Many and the One

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Book: Beatrice Bruteau. The Many and the One: Communitarian Nondualism.


By Bruce Alderman at

"If there is any place for myth in a postmetaphysical worldview - for a story that inspires and informs, that accounts for our being and evokes a powerful vision of our becoming - I believe that Beatrice Bruteau offers a compelling one in her essay, The Many and the One: Communitarian Nondualism. In particular, I believe the story she tells, while quite compatible with Integral Theory, is also one which can inform the vision of interbeing and collective awakening we have been telling here in this recent series of blogs.

In this concluding essay in my “Nondual Community” series, I want to outline some of Bruteau's ideas as they relate to the topic we have discussing. But for a fuller view of her vision, I refer you to the book in which her essay appears: The Other Half of My Soul. The book celebrates the life of Bede Griffiths and explores the interface of Hindu and Christian contemplative spirituality. The essay appears in the section entitled, “Spirituality of the Future: Experiencing Wholeness.” I think this is significant, because what we are exploring here is in some sense new. Not that there has been no intuition of intersubjectivity before; not that people have not practiced and awakened together in the past. Rather, I believe what we are witnessing is simply a new phase in an ancient dance: the ecstatic spiraling movements of Eros and Agape in Time.

Beatrice Bruteau is an attractive and compelling figure for me. She is one of those rare religious scholars: a contemplative as well as an intellectual. She has written several excellent works on Teilhard de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo, she edited the book on Bede Griffiths I cited above, and she has been active in articulating her own vision of an evolutionary spirituality and ecological ethics which integrates the best of ancient contemplative and modern scientific perspectives. In the essay which I will discuss here, she draws on mythical Trinitarian language to formulate a perspective which accounts for the mystical intuition of oneness without eviscerating the unique gifts of multiplicity and mutuality.

Person and Nature

Why is it, Bruteau asks, that mystics, upon realizing oneness with the Absolute and the Kosmos, so often then devote themselves to the service of others, instead of retreating into solipsistic apathy? What is it about the unity experience that heightens the preciousness of the many? If we are all one, why do we also appear to experience awakening uniquely and individually? What kind of oneness is this?

To answer these questions, Bruteau asks us to explore the dynamics of our person-perspectives. She does this apparently independently of Wilber's work in this area, though her conclusions are consonant with it in many respects. If we look at ourselves and each other from the outside (either taking a third-person or even a second-person perspective), we find that we are defined by our mutual negation: you are different from me by having certain qualities, certain space-time attributes, that I lack, and vice-versa. I am not-you; you are not-me. But if we look at ourselves and the world from the inside, in the immediacy of our subjectivity, we do not find objects which can be distinguished or differentiated; we find a dynamic, nonlocal presence, a living activity. This presence, she argues, when experienced “from the inside,” lacks specific attributes and cannot be differentiated from other “things,” because it itself is not a thing. It is empty.

Noting this, she asks an intriguing question: “Could our act of being, of living in real time, experiencing ourselves from the inside, be an act of affirming another?” If we experience non-difference from other sentient beings, because we are no longer identifying with the manifold qualities which have defined us, do we collapse then into oneness without distinctions? Or do we enter into a deeper form of relationship with others - a perichoretic dynamic of mutual affirmation and kenotic agape?

This is a subtle topic, and it is difficult in this short space to do it justice. In simple terms, Bruteau acknowledges the Eastern definition of awakening as impersonal, but attempts to push past it with a unique definition of personhood. When we experience awakening, we may regard it at first as impersonal, because all of the objective attributes we identify with our personality, our personal being, are revealed as contingent, as not-me. The person, in that sense, drops away. In its place is an open clearing of dynamic, unqualifiable, creative presence. But in Bruteau's view, it is this open presence itself that is the “person” - not as a fixed metaphysical entity like the atman or soul (that is another abstraction, a metaphysical construct), but simply as the self-affirming fact of subjective immediacy, a presencing which cannot be reduced either to a monolithic “oneness” nor a fractured “many.”

To unpack this notion, Bruteau draws on the work of philosopher Daniel Walsh. From this perspective, person must be differentiated from nature. The nature is the individual creature, the sentient being known from outside, from third-person perspectives: the contingent self. It is defined by its unique attributes and exists in relationships of mutual negation with other beings. The person, on the other hand, is formless and undefined. According to Bruteau, summarizing Walsh's position, “it is transcendental and coextensive with being. It is not capable of collapse, but is embedded in Absolute Being itself…” Because it is transcendental, it does not exist in subject-object relationship with other persons; rather, the nature of persons is communion, compenetration, circuminsessional union.

These claims may strike readers as empty theologizing or metaphysical card-stacking. But Bruteau stresses that they are an attempt to argue from relatively universal patterns in our experience, and they sacrifice conceptual or rational “neatness” in favor of honoring as many dimensions of our experience as possible.

If you are interested in the full scope of Bruteau's argument, I recommend reading her essay, but I will summarize some key points here, before moving on to the second section of this entry.

  • Natures are contingent and defined by mutual negation
  • Persons are transcendental and exist in communion and mutual affirmation.
  • Persons are always unique and are not reducible to a monolithic single entity, as natures are always multiple.
  • Being is a flowing, dynamic whole, and persons are inseparable from this flowing (indeterminate, infinite) wholeness; while “natures” and “things” are always frozen slices, abstractions, third-person snapshots of the whole's boundless, creative dynamism.
  • The cosmos is evolving, and is composed of sentient occasions (in Whitehead's sense) or sentient beings (in Wilber's sense), which unfold in greater complexity and expansiveness of mutual embrace.
  • The absolute, as the depth dimension of being (not a separately existing thing), may be conceived of as a formless person-community; while the universe of form may be considered a cosmos-community. The absolute person-community and the relative cosmos-community are nondual, and the radical (objective) interdependence of contingent forms mirrors the deep (subjective/perichoretic) co-determination of transcendent persons.

Natures or contingent beings have “choice freedom,” whereas transcendent persons have “creative freedom” and in fact are characterized by this spontaneity and authenticity.

  • Persons are instantiations of love, and personhood reaches fruition as we deepen in kenotic agape: self-emptying love."