"The only thing worth learning is to unlearn. The way to do this is to question everything you think you know. As long as we’re stuck in what we think we know, the world remains small... "
- Byron Katie
The Perils of Dualistic Thinking
Dualism is a way of seeing that compartmentalizes the world into categories. By way of example, consider the parable, about six blind men who learned, one day, that their prince had acquired an elephant. Though the blind men had heard of elephants, they had never met one and were curious. So, they went to the palace and gathered around the elephant. The first man touched the elephant’s side, the second touched the trunk, the third felt the tusk, the fourth man the leg, the fifth the ear, and the sixth the tail. Then, they rested under a tree and began to talk about the elephant.
“The elephant is like a wall,” said the first man, who had touched the elephant’s sides.
“Oh no! It is like a snake,” replied the second man, who had touched the trunk.
“You both must be stupid, the elephant is like a spear," objected the third man, who had touched the elephant’s tusks.
“Have you gone mad? The elephant is like a tree,” cried the fourth man, who had touched one of the legs.
“You are all wrong. The elephant is like a fan,” said the fifth man, who had touched the ears.
“No, no, it is like a rope,” yelled the sixth man, who had felt the tail.
A huge row ensued and they were about to come to blows when the Prince came out of the palace and, seeing the fuss, asked, “Why are you all so agitated?”
“We cannot agree on what an elephant is like,” said one of the blind men. “We all touched the same animal, but to each of us the animal was completely different.”
This story underscores our tendency, as humans, to perceive the world from our own narrow perspectives and then to bicker with each other when our perspectives clash. Tragically, this way of behaving separates us, not only from each other, but also from what is true. But rather than the EITHER/OR thinking that dualism generates, we could choose to transcend dualism by dwelling in BOTH/AND consciousness.
In recent decades microbiologists have discovered that each of us has more than a thousand distinct species of microbes living within our bodies. In fact, if you were able to count all the cells that comprise your body (estimated at 30 trillion) and then to tally up all of the microbes living within your body, the microbes would actually outnumber your human cells.
As neuroscientist Emeran Mayer reminds us: “Though you may think of yourself as a separate self, you are, in a very real sense, a walking microbial colony.” In other words, we are each comprised of an abundance of both human and microbial cells. This turns out to be a good thing because the overwhelming majority of the microbes inhabiting our bodies are essential for our overall health and wellbeing.
In the big picture, we, humans, live in a non-dualistic, both/and world. Indeed, our evolutionary ancestry traces back four billion years to Earth’s first microbes. It was microbes that created the biosphere. They made the soil and they set the conditions for the evolution of multicellular life, including the conditions for the appearance of human life. Without microbial life, we wouldn’t be here.
Different Yet One
Scholar of Eastern philosophy, Alan Watts, provides a poignant introduction to dualism in this engaging short video, entitled Black and White.
There is a popular story about the famous Indian wisdom teacher, Krishnamurti, who, while giving a talk late in life, asked his audience, “Do you want to know a secret?” His listeners, many of whom had been trying to decipher Krishnamurti’s wisdom teachings for decades, leaned forward, hoping that the master might contribute to their enlightenment. After a long pause Krishnamurti continued: "This is my secret; I don’t mind what happens."
Sit with this for a bit. What would it be like for you to “not mind what happens”—i.e., to accept, with equanimity, whatever happens? Could you do it? Here’s a story from Teacher and author, Eckhart Tolle, that points the way. As you read it, put your self in the place of the main character, Hakuin, and consider how you would have reacted in his place. Here goes:
The Zen Master, Hakuin, lived in a small town in Japan. He was held in high regard and many people came to him for spiritual guidance. Then, it came to pass that the teenage daughter of Hakuin’s next-door-neighbor became pregnant. When being questioned by her scolding parents as to the identity of the father, the daughter finally told them that it was Hakuin, the Zen Master. Hearing this, the parents rushed to Hakuin’s dwelling and, with much shouting, informed Hakuin that their daughter had informed them that he was the father. Hakuin’s only response to this accusation was: “Is that so?”
Soon news of the scandal spread throughout the town and beyond. The Master lost his reputation. This did not trouble him. Nobody came to see him anymore. He remained unmoved. When the baby was born, the parents brought the child to Hakuin and said: “You are the father, so you look after him.” Without hesitation, the Master took loving care of the child. But, then, a year later, the daughter remorsefully confessed to her parents that the real father was the young man who worked at the butcher shop. In great distress, the parents rushed to Hakuin to apologize and to ask for his forgiveness, explaining: “We have come to take the baby back because our daughter confessed that you are not the father.” Hakuin nodded and responded with the words, “Is that so?” as he handed the baby over to them.
The Master responds to falsehood or truth, bad news or good news, in exactly the same way: “Is that so?” He allows the form of the moment, good or bad, to be as it is and, so, does not become a participant in human dramas. To him there is only this moment, and this moment is as it is. Events are not personalized… He is so completely at one with what happens that what happens has no power over him.
"All the big problems in the world today are rooted in the philosophy of separateness and dualism."
- Satish Kumar
"I am beginning to realize that separation is a myth."