Intellectually, the message of radical non-duality, for the most part, resonates with me. I appreciate conceptually these core parts of the message:
- The ‘separate self’ with personal identity, responsibility, self-control, free will and choice is an illusion. I understand how the separate self likely arose since it confers short-term evolutionary advantage, and I see that its pervasiveness in highly intelligent and domesticated creatures also appears to cause horrible suffering and seems to underlie some extremely dysfunctional suffering-provoked behaviours (violence to and abuse of self and others, ‘self’-ishness manifesting as greed, hoarding, overprotectiveness, defensiveness, envy, jealousy, taking things ‘personally’, regret over ‘irresponsibility’ and lack of ‘self’-control, shame or nostalgia about the past, terror or yearnings about the future etc).
- There is no ‘path’ to letting go of the separate self. No practice, behaviour, drug, process, or learning will increase the likelihood of the separate self’s disappearance. Such practices and studies may make the prison of separateness more comfortable, but they will not bring ‘liberation’ from the self.
- The disappearance or ‘death’ of the separate self has no significant impact on the apparent behaviour or functionality of any human or creature (from the perspective of other ‘selves’). We don’t need a separate self to do what we do (in fact we seemingly cannot do otherwise than what we do). The end of the separate self does not mean the now-selfless character becomes nihilistic, incompetent, or indecisive. In fact that apparent character now becomes part of the full-on stream of life, ‘what is happening’, no longer veiled by the pattern-obsessed mind, and may therefore actually become more functional (equanimous), more loving, more compassionate, less ‘selfish’ and more joyful (metta, karuna, mudita, upekkha, the so-called four states after ‘enlightenment’). The person or character does not become ‘enlightened’ by these states (no person can be enlightened); rather, enlightenment is the natural way of being, a way that is only obscured when the separate self intervenes (with the best of intentions, of course). This part of the radical non-duality message is infuriating to many people: To assert that all the stress, anxiety, dread, fear and intense energy that goes into the struggle to be a competent, alert, “responsible” separate self is for nothing, seems outrageous. But intuitively and intellectually it now makes sense to me.
- The sense of separate self that emerges (in most humans, apparently, around the time of birth or shortly thereafter when the mother is first recognized as separate) is not just intellectual — it is an embodied sense, something visceral. It’s very much an emotional and sensual sense, and opens the ‘separate’ creature to emotions that apparently only ‘separate’ selves feel (most of these, like enduring anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, shame and grief aren’t particularly positive emotions). It also opens the ‘separate’ creature up to sensations that apparently only ‘separate’ selves feel (apartness, proximity, distance, the sense of time, ‘otherness’). So the death of the separate self is likely to leave vestiges of separateness behind in the physical creature (trauma, ‘instinctive’ fears, conditioned actions, memories etc). The shift in the behaviour of the character that once imagined itself separate, then, likely occurs gradually and only after the death of the illusion of separateness, not instantaneously. Because the trauma, fears, conditioned actions, memories etc no longer have anything to sustain them or identify with, they apparently also fall away gradually as the entire embodied creature becomes ‘again just’ the one-ness of all-there-is.
- All there is — being, life, everything — is meaningless, without any purpose. This too offends the separate self desperate for meaning in and purpose to everything. But the lack of meaning or purpose to life doesn’t trouble me at all. Ever since I read Stephen J Gould on the randomness of evolution, I’ve let go of the need for any meaning for it. It is just what it is.
I don’t however appreciate the elements of the radical non-dual message that assert that:
- The only creature that has evolved the ‘separate self’ is the human being. This just doesn’t make sense to me. Domesticated creatures can suffer separation anxiety, and that is not just a reflex, intuitive occurrence. Many mammals and birds (at the very least) have been shown to have a ‘theory of mind’ that allows them not only to plan actions but to anticipate the response and behaviour of ‘others’. Acknowledging that the emergence of the enduring separate self (enduring in the sense that it lasts longer than brief, ‘instinctive’ fight/flight/freeze etc moments) is not limited to the human species does not, however, negate the plausibility of the overall radical non-dual message.
- The recognition that comes with the falling away of the self is that everything arises from nothing (or nothing appears as everything), and everything is both real and unreal. I know this aspect of the message is hard to put into words but there must be some better way to articulate it. Yes, the separate self clearly sees the subject-object dual universe ‘it’ perceives as uniquely real, and sees everything else as unreal. And if the self is an illusion, what ‘it’ sees as real is clearly not real, except to itself (and hence what it sees could be said to be both real — to itself — and unreal — in the context of ‘natural reality’). But what does it mean to say everything is both real and unreal? And how can everything (or anything) ‘arise’ out of nothing if there is no time in which it can arise? I can understand that, from a phenomenological perspective, there are likely many phenomena that neither the ‘self’ nor the senses of any creature can perceive (things too small or too far away for example). But to say that it is just ‘a mystery’ how nothing appears as everything, and how everything is both real and unreal, is just unsatisfactory. I don’t claim to be able to understand or ‘see’ or perceive infinity, but I can appreciate what the concept means and that it is possible, and convey what it means to others. But ‘it’s a mystery’ does not explain the concept, and especially since this part of the message is mimicked so precisely by all radical non-dualists, they must therefore have some shared conception of what it means. So tell us, damn it.
- The appearance of seemingly separate selves has no effect on what apparently happens. This is an obvious corollary of the assumption that there is no ‘free will’, but it seems self-contradictory. If the separate self underlies all suffering, then presumably the ‘self-possessed’ character’s actions, while uncontrollable (by the self or anyone), will be different from what they would have been were that character not possessed of a self, no? The delusion of a self, like the delusion of seeing ghosts, for example, is a characteristic of the character that affects how that character behaves, even if that character has no free will or choice about these behaviours. It is the game of life playing itself out. And in that case, it seems to me, the presence or absence of a perceived separate self will affect that character’s behaviour, even though it is uncontrolled. It was the separate selves that believed themselves to be Hitler, Stalin, Mao that led to the most horrific atrocities of the 20th century. Had they been ‘self-less’, it is almost impossible to conceive of them behaving the ways they did.
This is all intellectually fascinating, and intuitively it has great appeal to me. But my seemingly separate self has dug in and is not letting go. It refuses to die. ‘I’ don’t pretend, beyond having had a series of ‘glimpses’ during which my sense of separate self temporarily and briefly disappeared, to appreciate any of this beyond an intellectual and intuitive level. So ‘I’ am not awakened or enlightened (and ‘I’ can never be). Nevertheless, there are, it seems, some major shifts occurring.
Most significantly, acceptance of this message as ‘likely true’ has changed everything ‘I’ perceive and believe; everything I do and think and feel now seems to be seen through an entirely new lens (or rather perhaps without a lens that previously distorted everything). Just as discovering polyamory changed how I reacted to love songs and ‘romantic’ films that celebrate exclusive relationships, radical non-duality has changed how I see all relationships, all human activities, and the world.
My relationship with my self
Now that I have started to see life-beyond-the-self as perfect, just as it is, timeless, wondrous being, I have developed an unusual relationship with my self (mostly, I would like it to get lost). I’m not impatient with its presence; it’s only doing what it was conditioned and evolved to do. I’m not longing for it to be gone, because my ‘glimpses’ showed that it isn’t real, and that ‘natural reality’ (what really is) is right here, and eternal. ‘I’ don’t have to strive to ‘really’ see it. It is already here, all that is. My self is just currently apparently momentarily standing in the way of seeing it, but that’s fine: there is no time, so there is no hurry. Selves are struggling away doing their best, but unfortunately, they are doing so for nothing, and for no one.
My relationship with others
This new perspective is also affecting my relationships with others. I am starting to appreciate others’ suffering more, as I become more equanimous with my own. I am slowly becoming less prone to anxiety, anger, fear, jealousy, guilt, shame and sadness as a reaction to others’ actions or to their situations or to the state of the world.
I am starting to be more sympathetic, to care about everyone a bit more — doing so seems less of a personal burden than it once did — even as I am less inclined to try to change them or their circumstances. When those I care about are suffering, I am a bit more attentive, but less invested in doing anything other than noticing and acknowledging. I take it all less personally. I know that sometimes they want me to do something that they think will make them feel better. I know that their suffering (though not their pain) is mostly a result of their identification with their selves, but I am not inclined to try to tell them so; this message is not for everyone, and it is essentially hopeless. And I am inclined to do, mostly, what they wish me to do. Why not? What does it cost ‘me’, whether it is effective or not?
I think I am seeing people more as they are, and less as I would wish/hope them to be. Because there is so much suffering in this crowded world of ‘selves’, I see most people as a bit sadder, more tragic, than I used to, but this doesn’t make me care about them less.
My relationship with love
Love is shifting a bit for me. Love is, after all, essentially selfish; it’s all about what we feel, want, and imagine in another.We love who we want the other person to be. At its best, love is a kind of temporary freedom, but that freedom is another illusion, another escape, another hiding from the apparent (to the self) awfulness of what is really real. I’ve never been very good at loving others, and I’ve been worse at being loved (it always seemed like an obligation to me).
I can no longer imagine falling in love again — that crazy rush that obliterates the self along with what is actually real. I know it makes everything else in the world seem, for a while, unimportant, irrelevant, and that’s exactly the problem. It’s a drug (actually a whole set of drugs), and after the high there is always the coming down. That’s no longer worth it to me, and I think I’m seeing my self and other selves a little more clearly now so that I can’t see myself falling again. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t love someone new, but it would be very different from ‘falling’ in love with another ‘self’.
In love I am taking others’ actions less personally. After all, they can’t help them-‘selves’ and neither can I. And they are not their selves, any more than I am. They do what they do because they can’t do otherwise. It’s crazy to take that personally. ‘We’ can’t choose who we love (or hate), or what we do, and once you appreciate the unreal nature of the self, getting upset about a relationship is like getting angry at a character in a play because you don’t like the lines they’re reading.
I think those I currently love understand all this. I am not ‘in love’ with anyone, but those I love I love differently now, more ‘really’ and enduringly and for who they really are rather than for what they do for me. Why do I so profoundly love them rather than any of the other many beautiful/lovable people in my circles and in the world? My sense is that this character that ‘I’ inhabit sees my presence with them to be uniquely useful, that this character gets pleasure doing so, and that those I love see value in my doing so. Maybe that’s what self-transcending love is about. It’s perhaps also what self-transcending friendship is about.
What I do with my time
I am retired now, so you’d think I’d have more time to do what I want or choose to do. But it doesn’t seem to be that way. I visit those I love, I relish my time alone and with friends, I do volunteer work (the local transition initiative, the local arts scene, Group Works, co-housing). I write, compose and explore new music, paint, cook (my newest hobby), and play — somehow there doesn’t seem any real choice in what ‘I’ do each day. I awaken and things get done. The only change that’s come about recently is that I’m more aware of exactly how little ‘choice’ goes into what I do. I’m blessed, though, in that I really enjoy what I am doing, and I don’t wish I was doing, or could be doing, something else.
I had already given up belief or hope that civilization could or should be saved, and lost interest in politics, economics and other complex systems we simply cannot change or control. It’s been a long time since I believed in ‘progress’. The radical non-duality message has merely enabled me to be at peace with what I was already (not) doing.
I find Gaia theory — that our planet has evolved and acts as a single self-managing organism in its collective, collaborative best interest, compelling. Radical non-duality would say that what seems like evolution is just a purposeless unfolding, a game or experiment, the universe at play. I find this disheartening — Gaia is so lovely, such an astonishing and affirming model, it is hard to acknowledge that it is just play. The self apparently emerged as an evolutionary advance. Depending on your point of view, that advance was either catastrophic in consequence, or changed nothing. Non-duality tears apart the conceit that self-awareness, consciousness and intelligent tool-making and decision-making differentiate humans positively from other species; if anything, these illusory ‘advances’ actually demonstrate that humans are the most foolish species, living in a dream when most other creatures are fully alive.
I have always found science (the creation of models that are interesting and occasionally useful) arrogant in its assertions of knowledge and potential achievement. Radical non-duality provides some solace for that sentiment, while making it largely moot.
As a long-time misanthrope, my view of basic human nature used to be very negative — we were inherently violent, destructive, selfish and thoughtless. A few years ago my view shifted to a more generous one: that we are all doing our best, even the worst of us. Radical non-duality takes that one step further — ‘we’ are not doing anything, and our selves are not in control of what they apparently do or decide or think or feel. Now I am starting to feel as sorry for our woeful species as for all the creatures whose world and lives we have apparently desolated.
My personal pleasures and recreations
Recently I’ve come to believe that work is unnatural, and so is the compulsion to do it. I have always been a hedonist at heart, though some would call me just lazy and self-indulgent. For much of my life, pleasure-seeking has been an escape, my way of taking my mind off a reality that has always otherwise been wanting. Games and sex and sensuous creature comforts (candlelight, lamplight, warm baths, skilfully-composed music) are my favourite distractions, more intense and endurably engaging than eating or walking in nature, and vastly preferable to reading or watching films (which I find less and less enjoyable, perhaps because most of what is being written and composed these days is execrable).
I can’t see the falling away of the separate self as affecting these preferences much (non-dualists say that was the case for them). I can envision my pleasures becoming more adventurous when my fearful self dissipates, and I expect my interest in escapist entertainments will, if not wane, be at least more balanced by a growing interest in more engaged-with-the-world, less self-ish pursuits.
Creative work, on the other hand, has never been easy for me to do. Composing music, writing, cooking, painting and other recreations are hard work, and while I feel compelled to do them, they are not really pleasurable. Why then do I do them? Essentially, I can’t not. They are, I sense, not so much elements of who ‘I’ am but what all-there-is, is, expressing itself through me. That hasn’t changed, and isn’t likely to as my self gets out of the way, other than perhaps to make these difficult, essential pursuits more joyful, more pleasurable.
‘Trust your instincts’ has been a mantra of How to Save the World since it began. The challenge has been explaining to people how you instinctive ‘know’ something, when the self insists on a rational, analytical, intellectual explanation, and views intuition with suspicion. The first instinct, I suspect, was for self-survival, and was the precursor to the emergence of the apparently separate self. My study of complexity suggests that our capacity to know things intellectually is extremely limited, which is perhaps why the self tends to (apparently) decide things based more on emotion than reason. Radical non-duality goes further and asserts that nothing can be known and that nothing is decided, and that there is no one to know or decide (or, for that matter, intuit).
So now I’m wondering if intuition is all-there-is expressing itself through us, quietly whispering the truth in our ear to guide us when the selfish intellect and our equally selfish reactive emotions get it all wrong.
So, in short, my recent study of radical non-duality, and my intellectual and intuitive appreciation of its likely veracity, have seemingly made me more compassionate, less reactive, more observant, less judgemental, more equanimous, less emotional yet somehow more joyful, more sympathetic, less identified with suffering (my own and others’), more flexible, more perceptive, more loving but less inclined to fall in love, more appreciative, less inclined to take things personally, more accepting, less ‘selfish’, more carefree, less misanthropic, even more hedonistic, less fearful, and more intuitive.
How can this be, if I have, in fact, no free will, no choice about anything? If there is no ‘I’, how can I be ‘more’ or ‘less’ of these things? Well, for now, there is an apparent ‘I’, and though it may mean and portend nothing and may be just wishful thinking, it is apparently (to me) what’s been happening. That will have to do.
The path from here to here
I have not been looking for a path to ‘liberation’ from the self for very long — just a couple of years. Radical non-duality claims there is no path, and this makes sense intuitively, though it taxes the patience of the self-weary self. The ‘path from here to here’ is a non-journey, not so much an awakening as a death. But there is no letting go — that would be a path. There is no waiting, no enlightenment, no liberation — there is no such thing as time, not even a ‘Now’, and no where to get to. There is no one. There is only all-there-is, eternal, wondrous, just being. Just this. So close, but nowhere near.