A serial journal of cogent reflections and irreverent insights on the social effects of capitalism and the roots of partisan politics. Pairing prose with HDR photography and “flash points” drawn from current and historical perspectives, the author seeks to recover lost wisdom and courageous action beyond the shouting and noise of today's headlines.
Moving From Duality to Wisdom
Part One: The Limits of Duality
Time Range: Starting Now
"There is so so little of the world that we
are able to take in without cognitive dissonance,” writes colleague Elizabeth Doty, “our blind spots are so big, and our worldviews so often fragile.” How might we then proceed? How might we begin to navigate beyond our small islands of understanding toward something larger and genuinely collective?
If we are able to do so, we will need to strengthen capacities for tolerating ambiguity and paradox while still embracing action. We will need to draw on wisdom traditions and spiritual knowledge without negating the impact of history, social institutions, economic arrangements, or the value of the individual. In other words, we will require a capacity to hold opposites together personally and in our social interactions to such a degree, and with such fierce intent, that something new is born. .
In duality, we are left with two choices, yes or no, up or down, good or bad. This is the obvious part. What is far subtler is how our minds begin to organize everything we encounter into two irreducible elements. We are either comfortable with a certain attitude, ideology, or viewpoint or not. For simplicity, we begin to polarize our choices and see others as fitting in with our view or not.
More insidiously, our views are shaped by intangible forces barely conscious to ourselves — genetics, family background, place of geographical birth, economic status, educational achievements, personal experience, and so on. The science of cognitive psychology teaches us we are unconscious most of the time about the reasons for our actions. We do our best but it requires great effort just to keep up with life's demands. At some point, there is a natural progression from a chaos of inputs — conflicting information, internal emotions, social pressures, economic incentives — to a feeling of being overwhelmed by complexity. We all experience this to some degree.
In duality, our worldview shrinks to a smaller and more manageable subset of the world, but as Elizabeth noted above, we are prone to blind spots, insecurities, and a sense of having to protect our fragile grasp of a barely cohering reality. Duality is a fine and necessary instrument of human consciousness, allowing us to choose salmon or steak from a restaurant menu, but it is a tragically dysfunctional orientation when dealing with complexity. In the prison of dualism, ambiguity and the paradoxes of life become dangerous dilemmas to be met with rules and predictable responses.
Wisdom traditions, cultivated over thousands of years of human history and in every geographic region of the world, offer something more valuable than even solutions to immediate problems. Wisdom traditions offer us a way to climb out of our dualistic mental models and construct with others something far greater. We are able to move from an individual perspective to awareness of universal principles and shared understanding, an inherently ambiguous journey that necessitates personal growth, learning, dialogue, compassion, and intelligence.
To move in this direction, from individual to universal, is like fresh air flowing into a stale room. Oxygen revitalizes us, and so too does freeing ourselves from the shackles of dualistic chains. We are free to consider something larger than just our constricted mental models. In the great wisdom tradition of Zen Buddhism, for example, a master is asked by a student with great earnestness whether a dog has Buddha nature. Do not all things have Buddha nature? Is not the answer obvious? The master answers “Mu,” which translates literally to nothing or nothingness but which has many interpretive translations. My favorite is “Unask the question” or in another variant, “Untie the duality of your thought.”
The way we frame our questions matters because the nature of the question predicts the response. If our questions are only about choosing between two things, we will find ourselves forever tied up in knots. However, if we have the presence of mind to ask questions that appreciate what is and allow for what is yet to be, something else can emerge. We can move away from duality and bring back the richness, complexity, volatility, and ambiguity of our world.
Wisdom traditions also offer a methodology to integrate and synthesize complex issues. The triadic mind in the Jewish Kabbalah tradition is a good illustration of a way beyond dualism. In this tradition, three separate elements together with a secret sauce form a constellation made up of analytic understanding, wisdom, knowledge, and focused attention. And this constellation is only a part of something even greater, with various dyads, triads, and multiple interlocking constellations.
The brilliance of the design is that one can attempt to simplify the relationships of the structure, but it becomes obvious that simplification is only for temporary purposes, like developing mathematical equations in order to derive a larger mathematical proof. Additionally, the discipline of forming coherent relationships among the variables is humbling because at the highest point of the structure is ayin, an obliteration of all forms. Ayin is the pure ethereal atmosphere beyond duality. Ayin, like the Japanese mu, is a state beyond category and dualistic thought.
Next Week: Chapter Fourteen: Moving From Duality to Wisdom, Part Two
I find it to be one of the great of paradoxes of creative thought that only by wiping the mind clean of categories and assumptions can we think clearly and in new ways. Yet, it makes perfect sense if it is our habitual thought that keeps us trapped.