditative than religious: meetings were almost entirely silent, and rarely did anyone mention the ‘G’ word. I had found a spiritual home.
During Quaker meetings I pondered science and spirituality, looking for ways to combine them. After undergraduate, graduate, and medical study of biology, I wasn’t about to abandon my scientific world view, but I yearned for a deeper sense of meaning. I sometimes obsessed to the point of exhaustion, but the effort slowly paid off. I was granted a measure of clarity.
It began to seem obvious that from a scientific perspective there’s no controversy in saying: ‘All Is One’ (my equivalent—at the time—to ‘That Thou Art’). Our bodies evolved out of the material of this planet, which itself was the product of billions of years of cosmic unfolding. In other words, we grew out of the earth, which grew out of the Big Bang. Without doubt, whatever the universe is, we are also.
Likewise, our thoughts and concepts are rooted in languages and cultures. What we think depends on what we’ve heard, read, and experienced. Every discovery, philosophy or invention spools out of from this seamless and evolving skein of ideas. All is one.
After more than a decade spent working things out on my own, I began reading what others had written about science and spirituality. I soon discovered that nearly all my insights had been expressed previously, sometimes millennia earlier. I felt a little chagrined, but it reassured me to know that similar answers have occurred to many people in different times and places.
My explorations convinced me that everything in the cosmos is profoundly interwoven, but I still felt alone. That changed in 2000, when I lost my surgical career due to neck problems and plunged into psychic chaos. Leaden depressions alternated with winged ecstasies, until the crisis culminated in shattering religious visions. During one of these it seemed as if I was reliving cosmic history: the burst of something from nothing, the precipitation of matter out of plasma, the coalescence of galaxies, the formation of our solar system, and the emergence of life. It wasn’t as if I watched all this happened. No, creation wasn’t an event I observed; it was one I experienced.
In that moment, my oneness with the cosmos transformed from idea to actuality. There wasn’t any questioning and conceptualizing at the time. The state was one of blessed, pure, and wholistic being.
Afterward, feelings of unity came and went. At first, they often left me for months at a time. But as the years passed, with me meditating and worshiping in several different traditions, my mind became more and more able to let go. When it did (and does) I settle into a sweet experience of connectedness, of oneness with all that is. Granted, directly felt oneness isn’t something others can see or touch; it’s not objective. People strongly convinced of the scientific materialism would dismiss it as mystical, imaginary, woo-woo. But for my part, it feels persuasive, not least because it’s a state that’s been reported by countless people through the ages—including the founders of most religions.
Over time, the ‘That Thou Art’ principle has moved from idea to a fact of life, palpable and unarguable. My faith (what else to call it?) rests upon both science and direct realization, so the fact of oneness stands solidly in my psyche as an wise, joyous, and quiet Truth.