(Michael O’Connell, Syncromesh, 1957)
The following is my first attempt to define, describe and put together a view of the world from a non-dual perspective. It’s an experiment, so don’t expect too much. The language may be complicated for those readers with little background in Buddhist meditation, for others it may be inspirational or resonant with pre-existing intuitions. The language I use is increasingly coming from other sources than Buddhism and this is due in part to my desire to cease to replicate Buddhism in its frozen forms. Buddhism as I see it is not ‘Buddhism’ as that thing from the East, but rather a signifier of human potential, both individual and shared. The way I see it, we need to get on with waking up (see a past post for what I mean by this) and translating that into a modern vernacular that breaks from tradition whilst renovating it and making it relevant for this time and place.
Be aware, I write in spurts, squeezed in between family life, work demands and the pleasures of life. I could do with an editor on hand to highlight missing commas, repetition, inappropriate verbs, typos and the rest. If you spot such slips, make a comment and I’ll trim and snip.
The Need for Context
Societies necessarily need to establish shared ways of viewing and conceptualising the world and establishing the shared subjective landscapes of individuals: a role that has historically been undertaken most commonly by religion, more recently perhaps by Capitalism, materialism and the cult of the self. The same problem tends to emerge from this shared human compulsion to establish familiar routes of becoming: modes of perception and being become frozen or normalised and identities form around them into pre-given destinies, which act as lines along which individuals and groups are expected to travel. An alternative way of conceiving of the world is potentially overtly relativistic and denies any form of truth or the possibility of hierarchy. This is what Tom Pepper would criticise as the failing of post-modernity. As individuals in the West, we are to some degree left to choose: to bind our experience of self to a belief system and ideology that we are attracted to, such as Buddhism, or drift wherever the ideological currents of the dominant society lead. In either case, the collective nature of self is often ignored or under-appreciated.
Non-duality and problems in affirming our existence
When talking about non-duality, there are two sources that tend to dominate contemporary discussion: Buddhism and Advaita. If we look at figures such as Nagarjuna, the originator of the Madhyamaka School of Indian philosophy, non-duality is presented along the lines of reductionism ad infinitum, and the deconstruction of the self to its empty conclusion, but there are other ways to proceed in practice and conceive of the emptiness of being. Hokai Sobol once explained that the Yogacara school of Indian philosophy describes the experience of non-duality, or emptiness, in the affirmative: an experience that is intimately bound up with compassion and the awareness of our co-arising existence or entrapment. Paul Williams states much the same in his textbook on the doctrinal foundations of Mahayana Buddhism whilst observing how early scripture of the Yogacara emerge specifically in the context of first person meditation practice, rather than philosophical argument.
It seems necessary to me that once we work out what we are not, once we deconstruct, delete and deform the narrative self we are expected to mistake as ‘me’, we are left to ask ourselves what remains, what we are, and consider how our view of what remains determines how we build community, establish values, and in the Buddhist context, how meditative and ethical practices are constructed and pursued. What a person remains as, once non-duality has been significantly confronted, and false identification with an atomistic self has been discarded, requires a pragmatic formulation that can provide context apart from the lingering fantasies of the religious and spiritual myths that still abound. Not wanting to remain within a reflection on this topic from a strictly Buddhist perspective, and with a desire to open up the discussion so that it isn’t imprisoned in Buddhist discourse and therefore impoverished, I will attempt to build descriptions of the individual and shared subjective experience of living non-duality as a matter of fact in this post.
I think the logic of no-self is sufficient to be a matter of fact and can be understood apart from Buddhism or spirituality. If we take it as a given that the individual self is not self-existing, or a separate entity to be found somewhere, then the question naturally emerges: what are we? It is inevitable that we need find some sense of who or what we are, after all, we are questioning, self-reflective beings and in our shared existence, we need shared ideas of who and what we are that can reduce ignorance, suffering and the atomised model of self that is perpetuated by the madness of Capitalism and the continued pursuit of growth at the expense of natural capital.
One route to take is to suggest that we are multiple selves, although the same issue of actual existence remains: where are they and how do I recognise them, and who would be recognising them in the first place? It will likely always be impossible to define what we are in a single, absolute and truthful sense. In which case, we are left to approximations, convenient metaphors, or, importantly, semi or partial descriptions, some of which have pragmatic applications, some of which are accessible, others less so. In this sense, we may accept that many semi and partial descriptions capture important aspects of the network of interwoven elements that an individual is comprised of. We may decide that is useful to define a person, in the multiple, as a network of layers and strands of being and becoming. The idea of a person as a network points to interdependence, possibly the most useful conceptual tool for developing working definitions to define what we are provided by Buddhism.
The Network of selves
As we experience ourselves incorrectly as discrete selves, we need to replace the conceptual framework we use for locating ourselves in time and space and social orders with an alternative meaning making system, one that is less weighed down by the lineage of a biblical God and its disparagement of our earth bound condition, which believe it or not, still saturates our assumptions about the world. If we are not separate individuals that exist apart from the world, we are necessarily embedded, interwoven elements of a continuously fluctuating environment which is characterised by constant movement and change. If we are willing to fully dismiss the ascension/dissension myths that have dominated our world view in the West and that make it possible to freeze time and separate the world into atomised forms which exist apart, then we can unravel the knots of dualism that distort our co-existence and sustain boundaries that delineate our social constructs. We must find the conceptual means and basis for engaging with the world and for being active participants in a fluctuating and emerging, pulsing landscape of interbeing.
The English anthropologist Tim Ingold refers to this inter-connectedness as a meshwork. His work explores ideas that offer a conceptual basis for conceiving of interdependence in quite radical terms. You can found out more about his work here.
A further progression in viewing ourselves more accurately involves the pressing need to drop our speciocentric view of the world minus the romanticism that haunts the re-discovering of animal life. Our speciocentric sense of entitlement sits at the core of our irresponsible behaviour towards the other non-human beings that co-exist with us here. Any description of our species that moves away from subject-object duality and the reification of the self can only be good for the survival of the network of beings that co-habit this planet.
The abstraction of ourselves as beings apart from these networks of forms has falsified our notion of what we are into beings that are always apart, suspended in artificial detachment from our surroundings.
This stretch towards an artificial separation from the world around us runs deeper than people seem to realise and we are impregnated by a form of species-arrogance that verges on the schizophrenic.
A further issue in the construction of a conceptual framework for identifying humans as co-emergent beings concerns utopian thinking. An important critique that is sometimes made of non-dualism, especially in its Advaita expression, is that it can lead to a sort of bland utopian imagining in which we are all one. Such a conclusion can be found to be rife in new-age circles and other expressions of spiritual narcissism, but hey, it also pops up in Buddhism. This way of simple imagination typically ends up being part of an escapist strategy designed to annul the rough edges of our finite material existence. It tends to lead to a rather superficial, narcissistic disengagement from the complexities of life; what the Slovenian philosopher and pop culture critic Zizek might define as ultimate surrender to the atomisation desired by Capitalism in which the individual self becomes the locus of all creation and a subject of worship.
Returning to the notion of multiple selves, it may be interesting to think of the locus of consciousness as a space of being, consisting of a multiplicity of impregnating forces, visible and invisible, each run through with space as their unifying quality. We are, after all, impregnated from birth by multiple forces; cultural, historical, linguistic, political, social, geographical, psychological, organic forces, movements, tides and spheres of influence. We are inextricably birthed into masses of enmeshed networks of being and becoming, both organic and man-made.
In growing and become more self- and socially- aware, we gain further understandings, we light up further strands of these networks, which in turn reveal further strands and dimensions of inter-being. Our relationship with these networks is one of impregnating through consciously or unconsciously feeding and being fed, stabilised and destabilised by these strands.
To deny the existence of these complex inter-meshing networks is to lock ourselves into blind ideological allegiance to a simplification of our human lot. When we consciously do this, we are basically giving up our part in providing for the possibility of further evolution and the refinement and stabilisation of meaningful patterns that reduce suffering and ignorance in the world.
From this shared view of being, our intimate lives are also shared and not as unique as we might like to think. This goes for our intimate relationships too. Emotions are not ours, not unique, but rather octaves that we resonate with or into. They are shared octaves of our collective ‘being-scape’. How else can we explain for the utterly unoriginal, shared nature of feeling and emoting?
Such octaves are not limited to humans, however, as animals too experience joy, sadness, depression, love, pleasure, and so on. For us as humans, within the plains of enmeshment, emotions and feelings are plains of opening or closing that we move along, shy away from, indulge in, and either force away or doggedly extend and go after. Sometimes, we get seriously stuck in them. We move in and out of these plains of emergence and we agree unwittingly the degree and length of the plains that we as cultures and groups will travel along, where the taboos lie, and too often the social significance of these frequencies of feeling. When enacted as culturally restricted plains of feeling, emotions compound restrictive identities and strengthen the atomistic self.
Outside of socially sanctioned feeling, what is the role of feeling and emoting? Within the non-dual sphere there is often talk of an underlying basis of compassion, love, and benevolence. Again, it is difficult to argue for some ultimate plain of existence without falling into illusions of permanence and duality, but perhaps the underlying basis of benevolence that even Madhyamaka philosophy points to is, rather than a solid end goal, simply the release of the self as a distinct, atomistic nucleus into spheres of co-emergent being, where emotions and feelings exist as plains of further opening and knowing which bind us further to the sea of beings we are co-emergent with. Within such open spheres of inter-being, expressions of being are shared and it becomes impossible to separate from the experience of enmeshment and to formulate a distinct sense of being separate from the simultaneously vast and confined world of inter-being that is alive and pulsing at this time.
We are bound by our physical existence and the physical plains within which we roam. We are not just impregnated, but are impregnating the streams and lines of being. We have agency, and however limited that agency is, we are integral elements of the lines along which we emerge, move, flow, stagnate or flourish. We can only work with those lines of which we are conscious in order to enact directed change in the world. Asides from becoming increasingly conscious of the lines that we are run through with, for Buddhist that could start with a willingness to engage with the feast of knowledge and all its riches, the ethical decision we are faced with becomes one of choosing which lines to strengthen, weaken, tie together, separate, push towards, cross, uncross, reveal, dismiss and so on. Unconscious feeding of lines and avoidance of other lines is what allows systems of injustice to remain and ignorance and suffering to continue in their current man-made forms.
This view of inter-being, I think, has the potential to loosen many of the myths that are flowing around and within circles of knowledge seekers, whether Buddhist or otherwise. The search for the authentic self, the true self, the negation of the self (or that problematic word ‘ego’) all emerge from a dualistic division between here and there, good and bad, subject and object. Unlike the annoyingly persistent spiritual trope that states all we need do is “be here now”, the recognition of the dynamic, movement-bound, relational, shared basis for our existence in an intermeshed world of inter-being laid out in this essay encourages us to recognise that there is no fixed point called now.
There are plains, octaves, frequencies and lines of movement which we are moved through, and along which we move as spaces of semi-conscious being and becoming. The richer the network of lines consciously part of our network of awakened being, the fuller our ability to participate and enact change in the world.
To choose a line of “nowness” is merely to find comfort within the network of lines one has so far become conscious of and reify its sum total into a specialness. I for one cannot help but see this as a cop out.
The world is in need of more enlightened views of the individual and society as transcultural phenomena, freed from Descartes’ heavy weight. We more than ever need further discussion of the ontology of being because religious identities are experiencing something of a resurgence whilst globalisation is challenging long-held national identities, seemingly leading to both a crisis of identity in nations and the risk of the fabrication of models of self that favour a return to domination by the political and economic elite and entrenched class divide.
To finish, two questions naturally follow for me. How do we make it easier for people to rid themselves of the subject-object dualism that lies at the basis of western thought? Especially considering the intense fear at the heart of our being of disappearing into the enmeshment, of unbound spaciousness and unfamiliar degrees of infinity, or emptiness. From what I can see, we are simultaneously terrified of being without boundaries and in awe of a return to formlessness! Secondly, what is an individual’s responsibility to this world as they become more fully conscious of their enmeshed nature? For Buddhists, I would ask a further question, is it enough to re-enact the particular lines currently available in existing spiritual traditions?
I would hope that the response for Western Buddhist to the last question be increasingly a ‘no’. If that is too much, then at the least, Western Buddhist would do well to remember what old Zizek had to say in his critique of Buddhism:
“…it is necessary to exit the “inner peace” of one’s subjective authenticity.”
Obviously, not all of the ideas herein are made up by yours truly. Having a background in Animism and Shamanism, I have gained a lot from reading works by deep ecologists, a number of anthropologists, specifically Tim Ingold, and philosophers involved with object and process philosophy, most recently Adrian Ivakhiv’s Immanence blog. The no-self teachings that come from Buddhism pop up in their works and currently there is increasing dialogue across academic fields that is innovative and relevant to discussion of post-atomistic-self, experiential living. Some of the language in this and subsequent posts comes from these sources.
For further information on some of those who helped me formulate better my own opening to the world and networked thinking, follow the links below.
‘Being Alive: essays on movement, knowledge and descriptions’ by Tim Ingold, from Routledge
Tim Ingold‘s Bio at the University of Aberdeen
Immanence. A fascinating blog run by Adrian J. Ivakhiv, Professor of Environmental Studies from the University of Vermont.
‘Non-Duality’, by David Loy, from Humanity Books.
‘Mahayana Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations’, by Paul Williams, from Routledge
Hokai Sobol‘s writings at his blog