Getting Back to the Feeling of Oneness
Feeling oceanic connectedness is part of normal human nature.
Posted February 14, 2022 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
- Freud thought growing up was moving away from oneness to individual ego consciousness.
- Ancestral societies bathed in oceanic consciousness, guiding their environmental behavior.
- Oceanic consciousness, represented as one mind, has increasing data support.
Maturity According to Freud
Freud argued that "growing up" had to do with ridding ourselves of the "oceanic feeling" of connectedness to the universe, that feeling “of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole” that we first felt with our mother (Freud, 1961, p. 13). Several environmental activists have argued that the loss of the oceanic feeling of connection has led to the diminished sense of attachment to and care for the rest of the natural world, affecting behavior toward it (e.g., Berry, 2013).
Freud admitted he found the oceanic feeling incomprehensible and interpreted it as a narcissistic symbiosis with Mother. It did not fit with his ego-centered psychology theory. And so, he argued, we should forfeit “the intimate sense of interconnection with the world and a plenitude of vital feeling” in order to gain the egocentric, dualistic feeling of self and other (Keller, 1986, pp. 99-100).
Like Freud, Western scholars generally have tended to think of consciousness as the kind of everyday conscious awareness most of us experience—ego consciousness. Moreover, with its built-in child undercare and trauma-inducing practices, civilization builds a separative ego whose best defense is domination, an “age-old alternative to connection” (Keller, 1986, p. 200).
With the splitting of self from world, nature is outside the self and personality is inside, a feature concomitant with Western civilization. The historical consciousness of Western civilization, emphasizing unique linear progress towards promised abundance, pulls humanity away from the rest of nature and away from the feeling of oceanic oneness that nature evokes. In defending a society of separative egos, one only becomes “poorer, emptier, simpler, more resentful and destructive for the effort” (Keller, 1986, p. 202).
The more typical view is found among foraging peoples, who represent 95-99% of human existence. They perceive, conceive, and experience the world differently. Whereas modern thought tries to simplify the world through categorization and sorting, ancestral thought diversifies in response to the complexity and discontinuity of the world (Levi-Strauss, 1966). Foragers interact with the rest of the natural world subjectively and dynamically, embedded in a mystical, symbiotic relational web of interacting consciousnesses (Shepard, 1998).
In fact, according to most non-Western perspectives, the world is animate, sentient, and conscious (Harvey, 2017). Life is about negotiating partnership with other than human entities. Life is about living respectfully with those upon whom you rely for life itself.
Why might it be time to reexamine the ideas that ego consciousness represents maturity and that consciousness is merely about ego-consciousness? It doesn’t take much looking around to notice an epidemic of disconnection, of loneliness and isolation, enhanced by the pandemic. The increase in frustration, domination, and authoritarianism are signs that something must change.
Today, we mostly feel isolated (even before the pandemic), and the bad news does not help. We are in dire straits, with the four environmental horsemen of the apocalypse upon us: atmospheric degradation, global warming/climate instability, massive toxification of soil/air/water/food, and mass extinction (E.O. Wilson, 1991). The mass extinction may include our species unless we change our perceptions, conceptions, and behaviors.
Medical doctor Larry Dossey (2013) compiled data from across disciplines and events to argue that humans share one mind. He contends that the oceanic consciousness we sometimes feel is tapping into the greater wisdom of one mind. Dossey’s book One Mind collates evidence from multiple fields to show consistent patterns that match up with the notion of One Mind, an idea that quantum mechanics theory in physics supports (Bohm, 1994; Lazlo & Tsao, 2021).
The data Dossey presents includes shared emotions, thoughts, and sensations between people, or with pets, across great distances. Systematic data have been collected on near-death experiences. In the one-mind perspective, the mind is not housed in the brain but is shared, it is nonlocal. In fact, creativity itself maybe tapping into this one mind, as some philosopher-scientists (David Bohm) have argued.
The more holistic view of consciousness understands how each individual’s mind is actually part of a holistic consciousness (called "the implicate order" by Bohm). The “eureka” effect scientists report is prepared by extensive pondering and reflection, but the moment of insight "appears as if out of nowhere" (Briggs, 1990).
One-mind moments are characterized by “a hyperreal level of awareness, connection, intimacy, and communion with a greater whole, however conceived—the Absolute, God, Goddess, Allah, Universe, and so forth—all of which is marinated in an experience of intense love. There follows a profound shift in the existential premises on which one’s life is based” (p. 259). The individual is transformed, ceasing to be a separate ego, “but an opening or clearing through which the Absolute can manifest” (ibid).
Dossey asks, “Must we undergo some planetary version of a heart attack before we come to our senses?” (and return to a sense of one-mind or oceanic consciousness). Let’s hope not. Let’s hope that we don’t have to experience near-death to reinvigorate oceanic consciousness.
Berry, W. (2013). It all turns on affection. 2012 Jefferson Lecture. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Humanities.
Bohm, D. (1994). Thought as a system. London: Routledge.
Briggs, J. (1990). Fire in the crucible. Tarcher.
Dossey, L. (2013). One mind: How our individual mind is part of a greater consciousness and why it matters. Hay House.
Freud. S. (1961). Civilization and its discontents, trans. J. Strachey. Norton.
Harvey, G. (2017). Animism: Respecting the living world, 2nd ed. London: C. Hurst & Co.
Keller, C. (1986). From a broken web: Separation, sexism, and self. New York: Beacon Press.
Laszlo, E. & Tsao, F. (2021). Dawn of an era of well-being: New paths to a better world. SelectBooks.
Levi-Strauss, C. (1966). The savage mind. University of Chicago Press.
Shepard, P. (1998). Coming home to the Pleistocene (edited by F. Shepard). Island Press.
Wilson, E.O. (1991). Biodversity, prosperity, and value. In F. H. Bormann & S.R. Kellert (Eds.), Ecology, economics, ethics: The broken circle (pp. 3-10). New Haven: Yale University Press.