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  • Writer's pictureallenbroadman

The part is the whole.

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

Imagine if an ocean wave could sense, feel, and think...

What if you asked a sensing, feeling, thinking, ocean wave, “How does it feel to be the ocean?” and the wave answered back, “I’m a wave, not an ocean.” How would you understand that answer?

This is a wave that only “knows” itself through its wave-ness, its foamy top, its height above the surface, the warmth and coldness of its waters, the sea creatures swimming in it. It "knows" itself through what it perceives as its boundaries. To this wave, its waters are its waters, and the ocean’s waters are the ocean's waters – that’s what this wave believes.

This wave’s understanding, which is through a perspective of boundaries, is not a wrong understanding. This wave is separate from other waves and can be understood as having qualities which are different from the qualities of the entire ocean. But its understanding is a partial understanding because it doesn’t see that the part is the whole. An understanding which is through boundaries and separateness is partial, because it excludes the truth that wave and ocean are inseparable – there is no ocean without the waves and no waves without the ocean – waves and ocean are a complete whole. It’s true that waves have their own uniqueness, but waves do not and cannot exist on their own – waves are the ocean. Both these perspectives are legitimate, but in living only through one of them - the "parts" perspective - the experiencing of reality gets distorted.

It's the same with people

This analogy of waves and ocean is an ancient one used to highlight the limits of our own conceptual understandings of what we are. We have a strong tendency to believe there is a reality “out there” that is separate from the me “in here.” It’s easy to believe this, because every day we see all the parts of the world in their uniqueness and interact with them through their various qualities, all day long. Whether the parts of reality are other people, animals, cars, supermarkets, smartphones, ideas, feelings, or anything else, we traffic in, and navigate through these parts nonstop. In living that way, there is no time and space to see the whole, to experience the parts as the whole, including the “part” which is oneself. We are both part and whole simultaneously.

One activity of Zen practice is to slow down and take the time to let our default perspective, the parts perspective, to expand. Through practice, we create the opportunity to additionally experience reality through a “whole” perspective, so that we won’t live in and navigate the world through only a partial understanding. This is so worthwhile, because in expanding our perspectives we gain clarity into how things actually are, and potentially can step out of the limitations of our preconceived ideas.

We are reality

I’d like to leave you with a quote from Ramana Maharshi, a 20th century spiritual teacher from India, which directly speaks to this illusory disconnect between reality and oneself:

There is no greater mystery than this, that we keep seeking reality though in fact we are reality. We think that there is something hiding reality and that this must be destroyed before reality is gained. How ridiculous! A day will dawn when you will laugh at all your past efforts. That which will be the day you laugh is also here now.


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