For most of my years, I assumed the world had a dualistic nature. Only I never knew to call it that. Dualism: for every thing there is an opposing thing. I didn’t step outside my typical Homo sapiens thinking to realize how pervasive this concept is in categorizing everything.
As we humans developed in our thinking, we first recognized the world around us. We assumed there was us, and things we could see were not us. Richard Rohr points out that babies “see Mom and Dad and other family members over there and we’re over here. It’s the beginning of egocentricity.” He strongly notes “The development of a healthy, strong ego is important to human growth. …The ego is not bad; it’s just not all there is.” It emphasizes separate entities rather than a unified existence.
Early families and tribes supported their own people and labeled others as “them.” (That’s also probably when they created political parties just for the fun of aggravating their differences.)
We tend to see individual things or characteristics, no matter how subtle, as opposites: good or bad, this or that, liberal or conservative, the yin and yang. Dualism is a convenient way of explaining differences. Also, especially in Western civilization, we tend to separate mind from body and soul. Many creation stories include the dueling nature of good and evil. There’s God, who can do no wrong, and there’s Satan, who opposes God’s goodness.
There is strength in recognizing our uniqueness. However, the very feeling of being an “individual” can give rise to a subtle, discomforting sense of alienation. It can make us feel alone.
Labeling spices on a shelf is good organization. Labeling people is judging. Too often we use labels to sort people by ethnicity, race, religion, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, living in certain neighborhoods, and…well, I’m sure you can name many more demographic categories. Unfortunately, these groupings allow us to distance ourselves from those not like us—to keep those people “in their place.”
Robert Wolfe notes that human boundaries we create “are the means of fragmentation. Fragmentation is the source of human conflict. Conflict is primarily ‘opposition’; lines create opposites.” Also, any label that ends in “ism” is almost certainly an example of dualistic classification.
Traditional Christianity is replete with labels that sort people and situations into opposing principles: saved/not saved, sinners/saints, theism/atheism, heaven/hell, divine/demonic. This has exacerbated tensions and conflict between and within denominations, religions, and countries for two-thousand years. And, yes, my labeling of traditional and progressive segments of Christianity can contribute to those problems.
Nondualism—or “unity” as it’s also called—may be a little harder to grasp at first. But I do know that it has tremendous implications for how we view the ultimate reality we call God, how we understand ourselves, how we relate to other people, and how we interact with every atom and molecule in the universe.
It’s only been recently that I’ve begun to appreciate the scope of nondualism, that is, how we are totally interconnected and interdependent with every facet of the universe. We can see differences, but there is no division. We are not separate beings. We have no existence apart from the living Earth, indeed, the whole universe. Nondualism is one description of Ultimate Reality, God, or …pick your other favorite term.
There is no “Other”
You can even say we are part of God and God is part of us. If God isn’t separate from us, then we’ve never needed reconciliation. We’ve never needed a sacrificial lamb—or a person—who would put us back in harmony with God. We’ve always been in a relationship with all that is.
This also means there can be no “evil entity.” Sorry, but you can’t use the excuse that “the devil made me do it.” Nor is anything especially more divine than any anything else. For example, a “church building” is not God’s house any more than your house or a flop house. There are no degrees of “divinity” except in our desire to consider some things or places more sacred than others. “Sacred” is part of our labeling system.
Sam Gould says that living a non-dualistic life is “a process of personal striving, drawing on the divinity from within to become ever more fully human.” Thus, we “worship not a distant God, but the one that lives within and among us.”
Implications of nonduality
Being aware of dualism, and more importantly, stretching ourselves to incorporate nonduality, is often called enlightenment by spiritual teachers. It in turn leads us into new realms of spiritual understanding and practices. If we could get more people to understand nonduality, think about what would happen to prejudice or superiority of any sort. Unity is not just that we should show tolerance to others, but that we don’t see any label of “other” that would separate us.
Let’s be clear. Nondualism doesn’t erase differences. As Richard Rohr points out, “many teachers have made the central, but often-missed, point that unity is not the same as uniformity. Unity, in fact, is the reconciliation of differences, and those differences must first be maintained—and then overcome by the power of love! You must actually distinguish things and separate them before you can spiritually unite them, usually at cost to yourself. If only we had made that simple clarification, so many problems—and overemphasized, separate identities—could have moved to a much higher level of love and service.”
I could write about nondualism for hours (aren’t you glad I haven’t), but I’ll end with a suggestion by Toni Reynolds in Progressing Spirit. “If we each think every day about how we individually practice racism, misogyny, USA supremacy, academic elitism, spiritual elitism—whatever it is—if we committed to exploring that every day for the next few days, I am sure that a shift in consciousness would take place. Maybe not for the whole world, but at least for your world. Wouldn’t that be worth it to start?”
_____________________________ Art Fabian — May 2, 2019
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Art Fabian is on a spiritual journey to enjoy more aliveness and to share the goal of wholeness with others. He has no special training or degrees in this field. He’s not a religious scholar or theologian. However, he hopes you might also enjoy walking towards a richer life that benefits us, our neighbors, and all creation.