The Myth of Duality

It’s hard to escape the ingrained duality of our culture and mindset in the Western world. For so many hundreds of years we have listened and taken as fact that the mind and body are separate, that the individual is separate from nature. This is a concept that abounds even in Modern Paganism, which in my opinion hinders the way forward for many people who are truly trying to integrate, to live in harmony with the natural world. By creating a divide we are instantly alienated from a world to which we have a natural birthright.

Even some proponents of non-duality still can get caught out on certain issues – take the Otherworld for instance. If we truly believed in an inclusive and shared reality, a shared experience in which there is no subject and object, but instead a collection of subjects in shared experience then we come close to the core of animism. However, many Pagans still believe that when we die, our soul splits from our bodies and goes “somewhere else”: The Otherworld, the Summerlands, etc. What I would posit is that there is no “other”, just as there is no such thing as “away”. I am fully aware that not all Pagans are animists, but for me personally they go hand in hand.

Jason Kirkey touches on this subject in his book, The Salmon in the Spring. He sees the Otherworld as a different mode of perception, more than a physical place that is different to this world. By opening our perception we can see the Otherworld, which really is our world in its full entirety, unhindered by concepts of dualism.

We live in a shared reality, though many choose not to accept this. We are, in each and every second, undergoing a shared experience. There can be no such thing as a solitary experience. We are in contact with the world each and every moment. As I sit here typing, I am experiencing the clack of the keyboard and its plastic keys, the light from the monitor, the air around me, the draft from the window, the light filtering through the cloudy skies, my cat complaining for more food. I am experiencing all these things, and all these things are also experiencing me. In this context, there is no subject/object, for in order for there to be an object there needs to be separate reality and experience entirely isolated from everything else. This is simply not possible – no one lives in a vacuum.

When I am walking to my Tai Chi class in the rain, I am experiencing the rain and the rain is experiencing me. When I am in class, I am experiencing the instructor and other class members, and they are experiencing me. When I place my foot carefully on the floorboards of the hall, I am experiencing the floorboards and the floorboards are experiencing me. As an animist, for me there is no such thing as inanimate objects, or even objects at all – everything is filled with energy in motion, which creates mass and density, and everything is subject to the world around it.

Creating a division, between Us and Them, between animate and inanimate is a huge cause for the troubles we are now experiencing politically, environmentally and socially. When we realise that everything is shared experience, then we automatically work for the benefit of the whole rather than ourselves, for we realise that there is no such thing as just “ourselves”. We are an integral part of the whole, and being integral it only comes as natural that we should live our lives in service to the whole.

This is the main focus of Druidry for me in my personal life. Living a life in service means thinking, acting, living for the whole rather than the self. It’s not done in an altruistic sense, but in a holistic sense. By dropping the illusion of separation I can experience the world on a much deeper level, and have a greater relationship because the illusory barriers and boundaries of dualism have simply disappeared.

In my opinion, Descartes has a lot to answer for.

Darkness, the Self and Release

I wept this morning, over a photo of a man fleeing his Syrian homeland with his two children, stepping out of the boat, clutching his loved ones close to him and weeping himself. What uncertainty faces this family, along with the other refugees arriving on the islands of Greece? What could it possibly feel like to leave all that you know, out of fear for your life and those that you love, hoping that your decision will be the right one?

This is probably not a decision that I shall ever have to make in my lifetime. It is moments like these that remind me to step beyond myself, to get outside of my head, to stop thinking in the context of “me” and move forward into integrated relationship. Doing this keeps things in perspective, and keeps my own troubles, pains and dark wolves at bay. When the weight of the world seems to push me under, I get beyond myself and into the wider web. It is something that I’ve been writing about for months now, about deep integration, about dropping the illusion of the self, about seeing the interconnectedness of all things.

I look out my window and see a leaf on the beech tree. That leaf is not separate from the other leaves. That leaf is not separate from the branch, or any part of the tree. The tree is the leaf and the leaf is the tree. Even when the leaf falls in the autumn, it lands on the ground at the base of the tree, decaying into the soil, feeding the roots and is still a part of the tree. Watching this cycle, witnessing it from a Druid perspective I see how the illusion of separateness causes us so much suffering. There is no “Us” and “Them”. There is only life.

Deep integration and dropping the sense of self. Seeing beyond the “me, myself and I” keeps my head above the water, rafting the currents of life. When things are at their darkest, I can release into that darkness, dropping the edges and boundaries and allowing a greater perspective than could ever be achieved thinking that I am confined to this body and this mind. When the sheer stupidity of the human race threatens to drag me down, when my body is in great pain, when I see others suffering, I release into the darkness and there find the potential that awaits, like the seed in wintertime. If I fail in that endeavour, then there is always a back-up, words spoken by someone whose name I cannot remember, but goes something along the lines of:

“When I am in pain, show me someone who is in agony. When I am hungry, show me someone who is starving…”

Again, this lets me step beyond my self, to allow me a greater perspective. Pain and suffering, cruelty and bad behaviour all stem from misperceptions. If we can get past that notion of the self, that self-centredness, then we can dance with the divine in a beautiful, graceful round surrounded by the stars, galaxies and all life as we know it. In doing so we are free.

No Hope

It is so hard to live life as it is, to accept life as it is.  Our mind does everything it can to avoid it, for various reasons.  In Zen, we often see the mind often trying to avoid suffering in any way it can. This could be suffering in the conventional sense, but it also has a deeper meaning – dukkha, a Sanskrit word which in Buddhism means dissatisfaction, or a sense of unease, or even dis-ease.  We are all dissatisfied with some aspect of our lives, and it is so easy to live in the “if only” reality – the world of possibility instead of the world that is. Why? It’s nice in there.

Yet, to achieve enlightenment, one of the main ways to banish dukkha from your life is to simply live in the present moment, to accept it for what it is. Neither pessimistic, nor optimistic – just life as it is.  When judgements of good or bad are seen for the illusions that they are – things that make us attach to a situation – then they simply fall away and we can truly see clearly.

Surya Das emphasizes the matter-of-fact nature of dukkha:

Buddha Dharma does not teach that everything is suffering. What Buddhism does say is that life, by its nature, is difficult, flawed, and imperfect. […] That’s the nature of life, and that’s the First Noble Truth. From the Buddhist point of view, this is not a judgement of life’s joys and sorrows; this is a simple, down-to-earth, matter-of-fact description.

This was brought home to me over 10 years ago when, after visiting her dying sister in the hospital, my mother came home and told me something that really changed her viewpoint and mine on the situation.  She said to my aunt, “But why you?” to which my aunt simply replied – “Why not me?”

This simple acceptance of life as it is, instead of railing against it, led to a life of less suffering.  I still carry those words with me today, when I think that things or life is happening “to me”, instead of just happening.  Life isn’t good or bad, it simply is. Things aren’t happening to me, things are happening.  Good and bad are judgement calls that we make to avoid living in the present moment most of the time.

Charlotte Joko Beck wrote of No Hope in her book, Everyday Zen.  This wasn’t the same as hopelessness – it simply meant not wishing for things to be other than they are, for the moment we are doing that we lose the gift of the present moment. Now, while a prisoner of war might wish not to be tortured at this very moment, most of us aren’t living in that situation.  Even as my aunt was dying, she accepted the situation. It simply was. It was stepping outside of the mind trap of living in an alternate reality where our dukkha doesn’t exist and seeing that it is a part of life that we cannot “escape” from. All the wishing in the world cannot change the world.  Only actions taken in the present moment can change the world.

So it isn’t a passive response to the world – oh, there is nothing I can do, I should live without hope.  If we are in a harmful situation, then we take action in the present moment to change it if we can. If we are being abused, mistreated, see others being hurt, we take action in the present moment to change that. We have the ability to respond – responsibility.  Life is constant change. We can also work to sustain that change for future generations. But it requires us to live with the courage to be fully present in our lives as they are.  Step outside of your head for a moment, and take a look at the world around you, without judgement, seeing things clearly.  It could change your life.