Tuesday, April 18, 9961


The Western view of reality is one of duality: everything is separate from everything else. There are people, animals, rocks, trees, buildings, cars, water, fire, and planets. For each of us there is “me”, and “not me” (i.e., everything/everyone else). This seems obvious: we see a tree, but we are not the tree.

Activity in the dual world involves an ego doing something in order to achieve a result. We lift a weight, throw a ball, or strike a nail with a hammer. A does B in order to get result C. Everything is goal-oriented.

The premise that each of us is separate from everyone and everything else and needs to accomplish feats in order to achieve ends is precisely what allows a sense of alienation. Because everything is foreign to us, life often seems adversarial: people compete with us for money and parking spaces, the weather damages our possessions and ruins our good time, and traffic and power outages inconvenience us. “They” do unpleasant things to “me”. Other things and people are objects that pose dangers and so must be opposed. Even our loved ones sometimes seem to be “against” us.

The ego thrives on duality. It cannot survive without the concept of “me” versus “them”. It has to be in opposition to something or someone. This is why there is so much conflict in the world. All wars, arguments, competitions, manipulation, criticism, and becoming offended are born of the egoic desire to oppose someone or something.

The view of reality held by some Eastern religions is that there are no separate egos or objects. Everything and everyone is part of a unified whole. Rather than an actor performing an action in order to achieve a goal, there is only activity. There is no idea that doing is opposite not-doing. An activity is simply what it is. Likewise, an object is not a tool to be used for some purpose; it simply is what it is. This concept is called nonduality. 

Nonduality might seem preposterous to us Westerners. How can we be a flower, or a giraffe be us? Its not that simple. Nonduality is not a literal concept. It is a way of perceiving that focuses not on everything’s separateness, but on experiences. In each experience there is no subject or object but an event and/or a perception.

To illustrate the difference between dual and nondual perception, let’s say you look at a beautiful tree. Your dual perspective says, “That’s a tree. It’s green. I think it’s pretty.” You are aware not only of the tree but also of these thoughts. You might also be aware that there is a seer (you) and a seen (tree).  Nondual awareness simply perceives. It does not label anything. Concepts such as tree, you, green, and pretty don’t arise. You are immediately and fully aware of the tree, with no thoughts taking any of your attention, so that you can fully experience the sensation and possibly enjoy it more than you could via dual perception. Its almost as though you become the experience rather than have the experience.

Many of us have experienced nondual activity. A leisurely stroll is nondual because it is done for its own sake, not in order to get from point A to point B. When we are absorbed in a fun game or sport, without being focused on winning, that is nondual. Anytime we “forget ourselves” (i.e., stop selfing), we have nondualistic experiences.

In nonduality the feeling is that we are “one” with everyone and everything. Not that we are a rock or a butterfly, but that we are wrapped up in a single reality. Sure, we are individual entities with our own feelings and perceptions, but we are all in this together. With this view, we don’t feel that anyone or anything is in opposition to us. After all, if there is just one all-encompassing reality, then there is no “other” to oppose.

Duality makes us seem small. We feel like a very tiny body in a gargantuan Universe. Nonduality has no sense of size. We are part of the Universe, and since we are not separate from it, there is nothing other than us to feel smaller than. Everything seems to be “here”.

Duality is the micro view. It chops up reality into pieces. It perceives individual items, such as a note in a song or a pebble on a beach. It cant see the forest for the trees. This view is necessary for constructing, analyzing, and finding things, but it is a harsh view that is not conducive to enjoyment or peace. Nonduality is the macro view. It hears a song and sees a beach or a forest. The world is a wonderful symphony.

We started life in nonduality. We simply experienced. For example, we did not think, “That is a teddy bear.” We simply experienced the teddy bear. Eventually we developed an ego, which is a thought system that categorizes, judges, and competes. That is the basic difference between duality and nonduality: duality is a way of thinking, and nonduality is a way of being.

The ego is a functional tool that we use in order to function in the world, getting what we need and preventing other people and things from harming us. Is it possible to be nondualistic and still do these things? Certainly. Living in nonduality does not mean that we don’t go to job interviews or lock our doors or get vaccinated. It means that we do so as a matter of course, without the adversarial mindset. Everything we do is part of the one and only reality, not something we do against a separate “enemy”. Even if we’re on an actual battlefield, we can do what is necessary as a matter of course, not label other soldiers as “enemies” and hate or fear them.

If you can’t grasp nonduality right now, that’s only because you’ve spent decades in duality. Perhaps it has “worked” for you: you’ve accomplished some things and you live a fairly comfortable life. But are you at peace? Or do you find yourself fearing loss, judging others, and viewing the world as a harsh place? That’s what duality does: it pits you against the world. In nonduality it is possible to accomplish while remaining peaceful.